Ultimate Guide to 'Finding Nemo'

By: Vicki Arkoff  | 
"Finding Nemo" was a big hit and a technological marvel.
"Finding Nemo" was a big hit and a technological marvel.
Copyright Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Who would have guessed that a cute little clownfish named Nemo (which means "nothing" in Latin) would become a huge movie star?

Released on May 30, 2003, the animated motion picture "Finding Nemo" was the year's No. 1 box-office success. Today, it remains one of the most beautiful films that Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Pictures have ever made. "Finding Nemo" won an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and set a high-water mark for the art and technology of computer animation.


In this article, we'll tell you everything you need to know about "Finding Nemo" -- from profiles of the movie's characters to details about a new stage adaption called "Finding Nemo: The Musical." We'll start on this page with a look at the movie's plot, its enormous success, and its creators.

The Story

The "Finding Nemo" craze springs from a comedic and eventful story about two small fish who, following a father-son fight, lose each other and must journey across an entire ocean to be reunited and set things right.

On Nemo's first day of school, his nervous dad, Marlin, has trouble letting go. Fighting for independence, Marlin's curious and defiant son swims beyond the safety of their reef home in the Great Barrier Reef. They become separated when Nemo is unexpectedly captured, taken far from home, and thrust into a fish tank in a dentist's office overlooking Sydney Harbor. Buoyed by the companionship of Dory, a friendly-but-forgetful fish, Marlin embarks on a dangerous trek and finds himself the unlikely hero of an epic effort to rescue his son -- who hatches a few daring plans of his own to return safely home.

"'Finding Nemo' is filled with real drama, real emotion and depth, as well as great comedy," says executive producer John Lasseter. "Being the father of five sons, this was definitely a story I could relate to. As filmmakers, we love to have the emotion be true and honest. And even though 'Nemo' is a complete fantasy, it's based on things that are familiar to audiences. The father-son relationship, going to school for the first time -- these are things everyone understands, yet this film is about fish on a coral reef."

The Success

"Finding Nemo" became the biggest film of 2003. The film earned $70.9 million in North American theaters during its opening weekend, nearly twice as much as that weekend's second-place film. This set a box office record for biggest debut for an animated film.

"Finding Nemo" was the box-office champion of 2003, earning $449.7 million in the U.S. and Canada alone. A year later, it had earned more than $850 million, making it one of the 10 highest-grossing animated films ever. The film was Pixar's third computer-generated feature-length film -- but its first to be released during the heart of summer vacation -- and cost $90 million to make.

The Creators

"Finding Nemo" was created and produced by a crew of 180 people working at the Pixar Animation Studios' newly built, state-of-the-art facility in Emeryville, California. Widely considered the best in the business, Pixar specializes in combining creative and technical artistry to make original stories come alive in the medium of computer animation. Its record seems unbeatable. It has made seven of the most successful and beloved animated films of all time -- "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc.," "The Incredibles," "Cars," and "Finding Nemo" -- which have won a total of 20 Academy Awards and have earned nearly $4 billion at the box office.

"Finding Nemo" was written and directed by Oscar-nominee Andrew Stanton, who co-directed the 1998 Disney/Pixar hit "A Bug's Life" and is credited as co-screenwriter on all four of Pixar's previous animated films.

Lee Unkrich, co-director of "Toy Story 2" and "Monsters, Inc.," again co-directed "Finding Nemo." The film was produced by Graham Walters, a nine-year Pixar veteran who had served as production manager on "Toy Story 2." Based on an original story by Stanton, the screenplay for "Finding Nemo" was written by Stanton, Bob Peterson, and David Reynolds.

Guiding the overall project was Lasseter, the Oscar-winning filmmaker who served as executive producer on "Monsters, Inc." and directed "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," and "Toy Story 2."

Overseeing the production design was Ralph Eggleston, a Pixar veteran who designed the original "Toy Story" and directed the Oscar-winning short "For the Birds." The film's two directors of photography -- Sharon Calahan and Jeremy Lasky -- brought their expertise to the areas of lighting and layout, respectively, to help capture Stanton's vision for the film on screen.

Now let's look into the real genius of "Finding Nemo," the amazing technology that brought the fish and their wet world to life. It's covered in the next section.

Making 'Finding Nemo'

The story of "Finding Nemo" had personal significance for director/writer Andrew Stanton. A visit to Six Flags Marine World in 1992 started him thinking about the amazing possibilities of capturing an undersea world in computer animation (CGI). He was fascinated with the idea of CGI -- even though this was three years before the first CGI film, "Toy Story," made its debut. Another piece of the puzzle came from Stanton's childhood memories of a fish tank in his family dentist's office. He remembered thinking, "What a weird place for fish from the ocean to end up. Don't these fish miss their home? Would these fish try to escape and go back to the ocean?"

The final piece of the puzzle for Stanton was his own relationship with his son. He explains, "When my son was five, I remember taking him to the park. I had been working long hours and felt guilty about not spending enough time with him. As we were walking, I was experiencing all this pent-up emotion and thinking, 'I miss you, I miss you,' but I spent the whole walk going, 'Don't touch that. Don't do that. You're gonna fall in there.' And there was a third-party voice in my head saying, 'You're completely wasting the entire moment that you've got with your son right now.' I became obsessed with this premise that fear can deny a good father from being one. With that revelation, all the pieces fell into place, and we ended up with our story."


