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Why personal style is the future of animation (Op-Ed)

While I was traveling last month, I took the opportunity of being stuck on a bus for hours
to finally watch “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” (2022) and “Nimona” (2023). Their
wonderful stories aside, something about both that stuck with me well after the credits
rolled was how uniquely each approached its visual style.

For most of the 2010s, it felt like every major animation studio – Disney, Pixar,
Dreamworks, Illumination, you name it – had cultivated a visual style that changed
minimally from film to film, or even between studios. You could have dropped a
character from “Monsters University (2013)” in “Onward (2020)” and they would hardly
look out of place – and I do wonder whether it would have made any difference for “The
Boss Baby (2017)” to be shot in live action.

In many of these cases, animation felt undervalued as a medium, twisted into a
marketing tool to signpost that a movie was aimed at kids – even though animated films
had long since proven their power as a way to tell mature or ageless stories. The only
places with distinctive visuals to be found, for me, were in small-budget shows like
“RWBY” (2013), foreign house styles like that of Studio Ghibli, or indie animators like
Dead Sound.

But more recently, animation has seen a shift away from monolithic and near-identical
studio aesthetics and a rediscovery of the medium’s range.

Reporters and critics almost universally place Sony’s “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-
Verse (2018)” at the start of the chain of dominoes. Its ambitious comic book-style
visuals, reminiscent for me of games like “Borderlands,” were a system shock to the
industry that only turned up the voltage with this year’s “Across the Spider-Verse.”
These films and others around them are a much-needed love letter to the medium of
animation, and all the potential inherent to it.

In the five years since 2018, the impact has been very visible: French studio Fortiche
hand-painted textures for “Arcane” 2021, and animated conventional 2D effects set
against its 3D world, lending a beautiful quality to it that doesn’t shy away from grit.
DreamWorks’ “Puss in Boots: The Last Wish” was explicitly stated to have taken a cue
from “Spider-Verse” – though it opted for a “painterly” storybook vibe, better suited to
the story being told. And this year’s “Nimona,” another comic book film which I cried a
sea of tears over, takes its inspiration from Charley Harper, Eyvind Earle, and the
source comic to create a modern-fantastical aesthetic that expresses the setting

This is the real meat of the trend, which studios fortunately seem to have caught on to:
crafting animation to better augment the nature of a given film, rather than simply setting
a story in an animated world.

While it’s entirely possible to tell an amazing story in a decades-old studio style, I think
as audiences we’re catching on to the fact that this misuses the medium’s potential.
Personal style and good storytelling even seem to be intertwined – all the above
examples have well-received narratives on top of their powerful visuals. It just requires
the creators and studios behind them to put in the love and effort to weave both
together, equal parts of a whole that can make for a true masterpiece.

Assuming, of course, that Hollywood gets its act together and agrees to both pay its
writers better and lighten the deadlines animators have to work under, this trend is only
poised to continue – and I am happy to see it.

(Image courtesy of Sony Pictures Animation)


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