What if…? | Interview with Stephan Franck, animation supervisor

What if… ? is the animated series from Marvel Studios that takes us to parallel universes. And we were able to talk to Stephen Franck, supervising animator!

Concerning the original animated series “What If…?”, Magazine.HD was invited to be part of a panel of journalists with Stephan Franck, in charge of the animation of this new project by wonderful studios. With a program that included titles such as “Spider-Man: Into the Spider Universe” or “9”, the artist saw in this idea a chance to create a new world of superheroes that would incorporate the mystique of the strip. drawn in modern animation, lively and with characters already well known to the public.

In a casual conversation, and where Franck dissuaded himself from spoiling on what we can still expect from “What if…?we found out a bit more about the process of creating this new world, the inspiration for these characters, and even the artist’s own preferences for Marvel heroes.

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Discover with us a little more about this world!

What were the specific challenges, if any, in working on “What if…?” compared to other similar projects you’ve worked on?

I think the challenge was that the mcu it’s already so established, the characters and the feeling that, you know, we pretty much know how those people would react or act in certain situations. And of course, the whole point of the show is to test and challenge that knowledge as it’s about doing something different for a character, or having them make a tough decision that will impact a choice later. The fun part of the challenge was really developing the vibe and characters already created in the movies, and continue to bring them to life but under new circumstances and under new choices, but still true to who they are despite challenging them in new ways.

How long does it take to complete an episode?

Well, it’s a relatively long process. But the short answer is that it takes months. And it’s not like we dedicate ourselves to one episode and then do another one the next day. We are able to overlap episodes for a while.

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“What If” takes us to the “parallel universes” of the MCU © Marvel Studios

Of all the episodes that were made in this first season, which was your favorite and why? [Aqui bem tentámos um pequeno vislumbre do que poderia ver, mas com pouca sorte… Para vossa referência, à data da entrevista apenas eram conhecidos os primeiros 4 episódios de “What If…?”]

So, I’m not going to talk about those we haven’t seen yet, but only those who have already left and I can say that I like them all differently. And it’s hard for me [escolher só um]. They are like children, like… which one do you prefer? My children are all different and I love them all but for different reasons. What I always say is that this series is an exploration of characters; it’s taking a character you already know well and “throwing in” something new that wasn’t intended and seeing them react differently at some point. And we explore character. So it’s about the human connection to the character, and that’s the heart of an episode for me.

As a lifelong Marvel fan, I can say that these characters captivated me differently depending on my age. Or at least I saw myself in different characters. But I have to say, as a kid, for some reason, I thought I was going to grow up to be a man like Dr. Strange, because of magic or just imagining that an artist in a studio, it’s like being a magician at it or something.

What if Dr. Strange
Dr Strange has always been one of Stephan Franck’s favorite characters © Marvel Studios 2021

But I could see myself in this character. I grew up to be a different person than that, so [o sonho] ended up not happening. But I’ve always had a crush on Dr. Strange since I was a kid, I was trying to imagine what it would be like when I grew up. I thought about him a lot but maybe because we had the same name.

At what point in the animation did you think, “Oh, that’s it! That’s what we’re going with, that’s our style”?

There’s one in particular, yes, because in the beginning we always do a lot of testing until we get to the final part, and there’s a lot of layers of animation until we get to the point we want. There are the characters themselves, how they interact and connect with the background, how they move, the lighting, the effects. There’s a lot of “magic” that needs to line up. And the first scene where we realized “that’s it” was right at the beginning of the first episode, when she fights [Agente Peggy Carter] in your first fight. And the man appears from behind the truck and walks through the beams of the truck’s headlights.

This was the first scene we saw complete and it was definitive as we saw it. We saw each other, we looked at each other and we said “that’s it!”. The animation was excellent, the lighting too. All the elements came together.

It’s a one-season series, but it also comes as an anthology, inspired by a very visual universe brought to us via films over a decade. As animation supervisor, did you try to ensure that there was internal continuity through the 9 episodes? Or did they focus on each 33 minute episode and each would be different?

