LightBox Expo 2023: The Making of 2023’s Animation Hits

The article contains minor spoilers for Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

In our previous coverage of LightBox Expo 2023, we provided a general overview alongside some of our highlights on the show floor. The weekend was also packed with panels discussing 2023’s blockbuster animation features. We attended one each day, and we wanted to recap and summarize the insights behind Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem, Star Wars: Visions’ The Pit, and Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse.

In Behind the Art: TMNT: Mutant Mayhem, Jeff Rowe, Arthur Fong, and Woodrow White spoke about decision-making, art direction, and experimentation over three years. The panel began with some humorous questions regarding which on-screen slice of pizza or dog the audience would pick. This quickly led to showing multiple baby and Baxter Stockman drawings that the filmmakers had voted on. They strove to choose fresh designs, but they also had to consider whether they were easy to animate and what their shapes communicated. Three ideas underlined their decision-making process: being clear and knowing what emotions to evoke, making sure characters would act in a particular manner, and speaking in a new, surprising way.

The panelists spoke about breaking from tradition and integrating “mistakes” into the presentation. One fascinating point is how the filmmakers chose to break perspective rules tastefully. Having lines protruding from forms became part of the art direction as it leaned into how teenagers are passionate but do not necessarily have formal art training. Another notable example was how the panelists showed concept art for a motorcycle. They considered this motorcycle “unriggable” which would have made it hard to animate, but they wanted to push the design limits. Even if a design supposedly made lighting difficult, the filmmakers were willing to try anyway. The panelists spoke about juxtaposing the old and new. While they drew inspiration from the original Ninja Turtles toys and looked at the 1987 cartoon’s designs, they aimed to introduce new audiences to the Turtles without being constrained by existing canon. 

In Making of Star Wars: Visions – The Pit, LeAndre Thomas, Darnwell Isom, and Joel Aron dove into the creative process behind the short story and animation. As LeAndre Thomas developed his own story, he tapped into the rebellion motif at the heart of Star Wars. The panelists discussed how working with D’ART Shtajio – the first black-owned anime studio in Japan – was a perfect opportunity. They also discussed how they wanted people worldwide to connect to the short via its visual-focused narrative easily. The early storyboards reflected that The Pit was meant to be more artistic and provide a unique perspective on the long-standing Star Wars universe. 

The panel showcased how much research went into the visual design of The Pit. They looked at diamond mine photos for reference, and having a city on the horizon showcased one mine’s sheer scale. What I mainly found interesting was how they emphasized having a human connection to the art. They mentioned working “digitally but traditionally” to have a hand-crafted touch. In terms of color and light, they drew inspiration from Ralph MacQuarrie’s palette in order to build a sensation of light. Furthermore, they also thought about exposure, building a transition of dark to light, obscuring details, and the Greek symbolism of light as being divine. 

In Creating the Spider-Verse, Patrick O’Keefe and Mike Lasker discussed the film’s art direction and technological advancements. They mentioned how artistry and technology overlapped every step of the way and that they wanted to create the perception of a handcrafted aesthetic. They wanted to enhance their render pipeline so that audiences could feel the artistry in each frame and so that they could bring the comic books and concept art to life. One technological advancement was integrating the painting software Rebelle, which is known for its realistic simulation of paint. We saw several instances of ink drips, and we also saw multiple layers of distortion comprising various portal effects. Another fascinating point was that they wanted to craft a real world with real people, and they spent time in Brooklyn, which facilitated building a bodega in the film. 

The panel also extensively described the creative process behind each unique world.  Spider-Gwen’s universe is composed of blurred and naturalistic lines, contrasting with Miles’ universe’s more graphic, jazzy, and dotted lines. The shapes also involve color blocking with brush and linework on top, which required creating tools to paint along the edges. The abstract shapes and contrast between warm and cool colors reflect her fluid emotional state. When the panelists discussed Mumbattan, they recounted how they discovered Indrajal Comics. They wanted to celebrate visual differences like looser printing standards and having a well-executed calligraphic style. For Spider-Punk’s world, the panelists showcased their extensive research into punk rock posters and how they were created. They realized that the posters had a rudimentary and raw look. They joked that adapting that approach was like breaking down doors, taking artists’ tablets, and giving artists basic tools instead.

We thoroughly enjoyed LightBox Expo’s panels discussing 2023’s blockbuster animation projects, and we hope that you enjoyed reading our recap. In the future, we’ll cover some of our favorite demonstrations throughout the weekend.