3D Artist

Finding Dory: The Art of Building Underwater Worlds

News & Features
James Clarke

Supervising technical director John Halstead on all the tech behind Finding Nemo’s beloved sequel

Finding Dory: The Art of Building Underwater Worlds
© Disney Pixar

When Pixar released Finding Nemo in 2003 it found itself with an instant classic on its hands and the movie has proved to be one of the most popular of the studio’s feature films to date. Finding Dory, directed by Andrew Stanton and co-directed by Angus MacLane, has already proved hugely successful, having enjoyed a terrific opening weekend in North America. The new movie tells the story of Nemo’s sidekick, the memory-challenged Dory, as she sets out on a journey to seek a way home.
The film marks yet another instalment in Pixar’s evolution of its application of digital toolkits. 3D Artist recently spoke with Pixar about what it took to dive back into a sea of creative possibilities, revisiting characters, creating a gang of new ones and building environments that seem so very real.
“I was really excited. My first duties were to sit down and anticipate some of the technical issues,” explains John Halstead, supervising technical director on the film, adding that part of his excitement was on account of coming full circle: “My first film at Pixar was Finding Nemo and, so, I was hired onto Finding Dory.”

An adventure movie through and through, and one that’s woven through with humour and sentiment, Finding Dory elegantly combines both high stakes and jeopardy with quieter, more lyrical interludes. For the team at Pixar a key, overriding aesthetic touchstone in shaping the storytelling was the trade-off between a sense of realism and something more heightened in the creation of the environments that Dory adventures through: the reef, the open ocean and an aquarium.
Halstead sets the scene for the work that he and his team embarked on. “I’ve been on Finding Dory for about three and a half years,” he begins. I started in November 2012 and the entire production’s been going four years. My job was advocating for resources and working with our fantastic studio tools department.” Halstead also defines the key parameter that he and his team worked to, noting that “We really tried to adhere to the first film as closely as possible: any time we diverged from that we’d pull it back.”

Finding Dory: The Art of Building Underwater Worlds

For its work in the production’s pipeline, Halstead’s team deployed RenderMan RIS, Presto, Katana and USD. The value of Katana on Finding Dory was that it offered virtually real-time feedback that gave the crew the opportunity to quickly review the rendering of any given frame during production. Further refining the work of Halstead’s crew was the integration of USD (Universal Scene Description), which provided them with a scalable system for authoring, reading and streaming time samples.
RenderMan has been iterated many times since the late Eighties and its latest version now lets the studio spend less time doing the heavy lifting of creating invisible light sources and, instead, more time finessing the artistry of its work. RenderMan’s RIS technology now takes care of the creation of both direct and indirect light (light reflected off a given surface).
Halstead breaks down the work on positioning that the technical team were focused on for the production. “In terms of the team that I was responsible for, [it] spanned departments starting in layout, that [helped with] camera and staging, and character (for building the puppets that our animators use),” he says. “We have a crowds department that handled the humans and the school of fish. There’s the simulation department and they handled the clothing, and there’s our effects department and lighting and, finally, rendering. There were 1,300 shots in the film.” He adds that, “Early on we made a ton of shots and probably 100 shots got cut.”

Every animated movie presents technical challenges in how best to capture reality and Halstead discusses the specific, technical challenge that the aquarium settings meant for the production, “The scale and complexity of the aquarium – rendering all of the glass and water in the film – was a challenge.”
Subtleties are a vital characteristic of the visual palette in Finding Dory and Halstead goes on to talk through how his team achieved an authenticity in the creation of water ripples, splashes and bubbles: “The aesthetic for the movie is a caricature of reality: it’s based in nature but it’s cleaned up a bit. You can look at the reef and you’ll see the same form and colour palette that’s familiar from the first movie, but we did add some new elements and then, when we get into the aquarium, there is a little added sophistication and intensity in the rendering.” Halstead also cites a particular aspect of the production on the film, “There are some specific challenges to the scale of the water that we’re rendering for Dory.”
Finding Dory offered Halstead and his team the opportunity to work with both established and new tools in their part of the pipeline. In doing so, it let the team build yet further on all of the production work that the studio has worked on over the past three decades.

