The Marvel Cinematic Universe got a lot bigger this year thanks to the ending of Loki, which gave birth to the multiverse. Now with the Sacred Timeline destroyed, time has splintered off into countless realities, and things once thought impossible are now very possible. This is the backdrop against which Marvel’s newest Disney Plus show, What If..?, is set.
An animated anthology TV series, What If…? explores the weird and wild corners of the MCU’s multiverse, with Uatu the Watcher serving as our guide. So far, What If…? has lived up to its premise showing us strange parallel worlds where the course of history has been subtly altered. Sometimes this gives rise to entire new heroes; other times, it leads to the destruction of a whole universe.
If you can imagine it, then it’s happening somewhere in the Multiverse. But with limitless possibilities for storytelling, and infinite realities to explore, you might be wondering who has the task of literally designing a new universe each week? No, it wasn’t the One Above All or The Living Tribunal who built these universes. It was two men (and their very talented teams), and we know that sounds impossible.
“I actually said it to the executive producer. I said, ‘You know, this is impossible, right?’ Given our schedule. And they’re like, yeah, we know, but we’re going to try it anyway,” Paul Lasaine tells us. Lasaine is What If…?’s production designer, a rather prosaic title for a job that’s of the utmost importance on a show like this.
You see, Lasaine, as he puts it, “is in charge of the look of the show, all the sets, all the props”. This would be a daunting enough job on a typical TV series, but one that becomes infinitely more difficult on an animated series because Lasaine and his team can’t just scout a location or buy a prop. They have to create it from nothing.
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“We’re the set designers, we are the props designers, and we are the lighting team. We are in charge of making sure everything gets deposited correctly. And when I say it’s set, designers, obviously it being an animated show you have to draw and design everything,” he explains. “We get a line of text from the script that says, and they walk into this giant cavern, and we have to design the cavern from scratch.”
The only thing that Lasaine doesn’t design is the characters (although that’s normally part of a production designer’s duties). On this project, though, that task’s been assigned to the other man responsible for the look of What If..?, Ryan Meinerding. Meinerding is a Marvel veteran, having worked on Iron Man back in 2008 and gone on to work on almost every MCU project afterwards. He’s now Marvel’s head of visual development and character design and helped create the multiverse’s denizens.
When Meinerding was first approached about the idea of doing a What If…? cartoon, he didn’t quite share his colleague’s fears that this was an impossible task. “I’ve always loved animation. I think some of my favourite memories of superheroes was watching Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, and any number of cartoons through the ‘80s and ‘90s,” he tells us. “So the idea of being able to translate some of the stuff we’ve been doing in the MCU into its animation and trying to find a look for that was yeah, it was a dream come true.”
Meinerding joked that he was so overcome with excitement for the project that he immediately started drawing as many of the characters they’d already outlined to him as he could. Of course, Meinerding faced one obstacle that Lasaine didn’t, because while Lasain had the arduous job of literally building worlds, Meinerding had to contend with blending real-life actors with What If…?’s particular art style.
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“We were working on the style at the same time we were designing characters. So I think with Peggy in particular, Brian Andrews, the director, had brought to the table the idea of looking at sort of vintage American illustrators as a starting point for the style,” he explains. “So we started looking at J.C. Leyendecker and trying to find the things that they would do to sort of create this idealised look and then make the characters look like, you know, monumental figures.”
You might not know the name J.C. Leyendecker, but you’ll recognise his work if you see it, and you can see how it’s been infused into the DNA of What If…?. Leyendecker’s sleek elegant line work has informed the characters, as his tendency to present men and women with idealised bodies. More than that you can tell that his work, specifically the style of colouring he uses, has informed the design of the backgrounds as well.
Lasaine was delighted when we mentioned this to him. “The Leyendecker style is very much infused into our characters, but we also wanted to try to get a little bit of that into the environment. So we would do a lot of the tropes that Leyendecker would do, a lot of his shape language, a lot of his proportions that would go directly into our environments,” he shares. “There’s also a bit of an illustrative quality that he’ll do with these kind of breaking strokes in his paintings. And we’re trying to get a certain amount of that in our environments that we’ve taken it to a whole different level and it’s all become its own thing.”
Of course, while the work of Leyendecker has a huge influence on What If…? There’s another, bigger, influence on the series, the MCU. “To me, so much of the series is really pulling from the MCU. It’s pulling compelling characters. It’s pulling compelling design themes,” Meinerding explains. “It’s just trying to sort of use all the things that were set up in the MCU and then and then use those ingredients to create something new.”
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Meinerding isn’t the only one who’s pulling from the movies. Lasaine explained that part of the fun of his job is actually sticking to the movies when they can. “If you’ve been really paying attention, you’ll notice there are some scenes in our show that are literally translations from the show,” he says. “I mean, editing, same camera, the same exact moment, and then we diverge.”
The divergence though is the most important part for Lasaine, who’s delighted with the way the show looks but is happy that it’s distinct from the MCU proper. “We chose a style that we thought was really cool looking and something that we’d be able to replicate for ten episodes. But it definitely doesn’t look like live-action,” he says. “But that’s what’s the point. If you’re just going to copy, literally copy them, what’s the point in even doing it? So we knew we wanted to create something a little bit different.”
Creating something a “little bit different” is ultimately What If…?’s greatest strength, and the thing that makes it so difficult to produce. It’s just so vast! As Meinerding puts it, it was tough to keep up with the rampant creativity of the writing team.
Thankfully Meinerding, Lasaine, and their teams rose to the challenge though and along with head writer A.C. Bradley, they built the Marvel Cinematic Multiverse.