‘Finding Dory’ discovers joy through familiarity

Coverage by: Nguyen Le and Greg Fails

With 13 years passed since its groundbreaking debut, Pixar’s second oceanic outing seems set to be the victim of waiting like “Zoolander 2,” “Sin City 2” or, even closer to home, “Cars 2.” Like a salmon, however, “Finding Dory” effortlessly countered the flow with improved animation and a bigger heart.

Like “Finding Nemo,” the film begins with the protagonist in a tiny form and a heartfelt situation. A young Dory (Sloane Murray, with sweetness and charm to spare) is practicing her introductions to other blue tang friends with guidance from her parents, Charlie (Eugene Levy) and Jenny (Dianne Keaton). Yes, she makes her 10-second memory retention the main selling point – one that made her family a hazy memory and now the drive behind an epic journey to the Marine Life Institute in Monterey, California.

Forceful separation, danger in the dark, Tank Gang and main character at odds with determined planner – the narrative beats of “Finding Nemo” are also present in the sequel; the deja vus constantly stalling the moment when the true story takes center stage. While the film wisely zip through some of them, a few have to stay for the plot’s sake, all perhaps hoping that the rendered aquatic denizens’ charm can hide their familiar drafts.

And, golly, does director Andrew Stanton (returning to his post with co-skipper Angus MacLane) know how to create majestic distractions. The ocean – or a piece of it in the Institute’s exhibits – now have an infinite quality like its real-life counterpart, something that, in retrospect, “Nemo” couldn’t replicate because of a dark fog setting the draw distance. Creative flourishes in terms of lighting – subtle refractions and glistening specks – and camerawork – soft focus and first person – denote the new level of animation Pixar has achieved.

More advanced technology also allows Stanton to unleash his knack for crafting scope and crazily inventive set pieces within, and without, of water. To see Hank (Ed O’ Neill), a grumpy octopus who is one tentacle short, demonstrates his mobility with a coffee pot and expresses himself without a mouth being present are some downright mesmerizing animation.

Although Hank impresses technically, the brightest spot character-wise in “Dory” belongs to Bailey (Ty Burrell – also, mini “Modern Family” reunion alert). The beluga whale with echolocation issues delivers the film’s heartiest laughs, thanks to a silliness made tangible through brilliant casting. Overstuffing concerns do surface when the film promotes an array of side characters – nearsighted whale shark Destiny (Kaitlin Olson), seals duo Fluke (Idris Elba) and Rudder (Dominic West) and a celebrity whose name is used for great comic effect – but distinct personalities and useful contributions to plot make everyone more welcoming then when Lightning McQueen becomes a spy.

Taking a cue from his “Skyfall” days, composer Thomas Newman injects some espionage essence into the film’s many escape sequences. Newman also retains the ethereal, dreamy core that makes every wide shot of the sea a magical tableau and registers every emotion in key encounters. The music is also a character of its own, also a current coasting its way into viewers’ hearts.

So despite the familiarity that soaks the homebound swim of everyone’s favorite blue tang, “Finding Dory” is, until now, the most joyous movie-going experience that is well worth the wait. The 4,745-day wait.

INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL STOCKER

CoogRadio: Describe your role in the film and the goals that you originally set out with once you got this position?

Michael Stocker:  I was one of two animation supervisors – David DeVan is my partner. The two of us were, sort of, the first couple of animators on the show. Our job is to make sure that Andrew (Stanton) and Angus (MacLane), the directors, have a performance from our crew. Animators are actors, so we are acting with 3D characters that we’ve made and our job is to make sure they’re happy with that performance. We also make sure that our 70 animators are cast the shots that they will succeed at the best. We have some animators who are great with action, so we might give them more of the action things. One animator might do a test of animation of the sea lions and I said, “That’s great, here’s more!” They sort of gravitate to a character that they kind of like. I’m here to do Dory, I love Dory and I’m only doing Dory, so we will give them Dory. It’s perfect casting. Early on, we’re there to set up the entire show. We build all the characters, we get everything ready so when the animators come on to the show they can just start animating.

CR: Some of the new characters like Hank – what sort of changes did the design go through? I’m sure Hank went through many number of changes.

MS: He did. Hank is a good example. For example, where do you put Hank’s mouth? There’s an interesting thing. A real octopus has their mouths right at the center of the body, where their legs all meet. How do you talk with that? What do you do? So we thought, “Why don’t we just, like a (cut up) tennis ball, we just stick it right under the eyes?” But that didn’t feel like the world. Dory’s a real blue tang, I mean she can talk, has big eyeballs and stuff, but for the most part she swims like a real fish. Hank needed to feel like a real octopus, so that didn’t seem right. But we built those versions and we go, “That’s not right.” Also, Hank is this old, cantankerous character, so we ended up putting (the mouth) sort of under the flapping skin between his two front legs.

