Comics On TV

How the Wizards Behind Marvel's What If...? Give the Hit Animated Series Its Prestige Look, Signature Thrills, and "Kirby Crackle"

In the wake of Doctor Strange-focused episode 4, we go deep with the animators, editors, and composer behind the MCU's boundary-pushing answer to The Twilight Zone.

by | September 3, 2021 | Comments

What If...?

(Photo by © Marvel Studios 2021)

This week’s episode of What If…?, with its double Doctor Stranges and magical madness, was a tour-de-force example of the power of the program’s animation staff and further evidence of an emerging “prestige animation” format.

“I think there’s no denying that animation is having a moment and that new types of programs that we could not have done a few years ago, either because just the industry wouldn’t go for it or because the technology wasn’t there, is happening now,” What If…? animation supervisor Stephan Franck said when Rotten Tomatoes had a chance to talk to him and other members of the production team recently.

“I sure hope so,” added production designer Paul Lasaine. “It’s been a long time coming, in the US, anyway.”

While animation is varied in terms of genres, formats, and technical sophistication in other parts of the world, the United States market still aims most of its animation at all-ages demographics or younger children – not that this stops some adults from admiring available programs or appreciating the work involved in creating these shows. But What If…? definitely continues a trend toward sophistication in terms of story and craft roughly analogous to high-end, live-action series.

“The directive we had from the studio was to push the limits, to really see how far animation can be pushed,” editor Graham Fisher said. “I think that as an anthology, it’s probably one of the ambitious animated shows that’s ever been made, just because you’re going to see, as more and more episodes come out, no holds were barred in the making of the show. It’s impossibly complicated.”

Here we chat with some of the people who manage the complexity of What If…? and deliver that ambitious, prestige-style animation.

Designing the Characters

What If...?

(Photo by © Marvel Studios 2021)

For Ryan Meinerding, character designer and head of visual development, part of the fun is “starting from that firm ground of how people understand the characters from the Marvel Cinematic Universe” and either building on those strong graphic designs or subverting them. “If you mix them, if you change a character, if you want to take a component of T’Challa, meaning like his necklace, and sort of put that into a Star-Lord context, it allows you to be subtle.”

On the other hand, the wicked Doctor Strange seen this week offered an opportunity to be more obvious in changing a Marvel icon. “[We could] do sort of classic, pointier chins and sharper shapes in the collar, and in a slightly darker costume while [Strange is] sort of gaunt in the face.” The result: a demonic take on the usually heroic character worthy of the wilder outcomes inherent to What If…?.

“‘What if Dr. Strange busted his heart instead of his hands?’ meant that we could create that evil Dr. Strange in a very, very straightforward way,” Meinerding said. “I think one of the things that was super fun for me was having him go down that more evil road. By taking in those additional creatures to become more powerful, [there was] also a specific cost to him that he couldn’t control at the end of that episode … we saw the fun of that spiral spiraling out of control.”

Evil Strange exemplifies one of the great aspects of the show for Meinerding. As he put it, “so many of the conceits of each episode is really tied up with the design.”

Although most of the characters on the series have their design origins in the live-action features, Meinerding relished the chance to visually define The Watcher and work him into unexpected moments in each episode. “The idea [is] that he’s often painted into backgrounds, literally. Or, the notion that you’re looking at him, and seeing the silhouette that’s painted or executed with time and space,” he explained. “I think that’s one of the more fun design challenges of the show: ‘How do we create a Watcher that feels like he’s in every episode, but then you might have to look really hard to find him?’”

Creating the “Performances”

What If..._ Loki

(Photo by © Marvel Studios 2021)

Animation is full of obscure terms which, to even the enthusiast, are hard to keep straight. So a term like “animation supervisor” may sound like a purely administrative post. But according to Franck, his primary role on the series is far more direct: he aids the animation team in crafting the visual performances of the characters.

“When you’re doing an animated movie or TV show, you have half of the acting performance that is coming from the voice,” he explained. “They’re creating a moment, they’re getting everything you need to know about that moment and that scene. But it only exists [audibly]. So the animators think of themselves as actors who create the visual part of that performance.”

Listening closely to those vocal tracks, it becomes the purview of the animator to determine the “look” of those sounds on a character’s face or how it translates into their movements. “[The actor] said it this way, is it one of those moments where she’s saying what she means or is she lying? Or is it sarcastic? It’s trying to really live [the moment], you just put yourself inside the performance and you’re recreating the visual aspect of it.”

In terms of the supervisor role, Franck works with all the animators to create those acting choices, “whether it’s through the movement or through the poses,” and discover if it is “the right one for the moment on screen.” An example of those choices can be seen this week as Strange’s expressions and body language reflect his increasing frustration about his inability to prevent the accident. But it is just one example of the 7,000 or so shots Franck supervised across the first season. “Every frame is important,” he said. “So even small changes will make a scene that you think, ‘Yeah, I guess it’s working’ [turn into] something more like, ‘Wow!'” Getting to that visceral reaction is always the goal.

