Justin K. Thompson:
The Architect of Into the Spider-Verse
Justin K. Thompson is an award-winning production designer with years of experience working for such illustrious outfits as The Jim Henson Company, Lucasfilm Animation, and Cartoon Network. Most recently he served as production designer for Sony Pictures Animation’s celebrated Academy Award winner ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.’ During the Pictoplasma Conference 2019, we talked with Justin about being self-taught in a highly competitive industry, taking a leap of faith with new technology, needing over 200 tries to visualize invisibility, and why he prefers to remain unseen.
Pictoplasma: What do you say when asked what you do for a living?
Justin K. Thompson: I’m a production designer, I’m like a chief art director: I manage the visual side of an animation film all the way through production and writing until the final delivery. I help directors and producers to discover the look of their film through artwork and research. Another way I like to think of it is: I’m the architect of the style! All the 3D artists, the software guys and the technicians who work for me are the engineers, and together we figure out how to get the director’s vision onto the screen. It’s a pretty fun job.
You didn’t go to college, but you have certainly mastered a wide range of styles. How did you teach yourself?
My first job was in a comic book store when I was fourteen. I was obsessed with comics, they were my first love and I learned to draw by looking at comics and copying them. After that, I took evening classes for many years to learn things that I didn’t know: perspective, painting, drawing. The job requires you to be drawing constantly so over time you just develop a repertoire. I’ve also been very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with incredible artists and directors who took me under their wing and gave me a lot of guidance. You could say I was the student of all the people I worked with, and they were very generous with me.
“I’ve made an effort throughout my career to find collaborative people.”
Who do you count as your mentors?
The ones who probably had the biggest influence early on were Craig Kellman, Don Shank and Paul Rudish. I also took a bunch of classes with Paul Felix who was a production designer at Disney. His classes were really foundational for me. Then I’ve been working with the filmmaking duo Phil Lord and Chris Miller for about fifteen years now and they helped me hone my sense of story, my ability to see and understand characters, and translate all that into a visual medium.
It sounds as if the film industry isn’t as tough and competitive as one might expect.
It can be, but I’ve just refused to allow it to happen. I’ve made an effort throughout my career to find collaborative people. Also when I started finding myself in a position of leadership, I always went out of my way to hire kindred spirits, people who were willing to be open and humble and share their ideas, to grow and learn with each other. Without that I wouldn’t be where I am now.
It must be fun to have you as a boss.
I hope so. I try to make it fun. But it’s always a balance.
What do you mean?
I have a very specific idea in mind when I work on a film. But I want to allow people to take that idea, add to it and make it stronger than I ever could have done alone. I try to stay humble, provide space, and give the artists I’m working with permission to show me better ways of doing things.
Being open to suggestions means more work and more time…
From my hand to the drawing board to the screen would be a very direct process but I think I would have missed out on so many things if I hadn’t been open. I certainly know where I want to go but there are lots of ways that lead there and plenty of people who do things better than me.
You’ve been in the animation industry for some time now.
Yes. I started in 1993. I was in TV for about fourteen years and after that I worked on features at Sony.
“The rules of composition and design, shape and form, lighting and color are the same. Just the tool-set is a little different.”
How did you experience the transition from analog to digital in animation?
The first time I ever used a computer was when I worked on ‘Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs.’ It was very stressful just learning how to use email and Photoshop.
That must have been around 2006, not so long ago!
It wasn’t new to anybody else but me! It took a little time to figure out how the tools worked, but I just threw myself into learning because I was excited about what I could do with it. What guided me when I started doing 3D is that I already knew that what ultimately winds up on the screen is a flat two-dimensional image. The rules of composition and design, shape and form, lighting and color are the same. Just the tool-set is a little different.
Do you sometimes miss the analog way of working?
I don’t care what the medium is. I still draw every day. But I think I get more excitement out of trying new things than trying to perfect something I can already do. I actually love the thrill of not knowing if I can make things work. All the problem solving is so exciting to me that I never feel like I’m missing anything.
It seems like ‘Spider-Verse’ made a huge effort to recreate the analog experience of reading comics.
Yes. For example, the average animated film has about 1,200 shots. ‘Spider-Verse’ has over 3,700 shots, so it means a lot more cuts. I think that was what the directors Bob Persichetti, Peter Ramsey and Rodney Rothman thought would create the feel of a comic book, like flicking through the panels, that would set it apart it from other animated films.
Like a homage to old Spiderman comics?
When I thought about Miles, the main character of Spider-Verse, I was always looking down at the page until I asked myself: What would it look like from the character’s point of view, looking out from the page? How could I create a world that felt like I was living inside a comic book? It was exciting to me to develop new techniques to express that. So, in a way, yes, it is a homage, but I think it’s also its own thing, something that feels like it could only be done in 3D.
“We did over 180 tests just to get the right look for Miles’ invisibility scene.”
The aesthetics, the visuals are extremely unusual. You really have to be confident to push things that far. Did you ever doubt your vision?
I don’t think so. But I also never thought it would be easy. It took a long time before it looked good. Every time we went to the next step, we had new problems to solve.
We did over 180 tests just to get the right look for Miles’ invisibility scene. For the transition, where it turns on and off, there were about another 200 experiments before we started to like it.
The production allowed time and space for that?
No. We just fitted it in. We set a time schedule so we could get the simpler, less unique shots through the pipeline fast, knowing that we would eventually need the time to solve some more important things like Miles’ invisibility.
Did you go through phases where you thought you’re demanding too much from the audience? I mean, beyond the vast number of comic-art references, the end is pretty psychedelic.
I decided that I’d rather fail at something new, something where I really tried my best, that I’m passionate about and that all the artists believed in. If we all felt like we’d done a good job, then it’s up to the audience. You hope, you pray, you keep your fingers crossed, but I think often the audience is way smarter than us.
You work in an industry where demand and pressure are high. How do you see yourself as an artist in this huge machine? Did you ever consider creating your own property?
Sure, I mean, all artists have dreams and their own private projects that they keep developing throughout their lives. I have plenty of my own. But there’s also something fun and liberating about having the opportunity to support somebody else’s vision. That’s something I take very seriously.
“The fact that people embraced it and loved it so much was such an unexpected reward.”
The films you worked on are hugely successful, but hardly anyone would recognize you on the street.
Which is a great thing actually! I’m glad that people don’t know who I am and aren’t walking up to me and asking for my autograph. But other people working in the industry often take the time to inform themselves about who did what, and I love when I hear from other artists and especially students who are inspired to try new things because of stuff I’ve done. And I get inspired by seeing the new things that they’re doing. One thing I love about animation is that I feel like I’m part of a small community. It’s not a celebrity thing, it’s about a sense of community. In fact if I ever became a celebrity, I don’t know what I would do with myself. I’d probably hide.
So how were the Oscars?
It was amazing to be able to go there and to watch my friends go up on a stage. The fact that people embraced it and loved it so much was such an unexpected reward. We wanted people to like it of course, but that’s like one in a million. Afterwards I needed a couple of days to myself to deal with how overwhelming it all was.
That’s a lot to digest.
Yeah, absolutely. I needed to go stare at some rocks for a while.
Interview by Elise Graton on the occasion of the 15th anniversary edition of Pictoplasma Berlin, 2019