PIXAR PLAYERS (uncut)
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.
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;
in a vacuum, I think I turn very dour and dark.
Do you have a favorite supporting character
Nemo”? Do you think there are any that audiences
will be quick to embrace?
Unkrich: Oh, I can definitely answer
that one: 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 “scratch voice” onto
the final reel.
Unkrich: Well, we never make any promises — and
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
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.”
And now other people have made it onto the
finished films. Bob Peterson — the head of story on “Monsters
Inc.” — played Roz, the slug receptionist.
Andrew’s played little cameos here and there. I play
a pelican in this film. It’s oftentimes because the
part is so small that it’s not worth trying to get
an actor for.
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
So Andrew, you’re an animator
who writes dialogue and does voices. Is that combination
of skill sets fairly
unusual in professional animation?
Stanton: I think it’s random. I mean, I was an actor,
I did a lot of theater, I made short films with my video
camera and my Super 8-mm camera, like a lot of other budding
filmmakers. I had to write, direct and act in them with
all my friends, because nobody else would. And all those
things still come into play — even though the stakes
are higher and the bucks are bigger and the toys are fancier.
You’re still using those same instincts that you
had when you were a kid running around in your backyard.
You used to work on “Mighty Mouse Adventures” with
John Kricfalusi, right?
Stanton: For one summer, on the first season.
Kricfalusi insisted during the “Ren and Stimpy” era
that cartoons should always be written by animators. If
you can’t draw, you can’t write.
Stanton: Well, that’s a bit of a purist theory.
But there is a certain sixth sense that animators have — that
you know what there is to be mined, entertainment-wise,
from that medium. So I certainly think I have that as an
advantage — I definitely feel that I have a good
sense of what to take advantage of.
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.
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.
We learned long ago that each of us brings
different skills to the table. I come from a live-action
have a lot of experience in directing and editing. I was
just editing for a while, but it became clear that I had
a lot to contribute in staging the films and supervising
all the camera work. Doing a lot of work like that on “Bug’s
Life” proved to John [Lasseter, head of Pixar] that
I was capable of more. I ended up co-directing “Toy
Story 2” with him; after that, I went on to “Monsters
Inc.” and now “Finding Nemo.” And I’ll
be directing “Cars” with John when I finish
So for now, you’re Robin.
Unkrich: For now. Hopefully I’ll be able to step
into Batman’s shoes one of these days pretty soon.
But for now I’m being Robin and loving it.
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
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.
the idea running in my head since before “Bug’s
Life” came out, and John knew about that — but
he sort of left me alone, because we had to do “Toy
Story 2” and “Monsters.”
But as each year went on, I got a little
more serious. Because we were all proving our worth 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.” Which was nice, but
it’s also scary — because you start to realize
that some of your best work is becauseof
the obstacles and the resistance that you complain about.
Sudden total freedom can be terrifying.
Stanton: It’s over-fantasized,
you know. Limitations are a good thing; it depends on
who the limitation is or
what the limitations are.
After having gone through the hell of so
many movies, you keep wondering: “Maybe this time I can make it a
little easier on myself. Maybe this time I can actually
get it a little closer to the bull’s-eye 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. It’s more than just yours.
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 hour.
Why did that happen? Was it because they wanted to take
it to the big screen?
Stanton: Well, it’s because the
[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 was just one of those things where all
the people that were involved in making “Toy Story” were
busy making “A Bug’s Life” — and
we basically hired a whole completely new crew to make
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 that
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 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
Is improvisation a big part of the voice-recording process?
Unkrich: Oh, absolutely. It can take
a character that’s
working well on paper and make it a lot more personal.
A lot of people’s perceptions are either that we
do the voices after we do the
animation — although
a lot of people are starting to be educated that we do
the voices before— or
that we have an actor come in, read a script, and that’s
the end of their involvement. That couldn’t be any
further from the truth.
I think we ended up spending 24 hours in
the recording studio with Ellen DeGeneres on “Finding
Nemo” — in
little two- to four-hour chunks over the course of 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
Brooks and Ellen DeGeneres. Andrew wrote the parts specifically
with those actors in mind, but he really only took it to
a certain point; it was bringing Ellen and Albert into
the studio that really brought them to life.
Many people have hailed Brooks as the funniest man alive.
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 this, 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 — and a great deal
of that has to do with Albert’s performance.
Stanton: Even Albert said
that. Albert said, “Wow,
you really likemy character.
