Ocean Odyssey: Andrew Stanton explores the backstory of Pixar’s Dory

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Finding Dory has a lot to live up to. Opening June 17, the Pixar feature is a sequel to 2003's Oscar-winning Finding Nemo, a worldwide critical and commercial success. But in 2011, director and co-writer Andrew Stanton realized that the story wasn't finished.

"I had moved on, I went to do robots, went to Mars, did all this other stuff," he says, referring to WALL-E and his live-action John Carter. "Pixar wanted to re-release Nemo in 3D, so they asked me to watch it, something I had not done in years. In fact, it was the first time I was able to watch it with some objectivity. And I walked out of that screening worried about Dory."

In Finding Nemo, a clownfish father named Marlin (played by Albert Brooks) crosses the ocean to find his son Nemo (Alexander Gould). Marlin's accompanied by a blue tang named Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), who suffers from short-term memory loss. Her problem is played for laughs in Nemo, but for Stanton her character was unresolved.

"She had an issue of self-acceptance," he explains. "I think the world—the characters in the story but the audience as well—saw her as an optimist and caregiver, somebody who brought joy into their lives. But she saw herself as somebody with a problem that she had to be sorry for. That's one of the first things she says when she bumps into Marlin, 'I'm sorry.'"

In the sequel, a chance sighting of a stingray migration inspires memories of her childhood, seen in a short, brilliant montage of homesickness. Dory sets out to find her parents, guided by a few sketchy, elusive clues and helped by Marlin and Nemo (now voiced by Hayden Rolence).

Dory is a warm, delightful personality, especially as played by DeGeneres. But all along Stanton saw her as a tragic figure, someone lost and abandoned, wandering the ocean by herself, her friendliness actually an armor against rejection. And though the director doesn't press the issue, her behavioral problems affect her self-esteem, her relationships, even her personal safety.

Stanton laughs now about the "four years of hell" it took to solve how to tell Finding Dory. In classic Pixar fashion, well into the project Stanton and his crew had to stop and reassess what they were doing.

"In a weird way it was very similar to the problems we had with Marlin in the first movie," Stanton admits. "I'm such a fan of economy, I love it when I'm dropped into a story midway and have to figure it out as I go along. But there's an art form to what that information is and when to reveal it, and I often fall into the trap of being too obscure. I just assumed Dory's tragic underbelly—it would be instinctual, you would just feel it as you were watching."

On the other hand, his crew fell into the trap of seeing her as she was in Nemo, blithe, bouncy, upbeat, and little more. "We were almost two years into it, and we weren't getting it working," Stanton says. "No matter how many times we were putting this movie up on reels and rewriting it, Dory just kept coming across a little too simplistic. And when I told them what I've been saying here about her, they were like, 'You never explained this to us. It's not obvious in the first film.'"

Reconstructing the character as more of a survivor, an artful dodger, "street-savvy, or ocean-savvy" as Stanton puts it, placed additional demands on DeGeneres, who has a full-time career as a talk-show host and producer. She delivers a deeply moving performance that Stanton marvels didn't seem to require much effort.

"She had that one scene in Nemo, the one her character's famous for, where she breaks down and cries and says: Don't leave me, when I look at you I'm home," Stanton recalls. "That was her first take on our first try. So I knew from that the scenes in Dory were not going to be much work. We would get them done and move on. We actually worked more on the comedy than on the drama."

Finding Dory is as funny and colorful, as sophisticated and technically polished as you would expect from a Pixar feature. What sets it apart from most animated movies is its acting. Veterans like Albert Brooks, Ed O'Neill (who plays an octopus named Hank), and Diane Keaton and Eugene Levy (who play Dory's parents) are predictably expert. DeGeneres is a revelation, displaying depths of feeling we've never seen from her before.

"I think nobody ever asks her to go there," is how Stanton explains it. "Ellen is a really good actress, and she doesn't need a lot of pushing to get there. She has a lot more complexity and tragedy in her life than she lets onto. She doesn't mind talking about it if it comes up, but she's a professional, she really is. The only difference from the first film is that she does twice as much in a day as she used to do in a month now, so she would just be a little more tired."

As the main character, and one who is in almost every scene, DeGeneres put in a lot of time over the course of the three years of production. Stanton describes the give-and-take of his collaboration with her, a process he went through with the other performers as well.

"I'm usually in the room when they're recording, I'm just sitting at a table trying to be very quiet so you don't hear me on the mike, and I can sort of look at them, just like a director could on a set, be right by them behind the camera and be as close to the actor as possible.

"But I find that what works best for some scenes with Ellen is for me to go behind the glass with a mike and headphones so I can talk to her like another character, and actually act with her. It's almost like a radio drama, but you won't hear me over the mike. I'm just there so I can help tee her up.