This did a couple things – it acted like a mustache, like an old guy’s big mustache. But then we can show it every once in a while, but for the most part we kind of hid it and we acted with the eyes. In animation, you have this magic triangle between the mouth and the eyes, and that’s where all the performance happens. This is where the acting is right here. This is where we want you to look. But if as soon as we take something away, we’re losing one of the things, one of the tools as an animator. How do you smile if you can’t see the mouth? It has to happen in the eyes. The eyes have gotten a little bit bigger, brows got a little bit more prominent so that we can act with that. One of the sequences where Hank is in the sink, you don’t see the mouth and it’s all right here. That’s an example of how over the course of animating and trying to figure out what the design would be we had to make some changes and we found a great place for that sort of a problem.

CR: What did you learn from previous films and what technology was available to you when you do this?

MS: That’s an interesting question. The one thing that I kind of always say is that, “What were the animation that they did in ‘Pinocchio’?” The rules that they used to animate Pinocchio, we all use to animate Dory. Squash and stretch, anticipation – these are all animation terms they used and discovered on those movies. As animators we do the same thing; the difference is we’re doing them in the computer, in a three dimensional world. I can draw my hand grabbing a cup – super easy. To make your character grab a cup – that’s not easy, that’s a pain in the neck! It’s just different. There’s something that’s really, really hard in the computer and some things that’s really, really easy, One thing that’s easy is when I animate Dory, for the most part, I can have 50 people animate Dory and that looks like Dory. When you draw Dory, 50 people can animate Dory and it will look like 50 different people animated Dory. It’s hard to keep it looking exactly the same – that’s the challenge. You get and you give based on technology.

In terms of the technology, one cool thing that we did develop over the last couple films that we used a lot on this was we have the ability to draw in a shot. So as we’re animating in the computer, I can pick up a pen and just draw right on the screen. It’s like a Cintiq (tablet). If I want to figure out how a tentacle might move, I can animate in 2D really fast that can take like an hour and I’m like, “OK, that’s working perf– nah, it doesn’t work. Delete.” Then animate something and, “Ah, that’s good.” Takes me two seconds to do (while) in the actual model it might take me two days. It’s in my shot and now I can just match it with the rigs. We have so many talented animators that can do both, so this drawing tool is a cool thing that we use a lot, especially on Hank.

CR: Considering how much time you spent animating those tear-jerker scenes – are you just dead inside? How do you feel when you watch those scenes?

MS: I walked into the animator’s office one time – they were working on that scene and they were wrecked. They’re working on it, trying to get into that. They feel that in there. But when those shots sit on our desk for three weeks, after a while they’ll go, “This fin! I just can’t get this fin!” You’re dealing with the bigger acting moments, but then eventually you’re down to the minutiae of every frame. You’ve already been through the journey of the emotion of the shot, and now you’re just trying to make it look as pretty as possible.

CR: For films like “Finding Nemo” and “Dory,” it’s a weird space you’re animating in because you have characters moving in all directions. How do you plot out scenes where you just have a lot of empty space?

MS: We have a whole department called “Layout” (and) their whole job is to cinematically construct the shots. They will build a whole bunch of different shots, and then they’ll cut those together in editorial like they’re editing a movie. This is Dory, Dory is kind of moving around and their job is camera and tracking and moving and creating what you’re talking about – that cinematic feel. When we get that, we get that shot and we realize what they’re trying to do. As an animator, I might get 10 shots in a row, the idea might be over the course of 10 shots. We will sort of mess with that, play with the camera on the fly, to make sure everything is cutting, working from shot to shot.

CR: How will you take this into your next film?

MS: It’s somewhat the same every film. We write the script, we have worlds like, “Hey, this takes place in MLI Hospital.” OK, so what does that look like? So we went to Monterey Bay Aquarium, we shot photographs of their hospital. We want to the aquarium in Vancouver, what does their hospital look like? They took all that information to build the set with the needs of whatever the script was. We’ll build these things knowing, “Here is the story, here is the set, here’s all the things that I need to tell the story in there.” Our directors and (production designer) Steve Pilcher build the sets in reality, and then put cameras around and shoot them cinematically. Everything is designed. When Andrew is happy with that, it comes to us and we have to animate the acting and everything in that set. We have the ability to load the set, load the camera, all that stuff – we can see everything.

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