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The deep blue sea change

Special to The Times

There’s never been any question that for the path-breaking Pixar Animation Studios, the computer animation revolution has been more about storytelling than software.

Just think about what’s emotionally at stake in the “Toy Story” films, “A Bug’s Life” and “Monsters, Inc.”: The fear of abandonment and mortality, the redemp- tion of a likable loser and the paternal outpouring of a gregarious hero.

For the record:

12:00 AM, May. 11, 2003 For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 11, 2003 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part E Page 2 Calendar Desk 1 inches; 59 words Type of Material: Correction
Animators’ source -- A May 4 story on the making of the animated feature “Finding Nemo” incorrectly listed Imax’s “Blue Planet” as an example of the animators’ research sources. In fact, they watched the Discovery Channel’s “Blue Planet: Seas of Life” series. Also, the story said the animators became licensed divers. A diver receives a certification, not a license.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday May 11, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 61 words Type of Material: Correction
Animators’ source -- A May 4 Sunday Calendar story on the making of the animated feature “Finding Nemo” incorrectly listed Imax’s “Blue Planet” as an example of the animators’ research sources. In fact, they watched the Discovery Channel’s “Blue Planet: Seas of Life” series. Also, the story said the animators became licensed divers. A diver receives a certification, not a license.

So while it comes as no surprise that Pixar conquers computer-generated imagery’s scariest taboo of all -- water -- with its fifth feature, “Finding Nemo” (opening May 30), the bravest move is its risky fish-out-of-safe-water tale.

How many animated comedy-adventures can you think of begin with the horrific death of a mother and all but one of her newborns? And then explore such intense themes as child abduction and overly protective fathers learning to let go of their sons?

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In “Nemo,” the neurotic clown fish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks) loses his son Nemo (Alexander Gould) in the Great Barrier Reef when divers spirit him away to a fish tank in a Sydney dentist’s office.

Inspired by the companionship of a friendly-but-forgetful blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin embarks on a dangerous trek to rescue Nemo, who carries out a wild escape plan of his own with his wacky cohorts.

The story unfolds in striking visuals, capturing the look and feel of a complex coral reef and a vast ocean that undulates authentically to the actions of the fish.

“Never has a subject matter lent itself to [computer animation] quite like the underwater world of ‘Finding Nemo,’ ” asserted “Toy Story” director and Pixar creative guru John Lasseter, who, as always, preached the mantra “Story, story, story.”

“One of the challenges [was] dealing with the father’s desperation. So many of us at Pixar are parents now and have kids in school. The way we make films is that we tap into our own feelings about the subject matter.

“And here, the question is: If a child of ours was taken, to what length would we go to rescue them? There were times when we realized that humor wasn’t appropriate given the circumstances, and yet we couldn’t be too gloomy, because who wants to watch a desperate father all the time? So there’s real balance.”

As with “Monsters, Inc.,” Lasseter served as executive producer on “Finding Nemo,” letting another protege, Andrew Stanton -- known for ingenious plot twists (Woody’s frantic attempt to light Buzz’s rocket without a match in “Toy Story”) as well as emotional depth (Woody’s dark tunnel moment in “Toy Story 2") -- go behind the virtual camera for the first time.

It was during the making of “A Bug’s Life,” which Stanton also co-directed, that he worked up the courage to pitch “Finding Nemo” to his mentor, regaling him with story and drawings for an hour.

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“Afterward, when he asked me what I thought, I told him, ‘You had me at fish,’ ” Lasseter recalled.

Stanton’s life, from his guilt about not spending enough time with his own son to fond childhood memories of his dentist’s fish tank, informed his funny and poignant fish tale.

“What I was relating to more in my life was the battle of just trying to relax as a father and at times having to watch out for my son,” Stanton explained during production last summer at Pixar’s laid-back campus in Emeryville. “I became obsessed with this premise that fear can deny a good father from being one.”

An underwater breakthrough

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Water, of course, was the big scare, according to Stanton. But he didn’t care. “I said, ‘Come on, it can’t be that hard, because it’s really just a trick of your eye.’ ”

But he quickly discovered just how far he was diving into the digital deep end. “The thing about water,” Stanton continued, “is that it just does not retain its shape every frame. It keeps changing. That’s what [makes it] so expensive and so hard to corral. But underwater’s slightly different, it’s actually more contained of an issue.”

Stanton said the animators analyzed the physics of being underwater and broke down the dynamics as if they were baking a cake.

The success of the animation came down to answering two simple questions: Why do I think I’m underwater? and What’s making it not seem like air?

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For three years, Pixar’s technology team immersed itself in research and became expert oceanographers. Meanwhile, Stanton and his fellow animators visited aquariums, became licensed deep-sea divers and studied documentaries such as Imax’s “Blue Planet” about fish and underwater life. They even had their own 25-gallon fish tank at Pixar. Any time they needed inspiration, Stanton and company could gaze at the blue tangs, royal grammas and other assorted species. They decided on three visual styles for the fish: gummy, velvety and metallic.

The technology team, led by Oren Jacob, identified several key components that suggest an underwater environment, including patterns of shimmering light that dance on the ocean floor, the ever-present debris that appears in water, the constant surge and swell that drives plant and aquatic life, and the way the color of light filters out over distance and appears dark. Although their initial tests were too photo-real, they inevitably found just the right hyper-reality in keeping with Pixar’s trademark look.

This enabled them to create a suite of 3-D water simulator tools, which allowed the water to not only interact with itself through crashes and crests but also achieved the necessary sense of viscosity. In addition, Jacob and his colleagues wrote programming for an entire surge and swell system to propel the underwater world. “It makes the grass move, it makes all the soft coral move, all the particulate matter move and it even makes the fish move in place,” Jacob explained.

Pixar also enhanced its highly regarded facial articulation software to animate the fish.

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When you pull the teeth back and smile, your cheek mass moves over your cheek bone and you actually get folds over your eye. But how do you express emotion through fish?

Though many of the animators puzzled, “it never really worried me up front,” said Stanton, " because I remembered how they did it in ‘Bambi,’ where they maintained the integrity of the species no matter what the animal was and managed to convey all kinds of emotions. It was this strange hybrid of human gesticulation and motor skills of that species.

“With the fish, we were able to achieve the same result by having them flap their fins, use their eyes and mouth, but also through [constant] movement in that sheer volume of space underwater so they don’t look like talking heads.... I told the animators to think in terms of puppetry to articulate very simple emotions.”

Production designer Ralph Eggleston (who won an Oscar for the Pixar short “For the Birds”) used color to convey a sense of time and place in a realm with ever-changing seascapes. “So we go from the clear turquoise to the green turquoise to the darker green turquoise to black, to blue turquoise, to blue, to green.”

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Though he’s proud of “Finding Nemo’s” “Bambi"-inspired beauty, Stanton can’t help thinking about the importance of the father-son story -- what he calls finding the parent in all of us -- and the revelation he had watching “Toy Story 2" for the first time. “There was this shot where Woody lifts up the grate and there was this dusty ventilation [duct], and it was this metaphor for death. And he has to decide whether he’s going to go back with his friends or go into storage in this museum. And he looks down that long, dark tunnel.

“It’s a real short moment that I conceived, but I was struck by how intense that was on screen -- we’ve tapped into this primal life issue with this toy. And I loved it. I said, ‘I want to do a movie that indulges in that.’ And that’s really what kind of got me going with ‘Nemo.’ ”


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