How ‘Nimona’ survived a studio shutdown among many challenges on its way to the screen

An illustrated girl dances amid other forms of herself
“Nimona” overcame the challenges of a global pandemic, a shuttered company and a reduced crew.
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The main character of the acclaimed graphic novel “Nimona” is a shapeshifter: sometimes a girl, other times an animal, always a spunky agent of chaos. One day, she inserts herself into the life of knight-turned-villain Ballister Blackheart in order to become his sidekick. Nimona is impulsive, playful and destructive. She’s also enthusiastic about depravity in general, including the act of killing people.

One “Nimona” review that remained with creator ND Stevenson over the years came from a friend’s 5-year-old niece.

“Her feedback was, ‘I like Nimona because she’s mean,’ ” said Stevenson during a video call in June. “I always remembered that because it’s a 5-year-old’s review, but there’s something very true in that. We don’t feel like we can express those dark, messy emotions. Nimona does things that we are not able to do, but she’s a catharsis.”


The long-awaited adaptation (now on Netflix) marks the conclusion of a uniquely tumultuous journey. Directed by Nick Bruno and Troy Quane, the feature-length animated “Nimona,” which premiered last month at France’s Annecy International Animation Film Festival, survived a mega media merger, changes in creative leadership, a global pandemic and even a studio shutdown, just as the movie was coming together.

Robert Baird and Andrew Millstein will co-lead the department, with the first release — the already announced ‘Nimona’ — due next year.

Dec. 1, 2022

While there were periods of uncertainty along the way, Stevenson, who is also a co-producer of the adaptation, believed in “Nimona” and trusted the team that was fighting for the movie.

“I think I knew that something really special was going to happen to make sure that it was seen,” said Stevenson. “Nothing was going to keep this movie in a box.”

Resiliency had been built into “Nimona” from the start.

The origin story

Character sketches of different women
Early sketches of Nimona by creator ND Stevenson.


Stevenson began publishing “Nimona” online in 2012 as an ongoing webcomic. At the time he was a student at the Maryland Institute College of Art, but he traces Nimona’s origins to a creation he came up with while in high school.

Originally named Nightshade, the character was conceived as having “truly unlimited control over her own body and she could turn into any person, any thing, any creature, with really no limitations,” said Stevenson. The twist was that she had no true “default” state, so every transformation was into a form she chose to be.

It wasn’t until college, though, when “a punky, Joan of Arc-type futuristic medieval character” became a recurring presence in Stevenson’s sketchbook, he says, that he decided to revisit Nightshade. A budding interest in comics led him to want to take a stab at the medium, so he thought he’d try fleshing out this character’s story further on the page while finding his own voice as a storyteller.

Struggling with his own transition into adulthood, Stevenson, who is transmasculine, says Nimona was a character that he “really needed at the time.“

“She was really the embodiment of that feeling of limitless possibility — of who you could be, and also the complications that come with that,” said Stevenson. “She got to express feelings that I felt like I couldn’t.”

A comic page with various panels and graphics of Nimona and a man
A page from 2015’s “Nimona.”
(ND Stevenson / HarperCollins)

Stevenson admits that when he started posting “Nimona” online he wasn’t sure how the character would be received. What he did know was that he was writing the kind of comic he had not yet encountered, and that he didn’t want to compromise the narrative for anyone.

A story that subverts even bedrock ideas of heroism, “Nimona” engages with larger questions around assigned labels, personal identity and our capacity for change. Its resonant themes connected with new audiences, and by Stevenson’s senior year, the series had piqued the interest of publishers.

Released as a bound volume by HarperCollins in 2015, “Nimona” was named a National Book Award finalist. Other accolades followed, as did the announcement that “Nimona” would be adapted into an animated feature by a team that included director Patrick Osborne, who’d helmed the Academy Award-winning animated short, “Feast,” and writer Marc Haimes (“Kubo and the Two Strings”).

Staying true to ‘Nimona’

Directors Bruno and Quane were in production on their animated feature “Spies in Disguise” when they heard that “Nimona” was headed for development at Fox-owned Blue Sky Studios.


“They asked if we wouldn’t mind just sitting in on some intensive story days, and just really try and dig in and find what that through line [of the movie] was,” said Quane.

An illustration of the film's main character
Concept art for the movie’s version of Nimona.

It’s not uncommon for movies, especially those with rich source material, to become unfocused over the course of production. Robert Baird, an animation veteran who was co-president of Blue Sky at the time, explains that creative teams can lose their objectivity as they get lost in the minutiae.

“We had gone down a lot of different roads, which is what you have to do, and knew some of the areas were working and some weren’t working,” said Baird, who is now co-head of animation at Annapurna. “Nick and Troy have an incredible ability to watch where you are in a movie and say, ‘Guys, you’re forgetting what it’s about.’ ”

After an explosion fueled by streaming, the rollback has hit animation hard. Creators from Netflix, (HBO) Max and more say it’s a Hollywood tradition.

June 13, 2023

Not everyone was committing to the film being Nimona’s story, recalls Bruno.

