Why the animated feature Nimona could not have been achieved without compositing

Also, the scene that almost gave one of the film’s VFX supervisors a heart attack.

A trademark of the CG animated Nimona from directors Nick Bruno and Troy Quane is its graphic and stylized look.

This was directly informed by the graphic novel by ND Stevenson which follows the exploits of a shape-shifting character.

For DNEG Animation, the animation studio behind the film (which took over animation duties from Blue Sky Studios when the film moved from a 21st Century Fox release to a Netflix one), this meant implementing a number of changes to its workflow and tools, principally the way it handled rendered layers in compositing.

Here, DNEG visual effects supervisor Archie Donato takes befores & afters through the approach to Nimona, from the way it handled compositing, to adding FX-simulated action lines, and other techniques that aided in inputting stylization (even when one request gave Donato a near self-described ‘heart attack’).

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b&a: Knowing that this needed a stylized approach to the film, what did you need to do at DNEG to change any workflows or ready yourselves for this approach?

Archie Donato: It really changed the game for us overall at DNEG. When I joined them, they were working on Ron’s Gone Wrong, which was the first really full-sized animated film that they completed as a studio. It was more of a traditional CG-looking film. It wasn’t really ‘pushed’ in style. All of our toolset at the time was designed to do those kinds of films. But, the one important thing to mention is that our business model as a studio in feature animation is that we don’t have a house style.

Behind the scenes of ‘Nimona’.

That’s unlike, say, DreamWorks, where I spent many, many years, or Pixar or Disney, where there is a distinct style that you always notice in their films–although they are all now starting to diverge and try different things–where there was not a lot of experimentation with the look.

So, when we started working on Nimona, what it did was, it pushed us to the limit of figuring out how to do all of this because our tools were really designed to make traditional CG films. Then we got this artwork, and we looked at that, and went, ‘Wow.’ In the past, I would see the artwork and I would be like, ‘Oh my God, this is beautiful. This is amazing. I want to do this.’ Then as the production went by, I notice that it got watered down back to that traditional CG look. But that time, I saw the artwork and said, ‘I want to recreate this.’

b&a: How did that inspire you to approach things differently on Nimona?

Archie Donato: I would take their PSDs, the Photoshop files, and I would go layer by layer and look at how they paint. Because what Photoshop does is that it really allows you to see under the hood, the ‘dirty laundry’ of how they paint. You see the final painting, it looks incredible. You are like, ‘Oh my God, this is amazing.’ Then as you start to turn off those layers, you can drill down to the very bottom. What it did was, it helped me understand their thinking and their approach to painting, how they layer the atmosphere, how they do the highlights, how they treat the bounce light, et cetera, et cetera.

Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.
Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.

So, I would break all of this down for myself, and then I’d go to my team with more prescriptive things to do as opposed to just handing them the image and saying, ‘Good luck achieving this’. That meant as a studio, it forced us to write tools to support all of this. It’s one thing for you to understand how the painter paints, it’s another thing to recreate it at scale. It has to work over 90 minutes.

b&a: I imagine you were still working in Maya to 3D animate the scenes, but then how did you take that further? Tell me about the steps from normal 3D animation to rendering and then anything that’s also being done compositing-wise, to get that, I’m going to say ‘simpler’ look, but I don’t mean simpler.

Archie Donato: I completely understand what you mean. We used that word, simpler, actually extensively, especially in this film. You and I spoke about Entergalactic, my previous film, and it was a little bit different there. Here, simplicity was the key because, well, it’s a graphic novel at the end of the day. If you look at ND Stevenson’s original graphic novel, it’s got such a style to it, but at the same time, it’s not going for the super detailed comic book-style drawings. It’s more simple in its approach. The idea, to me, was all about, don’t overload the frame, maintain that simplicity where your eye as the audience is directed at the action and at the emotion; you’re not distracted by shiny objects everywhere on the screen.

Behind the scenes of ‘Nimona’.