Pitching the story to his mentor and colleague, John Lasseter, was the next step. Stanton prepared a roomful of elaborate visual aids and launched into a pitch to sell his "Nemo" story idea. After an hour, an exhausted Stanton asked Lasseter what he thought. "You had me at 'fish,'" Lasseter replied.

Stanton concludes, "Telling a story where the protagonist is the father got me excited. I don't think I've ever seen an animated film from that perspective. I also thought that the ocean was a great metaphor for life. It's the scariest, most intriguing place in the world because anything can be out there -- and that can be a bad thing or a good thing. I loved playing with that issue and having a father who has to overcome his own fears of life to become a better father. Having him in the middle of the ocean, where he has to confront everything he never wanted to face in life, seemed like a great opportunity for fun and still allowed us to delve into some slightly deeper issues."

How the Pixar Process Works

After Stanton worked on the story and script for a several years, production on "Finding Nemo" began in 2000 and lasted 21/2 years. At Pixar, films take up to five years to make and go through four stages: development, where the storyline is created; preproduction, where the technical challenges are figured out; production, the actual making of the film; and post-production, where all the elements are put together and the finishing touches are added. Here's a look at the process:

  • A Story Idea Is PitchedFirst, a Pixar employee "pitches" or tells aloud his or her idea to other members of the development team using visuals, props, reenactments of scenes, and other ways to express what the film would be like. The real challenge is to get the audience to believe in the idea and see the possibilities in it.
  • The Text Treatment Is WrittenA treatment is a short document that summarizes the main idea of the story. Sometimes, many treatments of the same idea will be developed in order to find the right balance between solid ideas and open possibilities, which will be filled in later by development and storyboard artists. In the unusual case of "Finding Nemo," Stanton had a finished script before production started, but it was rewritten every step of the way to add humor and plot elements.
  • Storyboards Are DrawnStoryboards are like a hand-drawn comic book version of the movie and serve as the blueprint for the action and dialogue. Each storyboard artist receives script pages and/or a beat outline, a map of the characters' emotional changes that need to be seen through actions. Using these as guidelines, the artists envision their assigned sequences, draw them out, and then "pitch" their work to the director.
  • Voice Talent Begins RecordingFirst, Pixar artists record temporary "scratch" voices for the storyboard reels. Later, when the story and dialogue are further along, professional actors begin recording the character voices, reading from a script and improvising. Actors must record lines several different ways, and the best reading is eventually animated. Sometimes, scratch voices are so good they're not replaced, such as Stanton's voice for Crush the sea turtle and story supervisor Joe Ranft's voice for Jacques the overzealous cleaner shrimp.
  • Editorial Begins Making ReelA reel is a videotape that allows the cleaned-up storyboard sequence to stand alone without a pitch person to tell the story. A successful pitch includes a strong storyteller, so reels are an essential step to validate the sequence and are the first instance that the "timing" of the sequences is understood. Editorial uses the information to fix the length and other elements of each shot in a sequence.
  • The Art Department Creates the Look and FeelBased on the initial text treatment, storyboards, and their own creative brainstorming and development work, the art department creates inspirational art illustrating the world and the characters. It also designs sets, props, visual looks for surfaces, and colors and "color scripts" for lighting, which are impressionistic pastel illustrations that emphasize the light in scenes.
  • Models Are Sculpted and ArticulatedUsing the art department's model packet -- a set of informational drawings -- the characters, sets, and props are either sculpted by hand and then scanned in three-dimensionally or modeled in 3-D directly in the computer. They are then given hinge-like tools and controls (known as "avars"), which the animator will use to make the object or character move. To ensure that the characters have the range of expressions and movements needed, the lead animators link up with modelers and riggers from the character department and serve as their "animation buddy." With direct input from the animators, the technical directors create new and improved avars to enhance the overall character performance.
  • The Sets Are DressedAfter the sets are built in 3-D, they must be dressed with prop models, such as rocks and boats, to create a believable world. Set dressers work closely with the director to ensure that the director's vision for the environment is being realized.
  • The Shots Are Laid OutTranslating the story into three-dimensional scenes, the layout crew choreographs the characters in the set and uses a virtual camera to create shots that capture the emotion and story point of each scene. Layout often produces multiple versions of shots to provide the editorial department with choices for cutting the scene for maximum storytelling effect. Once the scene has been cut, the final version is released to animation.
  • The Shot Is AnimatedPixar's animators neither draw nor paint the shots, as is required in traditional animation. Because the character, models, layout, dialog, and sound are already set up, animators are like actors or puppeteers. Using Pixar's animation software, they choreograph the movements and facial expressions in each scene. They do this by using computer controls and the character's avars to define key poses. The computer then creates the "in-between" frames, which the animator adjusts as necessary.
  • The Sets and Characters Are ShadedThe shading process is done with "shaders," software programs that allow for complex variations in the color or color shaping. The shader is separated from the surface to which it is attached. In other words, the shape is determined by the model, while the surface color and texture is determined by the shader. For example, this process allows the color to shift in different lighting like the reflections on the water. For the reef, says Ralph Eggleston, who oversaw the production design for "Finding Nemo," "we had a whole grab bag of vegetation we could use to populate a scene. By putting different textures and shaders onto the cat's paw and staghorn coral and the sponges, we could make it feel like completely different models from scene to scene. In the end, we were able to take one basic form of sponge and shape, shift, and mold it into more than 20 variations."
  • Lighting Completes The LooksUsing "digital light," every scene is lit in much the same manner as stage lighting. Key, fill, and bounce lights and room ambience are all defined and used to enhance the mood and emotion of each scene. Lighting takes its inspiration from the moody color scripts created by the art department. The movie's dual directors of photography, Sharon Calahan and Jeremy Lasky, added to the underwater setting with their innovative approach to lighting, layout, and camera movements. It gave the film a modern three-strip Technicolor quality and enhanced the underwater effect with soft backgrounds, vibrant colors. and beautiful glows. "Finding Nemo" was the most complex film Pixar has ever made from a lighting perspective. "A big part of our job was creating believable underwater environments," says Calahan, "and that took on many forms since we had clear water, super-murky water, and even water in a fish tank. We had to figure out the common elements so that stylistically we could tie them all together."
  • The Computer Data Is CreatedRendering is the act of translating all of the information in the files that make up the shot -- sets, colors, character movement, etc. -- into a single frame of film. Pixar's Renderfarm is a huge computer system that interprets the data and incorporates motion blur, an effect that simulates an object's movement. Each frame represents 1/24 of a second of screen time and normally takes about six hours to render. Rendering a frame for "Finding Nemo" took up to four days because of the complexity of the underwater environment, with sunlight coming through the water and hitting fish scales.
  • Finishing Touches Are AddedEditorial oversees the completion and addition of the musical score and the other sound effects. Effect animation adds special effects. Credits and title sequences are made. And the photo-science department records the digital frames to film or to a form appropriate for digital projection.