“I think it seemed easier to follow Ballister, a disgraced knight, because that fit the mold,” said Bruno. “But as a result, Nimona became this pixie punk sidekick and that just never felt right.”


According to Bruno and Quane, clarity came after producer Karen Ryan opened discussions to everyone in the studio, inviting anybody who wanted to come talk about “Nimona” and what the graphic novel meant to them.

A comic page with various panels and bold colors
A page from 2015’s “Nimona.”
(ND Stevenson / HarperCollins)

“It’s a love letter to all those who are misunderstood,” said Bruno, “and there are people who felt very passionate about it and connected to those themes, people of the LGBTQ+ community in particular. We need[ed] to embrace the Nimona-ness of the film.”

Listening to how their colleagues had connected to Nimona was humbling for Quane.

“It really did feel like we were stewards for some very personal stories,” he said. “And a lot of that stuff made it into the movie — moments that people had experienced.”

But when it finally seemed like “Nimona” was overcoming its creative hurdles, Walt Disney Co. — which had taken over Blue Sky when it acquired 21st Century Fox’s entertainment assets in 2019 — shut it all down.

Going to war

Bruno and Quane officially became the movie’s new directors in March 2020. The pair knew it would be a challenging job, and were given 16 months to completely overhaul the film.


But five days after officially taking the helm, they, along with everyone in the studio, were sent home because of the COVID-19 pandemic. Pivoting to remote work at that time was not ideal, but not impossible.

Nimona standing with her arms crossed
Nimona challenges expectations.

“There was just so much passion to not give up on the movie,” said Baird, adding that it became the team’s “lifeline, because it was the only thing we felt we could control.”

Ten months after Bruno and Quane began what was supposed to be a 16-month “Nimona” journey, Disney shut down Blue Sky in early 2021, resulting in about 450 people losing their jobs, a devastating blow.

Blue Sky was “a place where I grew up,” said Bruno, who started at the studio nearly two decades ago while still a student. “These are people that went to my wedding, or were at the hospital visiting me when I had my kids. It wasn’t just knowing that we weren’t going to get to work together again on a movie, it was knowing that most of these people were going to have to leave and go out into the world.”


Still reeling from the shutdown, the core creative team knew it had to try to keep “Nimona” alive.

“When Blue Sky was shut down, everything was really starting to come together,” said graphic novelist Stevenson. “There was an immediate emotion within this group of people that we were not going to go down easily, that it was something this group of people was going to fight for really hard.”

A bearded man in armor looks at a girl with sharp teeth
Ballister Boldheart (Riz Ahmed) and Nimona (Chloë Grace Moretz) in “Nimona.”

Without the studio, the official “Nimona” team dwindled from around 300 artists and production staff to a core creative team of 10 people, including Baird, producer Julie Zackary and former Blue Sky co-president Andrew Millstein. Armed with a set of story reels, some character models and a clear sense of Nimona’s voice (the role would eventually go to Chloë Grace Moretz), they started shopping the project around.

“Nimona” found a champion in producer Megan Ellison of Annapurna, who “was so drawn to the story, she basically said, ‘You have to make it here,’ “ according to Baird.


The next step was securing a new studio partner to help execute the film, which turned out to be DNEG Animation. But instead of just trying to re-create what had been scrapped, the directors left room for “this new group of people to connect to the material and find themselves in it,” said Quane, who, in the new union, sees “an incredible chemical combination — the spirit of Blue Sky and the talent of DNEG.”

“Nimona’s” revival was officially announced last year, and while the final film is different from the story reels developed while at Blue Sky, Baird says they share the same soul.

‘Nimona’ rises

Those familiar with the “Nimona” comic will notice that the film is quite different from its source material. But challenging expectations is one of the truest manifestations of its themes. (The film includes a more pronounced same-sex relationship between two characters than even Stevenson first envisioned, shifting from ambiguity into a “messy, divorced energy.”)

A regal woman stands next to a golden knight
The Director (Frances Conroy) and Ambrosius Goldenloin (Eugene Lee Yang) in “Nimona.”


“That was [the filmmakers] the whole way,” he says. “Whatever fights they were fighting, I never had to be exposed to them. I just got to see the beautiful finished product.”

After Blue Sky was shut down, there were reports that Disney had been concerned about the LGBTQ+ representation and themes in “Nimona.” When asked about the accuracy of these reports, the directors were diplomatic, saying the movie speaks for itself.

“Our biggest villain has always been expectation on this film,” said Bruno. “What are the expectations for a family audience? What is the expectation of a female hero? ‘Nimona’ does everything to defy expectations. So I will say that the journey was never an easy one, but at the end of the day, the journey doesn’t matter.”

“I feel like we did everything we could on this,” adds Quane. “We did everything the way we wanted to. We fought hard. We had a lot of amazing people fighting hard next to us.”

Stevenson, who remembers being able to hear kids playing at a nearby day care while working on the comic in his apartment, is looking forward to seeing how younger audiences might engage with the movie.


“I want to see kids playing shapeshifter on the playground,” said Stevenson. “I want to see them pretending to be dragons and running around, to see how the next generation of future storytellers respond to the movie — and to the character.”