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Interview: Lead Animator Geneviève Desbiens on the Making of Marvel Studios’ ‘What If…?’

October 12, 2021Ben MK

With Halloween fast approaching, there's no doubt that many moviegoers are planning horror-themed movie marathons to celebrate the countdown to the spookiest day of the year. And if you're a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, what better way to make it a MCU-themed holiday than with the zombies of What If...? Marvel Studios' first-ever animated series, season one of What If...? has proven to be nothing short of a smash hit, answering such questions as "What if the world lost its mightiest heroes?" and "What if Thor were an only child?" But what did it take to bring the Watcher and his multiverse of infinite possibilities to life?

I caught up with Squeeze Animation Studios' Geneviève Desbiens, who served as Animation Lead on several of What If..?'s most memorable episodes, to find out the answer to that very question.

As the Animation Lead on episodes 3, 5 and 7 of What If...?, what did your role entail?

Desbiens: As a Lead Animator, there's a part of the job that’s more management-like. So when we're about to start a new sequence on a shot, you have to try to assign the shot to the animators to make sure that the fit is great. We have some animators that are better with fights and punches, and that really want to do them. So we have fun giving them the correct shots. We also have to make sure that the animators have everything they need to work, that there's nothing blocking [them]. Sometimes animation can be a little bit more technical and things can have some hiccups. So we're here to make sure that everything works nicely.

I imagine a lot of the work on What If...? was done during the pandemic. How did that affect the production and how did everyone adapt to the new normal of working remotely?

Desbiens: Yeah, it was quite a challenge. The first week of the pandemic, everyone was adjusting and trying to come up with how to communicate efficiently. Since we're not in the studio anymore, we can't just talk over our shoulder to another person. But I think that went pretty well. Especially in the animation department, most of the team have known each other for a long time. So the ambience, the feel in the team was really positive. And we succeeded keeping that team spirit all the way through the pandemic.

In general, how long did each episode take to make, from start to finish?

Desbiens: It's a couple of months each. There are characters to be 3D-modelled. After that, we get through rigging, which is putting the bones in the characters so they are able to move, and then after that it goes to animation, where we make sure that the story is being told correctly. There's also a lot of other departments that make [the final product] look the way it looks at the end, such as lighting, compositing, and things like that. [It's] a long process.

Did you have a favorite scene to work on, personally?

Desbiens: Yeah, there's a shot in the [seventh] episode where Jane and Thor are talking to each other over the phone that I really enjoyed doing. I took the part of Jane and I gave my friend [the part] of Thor. In animation, we often film ourselves doing the lines, and after that we take that as a reference to make the shot. So we each did that for our own character, and just for fun, we put the two shots together. And it was basically the two of us giggling. It was really fun to have fun, because a project like that has to be fun. You have to make the most of it.

On a similar note, was there a particular scene that was more challenging to work on than others?

Desbiens: One of the most challenging shots is in the zombie episode, where [Doctor Strange's] cape is grabbing [at Spider-Man's] hands, wrists and ankles. We had to come up with a solution about that, because animating [awkward movements] in 3D isn't always easy. So we basically had to think about what was going to happen as soon as the cape started to unroll over the wrists. We had to switch with another asset, which is like a wristband, and we had to hide a part of the cape behind the wrist. It was challenging, but the end result is great.

Were you a big fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, or comics in general, going into this? And what other films do you draw inspiration from?

Desbiens: I really liked Spider-Man, and I've watched a couple of Avengers [movies] and things like that. But being an animator, it's part of the job to become a fan of what you're going to animate. So I got myself a Disney+ subscription and I've started to watch as many movies as I could. So yeah, the more I watch them, the more I grow as a fan. And now I can say I'm a fan. I'm having fun with that universe. I personally really like cartoony stuff. So when I recently watched The Mitchells vs. The Machines on Netflix, I really found that interesting. [The animation is] really pushed to the extreme, so that's the kind of work that I would like to lean more into.

Last but not least, what advice would you give to someone hoping to break into the animation industry?

Desbiens: Just go for it. Everyone is hiring [like] crazy right now, so you just have to be passionate about it, especially at the beginning. But it's really a super job to have, so you shouldn't hesitate at all. Grab yourself Blender or something free and just watch tutorials on YouTube or something. Just try!

All episodes of Marvel Studios' What If...? are streaming now, exclusively on Disney+.

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