An Early Look at Pixar's FINDING DORY

In early March, Disney invited me and a handful of other writers to fly to Monterey Bay, California, and attend an early press event for Pixar’s newest film, Finding Dory. Why Monterey? Because it’s the site of one of the world’s coolest aquariums, where a lot of the Dory team did hands-on research for the movie, and it serves as the inspiration for a major location in the new movie. We spent two days checking out the aquarium and talking to the filmmakers about revisiting and expanding the world of Finding Nemo, how they brought the story to life, and much more.

“Nobody plans to make a sequel thirteen years later. It’s a product of character love,” director Andrew Stanton told us. Here’s the full story about how the idea for this movie came to be, straight from the man who dreamed it up:

“For me, nobody was going to do anything unless the filmmaker offered up one day that they want to do it and they had an idea. I knew that if I said the words “Finding…” anything, it would start a snowball. So I was very cautious. In 2010, I had a notion about wanting to resolve Dory’s issues and there might be a whole story worth talking about with her there, but I waited until I think late 2012 to say it out loud to anybody, even internally, because it was too loaded…I like that it came kind of naturally. I want anything that I work on to come as honestly as possible. Somebody was asking earlier and I didn’t think I knew what sparked it, but I think it was around 2010 I had to watch Nemo again. I hadn’t watched it since it came out — I don’t usually watch my films for a long time afterwards because I just see all the work — but then I get curious if enough time passes, and it’s usually five plus years, and you’re just like, ‘OK, maybe I’ll have the slightest chance of seeing this how other people saw it.’ And I had to watch Nemo for something, and I think that’s what got my brain going again, and ultimately, some time later, I thought of the Dory idea.
But there’s no strategy. The only strategy you can give to Pixar is that we’re story-driven, and the stories come from so many different ways and sparks and manners, whether they’re original or not. They’re all original when you’re thinking them as a story standpoint because they’re all just ingredients that possibly could make a new food that you haven’t discovered yet. So you don’t really see it as an extension. If anything, you’re already loaded with a couple of key ingredients, but very quickly you’re back to square one like everything else, like, ‘Now what do we do with these ingredients?’”

Early in our trip, Stanton showed us a few scenes from the movie, including the film’s opening thirteen minutes. As someone who liked Finding Nemo but has only revisited it once or twice in the decade-plus since it came out, I was pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to get sucked back into that undersea world. Much like the beginning of Nemo, Dory’s opening sequence is pretty heart-wrenching, but Stanton asked that we not spoil it in order to preserve the surprise for audiences. So I’ll pick up just after that, when the movie briefly crosses over with Finding Nemo and shows the scene in which Dory and Marlin meet for the first time. That crossover only lasts a few seconds, though, and we quickly cut ahead to one year after the adventure of the original film, catching up with Dory as she tags along with Marlin and Nemo on a field trip to see a passing stingray migration. As Mr. Ray teaches Nemo’s class about the instinct of going home, Dory is suddenly hit with flashes of memories of her parents, who she hasn’t seen in years. Of course, she quickly forgets most of what she just remembered, but something has stuck this time: she can’t quite retain the specifics, but she knows she misses her family, and that’s the impetus for her quest to track them down. (You’ll get the gist of this by watching the trailers.)

We saw a few other scenes, too. In one, we meet a new character named Hank, a septopus (he only has seven tentacles) voiced by Modern Family’s Ed O’Neill who camouflages and humorously slinks his way around a research facility called Marine Life Institute and ends up helping Dory — though he appears to have ulterior motives. In the best sequence of all the ones we were shown, Hank and Dory end up inside a touch pool at an aquarium section of the institute, with kids plunging their hands into the water and poking and grabbing at all of the terrified creatures unfortunate enough to be in that exhibit. The scene is played like a horror movie, with lots of yelling and hiding; the best shot is of a starfish clawing at the ground and screaming as it’s being dragged off into the shadows, like it’s being pulled into the darkness by some unholy demon. We also meet Destiny, a nearsighted whale shark voiced by It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia’s Kaitlin Olson who was friends with Dory years earlier, and a beluga whale named Bailey voiced by Modern Family’s Ty Burrell, who is convinced his ability to echolocate is busted. Marlin and Nemo weren’t present in most of the footage we saw, but fans shouldn’t worry too much: Stanton said they’re an “essential” part of the movie.

One of the big mantras that the director stressed to his crew, though, was that this is first and foremost Dory’s movie, and he wanted the audience to emotionally be with her on the journey she takes in the story. Cinematographer Jeremy Lasky explains: “One of the ways we handled that is that the audience discovers the Marine Life Institute along with Dory. Meaning, rather than having a bunch of establishing shots and explanation, we’re dropped in that tank right with her and we learn information as she learns it.” Lighting artist Ian Megibben chimed in: “On a similar note, we also worked to de-emphasize characters that are not Dory. The humans in the movie were often treated as framing devices, or in lighting, we would throw them into silhouette. This was all an effort to de-emphasize the humans as characters and really point the story back towards Dory.” The production design reflected this mantra in subtle ways, too; they created safe, round edges in the familiar reef in the beginning of the film and gradually moved into harsher angles and straight lines in the institute as Dory got further out of her element. The movie was also “shot” with a CG camera that simulated the effect of a 35mm film camera, but some sections (like the reef and things from Dory’s POV) were mainly shot with a 16mm camera to accentuate the fact that Dory is a tiny fish in an immense world. Again, this is all stuff that the average viewer won’t pick up on, but it’s part of the very smart way that the Pixar filmmakers go about making movies: every decision serves either character or story.

