For Finding Nemo, Animators Dove Into Fish Study

Stefan Lovgren
for National Geographic News
May 30, 2003

The animation wizards at Pixar Studios had to flip conventional animation technique on its head for the underwater adventure, Finding Nemo.

In their previous hit movies Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Monsters, Inc., the animators had to "ground their characters" and avoid letting them "float." With Finding Nemo, they had to figure out the exact opposite: how to make the characters look like they were floating, but in water—not air.

The challenge didn't end there. How do you bring a full range of emotions and actions to characters without limbs or traditional bodies?

"We couldn't go into our old bag of tricks," supervising animator Dylan Brown explained in a telephone interview from Pixar's offices in Emeryville, California. "When a human character, like Woody in Toy Story, is depressed, we can show that by having his shoulders slump. But fish have no shoulders to slump."

Brown, buzzing with infectious enthusiasm over the end results, explained that facial articulation became more important than ever for the characters in Finding Nemo. Interaction between the fish in the movie had to involve body movement.

"If two people sit in a room, talking, they may only turn their heads to face each other," said Brown. "If a fish turns its head, the whole body will turn with it."

Fish School

The animators had to submerge themselves in the study of the underwater world, visiting aquariums and diving in Hawaii. A series of in-house lectures from an ichthyologist, or fish zoologist, turned into a virtual graduate course on oceanography.

The entire film was laid out on storyboards before animation could begin. Early simulation efforts proved so effective that the animators actually had to pull back from becoming too "photo real." The goal was not to make the movie realistic, but believable.

"We wanted to look at something that is real and based in science, and take it into the realm of fun and entertainment," Brown said.

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