WHAT IF...? Exclusive Interview With Marvel Studios Head of Visual Development Ryan Meinerding

With What If...? at the midway point of its freshman season, we recently caught up with Marvel Studios' Head of Visual Development and Character Design Ryan Meinerding to talk abotu his work on the show!

As Marvel Studios' What If...? crosses the midway point in its ongoing freshman season, we recently caught up with Head of Visual Development and Character Design Ryan Meinerding to talk about his outstanding work on the series, which features countless new looks for classic MCU characters, and his overall career at the house Kevin Feige built.

He goes into detail about his process and how he generally approaches new character designs after being enlisted by Feige and the production team, touches on how many variations he went through for the heroes on this show, and even vaguely answers a question about the hopeful Phase 4 introduction of the Fantastic Four and X-Men! 

Check out the full video interview below or keep scrolling for the transcript!

ROHAN: You've helped design so many characters throughout the years for Marvel Studios, characters that become instantly iconic and are used across all sorts of marketing. What is your process of getting the concept from Kevin Feige and then realizing it on paper. 

RYAN"It’s different on every project, for the most part, we’re involved very early. It kind of depends on what’s leading each project, whether they want to have some initial concepts in place because they feel like that’s an important component that really needs to get locked down before they can move forward with an outline or they’ll have an outline and they’ll say, ‘Let’s get going,’ it kind of depends on each project.

Sometimes individualistic keyframes are more important, in a case where we may be working on a sequel, and the characters are already sort of figured out, we might get a notion that we have to do a bunch of keyframes to really show what the next story is going to be, instead of doing a bunch of character designs. So, it’s different with every show, but it’s always pretty early.

In the case with What If, I was kind of involved very very early, essentially as Bryan was pitching the notion of using J.C. Leyendecker as the stylistic reference, I was just kind of set off drawing to figure that out, to see how we can use that reference point to create some iconic and heroic characters. "

ROHAN: With some of the original voice actors unable to return, like Captain America, Black Widow, Spider-Man, or characters like Edward Norton's Hulk, who is here subbed out with Ruffalo's version. Did you want to change up those appearances to match their MCU actor a little more than you would for some of the others where the original actor did return to voice the part?

RYAN: "A lot of the fun of this show is the idea of it being in the multiverse and the fact that you’re starting from the main MCU timeline and characters that you might know and love, but that specific sort of “What if” kicker puts you down a specific timeline that allows you to really understand that it’s something different from the MCU, so in a lot of cases, we were designing things, in the case with Doctor Strange, the what if that leads to an evil Doctor Strange.

So, the idea of being able to play off of the more MCU version of Doctor Strange versus the evil meant that the design direction became very overt and clear that we were going to have to deviate from what people know and love about the characters in order to tell that story. I think there’s specific instances, like with the Hulk, we’re trying to do the Hulk like he appeared in the Avengers and tweak the hair a little bit so it feels a little bit more like the Incredible Hulk version, but all that stuff is filtered down through most the times - what’s different in this universe as a result of that What if scenario and how can we represent that J.C. Leyendecker style and make it feel illustrative and heroic and idealized. "

ROHAN: I own a lot of the Marvel Studios art books, where we've seen so many different variations for the biggest Marvel characters, including someone like Scarlet Witch, who we've seen countless costumes for over the years until she gets the new suit in WandaVision. How many variants did you go through for each character on this show?

RYAN: "It’s interesting because if you take Doctor Strange, for example, the idea of doing an evil Doctor Strange, to me that means, “Oh, I can do 200 things with that, I can make him evil in two hundred different ways and the notion of going through that road of where the story was with him taking in other entities to become more powerful, to me, it sets in motion ten or fifteen designs that you have to really nail - you have to do those designs before the filmmakers can kind of say, “Well, it should be here,” amongst those designs and that’s sort of, you know, “How monstrous? How grotesque? How desiccated? How emaciated? How dark should the costume be? How pointy should his chin be? How evil do we really make him?,” and because he was taking in those characters, how representative of that power should his main look be, should he have tentacles around his arms?

Essentially those roads that we went down ended up becoming more useful to us, for how he appeared at the very end of that episode where he’s clearly lost control of all this power within him and can’t hold it in anymore, but yeah, all of that is to say it’s a very similar process to what we do in the films, we’re still exploring as many things as possible to sort of give the filmmakers options, feel like we have explored almost going down every avenue that we possibly can in order to allow them to make the best decision possible for what the visual is going to be. "

ROHAN: There's so much source material to draw from, nearly a century of comics and 20-30 years of Marvel movies - where do you typically draw inspiration from for your work?  

RYAN: "I kind of have to think about all of them, and I like to think I have good instincts for this stuff by now, but it’s still a process. I feel like so much of what I’m describing about doing all those different versions is a process for me too, doing the art, like if I’m working on a version of Cap or working on Peggy Carter, I can go down a road that while I’m doing that art it makes me think of three other roads to explore, then once I’ve explored those, it goes down three more, so I ended up feeling like that’s the core of the process really.

It’s trying to look at the story that they’re trying to tell, what’s going to be the most useful components of the design and then looking for whatever source of reference that executes it. Sometimes it’s stuff from the comics, in the case with What If…?, it was more usually about doing a derivation of stuff from the MCU films and tweaking it to match the story, run it through the Leyendecker style and essentially just pitch ideas that exist within those realms. "

ROHAN: I know you probably can't say anything, but have you already been approached for Marvel's future plans with Spider-Man, the X-Men, and the Fantastic Four?

RYAN: "*smiles* I’m sorry, I can’t really speak to that. I think we’re continuing to work on What If…?, and I’m excited about the future of the multiverse and just seeing - For me, I don’t know the plans of where everything is going to go really, I know some things, but within the context of the multiverse, it just has such limitless possibilities that I’m excited to see where it all goes. "

What If...? episodes 1-5 are now streaming exclusively on Disney+!

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