You really care for him. Who would have thought that it
took for me to be a voice
on a fish for people to care
about me that much in a movie?” You
know, he’s being very Albert Brooks — but it’s
I have to say that I thought working with
Ellen and Albert would mean they’re going to just knock the comedy
out of the park, and we’re going to have to work
with the drama and the emotion to get those line right.
And it was actually a win-win situation: They knocked the
comedy out of the park and they just nailed the
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 quotingAlbert
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? Am I really in the right place to be suggesting
this?” But you have to just go with your gut; they
wouldn’t be working with you if they didn’t
think you had a good sixth sense about those things.
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.”
Brooks’ voice work on “The Simpsons” is
the stuff of legend.
Stanton: I always worried that I wasn’t
taking advantage of him the way “The Simpsons” groups
do, because he just shines on
I had to explain to him what we asked of
Tom Hanks for Woody: It’s not funny on the surface. He’s
the heart of the movie.
Is there a voice actor who’s
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 without him.
You’ll never 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 film] somewhere
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: Yep, that’s true.
And nobody will get the joke until May.
Unkrich: Nemo actually makes two cameos
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.
You sort of back-loaded all your cameos into one shot,
just in case.
Unkrich: 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.
You know, I believe we have a “Cars” cameo
in “Finding Nemo,” as well.
o o o
Andrew, you’re the only person who’s worked
on the screenplays for all the Pixar films. What’s
the trick to squeezing huge laughs out of G-rated material?
Stanton: I don’t necessarily feel that
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. I think that’s
always been sort of our touchstone to “getting the
funny,” but that’s never been the goal.
The goal is that the funny will be included in the story
trying to tell.
Unkrich mentioned that “Finding Nemo” is
surprisingly sad and tragic.
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
You’ve got to get the audience to care about the
situation of these characters — and then humor can
come sometimes just out of somebody saying “No” when
you just know that character really meant “Yes.” To
me, that’s a much more satisfying laugh than a witty
Any specific examples from the film?
Stanton: Well, Ellen DeGeneres plays
the short-term-memory fish named Dory. And you could
go with the “Saturday
Night Live” slant and just really make her annoying
and forgetting things again and again and again until you
want to walk out of the theater. It’s a very touchy
thing to use that as a device for humor, because it can
get annoying very quickly. So we stopped trying to be so
obvious with it.
One of the aspects of [her short-term
memory] was that
she was always kind-hearted; she never had any baggage
to hang on to. It always allowed her to be the ultimate
optimist. Then she makes you laugh just for being optimistic
later on in the film. You can’t necessarily say that
the lines she’s saying are funny in and of themselves — but
it’s because of your familiarity with the character
that you’re laughing.
o o o
THE PIXAR METHOD
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
Lee basically came to Pixar from a
very technical perspective —
Stanton: I’d say a good portion of our cinematic
prowess and our filmmaking style is Lee’s thumbprint.
I’m lucky to have had him on this movie.
Congratulations, Lee — you’ve come a long
way from “Silk Stalkings.”
Unkrich: Uh, yeah I have. [laughs]
You’ve been digging
into my torrid past. I was fully entrenched in live-action
editing back around 1994, living in Los Angeles. And I
got a call one day from Pixar saying that they needed somebody
to come out and help. I jumped at the chance, because I’d
long been a fan of John Lasseter’s short films. And
John and I really hit it off, and the whole team of us — Andrew
and Pete Docter and Joe Ranft — became fast friends
I’ll admit I was as ignorant as anybody
when I first came to Pixar about the role of an editor
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 worked.
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.
You exercise such a level of control over your material
now. I imagine it would be sort of frustrating to deal
with the randomness of live-action.
Unkrich: Well, there’s definitely a level of compromise
that happens in live-action — the weather, tight
schedules, limited access to locations. But the flip side
is that when you’re dealing with all the spontaneity
that happens in live action, you have a lot of happy accidents;
you discover moments that you don’t necessarily discover
when you’re working so closely with the material.
o o o
GUYS WHO TELL THE TRUTH
How scary or fun is that initial story-pitch
session, when you’re standing in front of the room
and swapping ideas?
Stanton: It’s very scary, but I couldn’t think
of a safer environment to do it in, because I’m with
guys that will tell me the truth. They’ll tell me
when they don’t think it works — but it’s
never to do anything other than to try to see if there’s
a way to make it work. All the criticism is constructive
So it isn’t it like the offices of, say, The Onion — which
is a legendarily rapacious, competitive environment?
