• he award-winning creators of "Toy Story", "A Bug’s Life" and "Monsters, Inc." are back with a whole new computer animated feature film. The latest feature from Pixar Animation Studios, presented by Walt Disney Pictures, follows the journeys of two fish: Marlin and his son Nemo, who are separated in the Great Barrier Reef down under in Australia. Along with the absent-minded Dory, Marlin embarks on an epic journey to rescue his son. "Finding Nemo" is written and directed by Andrew Stanton, who also directed “A Bug’s Life” in 1998. Lee Unkrich, who co-directed “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters, Inc.” returns in this capacity for Finding Nemo. The film was produced by Graham Walters, and Pixar’s executive vice president of creative, John Lasseter served as executive producer. Production on “Finding Nemo” began in January 2000 with the crew ultimately reaching a maximum of 180.

    John Lasseter:“This movie absolutely raises the bar for Pixar and for the art of computer animation. I’m so proud of Andrew for making a film that carries out his vision and gives us some of the most charming characters Pixar has ever created. The film is breathtakingly beautiful and filled with real drama, real emotion and depth, as well as great comedy. Being the father of five sons, this was definitely a story I could relate to. As filmmakers, we love to have the emotion be true and honest. And even though ‘Nemo’ is a complete fantasy, it’s based on things that are familiar to audiences. The father-son relationship, going to school for the first time – these are things everyone understands yet this film is about fish on a coral reef.

    “Technically, we’ve pushed things beyond anything Pixar has done before. Just animating fish was difficult, but our technical team has created an underwater environment that is graceful and beautiful. The real underwater world is so spectacular that it’s already a fantasy world. Our challenge was to let the audience know that our ocean is caricatured. We wanted them to know that this wonderful world doesn’t exist, but then using the amazing tools that we have in computer animation make it look totally believable. Our goal is always to make things believable, not realistic. By stylizing the design of things, adding more geometry and pushing the colors, we were able to create a natural and credible world for our characters.”

    Above: The creative team behind Pixar's latest animated feature 'Finding Nemo'. Clockwise from left: John Lasseter, Graham Walters, Lee Unkrich and Andrew Stanton. Top: In Disney/Pixar's hilarious underwater adventure "Finding Nemo," Father (left), a clownfish, travels all the way from the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney to find his son after the two are separated. Father is aided in his quest by Dory (right), a blue tang fish with no short-term memory.

    Next Page (2 of 7) >>
  • Inspiration and Origins

    The origins of “Finding Nemo” was very personal for director/writer Andrew Stanton, whose inspiration for the film came from a series of events in his own life. A visit to Marine World in 1992 started him thinking about the possibilities of creating an undersea world in computer animation. Stanton also recalls childhood memories of a fish tank in his family dentist’s office, and he’d look forward to going to the dentist just so he could look at the fish. The final piece of inspiration for Stanton was his own relationship with his son.

    Andrew Stanton:“When my son was five, I remember taking him to the park. I had been working long hours and felt guilty about not spending enough time with him. As we were walking, I was experiencing all this pent up emotion and thinking ‘I-miss-you, I-miss-you,’ but I spent the whole walk going, ‘Don’t touch that. Don’t do that. You’re gonna fall in there.’ And there was this third-party voice in my head saying ‘You’re completely wasting the entire moment that you’ve got with your son right now.’ I became obsessed with this premise that fear can deny a good father from being one. With that revelation, all the pieces fell into place and we ended up with our story.”

    Stanton pitched the idea to his mentor and colleague John Lasseter.

    John Lasseter:“I remember when we were working on ‘A Bug’s Life’ Andrew had this great little drawing that he did over his desk which showed two small fish swimming alongside a giant whale. And I always liked that. He told me it was something he was thinking about but I didn’t hear anything more about it until the pitch. I’ve been a scuba diver since 1980 and I just love the underwater world.


    When he pitched this idea, I knew that it was gong to be amazing in our medium. We always pride ourselves at Pixar on matching the subject matter of our movies with the medium. I really did know when he said ‘fish’ and ‘underwater’ that this film was going to be great."

    Andrew Stanton:“Telling a story where the protagonist is the father got me excited. I don’t think I’ve ever seen an animated film from that perspective. It made me interested in wanting to write it because I knew I could tell that story. I also thought that the ocean was a great metaphor for life. It’s the scariest, most intriguing place in the world because anything can be out there. And that can be a bad thing or a good thing. I loved playing with that issue and having a father whose own fears of life impede his parenting abilities. He has to overcome that issue just to become a better father. And having him in the middle of the ocean where he has to confront everything he never wanted to face in life seemed like a great opportunity for fun and still allowed us to delve into some slightly deeper issues.”

