Early in the thrill-packed sequel “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse,” the story takes a brief yet memorable detour into a dimension that resembles Lego building blocks and figures.
The clever and amusing scene, a tribute to “The Lego Movie,” was not the work of seasoned animation artists, but that of a 14-year-old fan turned professional creator living in Toronto.
Preston Mutanga, the prodigious Minnesota-born son of immigrant parents from the Northwest Region of Cameroon, had shown a flair for creativity from a young age. Forgoing the instructions for a set of Lego blocks, he built cars with his own designs.
“I also used to make comics when I was younger,” Mutanga said during a recent video interview. “Looking back at them now, they’re not the greatest, I’m not going to lie, but it was good practice for telling stories.”
In December, the teenager started a project that would change the course of his young ambitions. Using his father’s old computers, Mutanga recreated the trailer for “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” shot for shot to look as if it belonged in a Lego world.
By that point, he had been honing his skills for several years making short computer-generated Lego videos. “My dad showed me this 3-D software called Blender and I instantly got hooked on it,” he said. “I watched a lot of YouTube videos to teach myself certain stuff.”
He shared his version of the trailer online. The quality of his self-taught craftsmanship quickly gained attention and reached Phil Lord and Christopher Miller, the directors of “The Lego Movie” and two of the writer-producers of “Spider-Verse.”
After deciding to include a segment in a Lego universe, Christina Steinberg, another of the film’s producers, contacted Mutanga to ask him if he wanted to animate it.
“We found out that it was a 14-year-old kid who made it and we were like, ‘This looks incredibly sophisticated for a nonadult, nonprofessional to have made,” Miller said on a video call. “It blew us all away, including some of the best animators in the world.”
Mutanga’s supportive parents, Theodore and Gisele Mutanga, were skeptical when the production first contacted them. Not long before, their son’s YouTube channel had been hacked, so the couple was reasonably wary that a Hollywood studio was seeking their son’s talent.
But after finding the movie’s Toronto-based production designer, Patrick O’Keefe, on LinkedIn, and confirming that Sony Pictures Animation’s offer was legitimate, Theodore Mutanga, a medical physicist, built his son a new computer and bought him a state-of-the-art graphics card so he could render his work much faster.
His mother, Gisele Mutanga, a public health instructor, said, “I know Preston has a gift that was given to him by God, and once we identified that he had that gift, all we could do as parents was to nurture it and let him fly.”
Over several weeks, first during spring break and then after finishing his homework on school nights, Mutanga worked on the Lego sequence. Every other week, he would meet via video with Miller, who would check on his progress and provide detailed input.
For the young storyteller, accustomed to working alone with complete creative freedom, collaborating as part of a larger production provided eye-opening. “One new thing I learned was definitely the feedback aspect of it, like how much stuff actually gets changed from the beginning to the final product,” Mutanga said.
Miller saw Mutanga’s contribution to “Across the Spider-Verse” not only as a testament to the democratization of filmmaking, but also to the artist’s perseverance: he dedicated intensive time and effort to animation, which is “not ever fast or easy to make,” Miller said.
“‘The Lego Movie’ is inspired by people making films with Lego bricks at home,” Lord said by video. “That’s what made us want to make the movie. Then the idea in ‘Spider Verse’ is that a hero can come from anywhere. And here comes this heroic young person who’s inspired by the movie that was inspired by people like him.”
While Mutanga is still dedicated to his high school studies, his career goal of becoming a full-time animator and director feels more within reach than he or his parents might have imagined at this stage. “I adored the first movie and was so hyped for the second one, so getting to work with the people who actually made this masterpiece was honestly like a dream,” he said.