In 2003, an overprotective clownfish named Marlin and Dory, a blue tang with short term memory problems, set out on an epic adventure to find and rescue Marlin’s son. Not surprisingly, “Finding Nemo” became one of Pixar’s highest grossing films, and the Academy Award winner for Best Animated Film still holds the record for best-selling DVD of all time.
For the film’s writer and director Andrew Stanton, “Nemo” was a closed chapter until seven years after the release of the original, when he watched his film and started worrying about the film’s comic relief, Dory. “I was worried that she could lose Marlin and Nemo and not remember them,” said Stanton. “I always saw her as a tragic character that used comedy as a way to survive, and as a way to protect herself, because in my mind she had probably had a lot of loss. And I didn’t know what [that loss] was.”
But going from a passing thought about the whereabouts of an animated fish to actually putting together a Pixar movie is a complex process. “I knew if I said ‘Finding Dory’ out loud it would start a snowball,” says Stanton. “I didn’t want to open my mouth unless I had the goods. You don’t plan for a sequel 13 years after the original.” His colleagues agreed that Stanton’s quandary was indeed worth exploring and a team of approximately 250 people spent the next four years developing “Finding Dory”. In Monterey, California, just steps away from the Monterey Bay Aquarium that served as inspiration for much of the finished product, Collective Hub got an exclusive peek behind the seaweed of one of the Pixar’s most labour intensive creative endeavours.
Since Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 there has been a clearly stated rule that sequels will only be made when the filmmakers have a clear idea and want to do it – not because a film is a commercial success. “The only sequel we made under commercial demands is Toy Story 2,” says Stanton. “And it almost fell apart. We learned our lessons from that.” The story of Dory came to Stanton organically and randomly. “As a writer, I love diving into the ugly truth of something, and I didn’t want this movie to be shallower, to use a water term. I wanted it to have the same depth [as Finding Nemo]. And Dory brought so much joy to so many people, yet at the same time [her desire to please] was the thing keeping her from loving herself – that’s very complex. It’s very human,” says Stanton. “I loved that. I thought, that’s something I could really wrestle with. Because anything I work on here, I’ve got to get up every day for three years and most of those days it’s not going to work. So what’s going to make me get up and still face it? It’s got to be that interesting and complex.”
When the project gets going, Co-director Angus MacLane and Story Supervisor Max Brace work on sketching out scenes from the script pages, which they then present to Stanton. “We bring the artists in, we sit down with the directors and myself and we talk through the scene and we get from the directors how the scene should play, what are some of the ideas and gags,” says Brace. The artists then go back to their desks and sketch out small thumbnails, the idea being that they don’t spend too much time laboring over the drawings, but also that the idea will be readable from the small image. “Clarity is paramount throughout the entire process,” says MacLane. A lot gets scrapped – in the three-year process over 103,000 storyboards are delivered to editorial and reels of scenes are generated every three or four months for feedback. “There are a lot of things that excite us. Ultimatel,y it’s whether or not it plays in the scene that matters,” says MacLane.
Hank, the octopus who lost a limb somewhere along the way, is one of Finding Dory’s greatest achievements. “I’ve worked at Pixar for 18 years and this is the character I’m the most proud of,” says Character Art Director Jason Deamer. Deamer started by researching mimic octopuses and was inspired by a video on YouTube, of an octopus that completely vanishes from sight as it mimics the texture of its surroundings. “It looks like computer graphics, but that’s more complex than we could do if we tried,” he says. In total, Deamer worked on the grumpy, elderly Hank for three years, but between him creating the concept and the animation process, Character Supervisor Jeremie Talbot enters to build a digital 3D model for animation to work with. “This was definitely the most challenging character I’ve worked in a long time, if ever,” says Talbot, for whom it took over a year to figure out the individual movement patterns of each tentacles and the individual suckers. From start to finish, with about 40 people working on Hank across several departments, it took three years to complete the character. “I think we pulled out all the stops on Hank,” says Supervising Technical Director John Halstead. “We knew we had lightning in a bottle and everyone invested everything they had to make it great.”
The art department on a film consists of approximately seven artists, led by Production Designer Steve Pilcher. The spectacular underwater scenery may seem whimsical and arbitrary but in “Dory” it can be narrowed down to four main “sets”: the reef, the open space in the ocean, the kelp forest and the human world of the Marine Life Institute. Pilcher starts every project by organising and categorising, if only for himself. “When I start on a film, I break it down into basic components. To create contrast the four worlds in Dory can be identified as: curvilinear, open, rhythmic and rectilinear. I try to create as much variety as I can so it’s not boring,” says Pilcher.
MAKE THE WATER SEXY
Directors of Photography Ian Megibben and Jeremy Lasky were tasked with making life underwater appear realistic and interesting using camera angles and lighting. “Make the water sexy,” they were told by Stanton. Lasky realised there is an inherent attractiveness to the water. “You can through use of behaviours of how water and light interact come up with an attractive image,” he says. Pixar uses RenderMan rendering software, that they have created themselves, to make all their films. “Finding Dory” is the first Pixar movie to use the newly designed RenderMan IS software – the first time since its inception that the engineers have changed the architecture of the animation software – which resulted in a better depiction of reflections and refractions. Also, to demonstrate the fact that Dory is only the size of a human palm, Megibben and Lasky used different “cameras” for effect. To establish the intimate feeling of the original film and see the world from Dory’s perspective, they used the equivalent of a 16mm camera, but occasionally popped out to a 35mm shot when they wanted to show a human perspective of tiny fish in this big ocean. “It’s the contrast that helps sell that world,” Megibben.
The greatest difficulty Stanton faced in terms of storytelling was finding a way to make Dory the main character of the film. “She’s the perfect supporting character. She’s built to make everyone else better,” says Stanton. “Also, she has short term memory loss, which for a main character is the worst idea in the world. The only reason you follow a main character is because you can tell that they’re growing.” Stanton finally managed to put his finger on this particular problem two years into the process, and spent another year solving it. “One of the solutions was sticking her with a character who could remember,” says Stanton. “The other was having memory gain as she gets closer [to home].” Stanton also discovered he needed to streamline the story. An early version of the film took viewers in a direction that the director eventually realised didn’t support the film. “My editor cut it out and it still worked, and I was like, ‘Aww,’” he recalls. The sequence involving Marlin and Nemo may eventually end up on the the DVD, but Stanton knows the right decision was to kill his darling. “You’re gonna get it wrong. You’re going to fail,” admits Stanton. “To me, writing stories and making movies is just trial and error. By embracing a culture of failure people aren’t afraid to try risky stuff. No one’s going to put them down. We get nervous if we’re not failing.”