Our look at the making of "Finding Nemo" continues on the next page with topics including the technical challenges of creating the movie and the interplay of science and imagination.

Creating the Look and Sounds of 'Finding Nemo'

Copyright Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved Pixar animators overcame many technical challenges to create "Finding Nemo."

In this section, we'll examine the myriad technical and artistic challenges that were encountered -- and overcome -- by the "Finding Nemo" crew in creating the sights and sounds of the movie.

How Technical Challenges Were Overcome

"Finding Nemo" marked another milestone for the technical art of computer animation.


"Technically, we've pushed things beyond anything Pixar has done before," says executive producer John Lasseter. "Just animating fish was difficult, but our technical team has created an underwater environment that is graceful and beautiful. The real underwater world is so spectacular that it's already a fantasy world. Our challenge was to let the audience know that our ocean is caricatured, so our goal was always to make things believable, not realistic. By stylizing the design of things, adding more geometry and pushing the colors, we were able to create a natural and credible world for our characters."

Brian Green, the characters CG supervisor, explains, "This was the first time that Pixar had a character department, and it allowed us to serve the animators' needs better. The animation buddy might give us a drawing and say, 'For acting purposes, I need it to look more like this.' We would go in and adjust it. This made for a very close relationship. We also tried to create automatic dynamic motion for some of the characters. Our goal was to try and automate everything we could -- things like the movement of dangly bits on some characters -- so the animator could concentrate on the performance."

To do this, the Pixar animators had to be more innovative than ever before.

How the Production Design and Cinematography Work:

The Look of "Finding Nemo"

From a visual standpoint, "Finding Nemo" is a stunning achievement that is both aesthetically appealing and groundbreaking.

The animation team previously had their share of challenges bringing life to toys, bugs, and monsters, but their assignment on "Finding Nemo" proved to be the toughest yet. Visits to aquariums, diving stints in Monterey and Hawaii, study sessions in front of Pixar's well-stocked 25-gallon fish tank, and a series of in-house lectures from an ichthyologist (a biologist who specializes in fish) all helped to get the animators into the swim of things. They also became trained scuba divers and made several research diving trips and a visit to Sydney Harbor to get the lay of the land and sea.

The animators studied Disney classics that involved underwater scenes -- "Pinocchio," "The Sword in the Stone," "Bedknobs and Broomsticks," and "The Little Mermaid" -- for inspiration. "We kept coming back to 'Bambi' because of the way the filmmakers adhered to the real nature of how these animals moved and what their motor skills were," says director Andrew Stanton, also noting the film's impressionistic style of blurred backgrounds -- just like it really is underwater. "We thought of it as 'Bambi' underwater." This gave the film a realistic look, and helped focus on the characters.

"The film begins with an intense Garden of Eden coral reef," says production designer Ralph Eggleston. "From there, the underwater backgrounds tend to become more impressionistic with just a mountain or sandy bottom in view."

Supervising animator Dylan Brown, an eight-year Pixar veteran, and directing animators Mark Walsh and Alan Barillaro were responsible for guiding an animation team that fluctuated between 28 and 50. With a large cast of characters -- ranging in size from a petite cleaner shrimp, Jacques, to the enormous blue whale -- the animators had their work cut out for them as they learned about fish locomotion and discovered how to create believable behaviors for characters lacking arms and legs.

"Each film has its own unique set of challenges, and we always begin by trying to figure out what they are and how to solve them," Brown explains. "With 'Nemo,' we had an entire cast of fish characters with no arms or legs. Since they didn't have the traditional limbs to allow strong silhouettes, we had to invent a whole new bag of tricks. We put a lot of work into the face and getting the facial articulation just right, and their faces had to be integrated with the entire body language."

