When Designing the World of ‘Nimona’ Character Came First

Long before celebrating the world premiere of “Nimona” at a hilltop castle high above Annecy, ND Stevenson devised the character out of sheer necessity. “I was an extremely depressed art student, I was 19 years old, and I was struggling,” he tells Variety

“I was really trying to find myself and figure out who I was, and Nimona was this character who kind of embodied everything I wanted to be. She was a shapeshifter, able to change her appearance with the click of a finger, and she could be anything, any person, as big as a dragon or as small as a cat.  There was really no limit to her power, and that gave me an emotional language to talk about my feelings at a time when I really needed to.”

What’s more, Nimona could travel, starting on the back of sketchbook and then to a serialized web-comic and then into publishing before charging towards a Hollywood studio gate. And as his own animation career took off, Stevenson felt ready to entrust his character to other hands – but he had certain key stipulations.

“Keeping her design was really important,” Stevenson explains. “She’s a curvy character who’s not sexualized. She’s gender nonconforming. She’s punk. She has rough edges, and I really didn’t want those to get simplified down into a more conventionally cute princess. She is a chaotic, she’s got a lot of energy and she’s loud. She’s all over the place, and that needed to come through.”

The filmmakers entrusted with the adaptation happened to agree.

“What originally drew [co-director] Nick [Bruno] and I to the project was definitely its heart,” says co-director Troy Quane. “This was a love letter to anybody and everybody who’s ever felt different or misunderstood [and] we’d return to those elements again and again. The film’s visual and artistic style had to reflect the character.”

Using the outcast as a stylistic and symbolic device, Quane and Bruno came up with a chiaroscuro visual scheme, bathing protagonists Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz) and Ballister Blackheart (Riz Ahmed) in pools of shadows when the characters felt most marginalized, and having them burst with incandescent color when feeling seen and accepted.

The directors applied a similar thematic logic when designing the film’s wider landscape, a techno-medieval world rife with turrets and towers and cantilevered architecture that’s situated squarely in the future. 

“Society has moved forward in time, embracing flying cars and giant buildings, but with a line of thinking still locked in the past,” says Quane. “It’s a culture of fear.  They’ve built ramparts to keep monsters out [that double as prison walls] locking themselves in — a gilded cage, for sure, but a cage nonetheless.”

The duo stuck with the project through ups and downs, with studio pushback from original home Blue Sky soon leading to studio collapse, and eventually found a new producer in Annapurna, a new distributor with Netflix, and a new animation house with CGI specialist DNEG Animation. And if working with a 3D studio, the filmmakers needed to maintain a certain throwback feel.

“We approached the overall design from the mindset of that feudal past,” says co-director Nick Bruno. “Troy and I love classic Disney movies like ‘The Sword and the Stone’ and the work of [‘Sleeping Beauty’ background painter] Eyvind Earle. So we wanted to keep that, we wanted the film to feel like a traditional animated story.”

Forgoing full 3D graphics, the filmmakers describe their graphic approach as “2½D,” taking designs inspired by Eyvind Earle, as well as midcentury modernist Charlie Harper, and, of course Stevenson’s original illustrations, and rendering them through high-end digital processes, hoping to lend the style a standalone voice.

“We didn’t want to go for a super smooth, fluid, CG look or to lose that graphic sensibility,” Quane explains. “We really pushed the animators to think in terms of pose to pose animation instead of relying on the graph editor, which allows the computer to sort of move you through poses in a more fluid manner, and is more common in CG.”

In keeping with the hero’s overall vibe, the directors built out a pop-punk mix-tape and designed action scenes with certain needle drops in mind. “We didn’t choreograph straight to the music,” Bruno says. “But we wanted the music to drive the action, as if these characters were listening to the soundtrack along the way. Whether sword fighting or riding a rhino, the action lands on a beat, and that brings out the musicality in such a fun way.”

With a full soundtrack – including the K.Flay original song “T.Rex” – set to drop shortly, and the film set to release later this month, what might be next for the punk shapeshifter? Might Nimona travel from notebook to paperback to… franchise? 

“From our point of view, this world is open for more stories and adventures and journeys,” says Quane. “If we find the right one, who knows where this goes. The sky’s the limit – as endless as the shapes Nimona takes.”

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