If the name Perception sounds familiar to you, maybe it’s because of this? But even if you know their work, you might not know that this Emmy-nominated VFX team doesn’t just create work for TV and film—their reach is a little longer than that. For example, you might not know that they crafted the main-on-end (MOE) title sequence for the critically acclaimed Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 video game.
The game tells the story of two protagonists—Peter Parker and Miles Morales—who must work together to stop the villains threatening New York City. It’s quickly become one of the PS5’s fastest-selling games of all time, outshining the two previous Spider-Man titles in terms of both quality and scale. And going in, the team at Perception knew it wasn’t just the game devs who had to bring their A-game.
Web-slinging through the Spider-Verse
Spider-Man 2 isn’t Perception’s first foray into the Spider-Verse. Way back in 2016 for Captain America: Civil War, they created the Spidey Signal.
But their collaboration with Marvel goes even further back to 2009, when the team designed the iconic helmet interface seen in the movie Iron Man 2. They also updated Marvel’s studio intro and have designed a staggering amount of futuristic technology used by both their heroes and villains. They also delivered the amazing handmade title sequences for Spider Man: Far From Home and Spider Man: No Way Home.
So it’s hardly surprising that Insomniac Games, in conjunction with Marvel and PlayStation Studios, offered Perception the chance to work on Spider-Man 2, even though video games weren’t part of the team’s portfolio.
“We’d done some game work before,” says Eric Daly, Director of Productions at Perception, “but it was behind the scenes or for early narrative development. Companies usually ask us to help build out their worlds or figure out their imaginary technology. Spider-Man 2 is the first time our handiwork has shipped out with a game. It’s pretty exciting.”
Spider-Man 2 is the first time our handiwork has shipped out with a game.
Video games: a new frontier
Perception was brought in roughly five months before the game’s deadline to ship. The team essentially had three clients they had to work with: Insomniac, the game developer, PlayStation Studios, the publisher, and Marvel, the IP owner. All three companies are major industry powerhouses and they each had their own ideas about how the MOE should look.
Perception’s first step was to have a conversation with the teams at Insomniac and PlayStation. That’s because Perception prides itself on having a “story-first” way of thinking. They apply it to all of their projects and it’s perhaps the main reason for their continuing success.
Whether they’re designing a futuristic computer console or a stylish title sequence, Perception always works with its clients to find an in-universe problem or plot that needs to be solved. Then, the team works to find a satisfactory solution or story resolution. In some cases, the company will even turn down a prospective project if they cannot identify a problem or a plot to build their story around.
Luckily, the problem that Spider-Man 2 needed solving was obvious: an alien symbiote named Venom. Venom is infecting New York City with his dark powers, and the Spider-Men (Spider Mans?) have to break free from his sinister influence. After some discussion, Perception zeroed in on three magic words that would help them build out their MOE: infestation, transformation, and liberation.
Science fiction thinking
The design process for Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 was different from Perception’s previous work. “You can watch a two-hour movie and know everything about that world,” explains Doug Appleton, Perception’s Chief Creative Director, “but a video game is a twenty-plus hour experience. And the game wasn’t even in a state where we could play it before we started designing its title sequence.”
Since they couldn’t preview the game, Perception had to reach out to Insomniac to learn about the game’s plot. “They gave us clips and storyboards,” explains Daly. “Those helped us piece the story together. Then, we spoke with their narrative team to fill in the holes.”
“We’d ask them questions like, ‘Hey, Harry looks mad. What’s happening here?’” adds Appleton. “We also spoke to their art and creative directors to learn as much about the world as we could.” By speaking directly to the game creators, Perception was able to sense how the game’s plot was going to develop.
Armed with information, Perception was ready to start brainstorming. They had a lot of different ideas for how the MOE could look. “We usually pitch a spectrum of ideas and visual styles,” explains Daly. “It’s not very often where we pitch to a studio and they say, ‘That’s it! Go make that idea exactly.’ Clients usually pick a bit of everything.”
Clients usually pick a bit of everything.
One idea that Perception pitched was a video showing black tendrils of ink slowly spreading through water. It reminded everyone of Venom’s amorphous, liquid-like form. The clients believed the tendrils would look evocative if placed next to Spider-Man’s brightly colored suit. Eventually, the teams settled on a fusion of two different ideas: a graphic, painterly style for the Spider-Men mixed with smoky tendrils that would slowly invade New York City as the MOE unfolded.
“We liked the idea of good versus evil and paint versus ink,” Appleton says. “That image tied together the theme of infestation, transformation, and liberation.”
Crafting the MOE from the ground up
With a theme in hand, Perception’s next step was to pencil out storyboards. “We drafted and presented around 100 boards,” laughs Appleton. “There’s a whole other title sequence of unused ideas.”
