Marvel, Fan Boys & Perception: Storytelling through motion graphics
The fact that Marvel Studios completely transformed the film industry is indisputable. They did, after all, usher in the golden age of superhero movies full of mind-blowing motion graphics, awesome animation, and totally wicked special effects. Characters from our beloved comics have never been as accessible, relatable, or consistently present on the big screen as they are now. And, never — ever — had there been a time when designers, animators and engineers were more in demand to make that happen.
Founded by Jeremy Lasky and Danny Gonzalez in 2001, Perception — “a world-class design lab for global technology brands” — is the amazing company behind many of Marvel’s most famous visual splendors, from Jarvis’ holograms to Spider-Man’s iconic web shooter! They even designed Marvel’s new logo, which was unveiled at last year’s Comic Con. Their groundbreaking work with the world-acclaimed film studio opened up doors the founders and self-proclaimed “fan boys” initially only dreamed of.
Today, however, Perception works with some of the biggest companies in the world creating disruptive technologies of the future based on the conceptual designs they’ve previously conceived for films. ARTpublika Magazine spoke with the founders of Perception about their love of Marvel comics, as well as their propensity to take on undeniably difficult challenges.
When did you first start Perception? Who did you try to work with?
Danny: It was right after 9/11, so, NYC was at a standstill. We had to find anything we could just to stay open and feed our families and ourselves. [Finally,] we got an opportunity to pitch a Sopranos campaign for HBO. We went all out — came up with a bunch of ideas, wrote scripts and music tracks — it’s the only way we know how to do it. We went in and pitched to a conference room full of HBO executives. I was sweating bullets; it was do or die, because Perception was just starting. A few hours later they called to tell us we got the job. That got us into the broadcast world.
Jeremy: Closely after HBO, we started working with ESPN and ABC. Little by little we got to work with Showtime and BRAVO and The Food Network and National Geographic. We started to build out a pretty extensive broadcast clientele. But, one of the first things we did when we started Perception was we created a dream list of clients that we wanted to work for/work with. And at the very top of that list was Marvel. We’re both huge fan boys, and we had just started to see the beginning of the superhero tidal wave. The first X-Men (2000) and Spider-Man (2002) movie had just come out.
Which is still the best one!
Jeremy: I agree...until Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)! There were [also] rumors about Ang Lee directing a new Hulk film. I went to college for graphic design and got turned on to this whole world of titles. So, when Danny and I started Perception, I said: “I really want to try to get to do some film titles.” That was always my bucket list thing — my dream. It was a running theme [here] for many years: How do we get into Marvel? How do we get to work with Marvel? Marvel. Marvel. Marvel. Marvel.
Danny: A lot of people ask: “Oh, you guys got Marvel? Did they just call you up?” NO. There was an attack plan from the get go. I’m also a huge fan and was like: “Well, if it’s for Marvel, I’ll do whatever they ask us to do.” We just went ballistic — we sent them a boogie board with the Hulk, we sent them Hulk Pez Dispensers. [We were trying to say:] “Hey, we’re big fans! We're passionate. We'd love an opportunity to show you what we're capable of."
What year was that?
Jeremy: 2006/2007. Around that time. We started working with them on a number of things, on a much smaller scale than the movies. They had a pretty successful animation division that would release these feature length DVDs, cartoons, and we did titles for them. We actually did three feature quality title sequences for them: Hulk vs. Wolverine (2009), Planet Hulk (2010), Thor: Tales of Asgard (2011).
There seems to be a running theme with the Hulk, is that your favorite character?
Jeremy: By far my favorite. My dog’s name is Bixby, after Bill Bixby. There’s a little bit of a fanaticism there.
Danny: I always tell Jeremy he should direct the next Hulk movie. He really should, because there’s no other person on the planet that better understands the character. My favorite character happens to be Wolverine. So, when we got the call asking us if we want to work on the project, Hulk vs. Wolverine, I looked at him and said: “Oh my God! We’re going to pay them to work on this film!” It was a dream come true! We went to such extremes just to make it look great.
Is there a reason that you two are drawn to these characters?
Danny: Jeremy turns green when he gets angry.
Jeremy: And you have the claws!
Danny: No. But I wish I did, sometimes.
Jeremy: Part of Marvel’s appeal is that their characters are the unlikely heroes — they’re cursed or they’re flawed. And I think that’s what appeals to so many fan boys like us. Wolverine and the Hulk had this common idea that they were created in a laboratory, and that’s what Marvel wanted us to illustrate in the title sequence. So, as part of creating that, we decided to go to one. We wound up upstate New York in a research lab that was doing some pretty cutting edge stuff — from what I could tell. They let us in for a few hours to shoot these electron microscopes and atomic machines.
Danny: The lab was incredible! When we left we thought: “They are actually making super humans in this facility!” Because there was just stuff in there that was unimaginable — the technology! They only let us on certain floors, not all the floors, just some of them. It was out there!
For title sequences, how much artistic direction are you provided with?
