Into the Spider-Verse with Minnesota Transplant Tony Siruno

Character designer and visual development artist Tony Siruno talks about “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” and where his Minnesota side still shows

A shot of character Miles Morales staring at himself in the mirror, holding the Spiderman mask, in Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse.
Photo courtesy Sony Pictures

In case you hadn’t heard, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse is set to be a hit. The film has won eight animated feature awards already, and it is being praised for its comic-book homages, story, vividness, humor, relatability, and—as any first impression of the trailer will show—its innovative animation. It would seem Sony made the right call when it went all in on an animation process that took about four times as long and spurred a need for its biggest animation crew yet.

One of the character designers and visual development artists who worked to bring the film to life is Tony Siruno, a Minnetonka native who moved out to California to pursue animation more than two decades ago. Siruno graduated from the California Institute of Arts and worked at studios like DreamWorks for 17 years—along with Warner Bros., Paramount Pictures, and Film Roman (where he worked on The Simpsons)—before ending up at Sony. Before you check out Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (it opens everywhere Dec. 14), read some insight into the inspired animation.

Two-dimensional animation style, like your work on El Dorado, looks so different to me than your work on, say, Kung Fu Panda. Can you tell me a bit about the unique animation in Into the Spider-Verse?

The process is still inherently a 3D movie, but what we’ve done is use techniques which I can’t really get into, techniques proprietary to Sony Pictures Imageworks. What we’ve done is try to figure out how to bring the comic book experience to movies, and the way comic books are laid out graphically, artistically—that hand-drawn feel and, like, the comic-book applications of using words like “pow” and “bam” but also using panel cuts. It’s so much more immersive, as well as using Ben-Day dots or half tones. There’s a lot of things that Imageworks came up with, which I can’t get into, but they are geniuses in taking our ideas and really, really making them come true in the way we saw things. As the creators of the concept art, if we see a scene or character in a certain way, they would take those illustrations and kind of do their magic.

How did you get involved in the project?

So, Shiyoon Kim [the movie’s lead character designer] is a very prolific character designer. I had learned about this kid when I was an art student. We were eight years apart, and when I heard about him, he was this star kid out of Cal Arts, and we met up. His involvement as an artist includes TangledBig Hero 6, and Zootopia, and some way, somehow, Sony nabbed him. He lives right behind Disney Studios, so he could literally walk to work, but I think he was looking for a change. We were very good friends, and he was about to have a baby, so he said, “Would you mind helping me continue the character design process as I take my paternity leave?” It was a really fun process; I’ve always wanted to work on a superhero movie. I worked on Megamind, but that was something original, and I wanted to work on something like Marvel or DC. Working on Spider-Man was a dream come true.

I read that you’ve always been a fan of comic books, so were you a fan of Spider-Man?

As a kid, my two favorite superheroes were Batman and Spider-Man. Spider-Man was more relatable because, as I was growing up, he was this kid in school trying to understand his powers and his way and his place in the world amongst these amazing superheroes that were extremely powerful and vaulted, whereas he was something that was kind of rooted and grounded into something to relate to.

You’ve been in California for a while now. Is there anything about California you wish Minnesota had or anything about Minnesota that you wish California had?

The thing is, I like winters. It’s just Minnesota has brutal winters, where here you can go snowboarding in the morning and be at the beach in the afternoon.

I am still am a Minnesota boy. I don’t consider myself a true Californian. I’m a transplant. I’m still loyal to the Minnesota Wild and the Vikings. I gave up on the Twins and the Timberwolves. I still love everything about Minnesota, and it’s just something I’m more than happy to talk about.

People tell me, “You’re so LA,” and I go, “I’m actually from Minnesota,” and people kind of get surprised because I don’t have that accent everyone thinks we all have, which we don’t. Some do, most don’t. I still play ice hockey. There are a lot of kids in Minnesota that move out here because they want to get into modeling or things like that, so I’ll be playing hockey with people from St. Thomas, Hill Murray, Shattuck-St. Marys. There’s a funny league out in Burbank, kind of like an entertainment-business league where everyone in the hockey league seems to work at a major studio, and a lot of those who gravitate there can make connections. They’ll mention they were at Benilde-St. Margaret’s or Edina or Minnetonka, and I’ll be, “Hey, wait a second, this is crazy!”

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