Yes, well, there are aspects which are specific to each episode but others which are a little more transverse. For example, when it comes to the characters… The first episode takes place in the 1940s; so the characters speak a little differently and act a little differently. And for example, the character of Peggy, she’s a woman from the 40s. Of course, we animate her the same way that we will animate Black Widow, who is a modern woman, but the truth is that they have different personalities and that’s because of his specificity and the nature of the stories.

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Peggy Carter is the first character featured in “What If…?” ©Marvel Studios

Some creative elements live in the same space. But there are things where aesthetics are what first come to mind. We found a way to bring comics, and the comic book design genre and our love of [que já foi representado no] cinema to something cohesive through a prism of classic American illustrations, like our Leyendecker reference. So yes, it’s normal that in the first episode you feel the impact of “period” things a lot. But beyond that, there’s a sophistication in the form of the language that makes the artwork take shape for the entire season, whether it’s a ’40s story or not.

And all of this brings us to an abstract visual level, which gives a sense of community to the project.

In the first four episodes, which scene are you most proud of?

There are two types of scenes that I’m very proud of, for different reasons. There are scenes which are extremely physical, and which are very difficult for the animators because there is a lot going on and you have to pay attention to poses and attitudes, and angles which are not trivial or which have probably never been seen before. (…) For example, taking the first episode, we have a montage in the middle of the episode, when we see the world “at work”, with the plane, and the complexity and the veracity of the action sequence for animators is a real challenge. And they did a great job. So I’m really proud of them for this moment.

In the most recent, with Dr. Strange, there are scenes inside the car when they [Strange e Christine] speak, and not much happens but there has to be a lot of control over how the characters act and react, how they give cues that they want to say something and then back off. Of course, the actors give us amazing performances and that’s the challenge for the animators; understand the performance, link it to the animation and do it justice. These are very subtle moments that represent a different challenge.

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Subtle moments are just as hard to create in animation as big action © Marvel Studios 2021

The first example shows what we can show in the animation, and the second what we shouldn’t show, and it’s a matter of balance. I’m quite proud of both situations.

Stephan, you worked here with characters that audiences have known for a decade… how did you find the “center” in terms of appearance, the unique style of animation?

More than the center, the vibe what we were looking for was true north. Sometimes an animator would create a performance that we knew wouldn’t work just because we know the characters. It is hard to describe the reason and the reason but it is something we simply know. So we have this character, in a new situation that will test her in a completely different way; we want them to do something new and unexpected, but deep down it has to be something true to what we already know it is.

We already know that you reserve a special place for Dr. Strange, but from episode 1 to 4, which storyline did you like the most?

I don’t know which one I liked the most but I can say what I like about each one. In the first episode, there’s something incredibly powerful about taking on Peggy. It’s the 1940s and there’s no opportunity for women to be heroes and that’s what she does… so for me the story goes to the very heart of human nature. (…) The stories of “What if…? it’s about “taking a step”, and it’s something extremely powerful. All the episodes have that aura of “circus” but they also have an incredible amount of drama and that gets us to the heart of the decisions which is why I can’t say which episode is more valid because they all are, and this is the process of the series and what i like [na série].

What excites you the most that people see this first season?

Well, I can’t tell you much, but there’s really a lot that I want people to see and I want to see how they react. Because there’s always an element of surprise that you put into these worlds and it’s pure bliss to see how everyone reacts. What I’m most looking forward to is for the season to wrap up so we can find out which story fans have bonded with the most. Because for me… I’ve seen pretty much every scene in this season, so I’m really into the stories, and I’m interested in what you liked the most!

Regarding the future, from Stephan Franck’s point of view, there will always be a way to continue these stories, given their origins, motivations and purpose.

TRAILER | WHAT IF…?, A MARVEL ORIGINAL FOR DISNEY+

Have you started watching What If… on Disney+ Portugal? What’s your favorite episode so far?

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