making a movie

Spider-Verse Artists Say Working on the Sequel Was ‘Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts’

Four Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse crew members say unsustainable working conditions are behind the success of the animated film. Photo: Sony Pictures Animation

Over the past decade, Phil Lord and Chris Miller — and in Hollywood, they are always referred to as Lord and Miller; never Miller and Lord — have distinguished themselves as the critically acclaimed writer-director-producers behind animated crowd-pleasers like their breakthrough Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs and the billion-dollar Lego Movie franchise. (The duo have succeeded in live-action fare too — see 21 and 22 Jump Street — though they were fired mid-movie from the stand-alone Star Wars prequel Solo.) But it’s their work on the Oscar-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse that set a new bar for the animation industry, borrowing from vintage comic-books, psychedelia, and street art to create a novel visual language for not just superhero films but computer-animated work generally. While Pixar and Disney Animation suffer in box-office slumps — losing out to Dreamworks’ surprise hit Puss in Boots: The Last Wish and Illumination Entertainment’s top-grossing The Super Mario Bros. Movie — Sony Pictures Animation has cut through the cultural clutter with Lord and Miller’s revolutionary style. One that seems to have inspired Paramount’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot, causing fans and critics to wonder, Why don’t more animated movies look this good?

According to people who worked on the sequel, Across the Spider-Verse, it’s because the working conditions required to produce such artistry are not sustainable. Multiple Across the Spider-Verse crew members — ranging from artists to production executives who have worked anywhere from five to a dozen years in the animation business — describe the process of making the the $150 million Sony project as uniquely arduous, involving a relentless kind of revisionism that compelled approximately 100 artists to flee the movie before its completion. Four of these crew members agreed to speak pseudonymously about the sprint to finish the movie three years into the sequel’s development and production, a period whose franticness they attribute to Lord’s management style — in particular, his seeming inability to conceptualize 3-D animation during the early planning stages and his preference to edit fully rendered work instead.

While frequent major overhauls are standard operating procedure in animation (Pixar films can take between four and seven years to plot, animate, and render), those changes typically occur early on during development and storyboarding stages. But these Spider-Verse 2 crew members say they were asked to make alterations to already-approved animated sequences that created a backlog of work across multiple late-stage departments. Across the Spider-Verse was meant to debut in theaters in April of 2022, before it was postponed to October of that year and then June 2023 owing to what Entertainment Weekly reported as “pandemic-related delays.” However, the four crew members say animators who were hired in the spring of 2021 sat idle for anywhere from three to six months that year while Lord tinkered with the movie in the layout stage, when the first 3-D representation of storyboards are created.

As a result, these individuals say, they were pushed to work more than 11 hours a day, seven days a week, for more than a year to make up for time lost and were forced back to the drawing board as many as five times to revise work during the final rendering stage. In these insiders’ telling, Across the Spider-Verse’s triumvirate of directors, Joaquim Dos Santos, Justin K. Thompson, and Kemp Powers, were overshadowed by the forceful presence of Lord, who sought final approval for every sequence in the film. Miller, for his part, was said to be MIA for much of the production. (Through the studio, Lord, Miller, Dos Santos, Thompson, and Powers declined to comment for this story.)

Sony executives dispute these claims about Lord’s management style, including his alleged insistence on approving every sequence in the film, describing feature animation as a generally “iterative process.” According to Amy Pascal, the former Sony Pictures Entertainment chairperson who produced the three most recent live-action Spider-Man movies as well as both Into and Across the Spider-Verse, “over a thousand” artists and techs worked on Across the Spider-Verse alone, tasked with scripting, storyboarding, animating, editing, and visually enhancing the film. So it’s unsurprising, she says, that as many as 100 of the Across the Spider-Verse film crew would choose to depart the grueling project, which Pascal admits involved major overhauls to both the narrative and visuals, along the way.

Michelle Grady, the executive vice-president and general manager of Sony Pictures Imageworks, agrees, claiming that Lord is not to blame for the delays. He, as the main messenger for editorial changes coming from the three co-directors, executive producers, Miller, and the studio, is instead a convenient target for worker ire. “It really does happen on every film,” she says of the revisions. “Truly, honestly, it can be a little bit frustrating, but we always try to explain that this is the process.”

“One of the things about animation that makes it such a wonderful thing to work on is that you get to keep going until the story is right,” adds Pascal. “If the story isn’t right, you have to keep going until it is.” To the workers who felt demoralized by having to revise final renders five times in a row, the Spider-Verse producer says, “I guess, Welcome to making a movie.”

