It’s uncommon to find a film that both parents and children enjoy equally, especially when said children are likely to force said parents to watch it 10,000 times as reported by Looper.
But that tricky balance is where Pixar excels, and “Finding Nemo” hits it beautifully.
But like its richly realized underwater world, “Nemo” has a lot more going on underneath the surface.
With its neurotic protagonist Marlin (Albert Brooks), it offers one of the movie’s most powerful stories of parenthood and all the terrors that come along with it.
Here are just a few of the strangest stories from behind the scenes and under the sea.
Finding Nemo is based on a true story
What sets Pixar apart from every other animation studio is just how personal their stories feel.
At least in the case of “Finding Nemo” writer-director Andrew Stanton, that’s because it is.
“That story stayed in the back of Stanton’s mind for decades as he grew up and began working for Pixar.”
A trip to Marine World with his son Ben convinced his fish was the perfect subject for the new computer animation medium, but he still needed a story that “mattered to me emotionally.”
Once again, an outing with Ben provided the answer. One day, Stanton took his then-five-year-old son for a walk in the park, and he caught himself spending the whole time panicking about all the ways Ben might get hurt. He realised that his anxiety for his child’s safety was suffocating both of them, and this revelation became the film’s central conflict for Marlin and Nemo.
Pixar had a macabre method
The Pixar crew are some of the biggest perfectionists in the business.
The “Making Nemo” document describes the crew going through weeks of field research and technological development to make the underwater “set” look real — and then doing too well and having to dial it back so it could work in a cartoon.
Art director Robin Cooper doesn’t sugarcoat it: “Tropical fish die a lot, unfortunately.
So they always have a good supply, at fish stores, of dead fish.”
Those elderly shark carcasses were invaluable for Pixar’s design team, giving them their best shot at an up-close look at the apex predators with all their body parts intact.
Pixar repurposed its software
In many ways, computer animation seems a lot easier than the painstakingly hand-drawn and hand-painted animated movies of past generations.
Instead of deliberately placing every line and brushstroke, the Pixar crew can run complex simulations that allow the computer to do most of the work for them.
But sometimes figuring out how to get the computer to do the work takes quite a bit.
That’s not the only time they used a similar approach.
Jacob challenged the other filmmakers to guess how he rendered the ocean floor.
The answer: He took the wave simulator and froze it.
Explosive volleyball team
Marlin and Dory have barely left home when they run into a nasty-looking great white shark named Bruce who takes them to a ruined submarine surrounded by floating mines.
Fortunately, he turns out to be a nice enough guy.
As he explains in the commentary, Stanton’s original idea was that the sharks were such natural thrill-seekers that their idea of relaxing was using the mines as volleyballs, and Dory would get her to answer the hard way when she asked why it was so important not to drop them.
Fortunately, the animatic — storyboards combined with a temporary voice track — is still available on Disney+ for viewing.
that quickly escalates into a cacophonous explosion when it sets off a chain reaction blowing them all up at once.
Bruce the shark
Pixar is unique in the animation field for being equally beloved by general audiences (kids and adults) and movie buffs.
Maybe that’s because the Pixar crew are such big buffs themselves.
But the ocean didn’t cause half as many troubles for the human crew as it did for the life-sized mechanical shark, whose delicate inner workings didn’t mix well with saltwater.
That turned out to be a blessing in disguise, forcing Spielberg to get creative by suggesting the shark without showing it and making a masterpiece of suspense.
The director nicknamed his uncooperative star after his lawyer, Bruce, and “Jaws” in turn passed the name on to the ringleader of the “Finding Nemo” shark gang.
Gill lost a subplot
While Nemo’s father is searching for him, Nemo plays out a parallel plotline in the fish tank of a dentist’s office where he meets an alternative father figure.
Played by the always-reliable “Spider-Man” and “Last Temptation of Christ” star Willem Dafoe, Gill made a big impact on a generation of kids despite his relatively brief appearance, introducing them to the archetype of the stoic badass with a troubled past.
But for a good chunk of the development of “Finding Nemo,” Gill was none of those things.
