Saturday, June 18, 2016

Finding Michael: The Man Behind Dory

Michael Stocker, Supervising Animator for "Finding Dory."
Michael Stocker, Supervising Animator for Finding Dory (Pixar)
INTERVIEW
I can’t think of any type of career professional I would rather interview than an animator. As you would expect, they are excellent storytellers and they are so excited to tell you about their latest accomplishments even though they have already told the same story hundreds of times before to other reporters. They are not pretentious in the least and are very gracious. I found that meeting Michael Stocker, Supervising Animator for Disney/Pixar’s Finding Dory, to be no exception. I was lucky enough to have been invited to join a round table to interview him this week at a hotel in downtown Seattle.

I began the questioning by asking Michael why Pixar created a sequel to Finding Nemo 13 years after the first film. He said, “I think Andrew [Stanton] probably came up with an idea like about four years ago. I mean, Ellen [DeGeneres, the voice of Dory] has been wanting to make for a while, but he wasn’t quite ready.” Michael assured my group that Pixar doesn’t like to create sequels just for the sake of doing so. They are always aiming to tell a good story and sometimes that allows us a trip back to a familiar location with familiar friends, which sort of fits in why Michael was visiting Washington in the first place.

Stocker grew up in Spokane and went to college in Spokane Falls to become an illustrator/graphic designer. While there, he attended one film class and that is where he says the seed was planted. He later moved to Seattle to work as a commercial illustrator and then he worked for a design firm as a painter completing high-end conceptual paintings for Boeing, but nothing completely fit just right. He said he kept having thoughts about that one film class and then he saw an advertisement for the Disney film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit and instantly thought, “Animation! That’s what I’m doing! Connection, connection, connection. I went down to CalArts just outside out of L.A. I went back to school and I found my people.”


Fresh out of art school, Stocker received an internship to work as an “in-betweener” animator at the “fish bowl” that was set up at the Disney MGM Studios Theme Park (now called Disney Hollywood Studios) in Orlando, Florida. He and his fellow interns worked in Art of Animation attraction.

“My very first movie that I ever worked on was The Lion King. People could walk through and watch us making the movie. I was part of the process and I was happy to be a part of the process, but that is all I really did.”

After a short stint working with Turner and Associates (which later became Warner Bros. Animation) Stocker was back working for the Mouse at Walt Disney Animation Studios. His movie credits include Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia 2000, The Emperor’s New Groove, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range. In 2002, he moved to Pixar where he worked on The Incredibles (“I loved it because it was my first movie for Pixar and I got to work with Brad Bird,” he says). He then worked on Cars (“I loved that too because I got to work with John Lasseter”) and Ratatouille (“Which was amazing because it was so weird. It was such a weird movie to make and I love the movie because of that.”) He later worked on Up and served as directing animator on Toy Story 3, Monsters University and now, Finding Dory.

As it turns out, Pixar may have waited a little too long to create the sequel since the technology that the studio now uses is completely different than what they had been using in 2003. The files were so old and old of date that the animators couldn’t use any of the old files from the first film and had to recreate every character from scratch.

“It is sort of like if you typed up a Word document and then tried to open it 13 years later, I don’t think that it’s going to open,” says Stocker. “It proved to be a lot more challenging than I thought it was going to be because everybody knows what Marlin looks like. Everybody knows what Dory looks like. We would be like, ‘There! We have it!’ and then we’d move it and then we say ‘it’s not right. What is it?’ And it was hard to find sort of what it was…the littlest…the little eye, the little mouth, a little of this or that could be way off model, so we spent a lot of time comparing it against that first one and really tried…it HAD to be exact. These are endearing characters and you find out 13 years later how endearing they are to people. My 16-year-old said, ‘Everyone at my school says it better be good.’ There are so many people who are attached to this world that we need to honor that.”

Finding Dory turned out to be more of a challenge than Stocker had initially thought. First, the focus of the story was different.

“Look, we’re making a movie about a secondary character and now she is the main character and she has this problem and it’s a really hard problem for her but it’s also a really hard problem to film about. She forgets everything. What do you do with the third act? It was sort of hard to unlock,” he says.

Then, to add to the difficulty of the task, Pixar had a very limited number of animators in the studio who had worked on the first film, which meant, a lot of them had to learn how to animate fish convincingly. Stocker says that he would give his fellow animators some video footage of a real clown fish or blue tang and then they had them try to copy their movements.

“They found that to be super hard,” says Stocker. “Figuring out how a fish swims is hard. Then, they would have to pick a line of dialogue and animate those movements to those lines. That sort of got them up to speed. And then we would work with them and then we would have fish experts come in and talk about how fish swim and how they carve [through the water].”

Related: Read my review of Finding Dory >>>

“One of the cool things we do in animation especially is the amount of research we do before we start. It’s so fun and you learn so much,” says Stocker. “We took 70 animators to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, we went back stage and held two octopuses. They are super intelligent animals. They purr like a motorboat. It was great to hold a leg and see how it attaches and how they wrap their arms around you.”

Over the years, Michael Stocker has had the privilege of working with 2D and 3D animation and appreciates them both. “When Miyazaki makes a movie, I’m hands down the first one there. A good animated movie hand-drawn or 3D is a beautiful thing. So, I love both. I don’t think that one is better than the other. They both have their strengths and weaknesses.”

I asked Stocker if he uses any of the old form of animation with the new form and he answer pleasantly surprised me. “One thing that we can do now, a cool new technology thing, we can hand draw right on our screen and I can animate a whole shot in 2D if I wanted to,” he says. “We would turn Hank’s tentacles off [in the model] because they were really hard and our main thing was performance. I would animate Hank moving around and then I would spend a day or two animating the tentacles by [hand] drawing and then I would show that performance to Andrew. That would only take me a few days where if I was to do it with the model, it would take me a few weeks. So it’s a great way to use 2D. Once Andrew was happy, I would just put on my headphones and work on the actual model to match my drawings. Some will block out everything purely in drawing.”

Not surprisingly, Stocker really enjoyed working with both Dory and Hank. “There is something about the positivity of Dory that nothing seems to ever get her down. She lives in the moment almost all of the time, and maybe it’s because she can’t remember anything but there is something super sincere about that. I wish I was more like that. There are times when I’m like ‘just keep swimming, I got to get through this’ and times on this movie when it was like ‘I don’t know what we’re doing’ but I had to just keep moving forward. I think her character embodies that. You tie that to Ellen’s voice and…honestly, Ellen exudes that. You put those things together and you’re just like…gah…it’s amazing. She’s an amazing character. I want to be like that. I want to know people like that. It’s impossible to be like that all of the time, but that is sort of why I love Dory.”
As for Hank: “I am so proud of Hank because I know how hard it was for the animators to animate that character and make it seem organic and believable. When he’s on screen, you cannot not watch him.”

Chatting with Michael is almost more fun than watching the movie he created. He is so proud of his team and what they were able to accomplish.

“There’s no water there, it’s fake. But if we can convince you that it’s water then there is just this feeling about it. I am very proud of the animation of the whole movie. It is absolutely beautiful. I don’t think that there is a bad shot in the entire movie. We were able to honor the first movie. The talent that we have is absolutely amazing.” 

Related: Seattle-Based Artist Kira Lehtomaki Does ‘Zootopia’ Proud >>>

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