An Interview with Finding Dory’s Supervising Animator Michael Stocker

With Finding Dory swimming towards theaters (read our Finding Dory movie review here), Michael Stocker, Supervising Animator at Pixar, was kind enough to sit down and share what it took to bring the highly anticipated Finding Nemo sequel to the big screen, why it took two years to create a single character, and the best part of being an animator.

Stocker’s Pixar credits include animating the Academy Award®-winning feature films The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille and Up. He served as directing animator on Toy Story 3 and Monsters University.

First off, what exactly does a supervising animator do?

I’m one of two supervising animators on Finding Dory, and our jobs are to ensure that—as animators, we’re actors—our directors are getting the performances they ask for. Maybe there are 30 people that are animating Dory, and Dory has to be the same in every shot. Sometimes you get a little off model at times… or Dory might not do it right like that… we are the gauge for that. And we look at the strengths and weaknesses of all of the animators… some people are great at action sequences, some are great at acting, the inner turmoil, so we cast the right animators for the right shots.

The two of us are on the film really early, so we’re building everything that you see in the show, all of the characters, and we’re rigging everything so they can move around, so that when the animators come on board, they can just go.

When did you first get involved with the project?

About four years ago Andrew said he might have something and started to kick things around and start writing. I was brought in about three and a half years ago, and at that point, he had a general idea of the story he wanted to tell—and that’s probably not that close to the story we end up telling. We’re all a part of that process. We start small, three to six of us, and start animating things to see what Andrew thinks. Everyone is working together to put this puzzle together.

What was the research process like for Finding Dory?

There are only a few people that worked on the first one that worked on this one. We had to go back to fish school to learn how the fish swim, how sea lions act, how an octopus moves around—which was our biggest challenge. One of the most fun things we get to do as animators is the research we do before. We took the entire crew down to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, where they took us back stage for the otters, for Hank, we all got to hold this 70-pound octopus in our arms. He came up out of the tank and wrapped his arms around us. Absolutely amazing.

It took two years to create Hank the Octopus. Why did it take so long?

I’ve never run across a character that’s taken this long to make. The complexity of an organic character with seven legs and how an octopus moves, the very organic feel of that is very hard to do in a computer. If you take a video tape of an octopus swimming and try to figure out what it’s doing, it’s almost impossible to deconstruct. With an octopus, any movement goes. Anything. In order to build that character, to do anything, is incredibly hard. They can also morph into their background, they can squeeze through just about anything.

Compared to older movies—or the original Finding Nemo—how much more detail is there in Finding Dory?

When you watch one of our movies, they’re very rich. There’s a sense of realism in our movies. But when you look at Toy Story vs. Toy Story 3, they’re so different.

In Finding Dory, what’s really cool is that they’ve developed a way that offers realistic refraction—if you have aquariums or Dory is in a coffee carafe, and you put your hand behind it, it sort of distorts it. We were able to get that for free with a lighting software called Katana. But when I watch the first Nemo, and they’re swimming through that coral environment, and we watch where we are today, things might be a little different, but they’re both still beautiful. There’s not that much of a change.

As technology has advanced, what has become easier about animating? More challenging?

For animation, the one thing that is easier is we’ve developed a way where we can draw on the screen in real time. We can even 2D animate a whole shot on the screen and take our rig and force it into the system. We can now work in almost any way we want.

Over time, we had to rebuild and remake Marlin, Nemo and Dory. It’s like if you made a Word doc 13 years ago and opened it, it’d be a mess. And that’s exactly how this is—if you tried to open them up, it’d be a mess. And all of the controls are different. So we had to rebuild them, which was actually a hard thing to do.

We’d think we had finished Dory, and then she’d move and we’d be, “That’s not Dory,” because we all know what she is supposed to look like. We spent a long time to really get it to match the first movie. It had to be exact.

Do you have a favorite Disney movie?

I don’t. Even my kids ask me and I say I don’t.

That sounds like a political answer.

It’s not!

What was your favorite movie growing up?

Star Wars. It’s kind of a cliché answer, but it’s hard not to say Star Wars.

What do you do when a movie project is done?

I’m almost done. I’m excited for the movie to go out. I’m going to go hang out with my kids for the summer and do some traveling and just kind of not do anything for a while. Making a movie like this kind of sucks you in, it’s very labor intensive. I have to go and get into nature, to get out into the world.

By Erik Samdahl
Related categories: Family Movies