    “My dad gave me some good advice about parenting. He said, ‘The tough choice you have is you can either be their parent or their friend. Pick one.’ It’s a lifelong dilemma and I love indulging in that truth with this film. I’m considered the most cynical of the group here at Pixar. I’m the first one to say when something is getting too corny or too sappy. Yet, I’d say I’m probably the biggest sucker romantic in the group, if the emotion is truthful. I just loved the idea of doing a father-son love story. They’re in eternal conflict.”

    << Previous Page (1 of 7)
  • Production Design and Cinematography
    Overseeing the production design for “Finding Nemo” was Ralph Eggleston, who directed the Academy Award winning short film “For the Birds”. Eggleston prepared for Finding Nemo with several diving trips and a visit to Sydney Harbor to get a better idea of the actual environment in real life. The film’s two directors of photography – Sharon Calahan and Jeremy Lasky – brought their expertise to the areas of lighting and layout, respectively, to help capture Stanton’s vision for the film on screen.

    Ralph Eggleston (Production Designer):“One of the biggest decisions we had to make was how much to caricature reality. Fish have an almost caricatured shape to begin with and Andrew was fairly adamant that he didn’t want to overly anthropomorphize the characters. And so we actually had to go the other way and bring the world closer to the caricatured nature of the fish. If we put these fish in anything that looked even quasi-real, it wouldn’t work. The characters and the world had to be on a parallel track.

    “One of our first priorities was to make the fish seem appealing. Fish are slimy, scaly things and we wanted the audience to love our characters. One way to make them more attractive was to make them luminous. We ultimately came up with three kinds of fish – gummy, velvety and metallic. The gummy variety, which includes Marlin and Nemo, has a density and warmth to it. We used backlighting and rim lights to add to their appeal and take the focus off their scaly surface quality. The velvety category, which includes Dory, has a soft texture to it. The metallic group was more of the typical scaly fish. We used this for the schools of fish.”

    Eggleston and Calahan shared a love for the soft, bright Technicolor films of the 1940s and had frequently discussed making a brand new CG animated film that looked like it was from that period of time. With “Nemo” they got their chance. The underwater setting lent itself to soft backgrounds and characters with a glow around them.

    Ralph Eggleston:“‘Nemo’ doesn’t look like a three-strip Technicolor film, but rather a modern version of the quality you could achieve with this process. Another big inspiration for us was Disney’s ‘Bambi.’ It’s a very impressionistic film. Things fall off in the backgrounds, and you focus on the characters. That’s the approach we adopted. The film begins with an intense Garden of Eden coral reef. From there, the underwater backgrounds tend to become more impressionistic with just a mountain or sandy bottom in view.”

    Sharon Calahan (Director of Photography):“A big part of our job was creating believable underwater environments. And that took on many forms since we had clear water, super-murky water and even water in a fish tank. We had to figure out the common elements so that stylistically we could tie them all together.”

    Ralph Eggleston:“Seeing the coral reef up there on the big screen is simply amazing. Every piece of coral is backlit and the entire set is like a jewel underwater. I always thought it would look good but I had no idea it would look like this. I was the third person to work on this film, so I’ve been part of the technical process since the beginning, and still I found myself sitting in the theater thinking ‘How did they do this?’”

    << Previous Page (2 of 7)
  • Animating Finding Nemo

    According to Pixar, animating "Finding Nemo" was tougher to animate than any of the previous films tackled. Visits to aquariums, diving stints in Monterey and Hawaii, study sessions in front of Pixar’s well-stocked 25-gallon fish tank, and a series of in-house lectures from an ichthyologist all helped to get them to produce the animations that caricatured reality.

    Supervising animator Dylan Brown, an eight-year Pixar veteran, and directing animators Mark Walsh and Alan Barillaro were responsible for guiding an animation team that fluctuated between 28 and 50. With characters ranged in size from a cleaner shrimp to a blue whale, the animation team had to learn about fish locomotion and how to create believable behaviours for characters without arms or legs.

    Dylan Brown (Supervising Animator):“Each film has its own unique set of challenges and we always begin by trying to figure out what they are and how to solve them. With ‘Nemo,’ we had an entire cast of fish characters with no arms or legs. Since they didn’t have the traditional limbs to allow strong silhouettes, we had to invent a whole new bag of tricks. In the beginning it was a bit daunting and frustrating. We began analyzing what was appealing in terms of posing fish. We put a lot of work into the face and getting the facial articulation just right. We didn’t want them to be just heads on sticks like in a Monty Python sketch. Their faces had to be integrated with the entire body language. Where a human character might just turn his head to look at something, a fish might turn his head just a little and the entire body would pivot along with it.

