Michael Stocker, Supervising Animator for the upcoming Disney Pixar film finding Dory, loves a challenge. Listening to him talk about the speed bumps on the road to creating Finding Dory was as interesting as hearing him gush about the successes.
I got to spend a little bit of time with Stocker yesterday afternoon as he began his press tour for Finding Dory, which will hit wide release on June 17th. His enthusiasm for the art of animation and storytelling in general, and for this project in particular, made this one of the most fun interviews I’ve done in a long time. He really opened up about some of the fun, behind the scenes making of Finding Dory, and Disney and Pixar in general.
Stocker attended Spokane Falls Community College, where he obtained degree in Commercial Art and Graphic Design. He took one film course while there, but says he was hooked and knew he wanted to work in film. While working at Boeing as an illustrator, Stocker saw a television commercial for the film Who Framed Roger Rabbit and knew at that moment that animation was where he wanted to be. He enrolled at CalArts (a school founded by Walt Disney), and secured an internship at Disney Animation as an “Inbetweener” on The Lion King. The inbetweener, he explained to us, does all of the animation in between key frames that are drawn by the animator, and makes clean, sharp lines. “I would help the animator sort of put those drawings in and then I would put in this nice, clean line”. He transitioned over to digital when he worked on The Incredibles at Pixar, which he said is one of his favorites because he had the opportunity to work with director Brad Bird for the first time.
When asked if he preferred hand-drawn animation or digital he replied “A good animated movie – 3D or Hand Drawn is a beautiful thing” The story is the guiding factor, he says, and a good story can be achieved with both mediums. He cites the beginning of Up, where we see Carl and Ellie’s story unfold, as a pivotal moment in animation “That is an amazing bit of cinema because it’s no words, it’s just music, it’s just images, it’s just animation. Up to that point I don’t know if people really thought we could tell a story about a subject matter like this, and then that happened. It was just beautiful.”
His newest project, Finding Dory is the much-anticipated sequel to 2003’s Finding Nemo. The long wait between films created interesting technical dilemmas. The technology has changed so much in the past decade, that none of the assets from the previous movie could be used. The animators had to create the characters from scratch, a daunting task given how familiar people are with them. The animators would frequently get very close to finishing a character model, but realize through tests that something was just “off” and have to start again. On top of that, animating fish and other aquatic life was hard in and of itself. According to Stocker, every animator brought onto the project had to spend hours observing a real Blue Tang and Clownfish. They then had to create a small animated piece to show they grasped how the fish moved. Finally, they had to start completely from scratch and animate a line or two from the movie using the movements they observed.
One of the biggest challenges the Finding Dory animation team faced was creating a new character, an octopus named Hank (voiced by Ed O’Neil). Starting right from the design stage, Hank was difficult. Real octopuses have their mouths underneath them, not a set up that would work well in an animated film. Stocker also found himself using a hybrid 3D/hand drawn combination since creating Hank’s tentacles in 3D for every test shot was too time consuming. The effect, makes Hank’s tentacles mesmerizing to watch, was born from frustration. “I”m proud of Hank. I know how hard it was for the animators to animate that character and then make it feel organic and believable. When he’s on screen you can’t help watching him.”
Stocker sums up his job like this: “What we try to do is find those real moments. If you can capture them, regardless of fish, toys, cars, that’s kind of where you’ve invested yourself in these characters so much and then you hit a nerve. And there it is, like boom!”
Finding Dory opens in theaters everywhere on June 17th.