Showcasing the Environments

What If...? The Watcher

(Photo by © Marvel Studios 2021)

What If…? is also a wonderful showcase of Marvel’s expansive environments – from intergalactic bars to the Lost Library of Cagliostro. The person in charge of designing those landscapes is production designer Paul Lasaine. Working in the Marvel Multiverse means some of those locations will have certain Jack Kirby- or, in the case of Doctor Strange, Steve Ditko-feel to them – although Lasaine noted that creating the feel of What If…? as an animated series required a wider scope of reference material to get to its signature atmosphere.

For one thing: The program’s overall visual feel is inspired by the work of Saturday Evening Post cover artist J.C. Leyendecker, although Lasaine said that was “a beginning” of the show’s style. “If you look at Leyendecker and you look at our stuff, it’s like, ‘Okay, I can kind of see it.’ It’s not priority, it’s its own thing. We started with that, and then we evolve into our final look, which is where we are at today.”

The Kirby vibes, meanwhile, come out mostly in the look of the characters, although Lasaine pointed to the pulsating, bubbly energy effect known as “Kirby Crackle” as the most direct reference his team pulls from the legendary artist. “If we’re trying to do [that] effect, then we’re definitely looking at Kirby,” he said.

But as his department is concerned with giving the show some of its more cinematic feel, they also look to the work of live action cinematographers like Roger Deakins (Skyfall) and Darius Kondji (Seven). The results lead to the colors used and the sense of smoke or atmosphere in What If…?’s take on the Sanctum Santorum or the “trippy hellscape” Strange enters to absorb demonic beings, to say nothing of the Lost Library itself, one of the locations Lasaine and his team built specifically for Episode 4.

Cutting the Action

What If...?

(Photo by © Marvel Studios 2021)

Editing, at least in live-action, is better known as a post-production task, but editors Graham Fisher and Joel Fisher start work on an episode as it is still being worked out in the storyboards, well before any animation takes place. “In our experience with animation editing, it’s really, really important to get involved at the storyboard phase because that’s really where a lot of the problem solving on the story level happens,” Joel Fisher explained. “You’re starting to really find the rhythm and how you’re going to put this grammar together for the particular episode. And of course, as an anthology, every episode has its own voice, so that’s been a kind of a thrill.”

One such example is Strange’s fight with himself in Episode 4. “That scene was incredibly complex to figure out the board,” he recalled. The storyboard artist was Aram Sarkisian, who worked closely with director Brian Andrews on the sequence. “They’re riffing on ideas, but it was mostly on a horizontal plane,” the editor said. You may notice the wider pans and movement of action across the screen when, say, Strange tries to bind his other half with the rope. But as the fight developed in the storyboards, Fisher noticed something was off. “We need to reestablish our emotional stakes of this journey that we’ve been on with this character,” he explained. “We haven’t seen Christine for quite a bit of the episode.” The suggestion led to the “last temptation” moment for the Strange. “It was this beautiful stuff that they boarded together with the whole shadow pulling him in, all that creepy stuff,” he said.

Nevertheless, they still cut the material once finished animation comes in to further finesse the rhythm and the true shape of the story. “I think one of the most crucial things you can do as an editor is remain open to the material and listen to it, responding to what it wants to become,” Graham Fisher said. “And is the same process as listening to the director and their vision and trying to come into alignment with those things to bring the best out of the material. It’s definitely a gut thing.”

Scoring the Emotion

What If...?

(Photo by © Marvel Studios 2021)

As the composer, Laura Karpman focuses in on the emotions of a given episode. In the case of this week’s story, the “operatic” and “tragic” elements held sway as it seems the evil Strange lost his entire universe in his doomed pursuit. But one of the great benefits of What If…? is the way it varies week-to-week emotionally and musically. “Episode two, there’s a lot of play in it,” she said. “There’s a lot of this heist music that’s going back and forth [for] the Ocean’s Eleven-y group that’s put together.”

“You’re [also] referencing other MCU properties. You’re referencing other genres of film. You’re using music as a way to tell you that it’s okay if it’s a 1940s war movie or it’s okay that it’s a mystery assassin, a genre or it’s an epic love story or a heist,” she explained. “There’s this contract with the audience where you say, ‘oh yeah, it’s a heist’ and you hear something [and think] ‘oh yeah, this is not so serious.’ And part of the purpose of music is giving the audience that those signals [outside] dialogue or imagery.”

Her favorite element thus far was working out the program’s theme, which also doubles as The Watcher’s theme. “It is the thing that starts the whole show. The main title theme is The Watcher theme. He’s always there. And so that was really my contribution to this world, in whatever way we can be consistent among episodes.” That consistency also allows for the musical landscape to change as The Watcher always re-centers the viewer at the end of the episode.

“It’s this interesting world where we accept music as a part of storytelling and it’s wonderfully mystical and magical.”

New episodes of What If…? are available on Disney+ every Wednesday.

On an Apple device? Follow Rotten Tomatoes on Apple News.

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