You mentioned compositing. That was a massive part of this. People might argue with this, but I still maintain that until more tools are developed for stylization, compositing is the only way to get there. There are some tools that will help you render stuff out without compositing that already looks stylized. Nevertheless, when you get to that final stage, when you are assembling an image, it’s incredibly difficult to maintain that style without having the flexibility. As you know, the renders are costly. The other thing that comes in is the practicality of it because you’ve got to go back and re-render many, many shots if you want to redo some stuff. Our approach allowed us to render all the layers separately.

In fact, this was the key to Nimona’s look. When the filmmakers brought it to us from Blue Sky Studios, Blue Sky had done some development, and the directors said, ‘We want to push way farther than that.’ They were in the process of finding the look, but they had not really landed on the look. I mean, Blue Sky had some pretty incredible stuff. I was actually floored. The thing was, it was the simplicity you mentioned that they wanted to push, and not have the traditional CG animated film with all the bells and whistles.

For us, compositing allowed us to do this. We rendered many, many individual layers and then the assembly and all of the work was really at the end. Achieving the final look was really accomplished in comp.

Traditionally, in animation, comp has been very light to medium. Some companies don’t even have a dedicated compositing department. They have lighters who composite their own shots, which I find absolutely crazy now that I’ve done two movies back to back that are non-traditional looking. There’s no way I could have done these movies without compositing.

Also, it allowed us to iterate very quickly. This is another thing that’s very key because we call it wedges, where a director tells you, ‘Loving what I’m seeing, but can we try this, and this, and this?’ The idea there was, how can we do this as quickly as possible to put it back in front of them without having to reinvent the world again and go back to the drawing board. Compositing allows you to do that on a fly. All of a sudden the director will go, ‘That’s the one. I like that one. That’s the one I want to go with.’ All of a sudden, you’ve got the recipe. Then you can reverse engineer that back into the rendering and get that going, and it becomes scalable.

b&a: Were there any particular things you needed to do with Nuke or just the workflow to help you assemble multiple layers? You are always compositing multiple layers in comp, I know, but for this particular case, because of this look in animation, was there anything new you were doing in Nuke to enable that?

Archie Donato: What Nuke allowed us to do was capture our workflow and scale it massively. For example, when we were working on the breakout scene one of the things the directors pointed out to us was a whole heap of statues that they run through before they break out of the window. The directors said, we want to feel like it’s the hall of fame kind of a thing.

Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.
Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.

There was this very strong light coming in through one window and doing a lot of blooming on all of the characters and statues to create this monumental feel to it. Everything is breaking, there’s a lot of dust, a lot of bloom coming in from those windows.ll of those looks were ones that we created as small Nuke scripts that were shared across multiple artists. We do that on other films as well, but we pushed this to an absolute limit here. It’s almost like it was layering on steroids. We would break out even small individual elements so that we had that flexibility at the end in a comp, so that if the directors said, ‘Hey, everything looks good, but I just want to feel the armor’s shininess a bit more…’. We even had a specular highlight broken out from the armor so that we could dial it up and bloom it a little bit more.

Our compositing supes and leads also wrote a lot of custom nodes in Nuke. Nuke allows you to select many different attributes and make them into a single node. In other words, you are making a custom processing node in there that creates that very specific look that’s very difficult to re-create otherwise.

b&a: I noticed that some of the FX like fire or water were more ‘illustrative’ in nature. I know that when you’re simulating these things in say, Houdini, it’s often to make it photoreal. How did you bring that more illustrative 2D-esque feel here?

Archie Donato: You are absolutely right. When you do the fluid sims for fire and for other things, they tend to look incredibly realistic. The idea was to go the opposite direction. For example, there’s a whole sequence where Gloreth is standing in front of the fire.

Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.
Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.

We did multiple different versions of this, but we realized that we were not getting that graphic look. So, our production designer gave us a lot of different ideas. He would paint various keys and he would use the shapes in a fire to almost layer it all in, especially these strange diamond shapes. We reverse-engineered that.

