Weathering a Perfect Storm for 'Finding Nemo 3D'

Pixar transforms a blockbuster classic to 3-D.

(L-R) Marlin and Dory amongst jellyfish. All images ©2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Finding Nemo was tailor made for 3-D, even nine years ago. In fact, during the making of Pixar's first best animated feature Oscar winner and the fourth highest grossing animated movie of all time, co-director Lee Unkrich remarked how great it would be if it were in 3-D. Well, the new stereoscopic rendition (screening theatrically Sept. 14) is truly more immersive. Textures of coral and other sea life jump out more because of 3-D. We're seeing that dimensionality: the pockets on the tongue, or the scales on a fish's body in 3-D space receding from you. Higher resolution (133%) also brings out more detail.

It's all about bringing greater intensity to the staging and depth and heightening everything in 3-D, particularly the particulate matter, which was so essential to the authentic look of the movie in the first place.

Sure, Dory looks funkier and Bruce the shark looks more terrifying, and the chase through the submarine is more thrilling, and the ride on the Great Barrier Reef is trippier, but it's the quieter moments that most impress Unkrich, who's prepping his Día de los Muertos (Day of the Dead) feature.

(L-R) Dory, Marlin and Bruce the Shark.

"Moving through the coral reef when Marlin is taking Nemo to school on the first day reminds me of when I was scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef," Unkrich admits. "What we were always trying to straddle with Nemo was the beauty and danger of the ocean and how you can't separate one from the other. It was a technical and artistic challenge to create the illusion of being underwater, and [director] Andrew [Stanton] wanted the film to feel very real but not photoreal. So what does that mean? If you look at the ocean, it's very chaotic. Any one item might have a symmetry to it or a sense of design, but when you look at everything -- all the different coral, all the different fish, all the different plants -- it just becomes a cacophony of color and design and we needed to find a way to capture the feeling of the ocean but have some rules still, to contain it somehow to some basic shapes and colors."

Meanwhile, the Pixar stereoscopic team headed by Josh Hollander (director of 3-D production) and Bob Whitehill (stereoscopic supervisor) honed its craft on Nemo, which provided a perfect storm of obstacle and opportunity. In fact, both Stanton and Unkrich were very hands-off and only provided some minor notes. (Stanton's reportedly busy with the Nemo sequel for 2016, which has yet to be officially announced.)

(L-R) Josh Hollander, Director of 3D Production, and Bob Whitehill, Stereoscopic Supervisor, at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California. Wednesday, August 15, 2012.

"There's an interesting balance in catalog titles because the older the film, the simpler the [3-D] complexity," Hollander explains, "but the harder it is to convert the software files to the latest technology. Nemo seems to be this interesting worst of both worlds in that it is old enough that the technology isn't readily accessible but new enough that it's actually a very complex film. We're also working on Monsters, Inc. [alongside the Monsters University prequel], so the complexity is a notch easier.

"The primary challenge is just gaining access to the original assets and creating a production pipeline that works. The software that was used when we originally created the film no longer exists in that form, since software is constantly being improved and upgraded. We have this digital archeology to dig into the past and create a technical pipeline that uses pieces of the old software and pieces of the new software together. From there we have to get each shot to render, and lots of problems can occur as a result of the changing software as well as changes in our systems infrastructure. There are a lot of files that are missing, we either can’t find them or they are in a different storage location, so that’s the next challenge. Then you get into actually rendering the film and identifying the challenges that arise when making a 3-D version from the original 2-D version."

(L-R) Dory and Marlin.

They were able to render difficult images (thanks in part to a new specular shading slider), fix shadows that don't move or tweak out of focus particulate (thanks to a new particulate auto program). Essentially, though, they can change cameras and make adjustments in depth.

"These aren't conversions -- they're recreations," Unkrich offers. "In this world of CG animation, it's like we can go back in a time machine and reshoot the movie with a 3-D camera. It was such a challenge to anchor the world because it was just vastness."

Whitehill points to the tense jelly fish sequence as a difficult one because the fish were so diffuse. Here's an instance of the 2-D being at odds with the 3-D recreation. "You want it sharp enough to fuse left and right eye images smoothly but you don't want high contrast sharp edges that'll cause ghosting. But again, it's the composition and movement of the camera and positioning of the characters that makes that sequence work so well. When Marlin goes back to rescue Dory, we're seeing his POV through Z space."

"When we finished the movie, we were really happy with what we'd done," Unkrich concludes. "We made a really solid, entertaining, emotional film, but we honestly had no idea how audiences and critics would react to it because it was darker in tone than anything we'd made. Thomas Newman's score gave it a sound that was different from Randy Newman's. The whole movie has to hinge on this neurotic father worrying about all the dangers that might befall his son. This is a world that you can be eaten by something and be gone in an instant. And every kid wants to go out into the big, dangerous world."

(L-R) Marlin and Dory.

Finding Nemo was certainly a touchstone for Pixar that gave them the confidence to handle deeper emotional issues. Finding Nemo 3D dynamically enhances the experience.

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Bill Desowitz is former senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld. He's the owner of the Immersed in Movies blog (www.billdesowitz.com), a columnist for Thompson on Hollywood at Indiewire and author of James Bond Unmasked (www.jamesbondunmasked.com), which chronicles the 50-year evolution of 007 on screen, featuring interviews with all six actors.

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