Timing was another big factor. "With characters like Buzz, Woody, or Sulley [from previous Pixar films], you have an earth-based gravity," says Brown. "But fish underwater can travel in a flash. You blink and it's gone. We wondered how they did that and studied their movements on video. By slowing things down, we could figure it out and learn how to get our fish characters from one place to another in a frame or two. We always tried to incorporate naturalistic fish movements into the acting by using one-frame darting and transitioning from place to place. It made the characters very believable."

In the past, animators were always told to "ground their characters" and avoid letting them "float." With "Finding Nemo," they had to do the exact opposite. Barillaro says, "It was fun and challenging to come up with how they could communicate and gesture. Without gravity to deal with underwater, we would have a character drift a bit when he gestured. I found that a lot of the gestures humans make could be boiled down to eye and face movements. I would look at my own face in the mirror and imagine I had a tail on the back of it."

"The music, the color, and the lighting are the things that really give the underlying emotion of every scene," says Lasseter. "And the lighting and color in 'Nemo' is always used for storytelling. Ralph Eggleston is a master at that, and Sharon Calahan knows how to get that on the screen."

How Science and Imagination Worked Together in Creating "Finding Nemo"

Helping the animators get up to speed on fish behavior and locomotion was Adam Summers, a noted professor in the Ecology and Evolution department at the University of California at Irvine.

"I'm what is called a biomechanic or sometimes a functional morphologist," says Summers. "My specialty is applying simple engineering principles to how animals move and eat." Pixar asked him to tell the Pixar staff about things like fish shapes and colors, and Summers ended up teaching them a graduate-level ichthyology course of 12 lectures. "They were infinitely curious about fish, and they were flat-out the best students I had ever had. By the end of each lecture, they would be asking me questions that I didn't have answers for."

Character designer Ricky Nierva asked where the eyebrows were. Summers says he told him, "They don't have eyebrows. They don't have any muscles in their face except for jaw closers. So Ricky said, 'Adam, fish don't talk but talking is going to be a requirement for the movie. So we're going to have to be taking artistic license with science all the time.'"

Summers also gave the character designers and animators some important insights into fish movement. "In most animated films with fish, the characters move back and forth with no visible propulsive device, and that really offends the eye," Summers says. "You don't need to be an ichthyologist to know there's something wrong."

So Summers explained the difference between fish fins like "flappers" and "rowers." "Clown fish are rowers who tend to propel themselves by moving their pectoral fins in a horizontal motion. At higher speeds they wiggle their entire body," he says. "Blue tangs, like Dory, are flappers who flap their fins up and down to move and almost never wiggle their entire body. The result was that Father's movements were more fluid and graceful, while Dory tended to flit sharply about."

When a fish moves in 'Nemo,' its fins are moving, too, giving it a natural feel. "They did a heck of a job making clear the differences between living in an incompressible fluid like water and compressible fluid like air," Summers says. "I was completely knocked out."

How the Underwater World of "Finding Nemo" Was Created

Under the watch of supervising technical director Oren Jacob were six technical teams specializing in different components and environments seen in the film. Lisa Forsell and Danielle Feinberg were the CG supervisors responsible for the Ocean Unit. David Eisenmann and his team handled the models, shading, lighting, simulation, etc., for the Reef Unit. Steve May headed up the Sharks/Sydney Unit, which tackled the submarine scene, shots inside the whale, and most of the above-water scenes in the Harbor. Jesse Hollander oversaw the Tank Unit, which created all the elements for the fish tank. Michael Lorenzen was in charge of the Schooling/Flocking team, which created hundreds of thousands of fish, plus key elements for the turtle-drive sequence. Brian Green led the Character Unit, which created the look and complex controls for nearly 120 aquatic, bird, and human characters.

The Ocean Unit was responsible for such scenes as the school of moon fish, which form different objects (an arrow, a lobster, a boat, etc.), the angler fish chase, and the turtle drive in the East Australian Current. The unit's most challenging and impressive scene, however, was the jellyfish forest. This rich and colorful moment finds Marlin and Dory in an ever-expanding and increasingly dangerous sea of deadly pink jellyfish.

Forsell explains, "This scene involved several thousand jellyfish. Our unit built the model for a single jellyfish and put a lot of work into the build-up of jellyfish density. This involved creating a simulation for the group that controlled the movement of the tendrils, how quickly they swam and in what direction. We had some great reference footage and were particularly fixated on one species from Palau that we found at the Monterey Aquarium. David Batte wrote a whole shading system we called 'transblurrency.' Transparency is like a window and you can see right through it. Translucency is like a plastic curtain that lets light through but you can't see through it. Transblurrency is like bathroom glass: You can see through it, but it's all distorted and blurry."

Water has traditionally been one of the most difficult things to create effectively and economically in computer animation. Faced with a film that was set largely underwater, the technical team on "Finding Nemo" had to find new ways to meet the enormous demands of the production and solve some of the problems that had been encountered by others in the past. Jacob led the effort to give Stanton and his team exactly what they wanted.

"Our starting point was to watch a lot of films with underwater scenes and analyze what made them seem like they were underwater," explains Stanton. "It was a bit like getting a great cake and trying to figure out how somebody baked it by breaking it down. We came up with a shopping list of five key components that suggest an underwater environment -- lighting, particulate matter, surge and swell, murk, and reflections and refractions."