Their biggest hurdle was the MOE’s length and the huge number of credited names involved. It’s challenging enough for a film’s credit sequence—which is typically around two minutes long and around thirty names—but Spider-Man 2’s MOE runs for five-and-a-half minutes and has over 800 names. So Perception had to figure out how to build their sequence with the same time and staff they reserved for feature films, and in only thirty shots.
They found the solution in camera movement. Perception built Spider-Man 2’s MOE around the idea of a camera that swivels around a static scene. It’s a bit like the bullet time shots from The Matrix, but with even more extreme camera moves. In most of the shots, Perception’s camera starts close on a character and then pulls out multiple times to reveal more and more of the scene. Each time the camera moves, it reveals information that changes the story.
“We discovered that if we moved the camera, we could get thirty seconds out of a single shot,” says Appleton. “Typically, a movie MOE only wants to hold on the same shot for five seconds max.”
Once the four teams settled on a shot list, it was time for Insomniac and PlayStation Studios to hand over the assets. Fortunately, the in-game assets for every character were already modeled and rigged in Maya. “That was huge,” remarks Appleton. “If we had to rebuild those characters from scratch, it would have never gotten done.”
For rigging, the team considered bringing the Maya models into Cinema4D, where Perception does 99% of its work. “We realized that was a nightmare,” says Appleton. “Why would we re-rig something that was already right?”
Instead of redoing the whole thing, Perception used Maya for posing characters and laying in the camera motion. Once those rigs were approved, they were brought into Cinema 4D for lighting and texture. All of the final compositing and output was done through After Effects.
But they still had a lingering problem in the sequence’s 800 names. Perception realized they couldn’t possibly deal with all those names with the resources they had. Instead, they hired an artist skilled in procedural After Effects scripting to build a spreadsheet that could auto-populate any credit changes that came in at the last minute.
“We knew it would cripple us late in the game if we had to manually go through and search for names,” says Daly. “With the spreadsheet, all we had to do was relaunch the project to update the names. That saved us a mountain of headaches!”
The secret to success
Perception attributes their success to clear and constant communication at every stage of the design process. They insist on weekly client meetings to keep everyone in the loop over the course of an ongoing project. But they also had a secret weapon in Insomniac’s creative director, Davison Carvalho.
Carvalho is a Perception alum. He worked there as a freelance artist, lending a hand to create the Spidey Signal that put the company on the Marvel path in the first place. Throughout the Spider-Man 2 process, Carvalho used his artistic skill to translate Marvel’s production notes. He frequently drew or painted over Perception’s storyboards to give them a visual of what the clients at Marvel wanted.
“He didn’t just come at us with an email full of written notes,” says Daly. “If you show me an image, that means I am fully on board. Now, I know what I’m supposed to do.”
Cutting to the beat (or not)
One final piece was missing from the puzzle: music. Because Spider-Man 2’s MOE track was developed alongside the visuals, Perception didn’t get to hear the music they were cutting to until they were halfway through their process. Instead, Insomniac shared clips and beats that allowed Perception to understand the mood and pace of what they were dealing with.
Luckily, they weren’t required to cut exactly on a drumbeat or have their visuals sync up to a specific rhythm. Perception designed their MOE for movement and storytelling, and that allowed the plot to evolve and breathe as it went along. “We knew what the basic pace of the song was,” Daly explains, “and we matched that to the way the camera was moving.”
Surprisingly, the Perception team hadn’t even seen their finished MOE yet. “We don’t usually see the final version of anything until we’re sitting in the theater,” Daly reveals. “We know what the music track is, but when we see it after the movie, we notice subtle differences. There may be a cymbal hit or something else that wasn’t there before. But that makes it exciting. The changes make the tone fit what we did a little better.”
Video games, TV, and movies
Perception fully believes in the player-based future of media. “Video games have the same artistic merit as movies and TV shows,” Appleton says. “They’re interactive storytelling. Games put you in the character’s shoes and let you make the decisions. I’m all for games being the next medium that that film tries to translate.”
There does seem to be a growing synergy between movies, TV, and video games. Theaters and streaming platforms are chock full of films based on video games, from The Last of Us to Sonic the Hedgehog. Video games themselves have also come into their own as a cinematic medium. Hollywood stars have been lending their talents to games for years: Guillermo del Toro, Mads Mikkelsen, and Norman Reedus starred in 2019’s Death Stranding, for example, and Game of Thrones writer George R.R. Martin created most of the mythology behind 2022’s Elden Ring. No matter how you cut it, video games and filmmaking seem to be converging.
“Look at the interactive Black Mirror episode ‘Bandersnatch’,” says Alex Gutierrez, Perception’s Production Coordinator. “That’s going in the other direction. It’s the gamification of TV.”
Is there more gaming in Perception’s future? The team seems to think so. Although their work on video games up to this point has been development-only, Perception hopes Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 will make their influence more visible.
“We would love to work on more games,” says Daly. “We’ll just have to see who comes knocking on the door.”