What we did was, we broke all of those elements up, and then we asked the FX artist to use those little diamond-shaped flames as the source for this fire. They were essentially sprite ribbons of fire. They were random sprites which gave it that more graphic look.

b&a: In the same vein, I really love the transformations throughout the film. I imagine those were handled by animation, but there’s something about each of them that’s a little bit different. Sometimes it’s much more of a wipe, or something a little bit magical with some fairy dust. Tell me about the effects side of those transformations.

Archie Donato: Animation was the driving force. We call it a source and a target. Basically, you start from a source, an animal, and you end up with a target, a different animal or person. Animation created the timing, the transition, et cetera, et cetera, and the way one body collapses into another body. The one difficulty of it was that some of the animals transformed into other animals that were monstrous. I’m talking whales, dragons and then, remember, this is from a 12 or 13-year-old girl. There was a mismatch there.

Behind the scenes of ‘Nimona’.

But, the animators did a great job of creating those in-between frames without it just looking like we inflated a balloon of a small creature into a large one. Then, FX was a really, really big part of it. Again, the directors wanted the transformations to have a very graphical feel to them. They didn’t want them to be a visual effects transformation where it’s all smoke and dust.

Our FX team would create these action lines, which you could think of as more three-dimensional action lines. In the past we’ve all grown up watching many, many animated films with the action lines in them, but they are usually hand-drawn. The idea was to recreate those, but in 3D space so that when the transformation is happening, you got that little bit of ‘fairy dust’ in there.

The lines were specifically animated to follow the arc of the motion. If you are going from a larger creature to a smaller creature, they would act in a certain way. It helps your eye with the middle part, the transition part, because instead of looking at the actual creature shrinking, now you are looking at those graphic lines while all that magic is hidden behind it, and then you end up with the new creature in there. It was a really critical part of it.

It actually took us a while to really understand this. At the very beginning, we discussed hiring a 2D artist and actually doing it by hand. In other words, we would animate from one creature to another one in 3D, and then they would draw over on it by hand, but we very quickly found that while I love using 2D with 3D, on this film it wasn’t going to work. The reason why was because the action was so dramatic.

So, we had hand-drawn action lines that we took as an inspiration, and then we started recreating them in 3D with random shapes that are morphing from one character to another.

b&a: Those added effects were still 3D simulated FX in Houdini on top of the original animation?

Archie Donato: Yes, FX used a lot of the motion arcs to drive it, because you already have an animation in there, so it’s easier for FX artists to look at that and go, ‘Okay, in this frame, this is what the body is doing, it’s shrinking or it’s growing or it’s getting rounded off or squared off. How can we drive those lines to basically describe that motion more?’ That’s how they approached it.

Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.
Courtesy of DNEG Animation ©2023 Netflix.

b&a: Did you do any variable frame rates on this one? 

Archie Donato: We stuck to the same frame rate, although occasionally there were some speed ramps. There was one battle scene outside the Institute with soldiers and swords. The directors watched the scene and they said, ‘We love it.’ It was a huge scene. We worked on it for a long time. They said, ‘We love it, but there is one thing that we don’t like.’ I said, ‘What is it?’ They said, ‘Motion blur’, and I go, ‘What do you mean? It’s an action sequence, it’s got to have motion blur.’ But they said, ‘We want it to feel more sharp and more staccato, and motion blur softens everything up. Can you try and render a couple of shots without it?’ I almost had a heart attack.

I’m like, ‘Please don’t do this to me. It’s going to look weird.’ Then we went and tried it. What we landed on was reducing the shutter, but not completely. There was motion blur, but we reduced it dramatically. All of a sudden I realized how wrong I was in my assessment and how right the directors were. With that change, it became more abrupt, sharp and harsh, and it worked.

All the credit to them, because I literally begged them, ‘Please, do not turn off motion blur. It’s going to look terrible.’ That was my fear. I’ve never not rendered motion blur in an action scene. That’s a big no-no. You cannot do that. But the directors were like, ‘Just try it and see.’ They were right.

Behind the scenes of ‘Nimona’.

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