Peter Ramsey came to VIEW Conference talking about the story and characters of Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, the other crucial element that greatly influenced the movie, and made it so memorable and amazing for everyone, next to its’ unique visual style.
Ramsey is an illustrator, writer and director. Aside from Spider-Verse, he also directed the DreamWorks feature Rise of the Guardians. He also worked as a storyboard artist on many live-action projects, such as Men in Black, Godzilla (1998), A.I., Minority Report and Wrinkle in Time.
We had a chance to talk with him in-between presentations. Below you can find our interview.
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Into the Spider-Verse and Rise of the Guardians seem to have a similar type of story. You have the hero, who is unknown in the beginning, has no identity, then goes on this adventure and emotional journey where he finds that identity, all while saving the world, and encouraging other people to be strong, be brave. Do you have a personal attachment to these types of stories?
Peter Ramsey: “I think probably everyone has a personal attachment to those kinds of stories. I thought about this a lot, as well, about these similarities between the two. I think it’s just a basic story of a young person discovering who they are and realizing that there’s other people like them that they can have a community with. It’s sort of a basic, rite of passage story. There are obviously lots of versions of that same story and I think, in the case of Spider-Verse, the idea of the Multiverse makes it sort of fresher and more unusual, but it really is like a basic old story.”
In animated movies, next to the score, there’s usually one or two pop songs, and a lot of times, these songs feel out of place, doesn’t fit the scene, and/or the nature of the score. This was the complete opposite in Spider-Verse, the music and the songs matched perfectly and were in flow. How did you and your team managed to do that? Did you have to take some extra care to it?
Peter Ramsey: “Yeah, there was a lot of good care put into it. Our movie had really good music supervisors for one thing. Kier Lehman was really great in helping us find new or old stuff, when we needed, but also try to find new artists who fit Miles’ world. The key was always trying to look at Miles’ point of view, and making sure that, if Miles heard this song in the movie, would he like it? Would it feel like something that he would want to listen to? That kind of thinking formed a backbone with how we approach the music. Also, Daniel Pemberton, who did the score, we asked him if he could incorporate some feel of contemporary hip hop and scratching and beats into his dramatic score, so we could have a score that would have some of that feeling, too. I think that helped the music sit in a little bit better, too, that it doesn’t feel like throwing random tracks in, but something that belongs to it altogether.”
What was the biggest challenge when working on this project?
Peter Ramsey: “I think the biggest challenge that all of us felt was how to keep the focus on Miles’ emotional story. As a young man growing up, him having the dilemma of which way he wants to go in life, his conflict between his family and his uncle, and that’s balanced against him becoming a superhero and all these universes and all these crazy characters. With all these other stuff happening, it was a real challenge to keep finding ways to bring it back and tell it to Miles’ point of view, so you always felt like you were in the movie with him, and that he didn’t get lost in the larger action. That was the biggest challenge, because that meant that you had to look at the other elements of the movie and decide how much or how little each meant.”
For a lot of people, it seems it’s hard to grasp exactly what the animation style of Spider-Verse is. How can you describe it to the general audience?
Peter Ramsey: “I’d say we chose a style that had a more graphic and punchier feel. It doesn’t feel soft and smooth and flowy. It feels like you’re going through comic book panels, hitting strong poses and making dynamic images. Because of the way it’s animated, which is in CG animation, but we’re animating at a lower framerate, so it’s a very different look and feel. But I think it makes the film feel a little more unique, little more graphic, little punchier like a comic book, but it is different. For some people, it doesn’t feel like watching the usual animated film, it’s definitely a different style, but intentionally for a different effect.”
Spider-Verse had the biggest, most diverse crew working on it, and this goes along with the theme of the movie, as in everyone can wear the mask, everyone is a hero. How did this environment inspire the movie and its’ story, and vice versa?
Peter Ramsey: “There’s a saying that goes “whatever movie you are working on, somehow, it ends up reflecting your life.” With our movie, you can easily see all these people, who came together from different walks of life, to try to make something special. At most we had about 800 people working for the movie across all departments, and the most exciting part for all these people was the chance to do something unique and special. When you’re around with people who are all very excited, it transcends, and everyone starts picking up that energy. I think this definitely happened with our movie. Everyone wanted to animate on Spider-Verse so bad. The effects people at Sony ImageWorks, were begging for more and more every time we asked them for something. Everybody got into the spirit of it, and this just shows you what happens when you can let people be creative, to access their creativity in their work, and give them the chance to be an artist, instead of a part of a machine.”
You are the first African American director to have won an Oscar for an Animated Feature. You are also really the first of them to appear at View Conference, as well. What’s your opinion on this?
Peter Ramsey: “There have actually been quite an amount of African American animators working in the industry in recent years, and there are lots of them behind the scenes in positions that don’t get too much attention. I have a very good friend for example, who is the head of the effects animation department in Frozen 2. Another, Bruce Smith, who did some directing and writing. Historically, however, there has been very few, and that mainly had to do with education, as many African American people didn’t have much access to that level of art education in the United States, and the ones they did were very expensive. When I was growing up, I was 10 miles away from Hollywood, but I never knew that I could ever work in the industry, because I hadn’t seen many people doing the jobs that I wanted to do, and that was another big barrier that’s still prevalent, so whenever I have the chance, I always talk with young people to encourage them. It’s taking a little more time, unfortunately, for us to get reputation, but there are a lot of people now who are getting more opportunities. “
Seeing all this positive reaction to Spider-Verse, both in terms of it being an animated movie and it being a comic book/superhero movie, do you think this will give the chance for studios and filmmakers to branch out and similarly create new, more unique and different animated/comic book movies?
Peter Ramsey: “I don’t know if there are plans for that at Marvel or other studios, but in the animation industry, there’s a lot of excitement to that approach, and a lot of people would be really into that, whether it looked or felt like Spider-Verse or not. A lot of people approached me, thanking me for making this, opening up what we can do, people feel freer to branch out and be riskier with something different. A lot of people feel Spider-Verse gave them that chance finally. At Sony, there are a lot of projects with different filmmakers, and they really seem to be committed to being different and artistically ground breaking.”
Do you also read comics? Do you have a favorite version of Spider-Man, and if so, who is it?
Peter Ramsey: “I used to be a big comics reader, and I still do now. I have always been a huge fan of Marvel, their stories are what got me into comic books. I also read DC, and in the States, we got to read many European comics that were also more artistic and underground through a magazine called Heavy Metal. I have a very soft spot for Miles, of course. You get really attached to whoever character you’re working on for a movie, and he has a lot of personal stuff bound up in there. A lot of people who worked on the movie feels a lot like Miles, I definitely do. I always loved original Peter Parker, as well. The first comic books I bought with my own money always had Spider-Man in it. It shocked me how in the story, he had the dilemma of being angry, because he felt he is cursed by being Spider-Man, he doesn’t like it, but he still has to do his job, and that extra layer of complexity of them as a kid got me hooked.”
Do you have any future projects that you are working on?
Peter Ramsey: “I do. I’m Executive Producer on an animated feature in Netflix. I think I will be involved in the Spider-Verse sequel in some way. It’s very early to say on that, they just started talking about it, but I would love to return to the world of Miles and help continue tell that story.”
Interview by Mihály Kobela
Pictures courtesy of VIEW Conference