Finding Dory: The Art of Building Underwater Worlds
© Disney Pixar

Halstead offers an insight into the toolkit: “We have a number of flagship techniques in the pipeline and on Dory we added three new technologies to our pipeline: two of those were built in-house and the other is Universal Scene Description, and this is something that allows better interoperability between in-house and non in-house.” Halsted also notes that “The third new thing we added was Katana. Katana is our shading and lighting tool and allows for live rendering, updating and feedback in seconds rather than in minutes. In comparing Finding Dory to Inside Out, we now have a pipeline run with USD.” Digging deeper into the USD it’s worth nothing that it supports just a small number of combine operators, in terms of layering, for scene data. USD helps composed scenes remain understandable. It’s a less is more kind of philosophy.

Finding Dory is notable, too, for being the first Pixar production to completely implement RIS technology, and Halstead is keen to address how it benefited the production. “Our pipeline revolved around the fact that our water was small and so… some of the techniques that we’d use on large scale water effects don’t apply as much,” he explains. “On a smaller scale, the splashy parts have a glassy, silvery quality to them and the transition between splashes and non-splashing parts of the water is very smooth. To render that we used RenderMan RIS, which provided more accurate rendering of how light behaves in the real world: there’s a ton of reflection and refraction. We started being able to treat bubbles as a more physical effect. The renderer would throw rays at it and [we’d] build up light within the splash.”

For Halstead, there’s a benefit offered by the RenderMan iteration that other tools just do not provide and he describes how “New RenderMan really played a big role in the rendering of the aquarium, for compositing small water with larger water. Computers like to work with hard and fast rules… We’re spending less time on technical heavy lifting. In order for artists to work more quickly, artists can just grab small simulation domains. Compositing simulation domains as an implicit field gives our artists flexibility.”

Finding Dory: The Art of Building Underwater Worlds
© Disney Pixar

The marine life in the film showcases a really diverse array of materials, and Halstead explains the longstanding tradition at Pixar of referring to reality to create an animated version of it that might just play with that reality a little. This fidelity to the essence of real landscapes and creatures proved an interesting challenge for Hank the Octopus. Halstead explains further: “Hank was a character that Andrew Stanton wanted in the film from the start,” he tells us. “One of the things that’s amazing about octopuses is how flexible they are. Hank was certainly the most challenging character: how do you make an octopus that’s appealing and can deliver a performance? We spent a lot of time doing research and looking to nature for inspiration. Octopuses are so complex that it’s daunting just to break down what you see.” Halstead talks a little more about Hank’s arm rig that was built for the performance, describing it as a “sophistication that we needed to achieve and there was a huge challenge in terms of how to best use the rig. The Hank shots typically took three times as long to animate as other characters. When the artists were initially blocking out a shot they’d turn off Hank’s arm and just draw it in and this got them to get a buy off [on a shot].”

With Finding Dory, John Halstead and his crew had the opportunity to meet the challenge of a sequel to a phenomenal success: being both familiar and new in the right combination and, like last year’s Inside Out, this latest movie gives Pixar the chance to continue refining nuances and subtleties in its work.
Pixar movies are precision-built creative endeavours and this distinctive storytelling is present in every part of the frame, from character design to animation through to the environments and the way light moves. How timely, then, that 2016 marks the 30th anniversary of Pixar’s first short film, ‘Luxo Jr’.

With Finding Dory, Pixar has clearly made a rich return to familiar waters whilst also managing to steer an exciting new course to someplace new. With evident satisfaction, Halstead sums up the creative journey by suggesting that, “I think a refinement [of Finding Nemo’s aesthetic] is a good way to describe it”.