"Sometimes I'll slip back and forth between being whoever the character is in the scene to just whispering to her like the director and giving her a little nudge and doing another take right away. But again, I've never had to do more than two or three when we're doing the really hard stuff. It comes easily to her."

Since the performers are involved in the production over a long period of time, they actually help shape what Stanton describes as a very "public" writing process. For live-action films, writers generally work alone until producers accept a draft.

"At Pixar we have a concept and we start from a blank," Stanton explains. "We're about maybe a year in before we hire an actor like Ellen to come in and record. So she's usually reading off our first or second draft. And we all know there are going to be at least nine or ten drafts before we get it right."

Before the animators begin working, Stanton and his crew will edit the sound takes to pictures or storyboards and use that to rewrite the script, adapting it to the performers' strengths. Stanton compares the process to workshopping in theatre, where you end up with something quite different from where you started.

Stanton wrote Finding Nemo with Bob Peterson and David Reynolds. But he wanted a different voice for Dory, "to feel like it didn't come from me," so he let Victoria Strouse take the lead on the sequel.

"She realized very early on that Dory needed a foil, someone like Marlin. So she came up with the idea for Hank. And the idea that this octopus was sort of a surly loner with a heart of gold, plus the fact that as an octopus he could get Dory anywhere out of the water—it was just a huge win."

Until it came time to actually make him move, that is. Hank's first shot took six months to animate, after several years of software design. "It was a huge learning curve," Stanton says. "Hank's very much like water, he's never the same shape. Every inch of him is bending and folding and changing shape and size and volume at all times. There's nothing constant about him except maybe his eyeballs."

All the effort pays off in another of Pixar's endearing characters. Just like news reports of octopi escaping their pens, picking locks and generally bewildering their handlers, Hank can operate freely through the tanks, corridors and drains of the Marine Life Institute, the research center and aquarium where much of the movie takes place.

Stanton and his crew learned how to dive for Finding Nemo, but the research for Dory wasn't quite so glamorous. They visited the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Marin Mammal Center and the Vancouver Aquarium.

"But because we were going behind the scenes of an aquarium, we went to the really unsexy things behind the exhibits—where all the PVC piping was, the cinderblock walls, the bad IKEA furniture," he jokes.

"The one location we really wanted to feature in the first film is that kelp forest off the California coast. It's like an underwater redwood forest, there's nothing like it. So when I could make Dory come from anywhere for this story, I started with that really arresting location."

The director describes Finding Nemo as "a bit like a movie in a desert. We were in open water that went on forever, traveling the entire ocean for much of the time, very much a crossing-the-desert analogy. Here, we're in more than one location, and the kelp forest is like a fairytale. There are secrets in the forest, things discovered, you get lost and found. It was a very different type of analogy for us as a story."

Stanton credits KATANA, a new rendering and lighting software system, for helping expand the scope of Finding Dory. "If you want to compare the two movies, and understand the benefits of new technologies thirteen years later, in Nemo we only break the surface of the water once or twice. We only show the refraction that happens with glass inside a tank, or the underside of water when you're looking up, once or twice. And we were fighting tooth-and-nail to conquer those.

"But in Dory, because of KATANA, we could truly be on the surface of the water, have all kinds of interactions—splashing, waves breaking, refraction—that you would have in real life."

New software may have given Stanton and his crew more creative freedom, but they still had to find a way to tell children and adults alike a complex plot with strong emotional shifts and challenging themes. According to Stanton, the element that tied all these threads together, especially during two simultaneous chases that unfold in the Institute, was Thomas Newman's music.

"Yes, it may sound boring, but the music was the missing link for a long time. If we kept the music constant, found a tone that worked for both storylines, it kept a common denominator. You felt like you were getting one story, it didn't become too confusing."

The director, who calls Newman "the smartest guy I've ever met," found that collaborating with the composer forced him to explain the plot in ways he hadn't considered before. "I call it therapy sessions when I work with him," he laughs. "There's something about the way he processes and analyzes stuff. He has to understand it almost on a molecular level to move forward. It forces me to explain choices I've made that I've never really verbalized. Sometimes I end up having to describe something like five different ways, and suddenly I'll see his eyes light up, and we've found the common link."

Stanton says he listened to nothing but Newman's music while writing Nemo. "His music is like a cast member, it's not something that comes later like frosting. And it felt like we were missing a cast member until he finally came onto the show for the second film."

Stanton agrees that Finding Dory is darker in tone than Finding Nemo. The specter of dementia hovers over the story, and despite the best intentions of the workers at the Marine Life Institute, the movie makes it clear that animals don't want to be penned up or caged. That's a lot to cover in what's supposed to be a bright, friendly cartoon.

"It didn't come easy," Stanton says ruefully. "It came at the last minute. Same as the first film. It really wasn't until the last eight months that it all kind of all fell into place. After many hard years."

Editor's note: An earlier version of this profile incorrectly credited the film Robots to Stanton. His reference was to his work on WALL-E.