In the same way that Marlin grows past Nemo’s vision of him as a loser into a larger-than-life hero, Gill’s bravado was originally conceived of as nothing but an act.
“For taking that out,” Stanton says, “We ended up cutting the number of tank sequences in half.”
Not every fish survived the animation process
Computer animation is a difficult mix of technology and artistry, and several scenes in “Finding Nemo” proved equally challenging from both sides.
One of the most difficult sequences introduced a school of moonfish that move as a unit to form shapes like a lobster, a ship with working cannons, and a nasty caricature of Marlin.
This and similar scenes were so complicated that the crew included a dedicated “crowds lead” named Justin Ritter.
In the original DVD’s unique “visual commentary” — which interrupted Unkrich, Stanton, and writer Bob Peterson’s comments with mini-documentaries and other visual aids — Ritter explains how the production simulated fish schools’ movements.
“So, basically, hundreds of CG fish died to make this movie.”
Undignified places for big stars
“Finding Nemo” brought together an all-star cast led by Albert Brooks, best known for roles in films like “Drive” and “Taxi Driver,” as well as directing himself in classics like “Defending Your Life” and “Modern Romance,” along with sitcom star and talk show host Ellen DeGeneres.
That star power goes all the way down the line to the bit parts, like Brad Garrett from “Everybody Loves Raymond” as one of Nemo’s tankmates and future “Hulk” and “Munich” star Eric Bana as a shark.
For “Finding Nemo,” Stanton says, “He had to do dialogue as a pelican with water in his gullet, and it just wasn’t sounding right, so we had him hold his tongue … and I remember just having this flash moment going, I just told this Oscar-award-winning actor to hold his tongue and read this line and he’s doing it, wow.”
Crush and the seagulls
Not every role was right for a celebrity voice.
That’s how some behind-the-scenes talent found themselves on the cast list, including writer Bob Peterson as Nemo’s enthusiastic, singing teacher Mr Ray and co-writer Joe Ranft as Jacques the cleaner shrimp.
As it turns out, some of the most memorable voices in “Nemo” came from its director.
That first audience liked his performance so much that it finally stayed in.
Based on Unkrich’s description of the recording sessions, it’s no wonder:
“A lot of the Crush dialogue was just one two-hour session in my office. … [Stanton was] just a vessel for a higher surfer that day. It all started flowing, it was great. I just got out of [his] way.”
Sewer scene that got cut
Pixar went to great lengths to make sure “Finding Nemo” was believable.
Not all of their research was that pleasant — and sometimes it all went to waste anyway.
In the roundtable, producer Graham Walters remembers going on a tour of the San Francisco sewage treatment system with Stanton to make sure they captured it accurately for a planned sequence of Nemo escaping into the ocean through the dentist’s toilet.
They pressed on with the sequence anyway.
In the final film, it’s cut down to a few seconds.
Inspiration for climax
Marlin and Nemo are finally reunited in the Sydney harbour, but they barely have time to say “hi” before they’re in peril again and Dory gets swept up in a fishing net.
Nemo gets to use the skills he learned with the tank gang to lead the fish to swim down until they overwhelm the net, and Marlin gets to atone for his overprotectiveness by trusting Nemo to take that risk.
Nemo’s plan works, but that has to be pure Hollywood fantasy, right?
In fact, if it hadn’t happened in real life, it never would have happened in the movie.
In the commentary, Stanton explains the origin of the sequence.
“And I just thought that was fascinating, just the collective might of all these fish.”
Trouble with net scene
The net contains hundreds of fish, and once again, Pixar had to turn to simulations to handle them all.
In the commentary, Peterson describes the sequence as “so easy that we’re still working on it right now as we speak.”
This segues into another mini-documentary, where Oren Jacob breaks down how he was able to augment the hand-animated “hero shots” (close-up and medium shots) with computer simulations.
But the computer wasn’t working at quite the same level of genius as Pixar’s human side.
As with the moonfish, the solution was to “kill” the fish on the wrong side before anyone outside the studio could see how the computer had goofed.
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