THE PIXAR PLAYERS
Meet Andrew Stanton
and Lee Unkrich — the ‘Batman and Robin’ behind
Pixar’s latest, ‘Finding Nemo.’
by Mike Russell
Finding Nemo’ mastermind Andrew Stanton
is one of the most successful screenwriters alive, and
he doesn’t seem to care.
(read the uncut Web-only version here)
Working out of the animation hit factory
Pixar, Stanton has co-written the scripts for “Toy Story,” “A
Bug’s Life,” “Toy Story 2,” and “Monsters
Inc.” — films with a combined domestic theatrical
gross of $853 million. When confronted with his world-beating
status among movie scribes, Stanton at first seems thrown
(“Wow – now I want a raise! Could I get back
to you?”), then ponders the irony of having attained
such Hollywood success so far from Hollywood.
“I don’t even know any other screenwriters,” he
says. “It’s kind of weird being up here in
the Bay Area and sort of isolated, with just these guys,
doing what we do. I think it has probably a direct correlation
to our being able to make successful original stories — we’re
not jaded and daunted by the whole system, because we’re
just not part of it. I don’t even think like that.
Coming from, say, “Jurassic Park”-”Lost
World”-”Spider-Man” scripter David Koepp,
this might sound like false modesty. But Stanton’s
a Pixar man — one of the Marin County CG animation
company’s first employees — and he rhapsodizes
about its storytelling-first culture. “To this day,
[new Pixar employees] come in and they feel like they’ve
found Mecca or paradise,” he says. “They just
didn’t think that it could be this good — in
the style of moviemaking and the way people collaborate.”
It’s worth noting that he sings these praises on
the tail end of a grueling production cycle for Pixar’s
fifth feature, “Finding Nemo” – Stanton’s
first as director and solo screenwriter. It’s the
story of a clownfish named Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks)
searching the seas for his lost son with the help of a
memory-impaired sidekick, Dory (Ellen DeGeneres).
Lee Unkrich — a seasoned editor who probably suffered
whiplash when he came to Pixar from live-action stints
on TV’s “Silk Stalkings” and “Renegade” — serves
as “co-director” on the project and says “Nemo” is
a very personal effort for Stanton: “It was his vision.
He wrote the film, it was his idea to begin with … and
he actually does like five different voices.”
In Focus recently grabbed an hour of Stanton
time to talk about “Finding Nemo,” Albert Brooks,
the culture at Pixar, computer animation, surprising cameos
and the art of telling a good story.
o o o
Is Andrew Stanton as funny as his screenplays?
Lee Unkrich: If you get a few drinks in him, yeah.
Andrew Stanton: [Laughs] I
wish. If you ask me, I don’t
think I’m funny at all. I’m always striving
to surround myself with people who I think are much funnier.
Do you think there
are any supporting characters in “Finding
Nemo” that audiences will be quick to embrace?
Unkrich: There’s a scene where Marlin and Dory, after
battling their way through a jellyfish forest, get stung
into unconsciousness — and when they wake up, they
find themselves on the back of a sea turtle, Crush, who’s
swimming through the East Australian Current. And Crush
is like an ‘80s surfer dude, a Spicoli kind of character.
On these films, we typically do all the
voices ourselves before we hire the actors — and Crush, in those early
story reels, was being voiced by Andrew. We spent a long
time trying to cast a “real” voice for Crush,
but nothing was hitting quite right. But Crush proved to
be one of the most popular characters in the test screenings — so
we made the decision to just stick with Andrew.
So he’s an actor/director.
Unkrich: He is truly an actor/director. I always joke with
him and ask if he was excited when he got the call that
he got the part.
I would imagine there’s
a sort of merry contest at Pixar to get your temporary
onto the final reel.
Unkrich: Well, the expectation’s always that we’ll
be replacing Pixar people with real actors … or,
should I say, professional actors. I think we broke that
for the first time on “A Bug’s Life,” when
Joe Ranft, our head of story, played Heimlich the caterpillar — we
could never find another actor who made us laugh as much.
And now Joe has become part of our stable of actors who
do make it into the final films. He also played Wheezy
in “Toy Story 2.”
I have this image of all the Pixar guys doing voice exercises
at their keyboards.
Unkrich: It’s called “The Pixar Players.” Actually,
when we start each film, we have a series of auditions,
and anyone who’s interested can come in and do some
o o o
It strikes me that
the thing that Pixar is best at is getting to the primal
heart of an idea — boiling
the story idea down so thoroughly that it’s obvious.