Grady says the sources who spoke to Vulture are not representative of the majority of crew on Spider-Verse 2, who she says found the production process difficult yet “extraordinarily rewarding.” But our sources’ concerns amplify those of the Animation Guild, a 6,000-member branch of Hollywood’s below-the-line union IATSE, established in 1952 to ensure equitable employment practices within a once-sleepy industry that has become a multibillion-dollar powerhouse since the animation explosion of the 1990s. A half-century ago, there were around 1,000 animators working in Hollywood, around half of them just for Disney. In 2023, no data exists for the number of artists, digital compositors, and effects specialists working across the globe, but their ranks have grown exponentially to meet the metastasizing demand for animated fare. Like organizers within the VFX and gaming worlds (which often overlap with each other and with animation), TAG hopes to formally obtain a seat at the bargaining table of an industry that is increasingly reliant on animation talent but that has historically treated its artists and technicians as gig workers.

According to TAG, the guild recently renegotiated an agreement with Sony Pictures Animation and achieved increases to minimum wages for pre-production staff. However, Sony Pictures Imageworks, which despite its corporate affiliation is an independent vendor contracted by Sony Pictures Animation to do the physical animation on Across the Spider-Verse, remains a non-union studio. “Having spent time in the lower ranks of the visual effects industry,” says Steve Kaplan, business representative for TAG, “I am intimately familiar with how different those workplaces can be.”

Here, four crew members (whose names have been changed in order to protect their identities) describe a web of production turmoil they say came with working on Across the Spider-Verse, which is nearing $500 million at the global box office.

Stephen is an experienced artist who has worked on projects for major animation studios and streamers. When he spoke with Vulture in early May, production on Across the Spider-Verse was not yet complete.

It’s common for executives on a production to have a big say, but usually, they’re not as heavily involved as Phil was. As producer, Phil overrides all the directors. They are obviously in charge of directing, but if Phil has a note that contradicts their note, his note takes precedence. They have to do what Phil says. So there were constant changes and cuts. With Phil Lord, nothing is ever final or approved. Nothing was really set in stone. Nothing was ever done. Everything was just endlessly moving beneath our feet because they wanted it to be the best that it could be.

For animated movies, the majority of the trial-and-error process happens during writing and storyboarding. Not with fully completed animation. Phil’s mentality was, This change makes for a better movie, so why aren’t we doing it? It’s obviously been very expensive having to redo the same shot several times over and have every department touch it so many times. The changes in the writing would go through storyboarding. Then it gets to layout, then animation, then final layout, which is adjusting cameras and placements of things in the environment. Then there’s cloth and hair effects, which have to repeatedly be redone anytime there’s an animation change. The effects department also passes over the characters with ink lines and does all the crazy stuff like explosions, smoke, and water. And they work closely with lighting and compositing on all the color and visual treatments in this movie. Every pass is plugged into editing. Smaller changes tend to start with animation, and big story changes can involve more departments like visual development, modeling, rigging, and texture painting. These are a lot of artists affected by one change. Imagine an endless stream of them.

Over 100 people left the project because they couldn’t take it anymore. But a lot stayed on just so they could make sure their work survived until the end — because if it gets changed, it’s no longer yours. I know people who were on the project for over a year who left, and now they have little to show for it because everything was changed. They went through the hell of the production and then got none of their work coming out the other side.

And the majority of the crew were sitting idle for half a year because Phil was holding up sequences in layout. That’s a lot of money. Those people are sitting there getting paid to do nothing. Because we hired a massive team of artists to accomplish the October date and then we found out it was pushed. The water behind the dam kept growing because Phil was holding off sequences. Then at a certain point, we ran out of time. The dam broke, water came flooding in, and all the departments were swamped, doing overtime. But that didn’t stop all the changes from coming in. Things just kept getting changed and cut and redone over and over again, even though shots were getting pushed through all the departments. The whole experience felt like one step forward, two steps back, until we were forced to sprint to make up ground in the last few months. There are sequences that we started in 2021 that we just finished in May. That is a lot of artists’ hours and time and energy and stress. This production has been death by a thousand paper cuts.