Stanton: Most of my peers are basically
the same four guys that I learned how to make movies
with. You know, “Toy
Story” was the first movie for all of us — and
we all learned together and we all went through the battle
together. So there’s an unspoken trust there that
I just wouldn’t be able to find in any other group
of people. If you’re going to take a chance, you’re
going to take it with those guys.
o o o
BUZZ LIGHTYEAR DOES not SING
Now, songs, of course, play important
roles in Pixar films — but
Pixar characters themselves do not sing.
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.” And that’s been our thinking
For as much as we work in animation, the
last thing we do is think about [the fact] that we’re
making an animated movie. We think that we’re making
a movie. We don’t like thinking that we’re
at the kid’s
table — we want to eat at the adult table.
In an interview with this magazine,
[“Spirited Away” director
Hiyao] Miyazaki said that his characters drive the story;
he comes up with the characters and then he lets them take
him on a journey. How true is that for you?
Stanton: That’s ultimately where you know you’ve
got something. But I tell you: The hardest thing to achieve — at
least for me in writing — is finding out who your
characters are. Out of a three-year writing process, that
can be two to two-and-a-half years of just figuring that
You can figure out plot pretty quickly.
But to know who your characters are, you’re basically forming a limited
human being. You’re creating a character that people
believe has its own thought process, its own decision-making — and
you don’t know what those choices are going to be
every second that you’re watching the movie screen.
It’s really hard to create that illusion.
Miyazaki also said that, in the U.S., the animated film
is an offshoot of the musical genre of film. Japanese animation,
on the other hand, was largely created under the influence
of European animation.
Stanton: That makes sense. I think
it shows. I don’t
want to give the impression that one’s bad and one’s
good. 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.”
Speaking of being straitjacketed: Will
there ever be a Pixar film that’s rated PG-13 or
Stanton:You know, it’ll never be driven by the desire to
get that rating. We have so far — knock on wood — always
just been driven by the story we want to tell, and someday
we’re going to come up with a story that requires
something that’s going to put us in a PG or — I
don’t know — maybe someday an R rating. Who
knows? That’ll be a different mountain to traverse — for
a whole slew of reasons.
There’s definitely a trust out there in how accepting
we are for all ages, and we pride ourselves for that — because
I don’t think you have to exclude children and values
in order to get the big laugh. But I wouldn’t put
it past us to someday have a story where it ends up being
a different rating.
o o o
THE WEIGHT OF WATER
Now, one of the big technical innovations
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,
Now, see, as a layman, I would think water would be easier.
Unkrich: Well, it’s not. [laughs]
Stanton: Oh, it’s so difficult.
Unkrich: It’s equally difficult — especially
when 90 percent of your movie takes place underwater.
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, things
that can just be solid and stay exactly the way they are.
But to have something that’s truly changing its volume
and shape every single frame, it’s just a computing
nightmare. And then to make that look goodis
a whole other level of wrangling that’s very, very
Is lighting difficult in that?
Stanton: No — because they’ve actually got
quite a few tricks up their sleeve to make you believe
that you’re seeing what light truly does, but it’s
actually not doing exactly what light really does. But
that’s about as far as I can explain before I’m
going to screw it up. I don’t even understand it
to the length that I probably should.
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; it was clear we
had to figure out how to make the audience feel like it
was truly underwater with these characters. 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.
John Lasseter has said there were test shots that looked
like Jacques Cousteau shot them.
Unkrich: On the “Nemo” DVD, we’ll actually
do some side-by-side comparisons of the early tests — and
I challenge anyone to tell the difference.
We did learn all the elements that go into
making you believe you’re underwater. Things like caustic lighting — the
way the light ripples when you’re on the bottom of
the ocean, like it would over the bottom of a swimming
pool; fog beams in the water; what we call “murk,” which
is that objects, when they’re further away from the
camera, start to lose their color and definition; particulates
floating in the water — little specks of organic
matter that drift around; and also “surge and swell” — this
whole idea that there are currents underwater, constantly
moving things back and forth rhythmically. And we then
had to find a way to combine all those elements in concert.
And then 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] They just wouldn’t
It ends up looking like Donald Duck
matted over the live-action bits of “Three Caballeros.”
Unkrich: Exactly. So our challenge
was to find ways of caricaturing the underwater world
in a way that our characters
would fit in naturally, but it still would look very real — because
we wanted this to be a really immersive experience for
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. When you see the
film, it feels very real underwater — but if you
study the images, you find that there’s a cleanliness
to the images that ultimately gives us that caricatured
sense of the ocean.
You bring up an interesting point:
come to the point where you can pull
back. There are some people in this field whose ultimate
goal seems to be photorealism — but
then that brings up the question: “Why bother?” If
you can have a team of highly educated technicians rendering
a rock, why not just go shoot a rock?
