Filmmakers Behind Oscar-Nominated Animated Features Explain Why They’re Drawn to 2D

As the nominees for the animated feature Oscar were unveiled this year, one thing was clear: 2D and 2D-influenced animated films are dominating awards season.

Among this year’s nominees, “The Boy and the Heron,” “Nimona,” “Robot Dreams” and “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” all used traditional 2D techniques or other methods to create a 2D look. Even the CG “Elemental” shows 2D influences across the many environments of Element City. And as the Academy nominates what might be helmer Hayao Miyazaki’s final film, it seems as though the impact of 2D is being recognized once again after CG having dominated the animation space for so long.

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The 2D animation of today isn’t quite like cartoons of the past. With new techniques at their disposal, filmmakers are expanding the visuals they can create to tell rich, compelling stories. It’s very often a 2D look that’s intended for a mature audience or used to tell a complex, multi-layered story.

Even years before “Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” was made, its predecessor, “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” had combined CG animation and hand-drawn techniques to give audiences what was then hailed as an ode to the look of the comic books — where Spider-Man was first brought to life — and the warm, idiosyncratic look of hand-drawn animation. As a commercial and critical success, it set a new bar for what could be achieved in a 2D-inspired look.

“Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse” features six different animation styles. They range from the hand-cut, pasted, drawn, glued-together look that helmers Kemp Powers, Joaquim dos Santos and Justin K. Thompson said they wanted for Spider-Punk’s journey to the futuristic comic book-inspired world of Spider-Man 2099. The filmmakers used a style called “2.5D,” which is meant to describe the half-way point between 2D and 3D, for their film.

This approach to 2D that places the aesthetic in new territory was something dos Santos was particualrly fond of. He imagined a kind of 2D that went beyond Saturday morning cartoons — he wanted to make a Spider-Man film that wasn’t just for kids but that was artistically challenging and pushed the boundaries so adults would be entertained as well.

Another Oscar nominee, “Robot Dreams,” is based on a graphic novel by Sara Varon, and like “Spider-Man: Across the Spider Verse,” has 2D in its blood. “Robot Dreams” tells its story in silence, the way most read the actual source material. Variety critic Guy Lodge noted the film’s “simple, sharp-lined 2D animation in the manner of a pastel-softened ‘BoJack Horseman.’ ”

The touchstone for hand-drawn animation is Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron.” Producer Toshio Suzuki notes the legendary animator may make one more film and if so, it would be in 2D also.

“I think audiences will always love 2D. It’s how we’ve always made Miyazaki’s films. He likes this style and I think no matter what else comes along, audiences will still want to see stories done in 2D animation because they feel very personal.”

The filmmakers behind “Nimona” felt a similar pull toward 2D as the style meshed with the film’s story.
In their film, a knight is framed for a crime he didn’t commit, and the only person who can help him prove his innocence is Nimona, a peculiar shape-shifting teen hero.

“We didn’t want to go for a super-smooth, fluid, CG look or to lose that graphic sensibility,” co-director Troy 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.”

For many filmmakers, whether they go on to work in 2D or CG animation, Miyazaki and his approach to 2D storytelling becomes a lasting influence on their work.

“I think the reason so many animators admire Miyazaki and the way he makes his films is the emotionality of the stories and the beauty of the animation,” says “Elemental” helmer Pete Sohn. “I love all kinds of animation, but I will always be influenced by what he did in 2D, which has this very personal and specific look. We’re all trying to make movies that move people and make them feel something and there is a warmth in 2D that audiences can sense. ‘Spirited Away’ is my favorite film of his because it has all those things that you love about Miyazaki and 2D in it.”

This year’s crop of 2D animated feature nominees aren’t an anomaly. If you look at the previous year’s nominees there’s just one CG-focused film (“Turning Red”) and four others that are either stop-motion films (“Marcel the Shell With Shoes On,” “Guillermo del Toro’s Pinocchio”) or 2D hybrids that are heavily influenced by multiple styles of animation (“Sea Beast,” “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish”). It’s a trend that can be traced back at least a decade, which was the last time a Miyazaki movie was nominated in the animated feature category (“The Wind Rises”).

“For us, this desire to do something more 2D is just a reaction to seeing lots and lots of CG animation for the last 10 or 15 years and wanting something different, something that looks more human and like there was an individual behind it,” says helmer Jeff Rowe, whose “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem” landed six Annie Award nominations. “We started working with our characters and our backgrounds and we found artists with great ideas and that seemed to fit the story that Seth [Rogen] wanted to tell.”

While style trends impact the look of films being made, many filmmakers look at the changing styles in animated films as part of the process. Often, a writer or director will come up with an idea that demands new tools or techniques that must be created in order to design a character or create a location for the story. That was the case for Sohn on “Elemental.”

“I knew I wanted the characters to be [made] of these four elements, which meant there would need to be new CG tools, but in the backgrounds there is still inspiration from 2D films I’ve seen,” says Sohn. “The thing with animators, too, is that many of us grew up drawing in our room. We’d spend hours sketching and imagining things so we’re people who started with 2D drawings that we made ourselves in our homes and we hoped we’d be able to keep making them somehow.”

Suzuki believes 2D is returning because it allows filmmakers many ways to express themselves, even though it can be time-consuming. His own career, working with Miyazaki for decades, proves that.

“There is a darker side to the main character, the protagonist in ‘The Boy and the Heron,’” says Suzuki. “This is a bit of an autobiographical story for Miyazaki and I think he’s always imagined his world, his stories through these drawings. Many artists work that way, first sketching things, so it would make sense for them to want to bring that first way of imagining things into their stories.”

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