The latest Disney+ series from Marvel Studios, What If…? serves as their first foray into animation, telling epic, multiversal tales unlike anything seen before. When it comes to the animated storytelling, it’s important to have a strong team behind the scenes to craft the best looking visuals possible and luckily, What If…? has that covered with a great crew driving the show, including Animation Supervisor Stephan Franck and Production Designer Paul Lasaine.
Franck has a long career in the art and animation world, working on recent hits like Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse as well as classics like The Iron Giant. Paul Lasaine, meanwhile, has had a prolific career in the visual effects realm, working as the VFX art director on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, as well as with Franck in the art department for Spider-Verse. We got the chance to sit down with them both to discuss their work on What If…? and learn how they brought the show’s fantastical look to life inside the already established worlds of the MCU, as well as their work on the two most recent episodes.
For Stephan, the Marvel Cinematic Universe is long-lasting and full of incredible stories. What’s it like to see these iconic tales re-imagined and re-worked into animation with new twists?
Stephan Franck: At first, it’s a little bit intimidating because you’re coming into a situation where you know these characters, I’ve been reading comics since I was a kid, and as a fan watching the movies, they’ve been a big part of my life, so you feel like you know these characters, you get a good sense of their vibe. But when you start working with Marvel, and you have a group of filmmakers here that are so experienced with these characters and have been telling their stories for over ten years, it’s obviously a little intimidating to become a part of that and realize that as much as you think you know, you still have a lot of catching up to do.
But I feel like that happens quickly, and people are extremely welcoming and nurturing here, so pretty soon you’re in it. It’s definitely a big responsibility, especially since these characters mean so much to the audience, to people who have grown up with these characters, it’s very humbling and very exciting.
For Paul, The MCU is full of huge, notable set-pieces. How do you take these set-pieces and redesign them for animation with new spins based on the plot of the episode?
Paul Lasaine: It’s interesting because, like you said, these locations exist in these movies. The easiest thing to do is to literally reference the artwork used to create them, and we have to remember that even in the movies, they bring them to life beautifully, like Wakanda or the R.E.B.I.R.T.H. lab, they’re in the movie but they’re also just sets, so we have access to all that research the art departments did for those movies to create those sets. We’ve got tons of set photography, construction plans for when they built these sets, in some cases we have, like with Wakanda, as a city, it was only a matte painting and a 3D model, it doesn’t actually exist.
We have access to that stuff, so we would actually go into the Marvel archives, which is all online, and just download all that stuff. We can spin it all we like, but at the bones of it, we have the original sets. It’s like a redress. With our style being animation, it’s like a painted universe. It’s traditional 2D animation, in terms of environments. We’d often start with a model, but at the end of the day, it’s a painting. Someone did a drawing, someone did a painting of this place. The hardest part is just coming up with a painting style. If you went out into the real world and you brought your paints out there and made a painting, it’s the same thing. We’re just doing paintings of these places, coming up with a painting style, and maintain it. The hardest part is coming up with a cool looking painting style that no one has ever seen before. We had people working hard on doing that, coming up with that painting style.
For both of you, what episode was the most fun or interesting to work on?
Stephan Franck: Well, I can only talk about the ones we have seen so far. They’re all very fun in their own way. Each one is like a deeper exploration of a character you already know and love, and by throwing in new situations, it reveals even more about that character, not only to the fans but to the characters themselves. In the first episode, there’s so many moments where Peggy herself is like “This is me now, this is my life now?” and I think that’s a very universal feeling we all have, wanting to understand our lives, what they have been, what they could have been, what they are. It’s very hard for me to pick a particular episode because all these stories do that with particular characters in their own way.
Paul Lasaine: They’re all fun to work on because they’re all so diverse. Doing a World War II show is always a blast if you’re a history buff. I’m a sci-fi buff, so I get a kick out of doing a ci-fi thing. My favorite episodes out of the ones that have dropped was Episode Three, the Whodunit with the Avengers getting picked off, which I wouldn’t have expected because I’m such a sci-fi nerd, and that one was totally grounded in modern day America. The fourth one with Doctor Strange going back in time is also really fantastic. Everyone has something that really engages them.
For both of you, with the recent Doctor Strange episode, we’ve gotten what is probably the biggest and most epic story, animation wise, with a much more stylistic feel. What went into designing and bringing this tale to animation?
