Several of this year’s biggest animated films wanted to take bold stylistic risks that would set them apart from what audiences had come to expect from modern CG animation. On their quest to take the next leap forward, they turned to a style known for its warmth and imperfection — 2D animation.

The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” “Luca,” “Raya and the Last Dragon” and “Flee” — all nommed for the animated feature Oscar — found something they needed for their stories in 2D. Whether the style matched the imperfection of the characters themselves, added warmth or established a different look for a specific sequence, it became a crucial inspiration.

In “The Mitchells vs. the Machines,” the filmmakers fell in love with concept art created by Lindsey Olivares, production/character designer, and decided they wanted a hand drawn, slightly off-kilter look for the movie. They needed to establish a new style that brought together CG tech innovations and 2D drawing styles. There really wasn’t a blueprint they could follow to bring the two together so they dug in and did a lot of R&D. The fusion of the two can be seen in the 2D drawings that pop up above Katie’s head to reflect her chaotic way of thinking or the not-so-defined look of the trees and foliage around the characters and the imperfection in their clothing.

“We wanted it to look like you were hand-painting each frame,” says helmer Michael Rianda. “There was a lot of testing and showing it to each other and showing it audiences and sort of trying to hone in and get to that sweet spot. This is sort of new and different and breaks the formulas, but it still works.”

Adds producer Chris Miller: “We worked with the team that that had figured out how to make ‘Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse’ look like you’re inside of a comic book and decided now, instead of that, we’re going to try a totally different thing, which is look like you’re inside one of these, like, beautiful hand-drawn illustrations.”

“Raya and the Last Dragon” 2D sequence Courtesy of Disney

The helmers of “Raya and the Last Dragon” also wanted a distinct look for a flashback sequence early in their film. In it, dragon magic, wars and the quest for a sacred object are traced through time using characters that have a flattened look drawn from traditional shadow puppets similar to those used in Chinese storytelling.

The sequence was in development for a long time throughout the filmmaking process since it pushed so many boundaries. It wasn’t until later on, when lighting was added, that they realized it was going to come together the way they wanted. At that point they felt it added something unique to the overall story, according to helmer Don Hall.

“Very early on, we decided that we’re going to try to take big swings stylistically,” says helmer Carlos López Estrada. “That meant with the tone of the film, with the voice of the characters, with the music with cinematography, the editing patterns. When you think about a Disney princess, epic, I think that your mind immediately goes to a certain look, a certain aesthetic. We really wanted to challenge that by making the movie unexpected, including a lot of more contemporary references and filmmakers that potentially wouldn’t immediately come to mind. I think those [2D] sequences came from that desire to just really like try things out. We realized we have the prologue and we have all these fantasy sequences that are like one step removed from the reality of the film. We wanted to find ways that we can do something that visually just feels very different from what we’ve done before.”

When he decided to tell the story of a sea-monster boy who appears to be human on land in “Luca,” helmer Enrico Casarosa looked to some of his favorite work by Hayao Miyazaki and British stop-motion films featuring the Wallace and Grommit characters. It became a big break from the signature style audiences expect when they see the Pixar name.

“I feel like it’s the perfect antidote of what I don’t love about computer animation, which can be a little cold,” says Casarosa, who found that they didn’t have to completely rewrite the software to get the look he wanted. “What’s amazing about computer animation is that it’s very immersive. But I wanted to bring this sense of something that’s crafted and bring the warmth to CG animation.”

The filmmakers worked with existing pipelines and software to make adjustments when needed. Since “Luca” takes place in Italy, Casarosa wanted buildings that looked like they had 15 layers of paint and a sense of texture that felt right for the coastal areas explored by the characters. The animators took multiple passes to come by an aged, painterly appearance for the city.

“Once you get the buildings and other things right, then it’s really about how you light it,” says Casarosa. “And we did a few little interesting tricks at the edges of shadows, for example. We tried so many things and we did something quite new in the rendering to make the edges of the shapes very glowy.”

In documentary “Flee,” helmer Jonas Poher Rasmussen chose an entirely 2D stylistic approach for his story of an Afghan refugee who is about the marry his boyfriend and begins looking back on the difficult early years of his life. The film is up for animated feature, documentary feature and international feature. It also won the IDA Award in 2021 for nonfiction film.

The story is told in a confessional style in which Rasmussen interviews his friend Amin about the life he led before he was settled with a foster family near where Rasmussen grew up. Though he’s done well and looks forward to his marriage, Amin is still afraid of being outed to his traditional birth family.

The helmer decided 2D animation would be the most effective way to deal with the memory of trauma as Amin tells his story. The sometimes uneven and unique lines seemed like the best approach to him.

“I think there’s something about this kind of hand-drawn approach that I could feel is very human,” Rasmussen says. “Because it’s human beings making the drawings and it’s different animators, we will have different variation on how to draw the same character. So, it does shift a little bit but there is also a lot of life. I think, especially for the sequences from where we dive into his traumas, we really needed something warm and human. I think we added something to the film with 2D because we could go into these emotions of him being afraid or things he didn’t want to talk about in a more gentle way, like his emotions of being a 12-year-old boy who was really afraid about what’s going on and the war.

“With 2D you get this very emotional and very tactile feeling that you might not get with other things, so I think that’s the real reason to use 2D in this story. We had a small crew of about ten animators and it look a long time to work this way but it was worth it for the story.”

“The Mitchells vs. the Machines” concept sketches Courtesy of Netflix