Ocean coloured scenes

Nick Smurthwaite goes behind the scenes of Pixar’s latest CGI blockbuster

The best animation is like a magic trick – knowing how it works diminishes your sense of wonder. That said, anyone involved in computer graphics is bound to look at Finding Nemo, the latest blockbuster from Pixar (other releases include Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Monsters Inc), and wonder how on earth they did it.

The storyline could have been jotted down on the back of a napkin one lunchtime. Over-anxious single parent (male) faces the biggest adventure of his life when he takes off in search of his missing, possibly abducted, offspring (Nemo). Oh yes, and all but three of the film’s cast of thousands are fish, with 95 per cent of the action taking place underwater.

Judging by the end credits, it took an army of creatives to pull off Pixar’s most ambitious CGI project to date: some 300 people were involved over a four-year period. This isn’t unusual for animated features. The early Disneys were every bit as protracted and painstaking in the making. But you tend to imagine that all that whizzy new digital technology developed over the past couple of decades would have made the process considerably less arduous.

Not so, according to Finding Nemo’s production designer Ralph Eggleston. ‘Computer-generated animation is much more difficult and time-consuming than the old trace-and-paint methods. It’s a myth that computers make it easier. You can easily work on one short sequence for between six and ten months,’ he says.

It seems there’s no limit to Pixar’s perfectionism and pioneering spirit. Clearly the creators of the Toy Story character Buzz Lightyear and Monsters Inc regard themselves not only as market leaders in the field of CGI, but also as creative innovators with each new project.

‘Technically, we’ve pushed things beyond anything we’ve done before,’ according to Pixar’s presiding genius, John Lassiter, who was director of all four previous hits, which have grossed more than $1.7bn (about £1.1bn) worldwide, of Finding Nemo.

The little task Lassiter and his team set themselves this time was to animate the Great Barrier Reef so that it would appear both awesome and intimate for their simple story of the neurotic clown fish Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), who goes in search of little Nemo (nine-year-old Alexander Gould) with the help of a wacky blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres).

‘Our goal wasn’t to make it look realistic so much as believable, using the amazing tools available to us in computer animation,’ says Lassiter. ‘By stylising the design of things, adding more geometry and pushing the colours, we were able to create a natural and credible world for our characters.’

To tell the story convincingly, the technical team had to discover new ways of animating underwater imagery with the computer. Long before anyone picked up a mouse, technical director Oren Jacob identified five key components to suggest an underwater environment – lighting, particulate matter, surge and swell, murk, and what became known as reflections and refractions.

‘This was a far more complicated assignment than, say, Monsters Inc,’ explains Jacob. ‘Almost every shot involves some kind of simulation programme or simulated movement. There was a lot more interdependency between the various creative departments to make sure everything looked just right.’

In pursuit of the right look, the core creatives visited aquariums, went diving in the coral reefs off Hawaii, sat through lectures by an ichthyologist (fish expert), watched endless videos of Blue Planet and spent hour upon hour observing a 25-gallon glass fish tank on-site. They also studied earlier Disney features that included underwater scenes – Pinocchio, The Sword in the Stone, Bedknobs and Broomsticks and The Little Mermaid. Curiously, they found less inspiration in these films than in the land-locked Bambi, still regarded by many of today’s animators as Disney’s finest achievement.

‘We kept coming back to Bambi because of the way the film-makers adhered to the real nature of how animals moved and what their motor skills were,’ explains director Andrew Stanton. ‘We came to think of Finding Nemo as Bambi underwater.’

The first challenge facing the animation team of 50-odd was to create a cast of characters with no arms or legs. ‘We put a lot of work into the face and getting the facial articulation right,’ recalls animation supervisor Dylan Brown.

‘We didn’t want them to be heads on sticks like in a Monty Python sketch. Their faces had to be integrated with their entire body language. Whereas a human character would turn only his head to look at something, a fish might turn his head just a little, then his entire body would pivo

t along with it.’

Equally innovative was the deployment of fins both as a means of expression and in the more naturalistic role of propelling the characters along. It gives the characters a kinetic feel that reminds you they’re functioning underwater.

In the past, animators dealing with underwater subjects avoided letting their characters float, but the makers of Finding Nemo have come up with ingenious ways of simulating that mysterious floating sensation. ‘We always tried to incorporate naturalistic fish movements into the acting,’ says Brown. ‘We studied their movements on video. By slowing things down we figured out how to get our characters from one place to another in the course of a frame or two. You have to remember that a fish travels three feet in a flash. Blink and it’s gone.’

The man charged with the overall look of Finding Nemo was Eggleston, production designer on the original Toy Story and an Oscar-winner for his animated short, For The Birds, which serves an appetiser on the Monsters Inc video/DVD. Somewhat surprisingly, in view of the sophisticated technical wizardry at his disposal, Eggleston cites the Technicolor films of the 1940s as a big influence on his concept: ‘There was always a slight glow around the characters in Technicolor because the image wasn’t perfectly calibrated as it is today. That’s what I wanted to try to achieve, that glow.

‘Nemo 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. Every piece of coral is backlit and the entire set is like an underwater jewel. I was the third person to work on Nemo, so I’ve been part of the technical process since it started, yet I still I found myself sitting in the viewing theatre thinking, “How did they do this?”.’

One of Eggleston’s challenges was to make his fishy protagonists appealing without being cutesy. ‘Fish are slimy, scaly things and somehow we had to ensure the audience would relate to them. The director made it clear he didn’t want us to over-humanise them, so we had to bring the underwater world closer to the caricatured nature of the fish. If we put our fish in anything that looked even quasi-real it wouldn’t have worked. The characters and their environment had to be on a parallel track.

‘One way to make them more attractive was to use backlighting and rim lights to take the focus off their scaly surface quality, making them appear luminous,’ he adds. ‘We had to figure out the common elements so that stylistically we could tie them all together.’

While Finding Nemo is neither as funny as Monsters Inc nor as narratively sophisticated as the Toy Story films, it seldom looks less than sensational and some of the set pieces take your breath away. I’d be most surprised if Pixar didn’t have another stonking great box office hit on its hands.

Finding Nemo opens in the West End on 3 October and nationwide on 10 October. Also visit www.findingnemo.com for previews and behind the scenes footage

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