Stephan Franck: A lot of different aspects. You’re right that there’s a lot of range to that episode, in the animation of the episode but also in the acting of the characters, because you have some very quiet, intimate scenes that are very simple on the surface, but underneath that, there’s a lot of subtext. Part of what makes that world feel so big is the richness of the characters and the multi-dimensionality of their personalities and the reality of their situations. Getting the acting right, that’s a huge part of making that story and those characters feel real, and therefore making the story feel big.
I don’t wanna verbalize it too much because I don’t wanna spoil it for anybody who hasn’t seen it but as you get to the end of the episode, and everything gets crazier and crazier, you get more into those esoteric, imaginative moments. That feels huge, and at the same time it’s really challenging because the more abstract the world gets, the less you have to rely on the storytelling, it starts to lean completely on your good taste and that abstract quality that makes art, even when it has nothing you can recognize, still feel huge and compelling and still connect with you. That’s what was really exciting about this episode.
Paul Lasaine: You go through the script, you figure out how many locations you have, you look at the number of people you have to design it, because we do have a finite number of artists. I usually assign a location to each artist, they do research, like one of our Art Directors, she took on the waterfront where Strange crashes. So she goes in and started researching, found all the artwork they used to design it in the film, and we expanded it into that whole larger area. She got really deep into designing all that stuff, and then we had the library, and we assigned that to another designer, and he spent a lot of time researching things like ancient temples. You go through it one at a time until there’s no locations left. Just make sure you get them all done before the deadline is over and it’s pencils down.
For both of you, the fifth episode of What If…? serves as an adaptation of the famous series Marvel Zombies. Did you use the comic as a basis or inspiration when designing the episode?
Stephan Franck: I just don’t even want to go there at all because I don’t want to spoil a single thing, I’ll leave those surprises and not ruin them for people.
Paul Lasaine: I didn’t, personally. We had the book but because our thing was so different, I didn’t personally use it but it’s very possible that the writers and storyboard artists used it when coming up with the gags. We have a lot of existing locations, so from a production designer standpoint, I use the locations from the MCU as my guide, and we do our spin on it, but it’s more of a stylistic spin on it, like we came up with a “zombie apocalypse” color scheme. Typical zombies have a gross gray color, so I thought it would be cool to add this grayish color to our world.
For Stephan, when you have such high-profile actors as the face of the characters, it can be hard to translate them into animation. How did you try to take the faces of such hugely popular actors and bring them to animation?
Stephan Franck: Visually, the style of the show comes from three sets of influences: you have the comic book, the DNA of where these stories and characters are coming from as we try to do justice to that; then there’s the movies, we’re huge movie fans, not just with the MCU but movies in general, creating something cinematic that lines up with the comics; and finally, this illustrative approach that is kind of inspired by American illustrators who have such an elevated sense of design, bringing such a sense of sophistication, dedication, boldness.
These characters, first and foremost, our purpose is to process them through this artistic vision, there’s an artistic filter that gets applied to the stuff. Most importantly, it’s about trying to capture the vibe that all these individual characters have developed over time, it’s what makes a character who they are, their specific traits, all these little things that make a person’s personality and presentation what it is. It’s important to fully understand these personalities and how they were developed and created, and what vibe manifests from them. It allows animators to connect with them and continue that tradition.
For Paul, the T’Challa Star-Lord episode is a cosmic journey. How do you design space-set locations to give them a more galactic feel compared to Earth-set locations?
Paul Lasaine: The obvious thing is to just put planets in everything. When you’re doing an exterior landscape, just put a planet in there, that’s the go-to thing, we’ll do that in a lot of episodes. Once again, the locations we went to are all existing. We start in Wakanda with the young T’Challa, and a lot of that is just from the movie, we just light it differently. A lot of the shots are just like the ones from Guardians of the Galaxy where Quill is taken, except we use T’Challa and Wakanda. We use Yondu’s ship exactly from the film. Our big new location is the bar where they are all hanging out, they told us that they wanted the interior of a really cool looking club, like an adult nightclub. Our designers spent some time doing drawings and showing them to the director, he gives us notes and then we do some more drawings until we have the finished location.
We expanded the Collector’s museum to make it really different from the movie. In the film, you only go into one room, but we go into a bunch of rooms in the episode. We just wanted to make the place bigger. We had storyboards that told us what we needed to do. We took the Collector’s cases and made that our environment, we made thousands of them, and just made an entire space out of them. Knowhere is also in the movie, we just expanded on it. A lot of this stuff you just see for a second in the movie but it still exists. It was built, they just didn’t really show it much. That big fight with Thanos and the Black Order is set in a location that was designed for and was in Guardians of the Galaxy, but it was just barely shown in the movie, and we expanded on it.