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Marvel’s What If…? Crew Discusses Key Elements In Character Designs

The fourth episode of Marvel’s What If…? is now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Malaysia. I’ll be discussing heavy spoilers so if you haven’t seen it or want to avoid spoilers, now’s your chance to stop reading.

Marvel’s What If…? features fan-favourite characters, including Peggy Carter, T’Challa, Doctor Strange, Killmonger, Thor and more. The new series, directed by Bryan Andrews with AC Bradley as head writer and Brad Winderbaum as an executive producer, explores hypothetical stories in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

It focuses on non-canonical stories like what happens if Peggy Carter became Captain Britain and if T’Challa/Black Panther was abducted by the Ravagers instead of Peter Quill/Star-Lord.

You can check out my previous breakdown of Marvel’s What If…? Episode 1 here, Episode 2 here, Episode 3 here. and Episode 4 here.

Courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar Malaysia, we were also recently lucky enough to be the only Malaysian media to participate in a roundtable interview with Marvel’s What If…? Executive Producer Brad Winderbaum, Head Writer AC Bradley, and Director Bryan Andrews. You can check out that interview by heading over here.

Courtesy of Disney+ Hotstar Malaysia, we were lucky enough to participate in a roundtable interview with Marvel’s What If…? Editors Graham Fisher and Joel Fisher, Animation Supervisor Stephan Franck, and Head of Visual Development and Character Design Ryan Meinerding. This interview has been edited for clarity.

What was it like to work together again with AC Bradley on Marvel’s What If…? after working with her on Trollhunters and 3Below: Tales Of Arcadia?

Graham Fisher: It was pure pleasure. She is a brilliant writer that brings a lot of heart to her scripts. So my favourite episodes on Trollhunters, which is of course the Guillermo Del Toro show. Some of her episodes were my favourites and it wasn’t her episode entirely; it was her scene, some of my favourite moments.

So, when she called and said, “I’m over at this thing for Marvel and they love what I did on those (Trollhunters, etc.). So you know, we were all excited to work together again.

Marvel’s What If…? is your first MCU project. What’s different about the experience of working on something like the MCU compared to your past projects?

Joel Fisher: That’s a great question. Past projects aside, basically what I would say about Marvel Studios is that it’s filled with incredibly kind, compassionate and intelligent people and storytellers. It’s pretty phenomenal having this immense back catalogue of stories that have been, you know, some of the biggest films of all time.

Is there a giant ego behind it all? No, there isn’t. There are just these beautiful, kind people. They’re just enjoying what they do and trying to serve the fans. It’s been an immense privilege working with them in that way, but also an incredible learning experience.

(Center L-R): Bucky Barnes, Captain Carter/Peggy Carter, Dum Dum Dugan and the Howling Commandos in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

Were there any episodes or ideas you had to scrap for whatever reasons?

Graham Fisher: There are so many more ideas. The ideas are limitless. The writers, in conjunction with the studio and our director and executive producer Bryan Andrews, and of course, Brad Winderbaum, all pitched a list of ideas to Kevin Feige and he would basically cherry-pick which stories to tell, for now.

Joel Fisher: But even beyond that, beyond the story side, it’s also interesting how Bryan Andrews, our director, has boarded up the biggest and best Marvel movies and their scenes. See, he has this grab bag. Not only is there this immense set of stories, he also has all these incredible action setpieces that either didn’t make it to one movie or another or that he’s boarded and thought about.

And he’s like, “Ooo, there’s this thing, this incredible thing that this person does to this thing!”. And you go through his grab bag of ideas and you go like, that’s amazing, that’s amazing, I can’t believe, where did that come from. So, yeah, there’s the story grab bag of potential but there’s also all the incredible action that we can continue building on as well in the future.

Stephan Franck: There was nothing that we couldn’t do or any sort of weird rules or anything like that. You know, there’s only so many episodes in a season and there’s a lot of ideas, so there are other ideas that I can’t talk about because maybe we’ll use them later. But you know, so far the idea is really to revisit some crucial and integral moments of the MCU, of those movies and find those forks in the road that would lead to a different direction, a different choice being made, a different happenstance. It would mean something deep for our understanding of this character and how they understand themselves.

Do you have any favourite episodes from the first season of Marvel’s What If…? that you enjoyed the most, and can you tell us why without spoilers?

Joel Fisher: I think this week’s (Marvel’s What If…? Episode 4 featuring Doctor Strange Supreme) is one of them for me, personally. But there’s also a pretty funny one coming up later in the season that I really, really enjoyed working on. They’re all great, that’s the thing, for whatever mood you’re in.

Graham Fisher: Episode 2 is probably one of my favourites. It just started off with so many great ideas, it’s such a funny episode but also so heartfelt. I think it’s also got that fun sort of heist genre going on too. That, I had a lot of fun working on. But there are a lot more flavours coming your way. It’s gonna be great!

