Netflix’s “Nimona” marks an LGBTQ breakthrough for a mainstream animated film (the trailer launches Wednesday, coinciding with the Annecy premiere and ahead of the June 30 streaming debut). Based on ND Stevenson’s best-selling queer graphic novel about the titular teen shapeshifter (Chloë Grace Moretz) in a futuristic medieval world, “Nimona” explores timely issues of identity and xenophobia. It additionally pushes 2D stylization into 3D with a uniquely illustrated look.
“Nimona” is also a minor miracle. It was rescued from the dead by Annapurna Pictures and Netflix after Disney halted production in 2021 when they shuttered Fox-owned Blue Sky Studios, where the project originated. As it was, the film’s LGBTQ themes were watered down and a same-sex kiss between bestie knights (voiced by Riz Ahmed and Eugene Lee Yang) was a cause of concern at Disney.
But former Blue Sky co-presidents Andrew Millstein and Robert Baird refused to let “Nimona” die. Together with producer Julie Zackary and directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane (“Spies in Disguise”) — who replaced original director Patrick Osborne (the Oscar-winning “Feast” short at Disney) — they met with Megan Ellison at Annapurna, who was already a fan. Then they quickly made a distribution deal at Netflix and set it up at London animation studio DNEG, where it was animated from scratch to fit their pipeline.
The directing duo went back to Stevenson’s graphic novel for inspiration in telling the story of Nimona teaming up with Ballister, Ahmed’s falsely accused knight on the run, which takes a dark turn when she’s hunted down as a monster.
“After wrapping ‘Spies in Disguise,’ we were asked to come in and just help with the story a bit,” Quane told IndieWire. “So it was March 2020 that Nick and I stepped into the director’s seat and the pandemic hit five days later. We all went home and kept making the movie. While everyone figured out how to overcome the technical hurdles and everything else, what we couldn’t overcome were the financial realities of Disney needing to shut down Blue Sky.”
Bruno added that all of these obstacles would’ve sunk the film if it were not for the compelling source material. “It’s a story about acceptance, about feeling misunderstood, and a kingdom not loving who you are,” he told IndieWire. “But I feel like everyone was so connected to those themes that they kept fighting for it, and that’s why it’s here.”
Yet “Nimona” was technically daunting. The handmade, simplified look was a cross between the mid-century illustrative styles of background artist Eyvind Earle (Disney’s elegant “Sleeping Beauty”) and minimalist wildlife artist Charley Harper. But they turned the world-building into a combination of medieval and modern that mirrored the world we live in.
“The reason why we had to pick two was Eyvind Earle had a lot more of the fluid organic language and Charley Harper was using a lot of similar conventions, but in a more geometric and simple shape base,” production designer Aidan Sugano told IndieWire. “And pretty quickly we realized that we needed that range to convey both sides of the spectrum and both sides of the character ideologies. Luckily, both [artists] were contemporaries and played in the same universe.”
But then they also had the shape language of the graphic novel to incorporate as well. This included circles for the free-form Nimona, squares for the traditionalist Ballister, and diamonds for the rigid Institute where the knights are trained. In the case of the pink-colored Nimona, her shape-shifting (rhino, whale, cat, gorilla) translated into an explosion of emotions.
“They took the shapeshift concept and pushed it to its limit,” added Sugano, “which is how we kind of got to this moment where Nimona is in such pain and turmoil.”
In terms of the animation, it was the most complex film ever attempted at Blue Sky. Fortunately, the studio’s experience on “The Peanuts Movie” proved invaluable for further 2D stylization. “That introduced some of those mixed 2D elements into the 3D universe,” Sugano said. “It’s almost like trying to strip the 3D-ness out of 3D. To go at the core, simple color shapes that are there, and then put back just enough information.”
Yet to translate the hand of the artist in the animation required a new approach at Blue Sky. “They had to break everything because the tech doesn’t give us that,” the production designer added. “It was very much a balancing act of pulling back and putting back. And you’re doing extremes with lighting: blown out versus stark shadows. The biggest challenge for this entire production was finding those solutions in that collaborative mindset to make sure that we kept as consistent as possible.”
However, it all had to be handed over to DNEG in a form of animated shapeshifting. Fortunately, the studio was no stranger to 2D stylization with Netflix’s adult animated musical series, “Entergalactic,” created by Kid Cudi.
“Unfortunately, we had to restart from square one, rebuilding different pipelines, different technologies,” Bruno said. “But Blue Sky gave a blueprint for what we were looking for, and all of that R&D that went into it, they were able to translate it and apply it with their tech. And we found the right team in DNEG to mind meld and get it into place.”