    “Another big factor for us was timing. With characters like Buzz, Woody or Sulley, you have an earth-based gravity. But fish underwater can travel three feet in a flash. You blink and the thing is gone. We were wondering how they did that and studied their movements on video. By slowing things down, we could figure it out. Our timing got very crisp as we learned how to get our fish characters from one place to another in the course of a frame or two. We always tried to incorporate naturalistic fish movements into the acting. By putting things like one-frame darting and transitioning from one place to another into our acting, the characters became very believable.”

    Alan Barillaro (Directing Animator):“It became fun and challenging to come up with a whole new range of how to communicate and gesture. You don’t have gravity to deal with underwater, so we discovered things like when a character gestured, he would tend to drift a bit more. I found that a lot of the gestures humans make could be boiled down to eye and face movements. I would look at my own face in the mirror and imagine I had a tail on the back of it.”

    Mark Walsh (Directing Animator):“The first thing that Andrew did on the film was to sit with us in front of the fish tank and basically pitch the story to us. He explained that the magic of the world was going down to the perspective of a clown fish and imagining him going through an entire ocean and encountering sharks, turtles, jellyfish, etc. You imagine moving in closer and seeing this little fish and how hard he is trying.”

    To ensure that their characters would have the range of expressions and movements needed, the lead animators linked up with modelers and riggers from the character department and served as their “animation buddy.” With direct input from the animators, the technical directors created new and improved tools and controls (known as avars) to enhance the overall character performance.

    Brian Green (CG Character Supervisor):“This was the first time that Pixar has had a character department and it allowed us to serve the animators’ needs better. The animation buddy might give us a drawing and say ‘For acting purposes, I need it to look more like this.’ We would go in and adjust it. This made for a very close relationship. We also tried to create automatic dynamic motion for some of the characters. Our goal was to try and automate everything we could – things like the movement of dangly bits on some characters – so the animator could concentrate on the performance.”

    << Previous Page (3 of 7)
  • When science meets art

    Helping the animators get up to speed on fish behavior and locomotion was Adam Summers, a noted professor in the Ecology and Evolution department at the University of California at Irvine.

    Professor Adam Summers:“I’m what is called a biomechanic or sometimes a functional morphologist. My specialty is applying simple engineering principles to how animals move and eat. They asked me to come in and talk about things like fish shapes and colors, and I ended up teaching an essentially graduate-level ichthyology course to the Pixar staff. There were at least twelve lectures. It was really an incredibly rewarding thing because I found that these folks like their job as much as I like mine. They were infinitely curious about fish and they were flat-out the best students I had ever had. By the end of each lecture, they would be asking me questions that I didn’t have answers for.

    “I remember speaking with character designer Ricky Nierva about a fish character and he asked, ‘Where would the eyebrows really be?’ I told him fish don’t have eyebrows. They don’t have any muscles in their face except for jaw closers.’ Ricky said, ‘Adam, fish don’t talk but talking is going to be a requirement for the movie. So we’re going to have to be taking artistic license with science all the time.’”


    Summers also gave the character designers and animators some important insights into fish locomotion by explaining the difference between flappers and rowers. Clown fish are rowers who tend to propel themselves by moving their pectoral fins in a horizontal motion. At higher speeds they wiggle their entire body. Blue tangs, like Dory, are flappers, who flap their fins up and down to move and almost never wiggle their entire body. The result was that Father’s movements were more fluid and graceful, while Dory tended to flit sharply about.”

    Prof. Adam Summers:“In most animated films with fish, the characters move back and forth with no visible propulsive device and that really offends the eye. You don’t need to be an ichthyologist to know there’s something wrong with that kind of locomotion. It’d be like watching a horse trot with two of its legs still. In ‘Nemo’ if a fish is moving, its fins are moving. There’s a sort of kinetic feel to the characters that tells you they’re underwater. They’re not acting in air. When they flap around, it has consequences for their whole bodies. They did a heck of a job making clear the differences between living in an incompressible fluid like water and compressible fluid like air. I was completely knocked out. This was an amazing group to work with and we had a lot of fun in the process.”

    << Previous Page (4 of 7)
  • Technical

    "Finding Nemo" is visually stunning both from an aesthetic standpoint and technical achievement. Production designer Ralph Eggleston (who directed “For the Birds”) set the look and style for the film. The film’s directors of photography, Sharon Calahan and Jeremy Lasky, added to the underwater setting with lighting that enhanced the underwater effect with soft backgrounds, vibrant colors and blooms. Lasky was also responsible for the camera moves and staging that gave viewers the impression of being underwater.

