The Importance of Story and Style

This year’s Animated Feature nominees weigh in

It’s Oscar Week and we’re sharing lessons every filmmaker can learn from this year’s nominees. Here, the artists behind the Animated Feature Film contenders discuss their inspiration and process.

A great animated film represents the perfect marriage of art and story. But each of those elements brings their own challenges — and the opportunity to find a creative way to overcome them.

Cracking the Story

Ever since the success of The Incredibles (2004), people have been asking Brad Bird when he would make a sequel. Once he had a story he felt strongly about, he got the green light from Pixar to start work on Incredibles 2—but then came the bad news. He’d have to deliver it an entire year earlier than planned.

The shortened timeframe put serious stress on the production. Meanwhile, Bird was still refining the narrative to something he felt was strong enough. “The villain story really eluded me,” he said. So they settled on a process of trying and tossing idea after idea. “We were continually bailing and killing darlings. It was messy, but ultimately came out to something that works and we’re really happy with.”

“When the story’s not working, you have to make a decision. Do you put more resources into it, trying to make it work, or do you bail?” -Brad Bird
“The Incredibles 2”

Ralph Breaks the Internet is also a sequel among this year’s nominees (Wreck-It Ralph came out in 2012), but its team, led by co-directors Rich Moore and Phil Johnston, faced a different type of problem. They had a grip on the story, but weren’t sure the technology existed to tell it the way they wanted to.

What Ralph and Vanellope, the film’s main duo, encounter inside the net was one of the most detailed and intricate worlds the animation studio had ever attempted.

“What’s great about Disney is that we don’t say, ‘Is the world ready for that?’ We say, ‘This is what we’re going to do and then an amazing team of people figures out how.’” -Producer Clark Spencer

“You’re building your parachute as you fall out of the plane and you just hope you can get it done before you hit the ground,” Moore laughed.

Choosing the Art

Over more than a century of animation, artists have found unique ways to bring their visions to the screen. Mamoru Hosoda appreciates the beauty in traditional styles; his movie Mirai is gorgeously rendered in hand-drawn 2D. But he worries it’s an endangered art form.

“The backgrounds were hand-painted on paper. I’m afraid there won’t be opportunities in Japan for those artists to continue working,” he said through a translator.

“It’s a problem that the hand-drawn technique is dying. It gives characters emotion.” -Mamoru Hosoda

For Wes Anderson’s Isle of Dogs, the marriage of stop-motion animation and the director’s famously quirky style made perfect sense from the very beginning.

“Animation offers Wes a way to explore his visual aesthetic even more deeply. There’s a playfulness and an artistry to it,” producer Steven Rales said.


At the other end of the technological spectrum is Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. Digitally animated and in 3D, it looks more like a comic book sprung to life on the big screen. That vision came in the form of an ultimatum from producers Phil Lord and Chris Miller, who would only sign on if they were given “the opportunity to make a movie that felt like a living, breathing, comic book,” Miller said.

That style is what brought writer Rodney Rothman on board. “This was cool,” he said. “This was ambitious.” But if the studio had reservations, the release of the first teaser soon put them to rest. “The reaction to that teaser really told the studio that people would buy into the visual style,” recalled director Bob Persichetti.

Creating the right story, and pairing it with the right animation style is hardly easy, but when filmmakers succeed, they can create something timeless.