Fish Eye View
"I grew up in Massachusetts, by the sea, and I remember going to my family dentist, who had this funky fish tank in his office. All kids are attracted to aquariums, and I remember staring at this tank and thinking what a weird view of the world this must be for the fish—it’s like flying into Las Vegas and that’s your first view of America," recalls writer-director Andrew Stanton.
Intended to amuse children visiting the dentist’s office, the fish tank in Finding Nemo can also be viewed as a glass prison for its unlucky inhabitants. Looking to illustrate the odd dichotomy, the filmmakers found inspiration in the world of kitsch aquarium accessories and began filling the tank with garish plastic objects. When we meet them, we find the tank gang has gone slightly mad, prisoners not only of their narrow confines but also the dentist’s bad taste.
It’s not often that an ocean current plays a role in a movie, but the real-life East Australian Current (EAC) had compelling qualities. A colorful underwater highway favored by migrating fish and sea turtles, the EAC follows a path of hundreds of miles before reaching Sydney Harbor, providing a handy template for both the Pixar art and story teams.
The Drop Off
The epic journey required Marlin to leave the relative safety of his home on the coral reef for the depths of the great unknown, which the filmmakers viewed as both a metaphor and the very real drop-off of a deep-ocean trench.“The ocean is so beautiful and there’s so much to explore, but if you’re a fish, every foot you go there is something that could eat you," observed producer Graham Walters.“Ultimately it comes down to anything could be out there. It’s both wondrous and terrifying.”
Humans enter the picture as Marlin and Dory reach Sydney Harbor, bustling with trawling fishermen, a sewage treatment plant, views of iconic Sydney landmarks, and most importantly, buildings perched next to the water.
For both scenic and technical reasons, the filmmakers needed their land-based scenes as close to the ocean as possible, and a dentist’s office in the charming seaside community of North Sydney provided the perfect location for Nemo’s final rescue.
How do you construct a set out of thousands of gelatinous, translucent animals? “We spent a lot of time with Ralph’s (Eggelston) pastels, watched a lot of underwater footage taken in Palau in the South Pacific, and also went to visit the jellyfish exhibit at the Monterey Bay Aquarium to better understand what jellyfish look like and how they really move,” explains Supervising Technical Director Oren Jacob.“In the end this is one of the most beautiful scenes in the movie, and one of the scariest, too.”
With Nemo’s home set in Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the Pixar team had one of the most colorful environments on Earth to work with. The unlikely challenge was how much to change its otherworldly beauty.
Early R&D tests were startling. “It looked so real!” recalls John Lasseter. “From that first CG coral reef test we realized we had to go further with stylization than we’d ever gone before. Of course we have talking fish, but we really needed the audience to know that this world, while believable, was also make-believe.”
"Inside the whale it’s dark, and in a dark environment, the lighting requires extreme precision. There’s no obvious light source, so we had to create something. Whales have a baleen—a thick, broom-like substance around their lips—so we have the light seeping through there," explains Director of Photography for Lighting Sharon Calahan.
The Sunken Ship
The filmmakers wanted a chase scene involving Dory, Marlin, and great white shark Bruce. Many scenarios were being considered when a team field trip to a submarine docked at a San Francisco pier revealed that submarine floors are actually grates. With that simple fact in mind, the Pixar team envisioned a wild escape sequence set in the wreck of an old World War II era submarine sunk in the Great Barrier Reef.
A colorscript is a sequence of small pastel drawings or paintings used to emphasize color in each scene and establish a film's visual language.
For Finding Nemo, Production Designer Ralph Eggleston started with the vibrant palette of the underwater reef, among the most naturally colorful environments on Earth, then shifted to an increasingly minimalist and ominous palette as Marlin and Dory descend into the murky depths of the ocean on an increasingly perilous journey.