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Wednesday, Dec. 3, 2003

Never a dull moment with the Pixar posse

Watching the brain trust of Pixar -- director Andrew Stanton, co-director Lee Unkrich, and producer/head honcho John Lasseter -- at a news conference in Tokyo, it was eminently clear why their films are so good. Always looking for a laugh, these are guys who enjoy clowning around, whether it's Stanton doing his turtle voice for the attending media, or all three doing "scared fish" faces for the cameras.

News photo
Co-director Andrew Stanton, producer John Lasseter and co-director Lee Unkrich clown around at a news conference in Tokyo last month for "Finding Nemo."

What's also clear from their comments is a hands-on, personal commitment to their films, which sets their work apart from the formulaic output of so much recent children's animation.

On the film's 10-year gestation

Lee Unkrich: When Andrew first pitched this movie years ago, we all fell in love with the story and the characters, but we thought that it was a smaller movie, we didn't think the audience was going to be as big as [for] the other movies we've made. In fact, Andrew used to apologize to me all the time, saying, "I feel terrible that I'm going to be known as the director of the first Pixar movie that's not a big hit." So that shows what Andrew knew. The movie was a big hit, and it just shows that if you make a movie for the right reasons, and try to tell a good story, and create really great, compelling characters, then people will come.

On the film's similarities to other Disney films

Andrew Stanton: The main thing for me was I felt I had never seen an [animated] film where the main character was a father, as opposed to the child. That was something that felt fresh for me. And the loss of a parent. . . . Some people talk about it as being a "requirement" in a Disney movie, but I know none of us think like that.

LU: When you make a movie, everything is going to be influenced in some way by the great films you've seen before. If you look at "Nemo," there are references to Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, to a lot of great directors. But what's unique about this film is that there's nothing else like it. There's not another underwater adventure for us to watch that's similar to it. So in a lot of ways, we had to just dive in and invent a lot of the cinematic grammar we needed.

On designing the characters

AS: When I wrote the screenplay, I didn't know anything about fish. So when I had to pick a species, I just started ordering picture books, opening them up and looking at things. And there was this one book with a picture of an anemone, with a parent [fish] and a little child poking its head out. I didn't know yet that they were called clown fish, but I thought wow, they look like clowns. And when I read about them, how they have to stay in their homes to be protected and can't go far, it's like it was telling me that's what the species should be. So it really was a sort of happy accident.

John Lasseter: With "Finding Nemo," we brought in a lot of experts in fish and water, even some underwater photographers, to learn as much as we could about the world we're portraying. We didn't really make up anything. All the characters are based on species that are really out there. And in fact, so many of the adventures Dory and Marlin run into are inspired by opening up a book and seeing deep, down in the sea, where there's no light, and you see these incredible fish with long fangs and stuff. That's got to be one of the scariest-looking creatures on the planet! And that's where we'd say, "Gotta have that in the movie!"

JL: For the jellyfish, there's a fantastic aquarium near where we live in Monterey, [Calif.], and they had this incredible exhibit of jellyfish, and we'd just sit there and stare at them forever, and how they moved. As animators, you always have this childlike wonder with how things move.

On their favorite characters

AS: Well, Dory's one of my favorite characters. And speaking of research, we came up with that character because I had read in a book that goldfish have a memory of only three seconds. And we were like, what, did they take a test? How did they figure that out? [Laughs.]

JL: It's hard to choose; it's like asking me which of my five sons I like the best. But one character I really love is Crush, the big turtle. On first glance, he's just this lazy surfer-dude kind of guy, but there's a wisdom to how he fathers his children that is really deep.

On animating the film

AS: We knew it would be technically challenging to make this film the moment we thought of it. But it turned out that the technical difficulties didn't pose the greatest challenge: that was the simple movie trick of how do we trick your eyes and your brain into thinking you're underwater. And none of the things we did to do that were really that impressive from a technical standpoint. It took us a long time to figure out. We'd look at footage from documentaries and Jacques Cousteau and National Geographic, and we'd ask ourselves "Why do we know it's underwater? How come it doesn't look just like air to us? What are all the things that are telling our brains that we're underwater?" One of the biggest tricks was a simple one, which the animators gave to us: Whenever the fish are talking, you don't really notice it, but they're never still. They'll be drifting, and then their fins will start to move back while they talk.

On the origins of the story

AS: When I finally came up with what the movie should be about, the father and son, it felt right because I was at a place in my life where my dad's still alive, very healthy and my son was starting to become the person he's going to be for the rest of his life. And I felt like I was at this unique point where I could see exactly what it's like to still be the son of my father, while also being the father of my son.

So to have those dual points of view was really something that stirred in me. But the thing that really set it off, though, is that we were finishing "A Bug's Life," and had to go straight onto "Toy Story 2." There wasn't any rest. And we were working so hard, none of us were able to see our families much. So I felt I needed some special time with my son on my days off to connect with him. And he was 5. So I took him for a walk in the park, and I just spent the whole time going "Don't touch that! Watch out! You're gonna poke your eye out! Watch out for cars!" and I just realized that I was so afraid of something bad happening that I was missing out on the whole point of the walk, and I never connected with him. And that dilemma really rang [a bell] with me.

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