Stanton: Well, that’s been our point all along.
The last thing we’re trying to do is mimic reality
exactly. Because we don’t get the point.
Unkrich: That’s my feeling exactly. And that’s
part of why we’ve never, at Pixar, tried to create
realistic humans. It’s far easier and far less expensive
to shoot a real actor than to try and re-create a digital
actor. The only exception to that — and this doesn’t
really apply to what we do in our world — is the
case of digital stuntmen.
Stanton: In a way, “Nemo”’s the closest
we’ve ever come to the real world — and even
that is actually very caricatured.
Unkrich: At Pixar, we want to create
a believable world, but it’s not necessarily a realistic world.
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
whiz! Look at the F/X toys I have!” Now we’re
finally getting to the point where people remember to use
these tools to tell a story.
Unkrich: 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.
o o o
GEEKING OUT on ‘THE GENESis EFFECT’ and
John Lasseter has cited “Tron” in
interviews as being this enormous influence on him as
What film is that for you?
Stanton: Oh, gosh. You know, this is
just such an old-hat answer, but it’s the truth: “Star Wars” just
totally rocked my world. I mean, I was a huge film fan
way before that; Lawrence of Arabia” is still my
favorite of all time. But [as far as] opening your mind
as to what type of technical things you can do, “Star
Wars” started all that.
And now you’re working for a
company that Lucas founded.
Stanton: Yeah. Bill Reeves, who’s one
of our founding guys here for the whole technical side
of things — when
I found out that he actually was the guy that came up with
the Genesis Effect in “Star Trek II,” I geeked
out on him. I was just like, “Oh my gosh! The Genesis
Effect — that’s the still the coolest effect
ever!” And you know,
here I am just hanging out with him for a year now. To
find out that he had done that,
I was just practically genuflecting in
front of him.
And that’s back when they had to enter vector positions.
They’d enter numeric coordinates for things.
Stanton: It still holds up. I mean,
they re-used it in every other “Star Trek” movie
after that one.
Now, RenderMan, the Pixar animation
software, is now about 10 years old. That’s a “killer app” by
Unkrich: Actually, I think it’s more than 10 years
old. Frankly, I love that it’s not just Pixar using
it — it’s being used in some of the biggest
films of all time. There’s a level of pride in that.
Stanton: What I didn’t know when
I first came here was that most of the guys who developed
still worked here were basically the first astronauts to
step on the moon. These guys were like the Neil Armstrongs
and the Buzz Aldrins of CG.
It’s almost like you guys found
the grand unification theory of physics for computer
Unkrich: [laughs] Another cool thing
is that we’re
constantly changing RenderMan to adapt to the films we
need to make. We’ve never made a film purely to showcase
a technology; we come up with great story ideas, then we
develop the technology to allow us to create the films.
The side benefit is that the improvements and additions
then get filtered out to the customers who use it — so
ultimately the benefits get passed on to the world.
On the Pixar Web site, it says that each animated film
frame takes between 6 and 90 hours to render. Is that render
speed getting faster?
Unkrich: Um, the render speed is faster — but we
also made a lot of pretty amazing technical advances on “Nemo.” We
knew the images we were going to create were going to be
very computationally intense — and we couldn’t
allow the per-frame render time to get too high, or we’d
never be able to finish the film on time. So we had to
set a very high bar in terms of how fast these frames needed
to render. Kudos again to Oren Jacob and his team — they
did manage to hit the goals, and it’s for that reason
that (1) “Nemo” looks as visually astounding
as it looks, and (2) it will be hitting theaters on time.
[laughs] That’s always nice.
Unkrich:It depends on the shot, though — some shots are
simpler to render than others. If you’ve got one
shot of Marlin and Dory having a conversation in a blue
void, clearly those frames are going to render a lot faster
than, say, Nemo taking a field trip with his entire class
in a coral reef, zipping around past coral and hundreds
o o o
Is there a dream voice — an actor’s voice
that has maybe not been utilized yet on an animated feature — that
you’re dying to get in an animation studio?
Stanton: There’s quite a few, actually — but
if I said them, somebody else will use them, so I’m
going to have to keep my mouth shut. But I must say that
there’s quite a few voices in “Nemo” that
I’ve been dying to work with for a long time.
Will “The Incredibles” be
the first Pixar project to center around human beings?
Stanton: Solely? Yes. It’s quite
a daunting task right now.
They can’t really all look like that Wayne Knight
character in “Toy Story 2,” can they?
Stanton: No. They’re going for
a little bit more stylism. But regardless, it’s
very, very daunting — and
man, it’s going to pay off.