Jacob adds, "Even before we had a finished script, we knew we had a story about fish in a coral reef. That was enough for our global technology group to begin coming up with tools for making water move back and forth. Coral reefs are organic living things, so it's not a static set like the door vault in 'Monsters, Inc.' Early on, we took a diving trip to Hawaii with some of the film's key players. Then we looked at every Jacques Cousteau, 'National Geographic,' and 'Blue Planet' video we could find. We also studied every underwater film from 'Jaws' and 'The Abyss' to 'The Perfect Storm' to understand what the filmmakers chose to caricature. We came up with our own idea of what audiences expect to see with water and developed our own ratios and proportions."

How The Sound in "Finding Nemo" Works

After the film's visuals are completed, two separate sound departments were responsible for creating what you hear in the movie: music and sound effects. Composer Thomas Newman was hired to create his first epic score, and leading the sound effects team was seven-time Oscar-winning sound designer Gary Rydstrom, who also worked on all the other Disney/Pixar features in addition to Pixar shorts such as the 1989 favorite "Knick Knack."

Newman, a five-time Oscar nominee and an Emmy winner for his theme for "Six Feet Under" (he's the cousin of songwriter Randy Newman, who composed music for the previous four Pixar animated films), was a major inspiration for "Finding Nemo" even before he was hired. Stanton wrote the screenplay for the film while listening to Thomas Newman scores on his headphones, and during the editing process, Newman's previous film music was used in the temporary music "scratch track." Newman's lush, sophisticated score came to be regarded by the filmmakers as a character in the film.

"He does a lot of overdubs, where he'll gather a group of musicians together apart from the orchestra session and have them play lots of interesting percussion and instrumentation," co-director Lee Unkrich explains about the recording process. "Then he'll layer that into the music that's been recorded on the soundstage with the orchestra."

But first Thomas would try out his musical themes by playing them on his keyboard sequencer at his house. "Towards the end of production, we would go down there almost once a week and hear all the music to picture mocked up in his studio," says producer Graham Walters. "By the time we got to the recording sessions, we had heard everything, but it sounded so much better with a 105-piece orchestra. For our film, he also did his signature overdubs, where he goes in with his posse ahead of time and records things to go on top of the orchestral stuff. With the turtle drive scene, the music breaks into a full-on classic surf rock sound."

While the musical score was being written and recorded, sound designer Rydstrom and his "noise" boys created an inventive recorded catalogue of swish and splash sounds to complement the visual excitement of the film and add to the sensation of being underwater.

One of the things Rydstrom's crew discovered early on was that sounds actually recorded underwater were boring, so they manufactured many of their own. "But we did go to a pet store with a lot of aquariums and stuck our mikes in the tanks and moved them through the water," Rydstrom says. "For the fish tank in the film we wanted a contrast with the wide-open ocean. Occasionally, you hear weird, cheesy filter buzzes, goofy bubbles, and things that happen in real aquariums."

Rydstrom recorded sounds in the ocean, in jacuzzis, and even in a coastal cave to get the sound of water sloshing and crashing. The latter ended up being used to approximate the inside of a whale. The sound of Marlin and Dory bouncing on jellyfish proved to be a bit elusive. Rydstrom finally got the desired effect when he bounced his finger on a hot water bottle to get the nice little muted, watery "glug" sound he wanted.

In an apt example of suffering for one's art, a sound design assistant even recorded her own visit to the dentist. The brutal dental drill heard in "Finding Nemo" is actually the assistant getting a filling done.

In the next section, we'll take a close look at the movie's greatest achievement: its characters. .

The Characters in 'Finding Nemo'

Copyright Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved The characters in 'Nemo' are voiced by some  of the most famous actors of our time.

The sea creatures in "Finding Nemo" are some of the most lovable animated characters ever to be produced. This was, of course, the aim of the filmmakers at Pixar Animation Studios -- but it wasn't easy to pull off.

"One of our first priorities was to make the fish seem appealing," says writer and director Andrew Stanton. "Fish are slimy, scaly things, and we wanted the audience to love our characters. One way to make them more attractive was to make them luminous. We ultimately came up with three kinds of fish -- gummy, velvety, and metallic. The gummy variety, which includes Marlin and Nemo, has a density and warmth to it. We used backlighting and rim lights to add to their appeal and take the focus off their scaly surface quality. The velvety category, which includes Dory, has a soft texture to it. The metallic group was more of the typical scaly fish. We used this for the schools of fish."


Here's a look at the main characters in "Finding Nemo":


There's no character more appealing than adorable little Nemo, an adventurous young clownfish looking forward to his first day at school with friends Pearl (an unusual Flapjack Octopus), Tad (a Yellow Longnose Butterflyfish), and Sheldon (a seahorse). But he feels his curious spirit is being suffocated by his dad's overprotective rules. Unwilling to be held back any longer, he stubbornly explores a deeper, more dangerous area past the drop-off and gets into trouble that threatens to permanently separate him from home. He vows to escape his capture and return home to apologize to his dad.