It is not as though Phil is unfamiliar with how animation works. His and Chris Miller’s work speaks for itself. Obviously, they are successful, and the work that they produce is good. Even I was a fan of their work; I would still say that I am. But because it’s successful, because it’s award-winning, he doesn’t have a lot of people stopping him from making the changes he wants to make. The thing is, Phil and Chris are incapable of committing to an idea. They don’t really have a clear vision. What they’re good at is slowly and incrementally making things better through trial and error. But Chris Miller — I don’t know how hands-on he is with this production. For the most part, when we heard that a change or cut has been made, it’s Phil. We always hear, “There’s a Phil note.” It’s never really Chris. Chris’s name didn’t pop up much until the last couple of months of production. He came in and reinforced the priority list, and that’s when we started seeing “This is a Chris must-do priority change.”

And I do genuinely think it’s a good movie. But that being said, it’s been debilitating for a lot of the artists involved. Morale was incredibly low, and a lot of people reassessed if this was even something they wanted to be a part of. It’s this perpetual emotional give-and-take that’s very stressful; it absolutely affects people’s lives, sleep schedules, energy levels, their burnout. The frustrating thing is at the end of the day the work is good. There’s a lot of high praise that comes out of it. So there’s this rollercoaster of emotions where you go through hell but it makes people happy. And it makes you happy that people are happy. And you want to do it again.

They’ve announced that Beyond the Spider-Verse will be released in March of next year. I’ve seen people say, “Oh, they probably worked on it at the same time.” There’s no way that movie’s coming out then. There’s been progress on the pre-production side of things. But as far as the production side goes, the only progress that’s been made on the third one is any exploration or tests that were done before the movie was split into two parts. Everyone’s been fully focused on Across the Spider-Verse and barely crossing the finish line. And now it’s like, Oh, yeah, now we have to do the other one.

Of the claim that Across the Spider-Verse production was idle for three to six months, Grady says, “We did have more time than we would normally have on a film waiting for things, maybe to get feedback. And we did have time when the pipeline wasn’t chockablock full. But I got to say, from my perspective, that was a remarkable gift. We are often so back to back with work, we never get the time to stop and let a film breathe and let it develop into what it needed to be.” Sony representatives declined to comment on whether the third Spider-Verse film will be delivered on time.

Charlie is a veteran animator. He also spoke with Vulture before Across the Spider-Verse was complete.

Animation is finishing Friday. Completely. No animator is going to put a key down anymore. And Phil is still rewriting stuff. Sony has been fighting with him on this for the whole movie. I don’t know if he’s delusional. It’s really nuts. I’ve worked on projects where things are rewritten — even late in production. But this is another level of craziness.

His movies work. Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs worked pretty well. The Mitchells vs the Machines was a success. Spider-Verse was a success. So he thinks that’s the way of doing it. I don’t know if it’s a sense of laziness. Like, okay, yeah, it’s easy to make a movie if you just say, “Don’t plan anything.” You tell the artists, “Come up with stuff. Create the footage and then I’ll decide which direction to go.” It’s easier to do it that way. But it’s very destructive and time consuming.

Because it’s such a cool project, people want to get their shots in. They want to finish them and make sure it’s in the movie and they can keep it for their reel. So people have been working like crazy. The hardest thing on the animators has not been working 11 hours a day, 70 hours a week. It’s been the wasted work and the frustration of putting in that many hours just to see it changed or thrown away. You work like nuts on a shot and then in a review, suddenly they’re like, “Oh, you didn’t get the latest edit? That’s not how it is anymore.” In every movie I’ve worked on, there have been revisions. You’re always working on a movie that is evolving. But definitely not on this level.

For sure, there is pressure to making a sequel to the movie that won an Oscar. And there are the difficulties of doing several universes and a lot of characters. There are a lot of styles, which are all technical, and there is all this extra ambition for renders. But that’s not what’s been delaying the movie and making the artists go crazy. The biggest issue we’ve had is the writing. Phil had no idea what he wanted. Maybe he has difficulties making up his mind. I don’t know! Of course, it’s part of every movie where the director says, “What if we could do this or that?” And normally, it’s the producer’s role to push back. The problem is, Phil is the producer. He can’t push back against himself.

In addition to Phil being all over the place and not settling on the story, he has a big issue with not being able to visualize layouts. When there’s a 3-D layout in front of him, I guess he can’t visualize what it’s going to look like afterward. Which is kind of a problem when you’re working in 3-D animation. In the animation industry, ask anyone he’s worked with: It’s his reputation. I know a ton of people who never want to work on a project with him again.

Pascal denies that there was any conflict between Sony and Lord before, during, or after production of the film.

Eliott worked on staff for Sony Pictures Imageworks at the film’s production base in Vancouver, Canada.