Stanton: Yeah. We’re junkies for the truth of something.
Well, we’re junkies for entertainment, first and
foremost — but then we’re almost equal junkies
for tapping into the life-truth of something. And when
the two can be married just right, I mean, there’s
There’s a great term I learned from Joe Morgenstern,
who reviews for the Wall Street Journal — it’s
called “sprezzatura.” It basically means “the
art of concealing art.” Even when we were in art
school, we started to recognize that equation — that
if something looked deceivingly simple, there was probably
so much blood, sweat and tears behind it to make it look
We re-do so many things — again and again and again.
I mean, I don’t consider myself a writer as much
as I do a re-writer; I wouldn’t trust anything I
did that went right on the first pass. [Laughs]
But there is something
to be said for getting in that alpha state where you’re
making free associations.
Stanton: That’s certainly how you start. And sometimes,
that’s how you finish. But there’s a lot of
ugliness in between.
o o o
BATMAN and ROBIN
What’s the difference
between a director and a co-director?
Unkrich: I liken it to the team of Batman and Robin.
This is the first
film where you’re Batman, isn’t
Stanton: Yes. I’d been Robin for a while, and it’s … different.
[Laughs] I can’t say I like it more. You get to be
the point man and you get to call the shots — but
man, being number two is pretty cool. You get to go to
all the same meetings, almost have as much creative input,
but you can also hide in the shadows and not go to the
meetings you don’t want to and not be the target
when you don’t want to.
Unkrich: Ultimately, this film is Andrew’s film.
And it’s been my job to help him achieve his vision.
Stanton: It’s a nice position to be in. I appreciate
it more now that I’m not Robin.
o o o
THE TRUTH about
‘ TOY STORY 2’
Andrew, how did you
come to get sole screenplay credit on “Finding Nemo”?
Stanton: Well, after having four films under my belt,
they really let me run free on this one. I’d had the idea
running in my head since before “Bug’s Life” came
out, and [Pixar creative chief John Lasseter] knew about
that — but he sort of left me alone, because we had
to do “Toy Story 2” and “Monsters.” But
because we were all proving our worth again and again,
the leash just got longer and longer and longer, until
basically it was, “Just go do what you want and just
write what you want to write.”
After having gone through the hell of so
many movies, you keep wondering: “Maybe this time I can actually get
it a little closer to the bullseye in the script form before
we have to go and add a lot of people to the process.” Because
it’s always painful to have to change your mind,
and a lot of people’s labor is involved, and time.
The most famous example
of that at Pixar is “Toy
Story 2” — which was, if I’m not mistaken,
almost completely reconceived.
Stanton: Yes. It was completely reconceived until the 11th
Why did that happen?
Stanton: Well, it’s because the movie sucked.
[Laughs] I don’t think I’ve
ever had a filmmaker say that.
Stanton: [Laughs] Well, you really hear it a lot from
us. We always think our stuff sucks. And then we’re like, “Well,
then let’s do it again until it doesn’t.”
It was just one of those things where all
the people who were involved in making “Toy Story” were busy
making “A Bug’s Life” — and we
basically hired a whole completely new crew to make what
we thought would be a direct-to-video “Toy Story
2.” And it wasn’t until we had finished with “Bug’s
Life” and had the time to focus on what this other
group had been doing that we realized how off-the-mark
it was, and how much we cared about “Toy Story” — enough
to realize we didn’t want this to go that way.
Was it the same story?
Stanton: The bones were pretty much the same. There were
some key things that we felt were missing — and
those were ideas that actually came from a lot of think-tank
sessions from the first movie.
So then, suddenly, it’s like having a class reunion — you
get all those guys back in a room that worked on the first
one, and we all start collectively remembering ideas that
we never used for the first one and we were finishing each
other’s sentences after a couple hours. Suddenly,
a million ideas were coming back to us — you know,
the whole thing with Squeeze-Toy Penguin, having two Buzzes,
a toy collector … . They were all vestiges of avenues
we thought we might go down on the first movie.
o o o
ALBERT BROOKS and the PIZZA PLANET Truck
Many people have hailed Albert Brooks as the funniest
Unkrich: I’d put him way up there, definitely. But
I think people will really be surprised by the level of
emotion and heart that Albert brings to the role. I mean,
he’s played some characters in the past that people
had some empathy for, like his character in “Broadcast
News.” But I’ll tell you — after people
see “Finding Nemo,” they’re gonna have
a whole new level of respect for what Albert’s capable
of. Because while this film is very, very funny, it’s
also tragic and emotionally powerful at times.