Nemo is voiced by Alexander Gould (who was nine years old when he "played" Nemo and has been acting since the age of two, with credits including "Ally McBeal," "Malcolm in the Middle," and "Boomtown"). Since voicing Nemo, he has also acted as the voice of Bambi in 2006's "Bambi II" and played Twitch in "How to Eat Fried Worms," and he currently has a role in the Showtime TV series "Weeds."

"Alexander Gould brought a genuine, untainted quality to the voice of Nemo," recalls Stanton. "It's amazing how many kids sound prepped or have some preconceived notion of what a good actor should sound like. Alex sounded real, and he totally understood direction. We were really lucky to find him."

Nemo's name is a reference to the fictional Captain Nemo of "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." Ditzy Dory has never read the book, apparently, as she forgetfully refers to Nemo as Fabio, Elmo, Bingo, Chico, and Harpo. The way Nemo sounds tells a lot about his character. "One of my favorite sounds was the one we came up with for Nemo's damaged fin," says sound designer Gary Rydstrom. "It has a little flutter almost like a wing flap. I created a very simple flapping sound with a paper towel. There's almost a hummingbird quality to it."


A widower, Marlin the clown fish lost his wife Coral and 400 children of his children in a predator attack on the outer edge of their safe reef. Now responsible for his only remaining son, Nemo, Marlin is neurotically overprotective and must overcome his own fears to save his son, and learn to let him go his own way.

A typical Marlin line: "The drop-off? They're going to the drop-off? What are you, insane? Why don't we just fry them up now and serve them with chips?"

As Bruce the shark says, "For a clown fish, he's not that funny." Though Marlin likes to crack bad jokes, he's a real pro at worrying, and his fear of losing his son to the dangers of the undersea world is almost more than he can take.

Acclaimed actor/director/comedian Albert Brooks lends his vocal talents and comedic timing to Marlin. Not used to acting alone for animated film recordings, Brooks didn't enjoy the process much -- but he loved his character.

Says Stanton, "With Albert Brooks, you get more than a voice -- you get an established persona. He always knows how to maximize the entertainment value of any moment. Even when his character wasn't asked to be funny in a scene, he knew exactly how to play it for entertainment. At the recording sessions, he would bring his own sensibilities to the material and just kind of run with it. We learned to just start the tape rolling and give it a tail slate at the end. We didn't want to interrupt his creative flow. He would just get these ideas and go again and again. He's such a hard worker and very eager to please."


Here's how Dory introduces herself to Marlin: "I suffer from short-term memory loss. It runs in my family... At least I think it does... Where are they?"

Emmy-winning comedian Ellen DeGeneres gives a memorable and engaging performance as the vacillating voice of the eternally optimistic blue tang Dory, who just swims absent-mindedly through life and has a good time. After meeting Marlin, she's tremendously sympathetic about his predicament, so she offers to help find Nemo. The companions travel a great distance, encountering various dangerous sea creatures such as sharks and jellyfish, in order to rescue Nemo from the dentist office tank.

Ellen jokes that she had to research the part since she's not a fish. "To make sure that I played Dory as a believable character, I wanted to remain faithful to the realism of aquatic life," she says. "Since I found it difficult to breathe underwater, it was a tough research challenge. But after living with a school of fish for a few months, I discovered that they apparently learned nothing at all in school and had nothing intelligent to say. So we had a lot in common."

"Ellen DeGeneres was someone I wanted for the role from the start," adds Stanton. "Even before the character was named Dory, I knew I needed someone to help Father find his son. In the middle of thinking about this character one evening, my wife was watching the 'Ellen' show on TV, and I could hear her doing her schtick of changing her mind five times before a sentence finishes. Usually I don't like to trap myself into writing specifically to a character, but this seemed like such a good match that I decided to go with my gut and hope the planets would align. I called Ellen up to see if she might be interested, and I basically told her that I had written the part for her and that I'd be in trouble if she didn't take it. She was so nice and she said, 'Well then I'd better take it.' She brought a real kindness and gentleness to the part, along with the rhythm and the quirkiness. Both she and Albert have a way of saying things that are unique to them."

Bruce, Anchor, and Chum (the Sharks)

The three sharks reciting their pledge (and satirizing the PETA motto): "I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food."

Adding bite to the voices of the (mostly) reformed meat-eating sharks Bruce the Great White, Anchor the Hammerhead, and Chum the Mako are Barry Humphries (Dame Edna), Australian actor/comedian Eric Bana ("The Hulk"), and New Zealander Bruce Spence ("Mad Max"). They look after Nemo and his friends, and bring them to their private submarine clubhouse.

Background sound effects were used to enhance the menacing personalities of the sharks. "I used a device where I could modulate real sounds with my voice," says sound designer Gary Rydstrom. "I took real water sounds of various types and growled into a microphone so that my vocal characteristics would shape the river-gurgle sound or whatever we happened to be using. This gave a deep, scary feeling to their water movement. If you listen carefully during the shark chase, the water sounds are saying, 'Nemo.' It's kind of my own subliminal Beatles trick."

Gill and the Tank Gang

Nemo's scuba-diving fishnappers take him to a Sydney, Australia, dentist office and dump him in a fish tank. There he meets a school of misfit fish, and together they concoct a scheme to escape back to the ocean before one of them becomes the new pet of the dentist's scary niece.