    In order to portray the underwater world realistically, Pixar’s technical team had to research new ways of creating the scenes in CG. Extensive research and development studed water properties and created the proprietary tools to realize the script. Supervising technical director Oren Jacob and Michael Fong led the technical team that would produce these tools.

    Pixar’s technical team identified five key components that suggest an underwater environment:

    • lighting (the caustics on the ocean floor and volumetric lighting streaming through from the surface)
    • particles (debris in the water)
    • surge and swell (constant movement that drives plant and aquatic life)
    • murk (how the color of light filters out over distance and the distance appears dark)
    • reflections and refractions.

    Add in bubbles, ripples, drips and rings, and you have the makings of a very complex environment.

    Oren Jacob:“This film is far more complicated than ‘Monsters, Inc.’ in that almost every shot involves some kind of simulation program or simulated movement. On average, there are more things going on per frame in this movie than we’ve done before by a pretty significant amount. There was more interdependency between the various departments than ever before and we often went back and forth to make sure the lighting and other components looked just right.”

    Andrew Stanton:“Our starting point was to watch a lot of films with underwater scenes and analyze what made then seem like they were underwater. What made them not seem like they were in air? It was a bit like getting a great cake and trying to figure out how somebody baked it by breaking it down. We came up with a shopping list of five key components that suggest an underwater environment – lighting, particulate matter, surge and swell, murk, and reflections and refractions.”

    Oren Jacob:“Even before we had a finished script, we knew we had a story about fish in a coral reef. That was enough for our global technology group to begin coming up with tools for making water move back and forth. Coral reefs are organic living things so it’s not a static set like the door vault in ‘Monsters, Inc.’ Early on, we took a diving trip to Hawaii with some of the film’s key players. Then we looked at every Jacques Cousteau, National Geographic and ‘Blue Planet’ video we could find. We also studied every underwater film from ‘Jaws’ and ‘The Abyss’ to ‘The Perfect Storm’ to understand what the filmmakers chose to caricature. We came up with our own idea of what audiences expect to see with water and developed our own ratios and proportions.”

    Under Jacob’s supervision were six technical teams specializing in different components and environments seen in the film. Lisa Forsell and Danielle Feinberg were the CG supervisors responsible for the Ocean Unit. David Eisenmann and his team handled the models, shading, lighting, simulation, etc. for the Reef Unit.


    Steve May headed up the Sharks/Sydney Unit, which tackled the submarine scene, shots inside the whale and most of the above-water scenes in the Harbor. Jesse Hollander oversaw the Tank Unit, which created all the elements for the fish tank. Michael Lorenzen was in charge of the Schooling/Flocking team, which created hundreds of thousands of fish plus key elements for the turtle drive sequence. Brian Green led the Character Unit, which created the look and complex controls for nearly 120 aquatic, bird and human characters.

    The Ocean Unit
    The Ocean Unit was responsible for such scenes as the school of moon fish, which form different objects (an arrow, a lobster, a boat, etc.), the angler fish chase, and the turtle drive in the East Australian Current. The unit’s most challenging and impressive scene, however, was the jellyfish forest. This rich and colorful moment finds Marlin and Dory in an ever-expanding and increasingly dangerous sea of deadly pink jellyfish.

    Lisa Forsell:“This scene involved several thousand jellyfish. Our unit built the model for a single jellyfish and put a lot of work into the build-up of jellyfish density. This involved creating a simulation for the group that controlled the movement of the tendrils, how quickly they swam and in what direction. We had some great reference footage and were particularly fixated on one species from Palau that we found at the Monterey Aquarium. David Batte wrote a whole shading system we called ‘transblurrency.’ Transparency is like a window and you can see right through it. Translucency is like a plastic curtain that lets light through but you can’t see through it. Transblurrency is like a bathroom glass; you can see through it but it’s all distorted and blurry.”

    The Reef Unit
    For David Eisenmann and his team on the Reef Unit, the challenge was to create a caricatured version of the coral reef that would suit the purposes of the story. They were responsible for the film’s rich and vibrant opening scenes and building the anemone home of Marlin and Nemo.

    David Eisenmann:“Our group started with a realistic approach to the reef. We were able to do that relatively easily but Andrew and Ralph [Eggleston] felt it was way too busy and distracting. There was just an immense amount of stuff. In order to get the characters to read and act against the background, we began to simplify things. We figured out how many different things we should build and how much variation there should be. The director wanted about 30% of whatever you see on the screen to be moving to make it feel like it was underwater. For the reef scenes, this meant simulating movement for sponges, moss, grass and other kinds of vegetation.

