WHAT IF...? Production Designer Paul Lasaine Details Creating The Stunning Marvel Studios Series (Exclusive)

WHAT IF...? Production Designer Paul Lasaine Details Creating The Stunning Marvel Studios Series (Exclusive)

As What If...? crosses the halfway point in its first season, we sat down with production designer Paul Lasaine to talk about his stunning work on the Marvel Studios series and his overall process.

Through five episodes, What If...? has done an excellent job introducing variants of our favorite MCU characters and crafting stunning new worlds in the greater multiverse to house them. With the season now past its midway point, we sat down with the series' production designer Paul Lasaine (The Lord of the Rings trilogy; Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) to chat about some of the intense behind-the-scenes work that helped bring this show to life. 

Having recently worked on the Academy Award-winning Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, Lasaine shared how they wanted to set the series apart from that movie as well as any Marvel Animation series of the past, creating a whole new visual experience for fans. He also tells us more about crafting the different universes and the shortened amount of time he and his team had to work on the first season compared to a full-length feature film. 

Check out the full video interview below or keep scrolling for the transcript!


ROHAN: You've worked on the Lord of the Rings movies, and more recently, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Now, you're back with What If...?, which has its own unique visual style. When you're crafting these movies and shows that are almost redefining how we watch animated content, creating a new visual medium, what's typically your process?

PAUL"That’s a really good question and to be honest, I’m not even sure myself. We artists, we all have our own kind of personal taste and our own personal styles and at the same time, we’re given a directive by a director or producer. In this particular one, we want to do this show, we don’t want it to be Spider-Verse, we don’t want it to be old-school Marvel Animation, we want something different, but we’re really loving the artwork of J.C. Leyendecker and the early 20th century illustrators. That’s a great place to start out. Let’s see where that takes us and then we just start.

I know that for myself, I’m an illustrator, I’m a painter, I tend to go where I’m going to usually land just naturally and the first pass at this show actually was not where we ended up. We started out with a painting and a final look style that was way more kind of impressionistic like loose, kind of almost concept art painting style and we realized really quickly that didn’t work with the characters. The characters were this kind of J.C. Leyendecker-looking style, really hard-edged and really graphic and bold and our painting style was a little bit too loose and a little mushy in some ways, too feathery and so we said, we need to go way more modern and more graphic. Let’s try something more graphic, partly because that’s what comic books tend to be, they tend to be a lot more graphic, let’s get a lot more contrast in it - I loved the look of the noticeable brush strokes from the impressionistic style that we started out with, so let’s figure out a way to do that, but have it be more hard-edged.

One of our designers, Kristina Vardazaryan, fantastic painter, she ended up becoming our stylist for the show and kind of came up with this painting style and the two of us thought of it together, but she’s the one who figured it out and it’s this kind of graphic expressionism, that’s what I’ll call it. It’s broken color, it’s broken brushstrokes that are creating a lot of different graphic shapes inside flat shapes, but they’re really hard edged, they’re really graphic, raking lines and there’s geometric shapes in there. It’s almost kind of like a texture that goes over everything, but it’s very much infused into everything. There’s weird lines that float against objects, like everything’s got outlines that are floating against the edges, it’s all very much - there’s a formula to it, but there’s also a lot of based on taste and it’s also a way of creating a lot of detail without painting a lot of stuff, so that kind of style exploration, it’s nothing new, but you do that on every animated project, you find a cool looking style that just kind of makes sense for the storyline.

For this one, a cute kids-style TV animation didn’t seem right, we needed something with a little more gravity to it, more modern, a little more adult, so this painting style kind of came out of it. "

ROHAN: On this show, you also have the unique challenge of having to change the visual style for each episode. You lean into the past for Captain Carter, then go heavy sci-fi for T'Challa Star-Lord, and then for Doctor Strange, there's a huge horror vibe. What is it like going back to their biggest MCU moments and then turning everything on its head while trying to keep a generally consistent look and feel. 

PAUL: "The goal is to have a unified style, at the same time, like you said, we’re doing these extremely different genres, sci-fi vs. history - the Guardians of the Galaxy is clearly sci-fi, the Captain Carter might as well be a history film, could be a documentary style from World War II in the ‘40s, but in terms of that style of artwork, the goal is to have it be consistent, at the same time, we’ve got different vendors working on these different episodes, so they’re naturally going to have a little bit different look because it’s a different group of artists and I’m okay with that, I think it actually gives a certain amount of breadth to the whole project.

It doesn’t just end up all looking the same, so our Captain Carter episode, most of it was done by a studio in France, the T’Challa Star-Lord episode was done by that same studio, the third episode, the whodunnit one, was done by a studio in Quebec. The fourth episode, the Doctor Strange one, was done by a studio in Sydney, Australia, so it is a different group of artists and again, we are trying to keep it all unified and everything that they do comes back to us and we literally look at every single frame, we give notes, we send it back, we do drawovers, we fix stuff, we paint stuff, we send it back to them. I mean, we’re doing all the lead design, we design every set, we design every location, we design the color schemes, we do hundreds and hundreds of little paintings, these little movie moments to keep everybody in line, again, it’s a monstrous project. Right now, I think we’re on our fifth vendor worldwide. "

ROHAN: What is typically the timeframe for completing a project like this, from the minute you get the pitch to when you start to deliver the finished product? 

PAUL: "This project is short, let’s put it that way - this is my first TV show, I’ve worked in features my whole career and features have a luxury of having an extremely long timeline to create the stuff that you have to create. In just pure numbers, like Prince of Egypt, we were building a brand new studio at Dreamworks, I started on Day 1, I was there until the very, very end. In four years, we created an hour and a half of content, it took four years to do it.

Here, we’re doing a twenty-minute, twenty-two minute average episode, we have six weeks, per department to do this stuff, and yes, it’s taken about a little over two and a half years to do the entire season, but so think about that, the whole season, that’s about five hours of content, it’s ten episodes, almost at an half an hour in two and a half years, compare that with four years to do an hour and a half of content for a feature.

I mean, that’s just a ridiculous amount of content in an incredibly short period of time, so I usually would want to have a good four or five months of lede time to do the visual development necessary to get going, develop a style, design sets, we had one week. I had one week of lede time before I got the job, one week later, we’re in production and going. It’s crazy, it’s absolutely insane, but we did it and honestly, we had to redo a lot of stuff too because of that, but that’s just how it works. We’re also building in-studio at the same time, we didn’t have any, we just had a couple offices and some scripts. "


What If...? episodes 1-5 are now streaming exclusively on Disney+!

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