"Fish aren't meant to be in a box, kid. It does things to them." That's how Gill introduces Nemo to the realities of life in a fish tank. Played by Oscar-nominee Willem Dafoe ("Platoon" and "Shadow of the Vampire"), Gill is the brooding leader of the tank gang who takes newcomer Nemo under his fin. Allison Janney (a three-time Emmy Award winner for "West Wing") does a turn as the astute starfish Peach. Brad Garrett (an Emmy Award-winning actor on "Everybody Loves Raymond") voices Bloat, a blowfish with a tendency for emotional as well as literal blow-ups. Stephen Root ("King of the Hill") is heard as Bubbles, the bubble-obsessed yellow tang. Vicki Lewis ("News Radio") lends voice to Deb (and Flo), a reflective black-and-white humbug damsel fish with an identity crisis.

Bringing the right blend of panic and desperation to Gurgle, a royal gramma fish whose fear of germs makes him a royal pain, is film and stage veteran Austin Pendleton. Top Pixar storyman Joe Ranft (who has previously voiced Wheezy, the lonely squeak-toy penguin in "Toy Story 2," and Heimlich, the jolly German caterpillar in "A Bug's Life") adds to his vocal repertoire with his role as Jacques, a fastidious cleaner shrimp who loves to muck about. Academy Award-winning actor Geoffrey Rush ("Shine") winged it as the gossipy pelican Nigel.

The "Finding Nemo" characters wouldn't have come off nearly as well if not for their splendid settings. In the next section, we offer insights into how their watery world was created.

The Settings of 'Finding Nemo'

Copyright Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved "Nemo" animators created a fanciful, detailed watery world for their characters.

In order to tell the story in "Finding Nemo" convincingly, the technical team had to discover new and improved ways for animating underwater imagery in the computer. Extensive research and development was done to study water properties, and new tools were created to provide the full range of possibilities required by the script.

Supervising technical director Oren Jacob led an effort to capture the look and feel of an organic coral reef and a vast ocean that would respond in a realistic way to the action of the characters. Early on, Jacob and Pixar's global technical wizards identified five key components that would suggest an underwater environment -- lighting (patterns of caustic lighting that dance on the ocean floor and fog beams that shine from the surface), particulate matter (the ever-present debris that appears in water), surge and swell (the constant movement that drives plant and aquatic life), murk (how the color of light filters out over distance and the distance appears dark), and reflections and refractions. Add in bubbles, ripples, drips, and rings, and it's a very complicated environment.


Jacob explains, "This film is far more complicated than 'Monsters, Inc.' in that almost every shot involves some kind of simulation program or simulated movement. On average, there are more things going on per frame in this movie than we've done before by a pretty significant amount. There was more interdependency between the various departments than ever before, and we often went back and forth to make sure the lighting and other components looked just right."

Here's a look at what it took to bring several of the movie's environments to life:

The Coral Reef

Before drawing a single frame of film, David Eisenmann and his team of animators on the Reef Unit spent a year researching corals and sponges. They were responsible for the film's rich and vibrant opening scenes and building the anemone home of Marlin and Nemo. Their challenge was to create a caricatured version of the coral reef that would suit the purposes of the story.

"Our group started with a realistic approach to the reef," Eisenmann explains. "We were able to do that relatively easily, but Andrew [Summers] and Ralph [Eggleston] felt it was way too busy and distracting. To simplify it, we figured out how many different things we should build and how much variation there should be. The director wanted about 30% of whatever you see on the screen to be moving to make it feel like it was underwater.

"For the reef scenes, this meant simulating movement for sponges, moss, grass and other kinds of vegetation. The reef is very stylized and almost dreamlike. The color palette opens with purples and blues and jumps to vibrant reds and yellows. As the story progresses to the ocean drop-off, things become more real and less colorful. Our modelers were able to keep the reef scenes interesting and exciting by mixing together different shapes and textures."

Adds producer Graham Walters, "Instead of building a reef set and flying a camera around, David and the Reef Unit had an amazing system for building the reef on a shot-by-shot basis. They had an entire nursery of coral, plant life, etc., that they could throw together in different configurations and custom-sculpt each shot for the needs of the story."

The Ocean and Sydney Harbor

Picking up where the Reef Unit left off was the Sharks/Sydney Unit, under the direction of Steve May. This group took on a wide variety of scenes with diverse locations, including the submarine set where the sharks meet, the fishing net scene with schools of grouper fish, the scene inside the blue whale, and all of the shots in Sydney Harbor, from the boat marina to the sewage plant.

"The submarine is supposed to be like a haunted house," May explains. "It's very spooky and creepy. There are nearly 100 mines surrounding the sub and we worked hard to cover them all with moss and have them move with the surge and swell of the ocean. Inside the sub, it's supposed to feel very tight all the time. It's crammed full of knobs, valves, and pipes. Because we had our own layout and modeling people, we were able to quickly build and dress the sub as we went. We knew what we needed and built customized parts along the way."

The Blue Whale

One of the big challenges for May and his team was simulating the splashing water inside the blue whale after Marlin and Dory are swallowed.

"Pixar really hadn't done splashing water before," says May. "We had to figure out a way to do three-dimensional water, develop the software and new techniques for running simulations to compute the motion of the water, and then render it to look realistic. And the entire time, the whale is swimming and going up and down. Water had to explode and splash all around as the whale's giant tongue lifts Marlin and Dory out of the water.