Stephan Franck: I love them all because they’re all great at finding their own way. They’re like my children, I love all my children, you know. I’m interested in seeing which one you will like most because I know those things, I’m so close to all of them. Seeing which one resonated the most with people when the season is over will be a great treat for us.

T’Challa/Star-Lord in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

How did you decide on the unique 2.5D animation style of What If in the first place?

Stephan Franck: We went for a look that would pull together the comic book influences that are in the DNA of these stories and our massive love of movie and cinema filmmaking, and to try and bring this together and elevate this for animation that’s not seen before, so that’s why wen went to this style of classic illustration like J. C. Leyendecker and all that stuff, which brings a taste of sophistication into the mix that we thought was kind of wonderful, new and exciting.

Would you ever go for perhaps a different animation style for special episodes in the future?

Stephan Franck: I don’t want to spoil anything, but I think what we’re trying to do is to tell the story in the most powerful way possible and the most affecting way possible. That’s the beauty of Marvel’s What If…?, there’s no sense of “this is allowed, this is not allowed”. We’re just trying to explore these characters in ways you’ve never seen before and present their world in ways you’ve never seen before. We’ll do whatever it takes.

What can you tell us about the advantages of animation over live-action?

Stephan Franck: I think it’s a different point of view. There are beautiful photo portraits of people, there are beautiful painting portraits of people, they’re all valid and they’re all see-through. I think art is seeing past the literal and getting to the truth of something. Every medium is its own kind of poetry and sees the truth in a different way. I think that is the beauty of all this stuff.

Animation will bring out certain emotions in ways that I couldn’t even verbalise what they are. Again, it’s just like a painted portrait, there are great photographers and there are great painters. Both of them see different things and say different things about the world. It’s all about points of view on the world and seeing how it’s all different, as well as seeing how it’s all the same.

(Center): Queen General Ramonda in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

What went into the process of designing each of these characters, like Captain Carter and Doctor Strange Supreme, since they’re not based on anything from the comics?

Ryan Meinerding: Essentially, we have an embarrassment of riches in the MCU. Looking at the MCU, we have a lot of cool stuff to base our design direction and design themes on. Essentially, we were looking at the MCU quite a bit. That first episode with Captain America And The First Avenger, starting with Peggy has been such an amazing character and finding ways to turn her into a hero.

Essentially, we’re dealing with variations and versions of some of the design themes that we worked into the Captain America costumes. Realistically, we’re just trying to find a look that makes her feel as powerful of a character as she really is.

Specifically, with Doctor Strange, it’s one of the fun parts of this show. The main timeline of the MCU that everyone knows and how Doctor Strange looks in the live-action films is a really strong starting point. And because that sort of What If…? scenario takes us on a very specific route, having that sort of version to start with and a place we know we’re going to go with him being evil means that we have some really fun things to bounce off of.

That type of design direction from a person who works in film and who works in creating characters and designs for storytelling means that I have so many great; those are the type of things that feel decisive and that I can really sink my teeth into.

To say, If I’m going to do 10 different versions of an evil Strange, what is he going to look like? How can I make them different and how can I show them and get notes from the director and say, you know, this is one I’m excited about. What do you guys think and help them pick one that’s the one that they go with.

To say, very succinctly, it’s an embarrassment of riches to start with the MCU as a design starting point and then, to create What If…? scenarios just goes down very compelling roads that you can base so many great ideas on.

Have doing designs for What If…? changed how you design future characters in the MCU moving forward?

Ryan Meinerding: One of the fun components of doing animation design is designing the whole character. You design the face, you design the head, the body proportions. I had a lot of fun doing that for some of the digital characters we do for the live-action films, like Thanos and the Hulk.

Hulk/Bruce Banner in Marvel Studios’ WHAT IF…? exclusively on Disney+. ©Marvel Studios 2021. All Rights Reserved.

In terms of taking anything forward (from animation), I’d like to think so. I’d like to think that the idea of being able to work on design silhouettes and being really iconic with the shapes we’re going for means that I can try and bring some of that into the live-action world.

Realistically, a lot of the same way that I look at the live-action stuff is the same way that we looked at the What If…? stuff. It may not change that much, but I think I have a more broad understanding of character and a more broad understanding of the possibilities where we can go with the animated things.

But also, I think the thing for me to take forward is really maybe the same thing that the audience would be able to take forward, is seeing these characters in a different light and going through different paths enriches your understanding of each character a little bit more so that the next time we get to work on Doctor Strange or the next time we get to work on any of the characters, that you really have a better understanding of who they really are and how to represent them visually.

In the meantime, you can also check out our spoiler-free review of the first three episodes of Marvel’s What If…? here. New episodes of Marvel’s What If…? premiere every Wednesday at 3 pm GMT+8 on Disney+ Hotstar Malaysia.

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