Stanton: Even Albert said that. Albert said, “Wow,
you really like my character. You really care for him.
Who would have thought that it took for me to be a voice
of a fish for people to care about me that much in a movie?”
Is it weird when you’re directing someone who’s
an acclaimed comedy director himself?
Stanton: Oh, my gosh. I mean, I walk around all day quoting
Albert Brooks lines. And to suddenly be asking him to read
a line — and then to suddenly be telling him he’s
not reading the lines the way I think is funny enough — you
really sort of stop yourself and you go, “Geez — should
I be doing this?”
Albert made it very comfortable. I thought
he might end up being overbearing, because he can do it
all — write,
direct and act — but actually it turned out to be
the exact opposite. He knows what it’s like to be
on the other side and to have to direct others, and so
he was very, very, very understanding. He would even say, “If
you didn’t get what you wanted, tell me. I’ll
do it again.”
Unkrich: I think we ended up spending 24
hours in the recording studio with Ellen DeGeneres on “Finding Nemo” — in
little 2- to 4-hour chunks over the course of a few years — because
we’re constantly bringing the actors back in to read
the new material that we’ve come up with. And we
always encourage our actors to improvise and bring a dose
of reality to the scenes, and to bring a lot of themselves — especially
in the case of Albert and Ellen.
Is there a voice actor
just brought you an exceptional level of joy?
Unkrich: We call John Ratzenberger “Our Little Lucky
Charm.” We just couldn’t imagine making a movie
without him — and I doubt we ever will make a movie
make a movie without him or the Pizza Planet truck.
Unkrich: Well, both. [Laughs]
Is the Pizza Planet
truck [which has made a cameo appearance in every Pixar
in “Finding Nemo”?
Unkrich: The Pizza Planet truck is in “Finding Nemo.” For
a while, we thought about having it be a wreck at the bottom
of the ocean, but we didn’t end up doing that — so
people will have to keep their eyes peeled.
“Monsters Inc.” is one of the first films
in which you have a retroactive cameo — you have
a character from “Finding Nemo” who turned
up in “Monsters Inc.”
Unkrich: Nemo actually makes two cameos in “Monsters
Inc.” He’s in Boo’s bedroom at the very
end of the movie, when Boo is running around her room and
grabbing toys to show Sully; Nemo is one of the little
squeak-toys she picks up. And he also shows up when Randall
gets jettisoned at the very end of the film into the backwoods
swamp trailer: You catch a little glimpse into the inside
of the trailer, and you can see Nemo mounted on a plaque.
And that’s also the trailer that the “Bug’s
Life” village is underneath.
Unkrich: With the Pizza Planet truck parked next to it.
And we have an “Incredibles” cameo of sorts
in “Finding Nemo.” So I think that will become
a little tradition now — to catch a little glimpse
of the next film in each previous film.
o o o
THE PIXAR METHOD
What’s the trick
to squeezing huge laughs out of G-rated material?
Stanton: I don’t necessarily feel that we’re
trying to be funny. A lot of the things that make you laugh
aren’t necessarily jokes; sometimes they’re
just quirky truths. They could be just the pantomime of
how a character walks across the screen, or it could be
the juxtaposition of two shots — and they all root
themselves in telling a great story.
that “Finding Nemo” is
Stanton: It wasn’t for the sake of being different;
I felt the story was telling us what it wanted to be. I
don’t know how else to put it: It was somewhat in
the camp of “Bambi” underwater — not
that it literally is that — and it just required
a little bit more intimacy and sensitivity. And even though
it may feel like there’s less humor from a percentage
standpoint in comparison to the other movies, you laugh
just as hard when you do because you care just as much — and
that’s the key.
Is it unusual to work at a company where the technical
and story sides of the business overlap so thoroughly?
Stanton: It might be. It’s all I know. When I started,
I was like employee number nine with this group, and now
Unkrich: I’ll admit I was as ignorant
as anybody when I first came to Pixar about the role of
in animation. I just assumed that animators created the
animation, and all an editor had to do was splice it together.
It was a real eye-opener when I saw how the process really
The process is really no different than
it was 75 years ago, when Walt Disney made “Snow White.” We
spend the first few years of making these films toiling
away just with storyboards — creating very elaborate
storyboard versions of the movie that we edit together
with temporary voices, temporary sound effects and music,
creating what’s called a “story reel.” It’s
a rough-draft version of the movie.
