In the years-long buildup to Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse’s release, Sony — for understandable reasons — proudly touted how it had hired over 1,000 animators in order to bring the artistically ambitious project to fruition, and all of that intensive human labor definitely shows. According to a number of artists who contributed to the film, however, the working conditions they were made to operate under during the film’s production were unsustainable, erratic, and largely the result of producer Phil Lord frequently overriding Across the Spider-Verse’s three directors in order to make endless last-minute changes.
In a rather damning new report from Vulture, four animators who worked directly on Across the Spider-Verse described the project as a grueling professional crucible that drove around 100 of their colleagues to leave before the film was fully finished as those who stayed were “pushed to work more than 11 hours a day, seven days a week” at certain points.
According to the artists, who all spoke out pseudonymously, presumably out of concern for potential retaliation, virtually all of the struggles they dealt with on the film — like long working hours and constant revisions to already-completed shots — could be attributed to Lord’s management style. Despite Lord serving as a co-writer and a producer on Across the Spider-Verse, he allegedly demanded final approval of all of the film’s shots while his co-writer, fellow producer, and frequent collaborator Chris Miller was mostly absent day to day.
“They are obviously in charge of directing, but if Phil [Lord] has a note that contradicts their note, his note takes precedence,” one of the animators said of the movie’s behind-the-scenes power dynamics. “They have to do what Phil says. So there were constant changes and cuts. With Phil Lord, nothing is ever final or approved. Nothing was really set in stone. Nothing was ever done. Everything was just endlessly moving beneath our feet because they wanted it to be the best that it could be.”
Iterative editing processes are common in animation, but the animators speaking out claim that Lord struggles with visualizing 3D animation when it’s in its earliest stages, which, when combined with his fondness for making granular changes, led to multiple rounds of edits on work that was already well into the late-stage rendering phase. This potent blend of inefficiency, the animators said, led to things like the way Across the Spider-Verse’s production out of Sony Picture Imageworks’ Vancouver offices was effectively halted for three months, leaving employees with little to do but sit around and wait, knowing that “an avalanche of work” was coming down the pipeline.
“The worst thing you can do to an artist is hire them and then tell them to do nothing,” one of the animators explained. “These people were like, ‘How do you expect us to make this huge movie in less and less time?’ Each week that went by idle meant that later on, it was going to be more insane.”
In response to these claims, Sony Pictures Imageworks CEO Michelle Grady and Across the Spider-Verse producer Amy Pascal said that while production on the movie was definitely a challenge, Lord shouldn’t be seen as the source for the movie’s delays.
“One of the things about animation that makes it such a wonderful thing to work on is that you get to keep going until the story is right,” Pascal said. “If the story isn’t right, you have to keep going until it is. To the workers who felt demoralized by having to revise final renders five times in a row, I guess, welcome to making a movie.”
Interestingly, and perhaps rather tellingly, Sony did not push back on the claims that Spider-Man: Beyond the Spider-Verse — Across the Spider-Verse’s sequel — will not hit its intended premiere date on March 29th, 2024.