Jeremy: So, we’ll get the film, watch it, and try to really get into the story. Then, we’ll have a great conversation with the team who put it together to understand what they want the titles to accomplish. Sometimes titles have to do little more than introduce a title card. At other times, a title sequence needs to tell a little bit of a back-story and build it up to a point where the movie can then take over. From there, we’ll craft some ideas — visual treatments, storyboards, style frames — and then Marvel will look at them. Usually they’ll like a little bit of everything. So, they’ll pick from these piles and we’ll create the final design, get a sign off, make sure everybody’s on board, and build it.
How do you guys make sure to complete the projects on time?
Danny: Schedule, for sure.
What kinds of skills does someone need to work at Perception?
Danny: Everyone here can do style frames as well as animate in 3D and 2D. Some of our team is stronger in animation than in style frames, but everybody — especially now, with the current work that we do — is a thinker.
How did you guys get to work on your first Marvel film?
Jeremy: It just happened over time. A lot of the people who we were working with on these cartoons ended up moving into Marvel Studios, which is the feature division. One in particular thought of us when they needed a small graphic for Iron Man 2 (2010). Long story short, that one graphic turned into 125 shots in the movie.
For the fans, can you explain what you did?
Jeremy: Of course! The first request was to design the Stark Expo logo animation at the very beginning of Iron Man 2, when Iron Man lands on stage and Tony comes out of the suit. There’s a huge 80ft screen behind him, which they actually shot on set, and on the screen is the Start Expo logo doing this interesting animation — that’s Perception! They needed it by the summer of 2009 while they were shooting. So, we delivered it in a week or two and they were very happy. We had heard some mumblings over the phone about one of our ideas looking really cool for something else in the movie — a [possible] glass smart phone for Tony. So, we delivered the Stark Expo logo animation, and then Danny, myself, and John (our creative director) decided to spend the weekend building a glass smart phone based on the idea they liked from our presentation. We sent it off literally that Monday. They didn’t get back to us immediately, but they did eventually get back to us, wanting us to work on the real phone in the movie. That, then, turned into Tony’s interactive glass table, and then his interactive mirror, and then all of the windows in this house, and then all the phone scenes in the film. The challenge was to make everything look like part of the same technology, STARK TECH, for which Perception became the brand advocates for. That’s what opened up the world of technology to Perception right after the movie came out.
What was your favorite thing to work on?
Jeremy: One of the things that stood out to me was designing holograms for Jarvis, because that was the most freeform, artistic and impressionistic part. We did a lot of early development on those; the main direction from Jon Favreau was to think of Tony as a modern day digital Leonardo da Vinci, painting with these holograms; anything his imagination can conceive, Jarvis can then create in this immersive environment. So that was really cool!
Danny: I think the phone was cool, because it was an achievement that we’ve reached. We took it upon our selves to do this test and, as a result, it snowballed for us from there. They’d call us and say: “Hey guys, can you design a whole graphics package for the Monaco sequence, where [Tony is] racing his race car?” And we’d be like: “Yeah! No problem!”
Jeremy: If you remember the movie, Justin Hammer is actually delivering a PowerPoint presentation in the courtroom; that’s what Tony is using his phone to hack into. We had to design the slides in the PowerPoint. It was an interesting challenge because they had to be badly designed slides, like a really boring PowerPoint presentation. So we had to get into character and make what he would design and not necessarily what we thought was good. It’s a creative process.
Danny: Working on the films, and this ties into the technology projects we work on as well, we create a personality for whoever we’re designing for. So, in the Marvel Universe, there’s a pecking order. Tony Stark has the best designed tech out there; then S.H.I.E.L.D., because Tony Stark is involved with S.H.I.E.L.D. and he gives them some of his secrets; then there’s Thor’s girlfriend, whose stuff looks interesting but also like she’s building her technologies out of Radio Shack parts and things like that. We create digital platforms that match up with the characters.
How do you design for characters that are not human, like Thor?
Danny: Well, luckily he doesn’t have a smart phone, but he’s definitely got other stuff, just not in the digital world.
Jeremy: It all comes down to storytelling. When we’re talking about technology in the film, it’s about how that technology can convey a particular moment of the story to the audience. Interfaces are now filling the movie screens, even if for brief moments. And, during these moments, the filmmakers and the writers are handing the movie off to us; we have to take it for those few seconds, make sure we continue the story line and the arc, and then give it back without the audience missing a beat. It’s a pretty big responsibility. Because technology is prevalent in every film, we are almost part of the cast, or at least the supporting cast in regard to moving the storyline forward.
Out of all the things you’ve designed that don’t exist, what would you like to have in real life?
Danny: Oh man! Jarvis — for sure.
Jeremy: We did Spider-Man’s web shooters for Captain America: Civil War (2016). At the very end, after the credits, where he’s on his web shooter and there’s a hologram of his spider sign — I wouldn’t mind having one of those!
Note* You can read Jeremy Lasky's "A Love Letter to Marvel" here.
Image: copyright Marvel | fair use image