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Minnesota native helps bring the 'Spider-Verse' to life

December 17, 2018

For the better part of the last quarter century, Tony Siruno has played a hand in bringing some of the most memorable animated characters in recent memory to life.

 

As a character designer, the Minnetonka native and Hopkins High School graduate, has created characters for “How to Train Your Dragon,” “Kung

Fu Panda,” “The Secret Lives of Pets,” and “Smurfs: The Lost Village.” He also spent three years in the mid-'90s cutting his teeth as a character layout artist on “The Simpsons.”

 

But it's Siruno's latest effort that is drawing rave reviews and allowing him to live out a childhood dream – “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.”

 

The Sony Pictures Animation production is receiving rave reviews (97% on Rotten Tomatoes), big box office numbers ($35+ million opening weekend), and is garnering a ton of awards consideration (Golden Globe nominations, six Annie Award nominations, and an Oscar nomination is presumed to be forthcoming).

Spider-Ham (John Mulaney) Peter Parker (Jake Johnson), Spider-Gwen (Hailee Steinfeld), Spider-Man Noir (Nicolas Cage), and SP//DR in Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.)

“I've always wanted to work on a superhero movie,” he said. “When I was over at DreamWorks we worked on 'Megamind,' which was a superhero movie, but it wasn't a comic book movie.”

 

“A lot of my friends work over at Marvel on the big movies, doing storyboarding and concept design. I was always jealous because I was like, 'I'd love to work on a Spider-Man movie.'”

 

After returning to Sony after a year at Paramount, Siruno saw the studio's slate, and let the powers-that-be know he'd like to work on their Spider-Man movie. Unfortunately, a team was already in place. But a year later, he was asked if he'd like to fill in for 6-7 months. He jumped at the opportunity.

 

“Finally I can cross that comic book movie, and Spider-Man movie, off my bucket list,” he said. “I was super excited … it was like a dream come true in a sense.”

 

Ideally, he said, he would have been able to tackle one of the many versions of Spider-Man featured in “Spider-Verse” – the film includes a Miles Morales version, a Peter Parker version, Spider-Man Noir, Spider-Woman/Spider-Gwen, Spider-Ham, and another surprise or two.

 

Alas, those characters were spoken for, leaving him to design other pivotal characters like SP//DR, Uncle Aaron, and villains Scorpion and Prowler. Those characters, like all of those featured in the movie, are completely different from anything you've seen in a Spider-Man or animated comic book movie.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.)

 

“When I think about where we were a couple years ago to where we are today … it's a technical marvel,” he said. “We stuck to the vision.”

 

“I've worked on many projects where the mandate is 'we're doing something that no one's ever seen before, and you're like, 'oh, I've heard that one before,'” he continued. “But this is the first time people said 'no, we're actually doing something we've never done before.'”

 

That vision was to make the drawings look as much like an actual comic book as possible, something Siruno said isn't commonplace because comic book animation is oftentimes considered too “stiff” in comparison to the work being done by Disney, Pixar, DreamWorks, etc.

 

The end result is a movie that feels very unique, but at the same time very familiar. As Siruno says, it's very much “a love letter to comic books.”

 

For Siruno, who grew up reading comics – namely Spider-Man and Batman – it was a nice change from the new norm, adding that he tips his hat to the creative powers that envisioned the film and stuck to their guns.

 

Siruno's path to Spider-Man started when he was young – balancing his hockey schedule, school work, and artistic endeavors. After graduating, he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where he majored in journalism.

 

At the same time he was working on a TV show in Edina as a production assistant, where he also took on many duties on the show's artistic design side. Eventually, the people on the production side of things started steering him toward art, something he said he'd never considered before.

Miles Morales (Shameik Moore) Columbia Pictures and Sony Pictures Animation's “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse.” (Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation © 2018 CTMG, Inc. All Rights Reserved. **ALL IMAGES ARE PROPERTY OF SONY PICTURES ENTERTAINMENT INC. FOR PROMOTIONAL USE ONLY. SALE, DUPLICATION OR TRANSFER OF THIS MATERIAL IS STRICTLY PROHIBITED.)

 

The renewed interest in art led him to animation conventions in the Twin Cities, where he met Bloomington native Peter Docter, whose writing and/or directing credits now includes the “Toy Story” series, “Monsters, Inc.,” “WALL-E,” “Up,” and “Inside Out,” the latter two he also directed and won Best Animated Feature Oscars for.

 

Docter convinced Siruno that if he wanted to be an animator, he needed to get to California. More specifically, he needed to get enrolled at the California Institute of the Arts.

 

“It was a bit of a fight with the parents because I was less than half of a year from graduating,” he said. “But because of the way registration was, because of my last name, I was always at the very end of registration and couldn't the classes I needed to graduate on time … it was very frustrating.”

 

“Reliving the words of Peter Docter, I had to find a way to get to Cal Arts,” he said, adding that he applied that year and getting in on his first try. “Moving to California was the best thing ever.”

 

Siruno says his father, Dr. Eugenio Siruno, was always his biggest cheerleader, while his mother, Babbie, really wanted him to follow in his father's footsteps to become a doctor. But now, after seeing him become successful doing something he loves, she's right there cheering him on.

 

Before leaving for California, he said, they gave him a pep talk, telling him he had to give 110 percent because he seemed very passionate about it. Those words have stuck with him ever since.

 

“In the end, those words hearken back, and I still try to live by them.”