When Finding Dory splashes into theaters on June 17, it will be doing so with new technology that makes computer generated water look more realistic and nuanced than ever before. That’s one of many tidbits we learned about in detail when we joined a group of journalists and took a behind the scenes look at the making of the sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo; we attended a morning of presentations given by Pixar creatives who worked on Dory. Besides discussing the advances made in rendering water since Nemo, topics included the evolution of the story, creating the worlds above and below the surface, and the development of Hank, the seven-tentacled octopus. These are seven of the most interesting things we learned:
It’s All About Dory
Dory swam into the lead role in Finding Dory, and they worked to keep her there. Director Andrew Stanton said, “She wasn’t built to be a main character. She was built to support someone else and that’s a very different role.” He said they kept falling into the trap of having Dory tee up everyone else and putting the spotlight on them. They constantly adjusted to keep Dory front and center, to the point that they cut out material with Marlin and Nemo. Stanton said, “For Dory to learn to drive on her own, basically, they had to be separated.”
The topic of making sure the story belonged to Dory came up repeatedly. Story supervisor Max Brace and co-director Angus MacLane talked about reworking a scene in the film so that Dory was the driving force instead of Hank. They wanted to make sure every scene served Dory’s emotional goals. Even the directors of photography and lighting, Jeremy Lasky and Ian Megibben, touched on it being about Dory as they discussed staging and how we learn about places as she learns about them.
Water Never Looked So Good
Water is obviously a key part of Finding Dory, as it was for Finding Nemo, but it’s been upgraded for the sequel. Pixar’s Chief Technology Officer Steve May told us, “We innovate constantly and make better tools for our artists so they can make the best stories they can.” For Dory, they introduced new technology to their animation pipeline—actually, he said they changed an immense amount of the pipeline itself on this film. The cornerstone of all the fresh tech was RenderMan RIS.
Though RenderMan has been around since the late 1980s and has been used in all Pixar films, RIS is the latest version. Finding Dory is the first Pixar film to use this iteration of the software. May said it was invaluable because RenderMan RIS “gives more realistic lighting than ever before.” He said they consider simulation from direct light and indirect light, and until now, doing indirect light was too expensive. May explained they could only afford direct light on Finding Nemo. And with water, light is key. May said, “Water’s essentially clear. It doesn’t really have color. The color that it gets is from the way light reflects off of it and refracts off it.” RIS makes the water look more natural, and we saw before and after shots that demonstrated the difference.
Fish Swimming Recipes
How do you make dozens and dozens of animated fish swim? There are recipes. May explained since fish are in a constant state of motion, they’re quite difficult to animate. So, they used software called Presto to create movement recipes for the different characters. It’s not as simple as pushing a button to make Dory or another fish swim, but the existing recipes cut out leg work and serve as blueprints that can be tweaked.
The Four Design Themes of Finding Dory
Finding Nemo had elements above the water, but Finding Dory incorporates more of the human world. Production designer Steve Pilcher said they came up with four overall themes to differentiate the settings in the film. “I found four basic design conceits were helpful to organize a show like this because the scope of it is so big,” Pilcher said. He pointed out the scope involves scale—some shots are seen from the point of view of a five-inch fish, but other shots require pulling back and showing large environments. He wanted big, bold concepts to separate them visually.
Pilcher explained the four themes: “The first one is circle shapes. That applies to the reef, which is a comforting kind of shape. Then we start to work with different sizes and create environments fish can hide in. It’s very friendly. Then you go to empty space, the second one. That’s vulnerable for fish and much more dangerous. Then we went to rhythmic shapes, which applies to the kelp forest. It’s somewhat safer but not quite human world. For human world, the shapes are rectilinear—straight lines and horizontals. It’s very alien to a fish environment and complete opposite from the circle.”
Creating a film at Pixar means doing things like taken thousands of pictures of one area at an aquarium for reference. That’s just one example of the research that went into getting every piece of swaying kelp and every texture of every surface just so. Pixar employees went to aquariums, such as the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to study habitats and quarantine zones they could replicate in the Marine Life Institute in the film. They put cameras on poles and shoved them underwater to look at light and movement, they studied the kelp forest tank at Monterey, they looked at dozens—if not hundreds—of photos and videos of octopus, and on and on.
The Terror of the Touch Pool
While at the Marine Life Institute, Dory and Hank find themselves in a touch pool. The intense scene has been teased in trailers and clips; it shows the touch pool concept, common to many aquariums, from a different perspective. All those grabby hands breaking through the surface are scary from the fish point of view, and Hank and Dory’s frantic swim around the touch pool is an action sequence. Brace and MacLane went through how that particular scene played out to show us the process from pitch to storyboards to screen. Storyboards were used extensively for Finding Dory, to the tune of 103,639 of them created over 3.5 years.
Giving Hank Feelings
If you’ve seen any trailers for Finding Dory, you already know who Hank is. Dory runs into the curmudgeonly octopus while she’s searching for her parents and the two strike up a friendship. Hank and all his tentacles presented a design challenge. Pixar poured a lot of work into figuring out how to make the tentacles move and “squash” and also how to make him emote. His mouth position was tricky to figure out; since it was sometimes covered, they had to adjust for that. Supervising animator Michael Stocker said the position of the mouth ended up working out: “It’s just cool that it’s like a mustache and it aged him a little. It paid homage to what an octopus actually looks like. We were trying to do as realistic an octopus as we could that still lives in our world.”
Stocker said the mouth location still posed some particular hurdles, though. “In animation, this triangle between the two eyes and the mouth is super important. This is where the acting happens, and in this case, the mouth is sometimes hidden by tentacles or by webbing and is just a long way from the eyes. Connecting that triangle, it put a lot of emphasis on acting with the eyes and brows.” They showed footage demonstrating how Hank’s emotions are apparent even when his mouth is hidden.
Are you planning to see Finding Dory? Let us know in the comments.
And don’t forget to check our chats with the Zootopia cast!