EXCLUSIVE: Film critics have hailed the animation in Sony’s Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as unique, innovative and undeniably inventive. Now the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office will judge whether they agree with those reviews.
Sony has applied for patent protection for the animation process and technologies used to produce Spider-Verse, the Columbia Pictures release that reaches theaters Thursday. The film has been winning strong reviews for its distinctive visual achievements, which evoke the storytelling in vintage Marvel Comics by incorporating hallmarks of the publishing medium in a manner that recalls Pop Art icon Roy Lichtenstein’s 1960s effort to import them to gallery canvases.
As a result, Spider-Verse is a state-of-the-art film with retro accents such as Ben-Day dots, thought balloons, panels, written sound effects and even the illusion of alignment flaws in color separation (which are as familiar to readers of four-color comics as the popping of vinyl records is to old-school music fans.)
With the application for patent protections, Sony claims the innovations of the film go beyond stylistic originality or envelope-pushing success and qualify as a distinctly new invention. The filing cites a half-dozen specific components of the process.
The film’s three directors (Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman) and animators have credited the producer team of Christopher Miller and Phil Lord for pushing the project as an opportunity to reinvent the way animated films look by setting aside contemporary conventions of CG animation and starting from scratch with a new process that put a higher value on incorporating hand-drawn art and its textures into the finished product.
“We had this mandate to basically challenge how animated movies are made and what they can be, from top to bottom,” Rothman recently told Deadline. “There were large periods of time where we wondered if it would even work.”
The New York Film Critics Circle named Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as 2018’s best animated film. The movie also picked up a Golden Globe nomination for best animated feature film.
Every single frame of the 116-minute film has a computer-generated image as its foundation that was followed by an overlay of hand-drawn art. The result makes each frame unique with illustrative emphasis and imperfections that collectively infuse the film with a far different energy than the digitally clean and perfectly precise CG animation that has become the standard language of most recent animation blockbusters.
The hand-drawn aspirations of Spider-Verse required a reinvention of the standard animation pipeline to even be possible. Sony Pictures Imageworks, working closely with Sony Pictures Animation, created a new visual language and rebuilt the animation and lighting pipeline by starting from scratch.
Still, the production was intensely meticulous and required years to complete. For most animated projects today a week’s worth of labor is required to animate every four seconds of screen action. On Spider-Verse it was a week of work for every single second. The film’s shot count is also two- to three-times the number found in other animated releases.
Now the U.S Patents and Trademark Office will determine if the film’s innovative effort qualifies as an verifiably inventive one. Animation requires patience, which is a good thing. The patent review process can take three to five years in some cases.
A summary of the Sony patent application’s claims:
Unique rendering and compositing technologies that can artistically modify the smooth shading of a surface via “stylized quantization.” Those technologies can add specific patterned-controls over the break-up of light hitting skin and also integrate half-tone dots and hatched lines (called “Screentones”).
Also submitted by Sony: Ink-line software that allows an artist to draw on the character surface in a way that is liberated from the underlying geometry and more akin to illustration techniques. The hand-drawn lines of the character faces are converted to geometry and then rigged for animation control.
The patent filing also includes the machine-learning component of the Spider-Verse animation process, which streamlines the process as an automated function that predicts the position of lines on the next frame. The extrapolated lines streamline the process and give animators an advantage for the fine-tuning the lines.
The application also cited “stylized abstractions of reality” constructed with shading tools that create the illusion of depth on a flat surface, the emulation of interior volumes of buildings and illustrated graphic reflections. Also noted: artist-friendly lighting tools that interactively light-up large sections of buildings while maintaining crisp, hard shadows.