But just because the whole movie is created in a computer doesn’t mean it’s any easier than a typical film shoot. The film has just under 1300 total shots, and the filmmakers averaged about 70 takes per shot (one particularly complicated shot took 146 takes to get right). Earlier in the process, the story team generated over 103,000 storyboards, with reviews from John Lasseter and the Pixar brain trust every four months, to get things in order. That process lasted three and a half years.

Co-director Angus MacLane and story supervisor Max Brace walked us through the touch pool sequence, which — with its depiction of what the audience considers normal behavior, only told from a different perspective — loosely recalled the terrifying onslaught of toddlers playing with the toys in Toy Story 3’s Sunnyside Daycare. It was very cool: Brace drew out storyboards for us as MacLane simulated the act of offering notes, which really gave us a good feel of what it’d be like to be in the room as these artists slowly pare the story down to its essential parts.

Considering Dory’s memory, Nemo’s fin, Hank’s missing tentacle, Destiny’s nearsightedness, and Bailey’s broken echolocation, the idea of the movie being a metaphor for living with a disability isn’t lost on the filmmakers. I asked director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins about that reading of the movie:

Collins: “The disability thing has always been kind of an undercurrent there, and it’s been an interesting one because it’s been more about the fact that nobody else sees Dory that way. I think when they describe Dory, they say, ‘Oh, she suffers from short-term memory loss and she’s hilarious and she’s super funny and everybody loves her’ and all of these things, and it’s kind of low on the list of things, though it is a super defining characteristic for her. So we didn’t want to fix it. That was number one. We debated it — we were like, ‘Is this something where she gets better?’ But we were like, ‘No. It’s too much of who she is. It’s fundamental to her, so we’re not trying to fix her.’ Then it became about, OK, if we’re not trying to fix her, how do we give her enough of a memory to keep her going through the film with a goal in mind, and that’s obviously when you look at a lot of your supporting characters to help out with that.
It all kind of came together in different phases, but each one of those characters has something: Bailey’s echolocation doesn’t work, and Destiny can’t see very well, and Hank is a septopus, and Nemo has a little fin. What I kind of love about it is that Dory doesn’t talk about really any of it. They all kind of confess those things to her, but she says, ‘I think you swim beautifully. Anyway…’ and she kind of moves on. The only person she apologizes for in the beginning is herself. So unintentionally, it was more about making sure that by the end of this film, she’s not apologizing for herself. She treats her own challenges the same way she treats everybody else’s, which is to not even [make a big deal about them].”
Stanton: “That was sort of the universal thing to me. I always thought she was more of a metaphor for everybody’s got a flaw, or everybody’s got something quirky about themselves that they see as a flaw, but oftentimes it’s their very strength, their superpower. It’s more about how they look at themselves and how they approach things and embrace that quirkiness about them that makes them move forward and conquer life a little bit more, and be more independent and self-sufficient.”

They also spoke about the legacy of not only this movie, but of all Pixar films:

Collins: "Andrew was saying the other day, ‘I feel like sometime soon, in ten years or five years, there are going to be a generation of kids that watch [Pixar] films totally out of order.’ There’s not going to be the knowledge of ’This one came first, and then that one, and that one,’ which is how we all think about it now because we’re all in it."
Stanton: "We treat it like baseball, like ‘That’s that person’s record.’ But in ten years, nobody’s going to give a squat about it. They’re just going to go, ‘I watched this, and I watched that, and I watched that.’ And this will be all just air."
Collins: "Which is cool, I think, because what that suggests is that it’s a level playing field and there isn’t an outcome we’re all striving for. It’s its own thing. You have to feel like we’re doing this for the movie, and then we need to be done and see what the next movie’s going to be."
Stanton: "We used to say this when we were trying to figure out who we wanted to be after Toy Story — I remember saying this a lot — the only thing that got us through Toy Story was because we didn’t think we were going to get to do it again. We knew the technology better than anybody, and we knew that it was going to be the ugliest picture we ever made, and we knew that it would look limited much sooner than anybody would want it to. So we said, ‘What are the films that are so clearly technologically limited, but we still watch?’ And it was The Wizard of Oz, Star Wars, and Snow White, I think. We said, ‘It’s because of the story. We’re going to be all of our eggs in the story basket.’ Then I remember when we were in that world, we took a broad view and thinking this was our one shot, we used to say ‘We’re in it for the grandkids, not the kids.’ Meaning I’m actually in this for the long ball. I’m hoping that it will go past one generation to the next without any of the hoopla of [it being] the first computer animated movie ever, the genre changing — if you strip all of that away and the context of everything in the world changes and this is just found on a chip somewhere, will it be watched? That was our phrase ‘We’re in it for the grandkids instead of the kids’ [came from]. That worked for us so well, it’s basically been our rule ever since."

At the end of Finding Nemo, the director thought he had told a complete story that wouldn’t need to be revisited. But as you read above, the question of whether Dory would be all right eventually spurred him to make this movie to answer it. As for whether or not Dory, Nemo, and Marlin might return in even more adventures beyond this sequel, Stanton is doubtful, but doesn’t rule it out. “I really do think now it’s a closed circuit, but who knows? I’ve eaten those words [before].”

Finding Dory hits theaters on June 17, 2016.

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