Thirteen years ago, filmmaker Andrew Stanton took us under the sea with "Finding Nemo," a tender and sweetly funny film that introduced fans to Pixar's wondrous take on life in the oceans. Recently, Stanton and his Pixar co-collaborators welcomed Zap2it on a behind-the-scenes sneak peek of its summer sequel "Finding Dory," unveiling familiar faces, an Ellen DeGeneres-centered plotline -- and the cantankerous octopus who may soon become your new favorite Pixar character.
"We're in it for the grandkid, not the kids," Stanton says of an oft-repeated mantra that has his team striving for a timelessness too often pushed aside in this era of opening weekends and rushed-into-production sequels. "I'm in this for the long ball, meaning I hope it goes past one generation to the next."
Viewing a handful of completed scenes near the enormous Monterey Bay Aquarium (where Stanton and his team did much of their research), we saw Dory's search begin for her long-lost parents. As the memory-challenged fish with DeGeneres' winning mix of charm, humor and sincerity finds herself at the Marine Life Institute (MLI), she encounters several residents who are rehabbing -- including Bailey (a beluga whale whose sonar is on the fritz), Destiny (a nearsighted whale shark) and Hank, a scene-stealing "septopus" (voiced by Ed O'Neill, he has a missing tentacle) determined to help Dory find her folks -- and get himself to a cozy Cleveland facility where he can finally get some peace and quiet.
From the earliest concept sketches, Hank was intended as a "Great Escape"-type character who could carry Dory around the MLI (via water-filled coffee pot) and use his camouflage skills to avoid detection. In one scene that is soon to be your favorite, the two friends stage a daring escape that has them leaping off ceiling fans, dodging tourists and even pretending to be a backpack as they make their way towards the quarantine tank that supposedly houses Dory's mom and dad.
"I've been at PIxar for eighteen years, and I can honestly say that Hank has been the most interesting character to be a part of," says Jason Deamer, the character's designer, showing off highly-detailed photos of actual creatures used for research. "Nature is far more interesting and creative than I could ever be ... a mimic octopus is not only capable of changing its hue, but also the texture of its skin."
As he shows off video of the actual octopus (and early Pixar footage of Hank mimicking an office plant), it's amazing how Pixar has taken nature's creativity, given it a human personality, and melded the two perfectly. It's a theme repeated throughout the "Finding" films. He also reveals that Hank's face was patterned after Bud Luckey, a beloved Pixar elder statesman.
"Hank was the hardest character I've ever worked on; we had never done anything so malleable," says Jeremy Talbot, the character supervisor on the film. "We were really excited about him being able to fit into small places, change his shape -- whatever the story dictated."
At one point in the movie, Hank slithers along a counter, blending in with the light switches and instruments behind him -- a visual effect the "Finding Nemo" animators could only dream of over a decade ago. "This was really a challenging idea, to figure out how to do it in a computer, keep it appealing, and make it possible for animators," says Talbot, showing another research video, this one of an octopus slithering across land. "We had done similar locomotion for 'Monsters University,' but it didn't have this complexity."
Hank and Dory's escape hinges on them becoming "contaminated" enough to warrant a trip to the quarantine tank. In order to do so, Hank's big idea is that they enter every fish's worst nightmare: A touch pool surrounded by energetic children who don't know the meaning of the phrase "two-finger touch."
"We had talked about there being Marine Life Institute, an aquarium, and Dory would look for her parents there," says story supervisor Max Brace. "I remembered going with my son down to these aquariums and looking at the touch pools. You see all these kids there, poking and prodding all these little poor creatures. I thought: 'What would it be like for Dory to be stuck in something like that?'"
Hence, "Sequence 240: Touch Pool." Pictured above, the scene is shot like a horror film, with Hank cowering under a rock while Dory dodges giant slamming hands coming down all around her.
"The touch pool was an easy get," explains co-director Angus MacLane, who walked us through a demonstration of how Pixar will take a scene idea (touch tank horror show) and tweak it (less focus on Hank, keep it about Dory) until the formula is just right. "To kids it's fun, to fish it would be a horror show. That central idea propelled it all. We were also eager to play with the idea of the octopus camouflaging himself."
Years in the making, it's just one of the soon-to-be-classic, meticulously-detailed scenes in the June 17 release.
"I knew if I said the words 'Finding anything' it would start a snowball," Stanton recalls of when he finally decided it was time to revisit one of Pixar's most beloved films. "In 2010, I had a notion about wanting to resolve Dory's issues, that there might be a story worth talking about. But I waited until the end of 2012 to even say anything, because it was just too loaded."
"Honestly," the filmmaker says of the finished product. "I like that it came kind of naturally."