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this seemed like the best place to get an answer.

In some 2D animation, the "active" objects - those that move during the scene, or will be interacted with somehow - have a distinct style compared to background objects.

Is that a style choice or is there some technical or pragmatic reason for that (maybe it's faster to make or render?). I also find it curious that this happens across products and studios, pretty much in the same way - the "active" objects have distinct lines and brighter colors, while the background is somewhat amorphous in comparison.

Here is an example of what I mean, from Avatar: Legend of Korra: enter image description here

Thanks!

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    I think you have almost answered it yourself. I don't know enough about this to write a proper answer, but I believe that it's a consequence of the technique used. See this image from Snow White. The foreground and background are painted on different materials. The background is painted on some kind of board but the animated figures are painted on celluloid film. Try googling cel animation. – Wolff Apr 30 '20 at 17:38
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Generally the background elements can live for a long while on screen. The consequence of this is as follows.

  1. Since one does not need to animate them, one can make them more complex.
  2. One can invest more time and effort into making them.

Now complexity does not necessitate more work. In fact it can be less work as you can gain complexity for free by changing technique. So to get richer visuals and mood the studio might opt for a different style and different artist for the background. Often to speed things up as you dont need the foreground animator to design the background. It also makes it less likely that the background makes it hard to read the foreground action or that the image by mistake clashes with foreground elements.

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In traditionally animated movies, each cell was painted by hand using paint at the reverse of a plastic acetate sheet.

This gives a flat look. You could not paint gradients in those days on the animation layer, because keeping them consistent would be impossible.

In modern movies like Claus, as gradients can now be computer generated it allows you to have a more integrated look.

Backgrounds, on the other hand, is a single paint, so you could detail it to make it interesting and immersive.

The other option was to make flat backgrounds, but this would make the movie flat.

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