"This was a whole different water dynamic than the film's underwater scenes, and we had to allow for the large-scale behavior of the crashing water and the very small detailed behavior of our two fish characters. Those different resolutions were very difficult to accommodate. Lighting that scene was probably the hardest thing we've ever had to light because the entire set was moving, organic, and filled with splashing water."

The Fish Tank

Jesse Hollander and the Tank Unit were responsible for all of the lighting, modeling, shading, and rendering associated with the dentist's office and the fish tank. Creating the tank itself and dealing with issues of reflection and refraction were a major challenge for these resourceful works. They also built a wide range of set pieces for their scenes, including dental equipment, the tiki heads and volcano in the tank, and the nearly 120,000 pebbles on the tank floor. Their work included new breakthroughs in the way cloth, human hair, and skin are created with computer animation.

"One of the biggest things that our unit had to develop for this film was the reflections and refractions connected with the tank," recalls Hollander. "Our starting point was the actual physics of what happens to light when it enters not just water, but a glass box filled with water. This meant computing for glass, then water, then glass into water. But in our movie, we're not dealing with just physics -- we need to be able to have control over those physics.

"Most of the time, we were able to achieve the effect we wanted by offsetting the camera. At certain angles inside the tank, there is something called TIR -- total internal reflection -- where the glass becomes a perfect mirror. We play off this quite a bit with the characters of Deb and Flo. At other angles, the view from the tank shows double imagery. Whenever we're inside the tank, we always use reflections. Refractions become more of a selective thing and we only use them where necessary."

As with all Pixar films, attention to detail was critical. Hollander explains, "As far as the objects in the tank, we tried to give them a very cheap, kitschy Vegas feel -- lots of color and cheap plastic. We went to a lot of effort building fake molding lines and flashing for the plastic items."

A Cast of Thousands

Another key contributor to the film's overall technical advances was Michael Lorenzen, who oversaw a group of animators and technicians in the Schooling/Flocking Unit. This unit helped to create spectacular crowd scenes that included tens of thousands of fish. They also populated the turtle drive sequence with up to 200 background turtles.

Says Jacob, "The thing about 'Nemo' that makes me most proud is that we were able to get to a place where the director was able to concentrate on the filmmaking aspects of the film and was less hassled by technical limitations or frustrations. We were also able to give the animators faster models, many in real time. This was another major breakthrough. Overall, we reduced the render time for each frame and gave the director the visual richness he wanted and within the schedule and budget allowed."

In the end, Pixar's technical team exceeded even its own expectations. "Seeing the coral reef up there on the big screen is simply amazing," says Eggleston. "Every piece of coral is backlit and the entire set is like a jewel underwater. I always thought it would look good, but I had no idea it would look like this. I was the third person to work on this film, so I've been part of the technical process since the beginning, and still I found myself sitting in the theater thinking, 'How did they do this?'"

There's always a future for a movie franchise like 'Nemo' -- but just what is in store? We cover this in the final section.

The Future of 'Finding Nemo'

Copyright Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved 'Finding Nemo' is a business blockbuster -- with more to come.

"Finding Nemo" premiered in May 2003 and quickly became a blockbuster. It has also found tremendous success with a two-disc collector's edition DVD (released November 2003 from Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Pixar Animation Studios); a soundtrack album featuring Robbie Williams' recording of the Bobby Darin hit "Beyond The Sea" (released by Walt Disney Records, May 2003); and three video games, the best-selling "Finding Nemo" (May 2003) for Sony PlayStation2, Microsoft Xbox, and Nintendo Game Cube, "Finding Nemo: The Continuing Adventures" for Nintendo GameBoy Advance (September 2004), and "Finding Nemo: Escape to the Big Blue" for Nintendo DS (February 2006).

The latest Nemo project is the stage production "Finding Nemo: The Musical," opening in November 2006 at Walt Disney World.


In 2003, Nemo was in the top 10 on Forbes' annual list of the top-earning fictional characters at $2.4 billion, finishing just behind other Disney characters Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh. Disney would never think of allowing a film hit this big to go without a sequel, so it has gone to great lengths to assure a second "Nemo" film is possible: It bought the company that made it. In January of 2006, Disney struck a deal to purchase Pixar for an astonishing $7.4 billion.

"At Disney, we strive to develop characters that engage a child's imagination, tell stories that connect with families, and find ways for our characters to live on in the hearts and minds of children everywhere," said Matt Ryan, senior vice president of brand management at The Walt Disney Company. "The consistent top ranking of Mickey Mouse and Winnie the Pooh on Forbes.com's list tells us that these characters live on with new generations. And we will continue to introduce classic characters, like Nemo, which children can enjoy for years to come."

Sounds like Nemo fans will find him swimming across the ocean for a long, long time.


Vicki Arkoff is entertainment editor for Sweet 16 magazine, and is one of MAD Kids' and MAD Magazine's "usual bunch of idiots."  She also writes for Nickelodeon Magazine, Disney Adventures, Tiger Beat, Bop, Sugar (UK), Girlfriend (Australia), and TV Hits (UK, Australia & Germany), and is an authorized biographer and co-writer for such youth-market superstars as Hilary Duff, Jesse McCartney, The Cheetah Girls, Raven-Symone, Emma Roberts, Drake Bell, JoJo, Carrie Underwood, and Kelly Clarkson.

Originally Published: Nov 7, 2006