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Finding Nemo - An interview with Andrew Stanton and Lee Unkrich



Interview by: Graeme Kay

FINDING Nemo, the latest offering from Pixar Studios, is a pet project that writer/director Andrew Stanton has been nurturing since 1995.

Graeme Kay met up with the director and his co-director Lee Unkrich to find out more about the way the film was shot and cast.

Q. The film starts with a pretty dark moment – Marlon’s wife Coral being eaten by a Barracuda. Why did you go with that as the opening shot?
AS:
Originally, I was going to bring all that stuff in as a series of flashbacks, by way of explanation as to why Marlon was the way he was. But the more I worked on it, the more irritating Marlon’s fussiness and over-protective nature became. It really started to become a problem.
Then someone said why don’t you move all that up to the front? Initially, I resisted but when I finally tried it, it worked very well. Once we’d established Marlon’s history we could get on with the main message of the film, y’know, that it’s a tough world out there and you have to be careful.

Q. What was the biggest challenge with this film?
AS
: By far the biggest challenge was getting the water right. Water has always been a Holy Grail for CG animators because it’s not a fixed medium, it’s constantly shifting and changing.
For this film we had to learn how to portray the way that water breaks on the surface of the ocean, and how water would look inside a whale’s mouth. Those were the real money shots.
To get that right we researched a lot of ocean-set films and documentaries and then we broke the ocean down into its, like, constituent parts. But there were only a few of those shots.
But, for the most part we were shooting down in the deeps, in the void, where water works in different ways. And, again, we had to learn new techniques.
For instance, to give the impression of the constant movement of currents, we let the characters drift slightly off the frame, so that they were constantly having to swim back into the centre of the screen. You don’t really notice that because you’re concentrating on the action. Then we added the constantly changing colours, the way that fish lose their definition and colour as they draw away from you, and the eternal drift of food and other particles that are suspended in the water to give depth and perspective.

NS: Aside from that, most of what we did was based on techniques from a century ago. Using simple layering techniques to build up the illusion.

Q. How easy was it to cast the film?
AS
: Not that long… I mean we had our wish list, y’know, but this was the fifth Pixar film, and I think for pretty much the first time everyone we called rang us right back. So it was pretty much first choice all round.
I had always had Ellen DeGeneres in mind for the role of Dory, ever since I saw her on TV doing one of her ‘can’t make up my mind’ routines, and she changed her mind five times within a sentence.
That was a vital element for Dory, because so much of her character relies upon that fact that fish only have a 30-second memory span.
In fact, I actually wrote the part exclusively for Ellen, before I’d made any approach to her at all. And I was lucky that she accepted.

Q. How do you draw up your casting short-lists?
NS:
We have our own version of the casting process, we’re always auditioning actors without them knowing it.
The way it usually happens is that we pick who we think would be right and then we take a selection of their work and we’ll pick extracts that we put against the character we have in mind for them.
And then if that works and we’re sure we’ve got the right person, we’ll often do an animation of the screen test – we did that for Tom Hanks in Toy Story, we did an animation of Turner & Hooch – and once you do that and present it to the actor, well it’s a pretty seductive technique.

Q. Do the actors tend to work straight from the script?
AS:
Well, different actors have different approaches. Like Ellen read it pretty much straight, whereas Albert Brooks, who voices Marlon, does a lot of improvisation. You just put him in there and leave him to it.
But usually the routine is that we ask them to do one reading straight from script, and then we do another where they’re left to their own devices. And you always get something good from that. So it’s a mixture of the two really.

Q. What makes a good voice actor?
AS:
It’s a funny thing….what you have to remember is that from live action standpoint is that actors have a relationship with the camera, and they use their face and body to flesh out their lines.
But we have a certain sixth sense for a voice actor. There’s something about a voice that when it’s separated from the physical, there’s something extra there. And that’s what attracts us.

NS: You’d be surprised, we have listened to some major A-list actors over the years, but once you take away the visuals, there’s nothing there. Conversely, we’ve worked with people who are not big stars, but they have that special quality about their voice.

Q. The film has taken over $330m in the States alone. Were you surprised by how well it did?
AS:
Surprised is an understatement. We never set out to do that, money is not the first thing on our minds when we start a film. We were just hoping that we could make a movie that would keep our heads above water and be worthy of the other movies that we’ve made.

NS: When Nemo came out we were up against Matrix Reloaded. Then two weeks after we premiered, The Hulk came out. So we were like this little fish swimming between two leviathans.

AS: It was really heartening for me, because from the day I wrote the film, and we’re talking years back, I thought it would have a much smaller audience, because I wanted to go for something a little more emotional, with less comedy and more drama. I wanted a darker feel to it.
I was constantly looking out for the schmaltz-factor; and if I felt that something was getting a little too slushy, I would try and turn it on its ear. I can be a little cynical, but it seems to work for me…

NS (interrupting): It’s ironic because almost from day one, Andrew was apologising to me, he actually kept saying ‘I feel bad because I’m going be the first director of a Pixar film that wasn’t a big hit’…

Q. Did you feel under pressure to top Monsters Inc?
AS:
Not so much under pressure to top it, because there’s not that much of a competitive edge at the studio. We work very much as a team, we all want everything we do to succeed.
In fact, to be honest with you, none of our movies have been made under that kind of pressure. I mean with Toy Story, the very fact that we were making it was an achievement in itself. The biggest question then was: ‘Wll anyone want to sit through a full-length CG movie?’

NS: But that question has never come up since.

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