    “The reef is very stylized and almost dream-like. The color palette opens with purples and blues and jumps to vibrant reds and yellows. There is a real storybook, fantasy quality to it. As the story progresses to the drop-off, things become more real and less colorful. Because this is a journey film, our main characters travel quite a distance through the reef. Our modelers were able to keep the reef scenes interesting and exciting by mixing together different shapes and textures. We had a whole grab bag of vegetation we could use to populate a scene and, by putting different textures and shaders onto the catspaw and staghorn coral and the sponges, we could make it feel like completely different models from scene to scene. We spent about a year researching corals and sponges. In the end, we were able to take one basic form of sponge and shape, shift and mold it into more than twenty variations.”

    << Previous Page (5 of 7)
  • Sharks/Sydney Unit
    Picking up where the Reef Unit left off was the Sharks/Sydney Unit, under the direction of Steve May. This group took on a wide variety of scenes with diverse locations, including the submarine set where the sharks meet, the fishing net scene with hundreds of thousands of grouper fish, the scene inside the blue whale, and all of the shots in Sydney Harbor from the boat marina to the sewage plant.

    Steve May:“The submarine is supposed to be like a haunted house. It’s very spooky and creepy. There are nearly 100 mines surrounding the sub and we worked hard to cover them all with moss and have them move with the surge and swell of the ocean. Inside the sub, it’s supposed to feel very tight all the time. It’s crammed full of knobs, valves and pipes. Because we had our own layout and modeling people, we were able to quickly build and dress the sub as we went. We knew what we needed and built customized parts along the way.”

    One of the big challenges for May and his team was simulating the splashing water inside the blue whale.

    Steve May:“Pixar really hadn’t done splashing water before. We had to figure out a way to do 3D water, develop the software and new techniques for running simulations to compute the motion of the water, and then render it to look realistic. And the entire time, the whale is swimming and going up and down. Water had to explode and splash all around as the whale’s giant tongue lifts Marlin and Dory out of the water. This was a whole different water dynamic than the film’s underwater scenes, and we had to allow for the large-scale behavior of the crashing water and the very small detailed behavior of our two fish characters. Those different resolutions were very difficult to accommodate. Lighting that scene was probably the hardest thing we’ve every had to light because the entire set was moving, organic and filled with splashing water.”

    Tank Unit
    Jesse Hollander and the Tank Unit were responsible for all of the lighting, modeling, shading and rendering associated with the dentist’s office and the fish tank. Creating the tank itself and dealing with issues of reflection and refraction were a major challenge for this resourceful group. They also built a wide range of set pieces for their scenes ranging from dental equipment to the tiki heads and volcano in the tank, and nearly 120,000 pebbles on the tank floor. Their work included new breakthroughs in the way cloth, human hair and skin are accomplished with computer animation.

    Jesse Hollander:“One of the biggest things that our unit had to develop for this film was the reflections and refractions connected with the tank. Our starting point was the actual physics of what happens to light when it enters not just water, but a glass box filled with water. This meant computing for glass, then water, then glass into water. But in our movie, we’re not dealing with just physics, we need to be able to have control over those physics. Most of the time we were able to achieve the effect we wanted by offsetting the camera. At certain angles inside the tank, there is something called TIR – total internal reflection – where the glass becomes a perfect mirror. We play off this quite a bit with the characters of Deb and Flo. At other angles, the view from the tank shows double imagery. Whenever we’re inside the tank, we always use reflections. Refractions become more of a selective thing and we only use them where necessary.”

    “As far as the objects in the tank, we tried to give them a very cheap, kitschy Vegas feel – lots of color and cheap plastic. We went to a lot of effort building fake molding lines and flashing for the plastic items.”

    Another key contributor to the film’s overall technical advances was Michael Lorenzen, who oversaw a group of animators and technicians in the Schooling/Flocking Unit. This unit helped to create spectacular crowd scenes that included tens of thousands of fish. They also populated the turtle drive sequence with up to 200 background turtles.

    Oren Jacob:“The thing about ‘Nemo’ that makes me most proud is that we were able to get to a place where the director was able to concentrate on the filmmaking aspects of the film and was less hassled by technical limitations or frustrations. We were also able to give the animators faster models, many in real time. This was another major breakthrough. Overall, we reduced the render time for each frame and gave the director the visual richness he wanted and within the schedule and budget allowed.” [CGN]

    Discuss this article on CGTalk.com - Digital Visual Effects Professionals >>

    Leonard Teo is the Editor of CGNetworks, email him here.

    << Previous Page (6 of 7 pages)

blog comments powered by Disqus