Ultimate Guide to 'Finding Nemo'

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.