We spend a huge amount of time — literally years — writing
and re-writing and shaping the movie, structuring the movie,
throwing out scenes, creating new scenes. It’s really
a luxury — but to be honest with you, now I can’t
imagine doing it any other way. If I were to go back to
live-action, I think that I’ll definitely borrow
a lot of the techniques and procedures that I’ve
used in animation, in terms of honing and shaping the stories.
o o o
DOES NOT SING
songs, of course, play important roles in Pixar films — but
Pixar characters themselves do not sing.
Stanton [emphatically]: No.
Is that a rule?
Stanton: Not a rule, but when “Toy Story” came
out, it was a rule then. What made successful animation
was a big, big, big musical. And we appreciated or liked
musicals — but none of us felt that that was a requirement
of making a great animated movie.
It seemed as each animated movie in the
and early ‘90s was becoming more and more successful,
the scope of what people thought an animated movie could
do got narrower and narrower and narrower. We were very
frustrated. We’re all such film geeks, and it was
so frustrating to read these reviews by some of your favorite
reviewers, and you would really respect their insights — and
then suddenly, whenever an animated movie came to be critiqued,
they would just turn their brains off and basically say, “Good
for kids. We give four stars.”
And we’d be like, “What? If that thing had
been live-action and all the same story points had been
done, this thing would have gotten an F!” And we
felt like, “I want to make an animated movie that’s
trying to be just as good as all my other favorite movies — screw
what the medium is.” We were just frustrated with
being pigeonholed — and then suddenly there’s
enough of us together in a room going, “Wait a minute,
we all feel like this? Well, then we can’t be wrong.” And
that’s been our thinking ever since.
o o o
THE WEIGHT OF WATER
Now, one of the big
technical innovations on “Monsters
Inc.” was the sort of new realism with which animated
fur and hair behaved. What’s the next visual leap
forward with “Nemo”?
Unkrich: I can say, without any hesitation, it’s
Now, see, as a layman, I would think water would be easier.
Unkrich: Well, it’s not. [Laughs]
Stanton: Oh, it’s so difficult.
Stanton: Because it’s organic and it always changes
its form. Water can be a liquid and a solid and a gas.
It’s constantly changing shape. Computers are good
at borders, edges — you know, a cube, a sphere. But
to have something that’s truly changing its volume
and shape every single frame, it’s just a computing
Unkrich: In some of our early tests, the
animation of Marlin swimming around felt like he was just
swimming in air,
or at best in a chlorinated pool. So we collected different
shots of real underwater photography — you know,
sunlight filtering down from the surface of the ocean,
very murky water, all kinds of different situations.
we handed those collections of shots to Oren Jacob, the
supervising technical director on the film, and laid down
the gauntlet that we wanted to try and re-create those
exact shots in CG. And they nailed it perfectly — we
literally couldn’t tell the difference between the
two, if you can believe that. On the “Nemo” DVD,
we’ll actually do some side-by-side comparisons of
the early tests — and I challenge anyone to tell
And then we had to step back and figure
out ways of caricaturing — because
we don’t want things to look ultra-realistic. If
we’d done that, our characters would have stood out,
because they’re caricatured fish. They’re fish
that have eyes on the front of their heads instead of on
the sides, and they talk. [Laughs]
It ends up looking like Donald
Duck matted over the live-action bits of “Three
Unkrich: Exactly. So we took the underwater world — which
is, in reality, a very messy place, completely random — and
we applied an order to it. It’s almost as if God
had an opportunity to go back and tidy things up a bit.
We kept limiting the underwater life and the coral and
the rocks to more simple geometric shapes, and limited
our color palate. But at the same time, we applied very
realistic textures to everything.
So it’s a very subtle difference. At Pixar, we want
to create a believable world, but it’s not necessarily
a realistic world. It’s essential to have a believable
world in order for audiences to connect on a much higher
level with the story and characters.
For a while there, people were just
going, “Gee whiz!
Look at the effects-toys I have!” Now we’re
finally getting to the point where people remember
to use these tools to tell a story.
I’ve definitely seen a trend in the kind of questions
that I’m asked on the films. Back on the first “Toy
Story,” it was all about technique. No one had ever
seen anything like that before. The trend over the years
has been fewer and fewer questions about CG, and more and
more questions about issues of story and character — which
we love to answer, because that’s really what we
invest most of our energy in. It’s harder than any
of the CG work we do.