You’d be surprised how quickly people get used to chaos — especially animators. We work very long hours and work very hard to get to places like Sony and Pixar. With this movie, Sony Pictures Animation didn’t want to fall into the sequel trap. There was a bit more trepidation. A bit more overthinking certain things; they didn’t want to underthink because they want to repeat and do even better.

On my last project, I worked with a few artists who had done the first Spider-Verse, and one of them said to me, “As long as I work at Sony, I’m never working on a Phil Lord movie ever again.” All these artists at Sony who worked on the first one and Mitchells vs the Machines were like, “My God, I don’t know if I want to put myself through this again. Is it worth it?” I was warned. It was like they were amping themselves up to run a marathon.

Something like 90 percent of the shots in the trailer are not in the movie. We re-engineered or reanimated, had different characters doing the same thing. It was purely a sequence of cool ideas they made us slap together while they “rested” the production. We were “idle”; that’s what they called it. And that was probably the biggest de-motivator for a lot of people: some of them had been flown over to Vancouver, gotten an apartment to work on this movie and then sat on their hands for maybe three months. The worst thing you can do to an artist is hire them and then tell them to do nothing. These people were like, How do you expect us to make this huge movie in less and less time? Each week that went by idle meant that later on it was going to be more insane. An avalanche of work is waiting.

It’s hard to go from a standstill to achieving at the top possible creative peak. Then that affects downstream departments. When the avalanche did come, we were tapped on the shoulder by the departments after us like lighting and compositing to make it look pretty, obviously. They need time. Certain shots we wanted to figure out a little bit more or could have had a bit more personality to them but were sent down quickly. And some were brought back up toward the end. The sad thing is, those shots brought back up for further polish were redone by other artists because the original artists were either busy with another mountain of work or had left already.

This is where it becomes tricky: When you do a shot and it gets revised, if someone else polishes it, you don’t feel comfortable calling it your own. For example, I took over a shot from someone else and revised a few characters but the rest stayed the same. At this point, do I give a description in my portfolio, on my reel: “I did this character here” and gray out the rest? The other person who worked on the shot would feel cheated. Like, “Hey, I did six out of those seven characters and you’re calling the shot yours?”

A source close to Sony says that it’s not unusual for trailers to include material that does not feature in the film. 

Prior to Across the Spider-Verse, Nathan worked as an artist on several other Lord and Miller movies.

Phil and Chris have a reputation. As producers, they used to come onto a project when it was 80 percent finished. Once they could ingest the movie properly and see what it is going to be like, they would come through with the guillotine and start enthusiastically editing. They’d come in and start to rewrite lines, throw out entire sequences, throw out animations all over the place, everywhere. And this is animation that people have been working on for a long time. Finished work, not some mock-up thing. I heard on Mitchells they did that. On Spider-Verse 1, they did that. Lego, same thing.

What that means is you have artists who feel extremely vulnerable. Sony lowballs them on their salary with the promise that overtime pay will boost their income to the level that it should be. You have people living in a really expensive city who have bad job security, who don’t know what’s ahead of them. And then they’re put in a position where the production is pressuring them to work all of their waking hours and to basically keep their chin up while the conditions are really, really shitty because if they don’t keep their chins up — if they don’t work hard — then who knows if they’ll be kept around?

Phil does have good ideas. He speaks creatively really well, and listening to Phil can be inspiring. But the process is not inspiring. The analogy for the way Phil works, it’s getting a whole bunch of construction workers to make a building without a blueprint. You get them to start putting bricks on top of each other. You get the wood guys to put the wood in, put the windows in, get some metal scaffold in there. And he’s like, “Nah, knock that part down.”

But show me some construction worker who can put bricks on top of each other again and again then watch it get knocked down on a daily basis.

Artists in this industry are generally very self-critical; they internalize feedback and want to do their best. If they love a project, they will put in the extra hours for free because they want to prove themselves and they want their work to be good. Their work is how they get the next job. A movie like this is taking advantage of those people creatively. But the workers are also vulnerable in another sense: They want to stay in Canada. They’re on visas from countries from which they’d ideally like to emigrate. Aspirations to immigrate keep them tied to the studio. They’re underpaid, so they need the OT to pay their bills. The relocation package doesn’t cover costs. So you can only make a production like this when the people doing it feel as though they have no other choice in what they need to do for their financial security. That’s no way to live your life.

Sony spokespeople deny that the studio “lowballs” animators’ salaries.

‘Death by a Thousand Paper Cuts’