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Nick Kondo Swings From Games to the Big Screen With Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

When the first trailer for Sony Pictures Animation’s upcoming feature Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse debuted in early June, the reaction was unanimous. Whether it was Polygon hailing its “incredible art style,” GQ opining that “the animation on this movie is ridiculous, and not quite like anything you’ve seen before,” or The Verge gushing over its “absolutely gorgeous” visuals, everyone seemed to agree  — the film looks amazing.

“It is super exciting to see everybody’s reaction to it, because I agree!” says 2003 DigiPen graduate, former DigiPen animation professor, and current Sony Pictures animator Nick Kondo (@nickkondosart). “What I’m hoping is that this movie could change the way animated movies are made in the future — or almost create a new subgenre in animated features.”

Indeed, much of the excitement over the film’s look is because it marks a dramatic departure from dominant computer-animated film styles. By mixing the visual language of traditional comic book art with 3D graphics, Sony Pictures Animation has created a dynamic hybridized style.

That Into the Spider-Verse’s stylistic gambit is generating universal praise from critics and fans alike is only icing on the cake for Kondo, who was celebrating the film last year for a very different reason. After a 15-year career in the game industry, it will be the first animated feature film he has worked on, thus fulfilling one of Kondo’s lifelong professional goals.

Nick Kondo

“I would’ve worked on anything! As long as it was going to end up in a theater, I didn’t care,” Kondo says. “In a way I feel like I sort of hit the lottery in that the first film I’m ever going to have worked on is going to be something so awesome.”

Kondo first fell in love with film after seeing 1993’s Jurassic Park, which along with Terminator 2: Judgement Day, was one of the earliest Hollywood movies to utilize computer generated imagery. Combined with his love of “magic, illusion, cartoons, and drawing,” he decided to jump into DigiPen’s digital art and animation program — at the time offered as a two-year associate degree. After graduating in 2003, Kondo and five of his fellow classmates took job offers at Nintendo — located in the same building as DigiPen’s former Redmond campus — and began working as “generalists,” utilizing their wide range of skills in modeling, texturing, rigging, animating, and concept art. That same year, he and a fellow DigiPen classmate saw an exciting opportunity to break into film through a job opening at LucasArts’ visual effects company, Industrial Light and Magic. It was an animation job for Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith.

“We got turned down,” Kondo says, “but I grew up playing Nintendo. So it wasn’t a big loss to me that Nintendo hired me instead of getting into film. I was pretty excited about that.“

Kondo found himself working on titles like 1080° Avalanche for the GameCube and Metroid Prime Hunters for the Nintendo DS.

Soon, more and more opportunities to work in the game industry started appearing. “The jobs just kind of kept coming in,” Kondo says. “When you graduate with a group of people who are very talented, people were just constantly coming to each other saying, ‘Hey, we need people over here!’ There were always exciting jobs.”

The film centers around an alternate version of Spider-Man, Miles Morales, who made his comic book debut in 2011.

When the Xbox 360 came out, Kondo saw an opportunity to work with higher-fidelity graphics, so he took a friend’s recommendation to work on Monolith Studio’s 2005 horror game Condemned: Criminal Origins. Excited about the work, Kondo stayed at Monolith to later work on Condemned 2: Bloodshot and survival horror game F.E.A.R. 2: Project Origin. Kondo scratched his film itch at Monolith by starting to specialize in high-quality cinematics, a direction that seemed even more promising after Warner Bros. bought the studio.

“It was exciting because we were going to work on big-name IPs,” Kondo says. “We were going to work more closely with L.A. and I felt it moving me in the direction I wanted to go. And in many ways it did. I had some experiences that were really awesome.”

As time went on, however, studio layoffs — combined with a disheartening start-stop production cycle — started to weigh on him. “I was ready for something new,” Kondo says. After trying out two years at a smaller game studio, Kondo decided to shift directions and come back to DigiPen, this time as an animation professor for the junior cinematic project courses. During his third year at DigiPen, Kondo advised the team that would go on to make the award-winning student film Adija ­— a project that inspired him to change course once again. “They were working super hard doing really awesome stuff, and almost every day I’d go, ‘Man, I wish I was working on this project with them!’” Kondo says.

Miles' expressive police officer dad Jefferson also features heavily into the film.

Reinvigorated by his students, Kondo laid out a two-year plan to finally break into film. Returning to his job at Monolith during the day, he started spending 20-25 hours a week at night working on his film reel, which, as fate would have it, recruiters from Sony Pictures Imageworks stumbled upon last year.

“They reached out and asked me to move to Vancouver, B.C., to work on Spider-Man,” Kondo says. “It feels like I’ve been waiting my whole life to work on something like this. I was really into Spider-Man and comics as a kid. The plan worked out better than I thought! Every day I’m like, ‘This is awesome. I can’t believe I’m doing this … that they’re paying me to do this!’”

Today, Kondo spends his days working in a studio with comic book drawings “plastered everywhere” serving as constant reference material for the film’s dynamic style. Meanwhile, animation fans online have pored over Into the Spider-Verse’s trailer footage, pointing out its innovative infusion of comic book-style halftone shading, chromatic aberration, and thought bubbles into 3D.

As the film’s December 14 release day approaches, fans are continuing to follow the various teasers and announcements with zeal. One tidbit members of DigiPen’s Nicolas Cage-loving “Cage of the Week” student club will be excited to know, is that the famous actor is voicing a character in the film.