Much like its rebellious, shapeshifting lead, Nimona doesn't look quite like anything we've seen before in animation.
The film, which introduces us to a futuristic medieval kingdom, adapts ND Stevenson's award-winning graphic novel of the same name. Notably, it does not adapt his hand-drawn art style, opting instead for a 3D CG approach with its own distinctive 2D stylings. But just because the film doesn't look exactly like Stevenson's work doesn't mean it wasn't a huge inspiration to everyone who worked on it.
"The graphics or look of [Nimona] is throwing a nod to the graphic novel, this idea of medieval and future. We're doing a CG movie, but keeping a traditional execution style," Nimona director Troy Quane told Mashable in a video call alongside co-director Nick Bruno.
If anything, the act of bringing Stevenson's comic to the screen proved a thrilling task for the film's animators. "I had seen the graphic novel, which is amazing, and I genuinely wanted this challenge of somehow translating but maintaining that graphic novel quality throughout the film," VXF supervisor Archie Donato told Mashable in a video call alongside animation director Ted Ty. Both Donato and Ty work at DNEG Animation, the studio that brought Nimona to life. "That was one of the most exciting things as a VFX supervisor, to really make those images feel like you're flipping through the book."
To develop the visual concept for Nimona, the film's production designers Aidan Sugano and Jeff Turley started out by focusing on Nimona the character (voiced by Chloë Grace Moretz). "That was the most important thing," Bruno told Mashable. "Talking to ND, [Nimona] is where the heart of the comic started. Knowing Nimona tells you what the rest of the world is."
As Sugano and Turley fleshed out Nimona, the rest of the kingdom came into focus. Nimona presents a realm that is fearful of monsters, so that shaped everything from the walls around the kingdom to the pro-knight, anti-monster propaganda on every building. "Every single thing is informed by what Nimona is," said Bruno.
According to Donato, the production design team became "interpreters of how to interpret [Stevenson's] novel into this 3D image." To interpret Stevenson's work, the film moved away from photorealism, foregoing shading techniques like ambient occlusion and steering clear of realistic reflections or refractions. "We wanted to make everything stylized to maintain that kind of whimsical and magical quality to this world," Donato said.
He added, "Basically, here's what I told my team: 'Forget everything you've known until this film and start over, because we are not going to use any of the techniques we normally use to make a film.'"
Every decision made throughout the animation process for Nimona had to address the film's themes of acceptance and getting to know someone for who they truly are. Bruno, Quane, and Sugano discuss some of these decisions and their significance in the following featurette, a Mashable exclusive:
One of the most fascinating visual techniques on display in Nimona is the film's use of atmospheric perspective, where backgrounds fade away and become less detailed to create the illusion of depth. On the one hand, this serves as a nod to Stevenson's Nimona, where backgrounds and any heavy amounts of detail are often implied. However, it also points to the film's key messages.
"The closer we let someone get to us, the more details we get to see, and what makes them unique. The further we push people away, the more they just become this general idea of what they are, like a generic version," explained Quane. "So we would do that in the look of the movie. Elements that are closer to us, you get to see all the details. The further they are away from us, the more they're just implied."
Elsewhere, Nimona's team used shapes and lighting to convey characters' attitudes towards acceptance. Shadowed characters were less accepting than characters standing in the light. The rigid diamond shapes used throughout the Institute contrast with the more fluid images of Nimona's transformations. As Ty revealed, these choices carried down even to the smallest detail, like the reflection in a character's eye, called a specular or an eye ding.
"The shape language of each character is actually reflected in the shape of their eye dings," Ty told Mashable. "So if you look carefully at their specs, they actually are the shape that the character is represented by. Ballister is very square, Nimona is triangular. Those carry throughout the film."
"We're always coming back to the idea of Nimona," said Quane of the visuals, "and what story we're trying to tell with her."
Nimona is now streaming on Netflix.(opens in a new tab)