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Animation Is Film 2023: The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story

6 min read

While covering Disney’s upcoming centennial celebration film Wish at Animation Is Film, I noted that the film’s use of 2D aesthetics on computer-generated models mirrors the trend in the industry that had been popularized by Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse in 2018. I suppose it’s fitting, then, that I had to rush out of that sneak peek to talk to the staff of the latest entry in the Spider-Verse series, beginning with the animation supervisor tasked with recreating the unique look of those two features in a short film led by relative newcomers.

This short is called The Spider Within: A Spider-Verse Story. It’s actually not the first short film in the Spider-Verse series, as a prequel spinoff starring John Mulaney’s Spider-Ham entitled Caught in a Ham was released after the first film, accompanying its digital and home video releases before making its way to official YouTube channels. Similarly, The Spider Within is a prequel to the second film, Across the Spider-Verse, and also comes a few months after its release (at least for select festival screenings). While Caught in a Ham was a comedy set in Spider-Ham’s Looney Tunes-esque cartoon world, The Spider Within follows Miles home in the main universe we’re used to, utilizing the primary styles of the core films and using its brief runtime to show us a horror thriller about mental health.

As the film had only premiered at Annecy (a mere ten days after Across the Spider-Verse was released, which would really implies that they could have included it in the home video release three months later) and the festival’s red carpet took place before the screening and panel, I didn’t know much about it going in, so I asked the staff about stepping into an established world of universally acclaimed films that push the boundaries of animation, filmmaking, and storytelling. At the festival were director Jarelle Dampier, writer Khaila Amazan, visual effects supervisor Clara Chan, animation supervisor Joe Darko, and producers Michelle Raimo-Kouyate and David Schulenburg. I got to speak to Dampier, Amazan, and Darko on the red carpet, which you can watch in the attached videos.

I’d guess that, like me, most of you haven’t heard of any of these people. It’s not as if any of them are completely new to the industry. In fact, Chan and Darko both worked on Into the Spider-Verse, and Darko noted that quite a few members of the animation staff of that film were not working on Across the Spider-Verse and were thus able to work on this short. The producers would later note that some of the staff of Across the Spider-Verse even made time to help out when needed.

But the reason there are no big names attached to this project was no mistake or cost-cutting maneuver. In fact, as soon as the producers introduced the film in the North American premiere immediately following the red carpet, they revealed the most interesting fact about it: the fact that it’s a Spider-Man project at all is pure happenstance. They didn’t set out to make a piece of Spider-Verse media. Instead, they created a program called LENS (“Leading and Empowering New Storytellers”) at Sony to provide underrepresented groups the opportunity to lead production of short films at the studio. For better visibility and to leverage existing resources, they knew they’d have to connect the first short to whatever was in production at Sony Pictures Animation at the time, and that just happened to be Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse. These four artists comprised the “class” of the program’s inaugural year, and as such, their little project ended up being an entry in one of the most beloved film series in recent memory!

Not unlike how consistent Across the Spider-Verse feels with Into the Spider-Verse despite major staff turnover between the two, this team of fledgling filmmakers stepped up to the challenge and created a short that feels perfectly at home next to the insurmountable presence of its tentpole predecessors. This is remarkable for many reasons: the staff was new, they didn’t have veterans holding their hands (by design), they only had six weeks of full-staff production time, they only had five minutes to tell a story, and the genre and tone is drastically different than most of what we’ve seen from Spider-Man up to now.

Dampier and Amazan were adamant about creating a horror film, and through those tropes and the foundation of a well-established Miles Morales, they give us a visceral depiction of anxiety likely to captivate any viewer and deeply disturb the arachnophobes in the room. As discussed in detail by Dampier, along with contributions from Amazan both in the panel and in my interview with her, Miles made a great vessel to explore these themes. Every teenaged Spider-Man goes through emotional arcs, a natural circumstance of being someone grappling with the impossible storm of hormones, teenage pressures and uncertainty, newfound superpowers, deadly night-time battles, and the lack of anyone to talk with about it. The Spider Within takes that a step further, delving into Miles’s troubled psyche with deftly poignant sincerity, and it’s visualized in a way that honors the feature films’ care for the power of animation. If you have Spider-Verse in your title, there’s an expectation to dazzle, and this does not disappoint.

Once the panel was underway, each member of the crew shared levels of insight that not only elevated my respect for each of them as artists but also made me appreciate the short even more, aided by the wise decision to play it a second time following the panel. Dampier displayed humble vulnerability by immediately pointing out that he has struggled with anxiety throughout his life and suffered the worst panic attack of his life, one of several that put him in the hospital overnight, at the news of getting to work on this project he wanted so badly. This would become a major theme of the discussions, as it was naturally a very personal connection that formed the backbone of the short’s through line.

Darko had the most to share in terms of production details, nuance of the animation, and fun Easter eggs to pick out on a rewatch. Having a five-minute short that exists within a greater context and technically adds nothing to the plot outside of itself (though a great deal to the character if you consider it “canon”) is a great opportunity for this kind of “film class” analysis, because the process of picking apart every minute detail lets you appreciate just how much goes into (good) filmmaking. I suspect each Spider-Verse feature film could warrant an entire semester, but these few minutes made for a solid hour of highly engaging material, thanks in no small part to the fact that we had the very creators on hand to share the anecdotes we may never have picked up on.

After the prepared questions from the producers, a decent amount of time was given to audience Q&A, and although I believe I mentioned the same at last year’s festival, I was again blown away by the quality of every single question asked. Good job, audience. The answers were equally thoughtful and nuanced, no surprise given everything this panel had presented up to that point, but there was certainly no query brushed aside.

If this triumph of a short film is anything to go on, the LENS program feels like a runaway success. This small team stepped into the biggest shoes in animation today and knocked it out of the park with a deeply personal, heartfelt thriller that visually stuns and captivates while exploring underserved themes and filmmaking techniques. I look forward to seeing what these artists do in the future, as well as what else we may see from programs like this.

The Spider Within is, as of yet, unavailable to a general audience. Be sure to bug Sony for a wide release that everyone can enjoy. Maybe we’ll get it on the Beyond the Spider-Verse Blu-ray, or at least the inevitable complete trilogy collection.