Finding Dory co-director Angus MacLane talks China, 3D and technological advances since Nemo (EXCLUSIVE)

Ahead of its home entertainment release later this month, Larry Heath caught up with Angus MacLane, the co-director of one of the biggest animated films of all time, Finding Dory, to talk about the film’s reception, the advancements in technology since Nemo (on which he served as an animator), playing with 3D and the move into China.

We’re at the point now that there is not much left to say about this film! It has been so well received and one of the biggest films of all time, which is no surprise. Every time a film is released at Pixar there must be a relief when it is well received because the years that go into the story-making and the work that goes into making it fit for human consumption so to speak, is quite extraordinary. 

Yes, certainly, I guess it is a sigh of relief, although we’re always so hard on the films ourselves (laughs) that it’s hard to find criticism that’s more biting than internal. I mean I feel like we work really hard we, ‘hammer on the tires’ as it were, so much to get it to be the film that the most amount of people will enjoy and that speak to the truths of the human condition as best they can. So I am glad that it found an audience, certainly.

In Hollywood right now in general, there is more focus on getting these films into China, and this is the biggest animated film for Pixar in China. Is that part of the discussion process now? That says we need to do ‘X’ or ‘Y’ to make it work in this region, or is it the very nature of the Pixar film that it’s going to be fine for a Chinese audience anyway?

Well, we have meetings with people from around the world, all over, about discussing what works in their region, or what people are drawn to on a global audience, that is at more of a higher level like ‘these are the kind of movies that people are interested in’. But I don’t really think that is factored into any sort of decision making that we made to localize the film in any way. Rather the way we were approaching the film on such a high level of just sort of human nature relatability it was not culture specific. It is very interesting, just looking back on it, we didn’t really… it might have been a good idea but we were so chasing the story about Dory from a level of her trying to find her parents and coping with her disability, that is what we spent most of our time worrying about.

Another big change between Finding Nemo and Finding Dory is the advance in technology. Having worked as an animator in Finding Nemo, talk me through some of the changes and some of the advantages of being able to work on the project 10+ years later, with the advancement of things especially things like RenderMan.

Well certainly, the ten years of computer technology advancement it’s so huge, it is literally an entirely different software system that we are working on in so many parts of the process. Just looking at say computer speed, yeah computers are a lot faster and we can render things a lot quicker, but the images kept pace with their complexity, so I don’t think we are gaining any sort of speed advantage.

At the end of the day, the largest challenge is telling a compelling story that reaches an audience in the most emotional way possible. Now we will say that things were a real narrative hindrance before, we had to be really careful about how characters broke the surface of the water. That was something that was carefully chosen in the first film, like ‘how do we want to spend our money for the water effects’ but with this film it was less of an issue. The water effects weren’t going to get in the way of what we wanted to film.

Working as Co-Director on that film, it is the first time you have taken on the role in a feature film, talk me through a little bit about what that process involves, and how you worked with Andrew on a day to day level to bring this story to life.

Most of what I did was, I was in every meeting and I was there to be an advisor or an additional creative voice. The final decision always went to Andrew, which is important so that we can always have one singular vision on the screen. And when I was meeting with other departments without Andrew, I was trying my best to represent where the movie was at that moment and what Andrews vision was. Additionally, I was able to provide a second opinion or just a lot of collaboration creatively and support creatively, as someone who just knew the film and needed to know the film as well as he did, like a Vice President to be able to stand in for the President.

Did you enjoy that process?

Very much so. Andrew has said he learned so much about making a movie from just sitting next to John when John was making A Bugs Life, and watching John figure things out. He felt like, not only would it be beneficial to the film, but for me as a filmmaker, I would learn the most about being a feature film director from being with him for a lot of the minutia, you know the day to process of matching a feature film – as opposed to that of a short. A lot of really important lessons and the challenges that you face making a feature are the tiny decisions and the million successes or failures that you could be navigated along a three-and-a-half/four-year process. So that was just a real gift to be able to be part of that.

Now in theory, does this now lead you on the track to direct a feature film in the feature?

In theory, but you know these films take forty years to make. I am in development and we will see where that goes, I’m excited to make another movie, definitely.

Two things that lend itself great to 3D and that’s films underwater and things in space, when Finding Nemo was released a few years ago in 3D it showcased how great animation technology can be used in the 3D environment, not just as a throw-away tool but something that can create the proper perspective for the experience.

What was learned in Pixar when Finding Nemo was converted to 3D for limited release? What was learned about that 3D space for Finding Dory, when it was eventually released in 3D in Imax a few years later?

The discovery of how immersive 3D could be with Nemo was a bit of a surprise to everybody, only in that it took on this combination of an aquarium and nature show at the same time. Because of its immersive nature, and the nature of the film being a compelling narrative, it was a really interesting way to see the movie. There was a feeling that after the Nemo conversation, that just being subtle with it and allowing it to feel like you were looking into this world and allowing the natural beauty of the natural world to kind of lead the dance on, that was the goal. I think that because a lot of it is this hyper-real or stylized realism it is just something that enhances it really nicely when it is in 3D.

The design of the Animals, or the underwater creatures I should say in Dory, is amazing. Were there any particular challenges to designing some of the characters? There are obviously a lot of new creatures for the animators in Dory.

One of the most challenging was Hank the octopus, because it had six tentacles to deal with being a centapus, but also each of those tentacles had a large number of controls. It was certainly one of the most complicated animated characters we have ever had. Complicated both in visual complexity but also the amount of control or variables in the character, and when the animators are working with that they have the most amount of controls to work with, and the most amount of controls to move the character more than any other character, but at the same time those controls need to be carefully monitored and articulated in an artful way.

It just translates to an immense amount of work, but the results speak for themselves out of the work they did for Hank. A lot of the thing is, it has the potential, to be any shape or anything it needs to be, but it takes the discipline of the animators to get it to be that way. And it is really a collaboration between the fabulous character’s team, the art team, animation team, editing team and the voice talents.

Did you miss at all during that process being the animator for that film?

That’s a really good question. No, because the animation looked like it was really hard to do, and I have gotten lazy in my old age, and they are much more talented than I am. It was much easier to suggest to them what to do. I do like animating, and I do miss it a bit. I think one of the things I enjoy about it is the intense periods of concentration, and solitude, followed by the public performance of showing and sharing the work with the team.

And that kind of public and private performance development is something I enjoyed doing for twelve pictures or so. I do miss it a bit, but I enjoy the scope of the effect that I am able to have as a director, and the ability and vantage point I get to see the film, and what I get to learn from the other members of the crew working in different departments. So it seems like a really fair trade off that I get to animate on kind of a different level.

I really appreciate your time and thank you for all the work that you and Pixar do to add a little light into what is otherwise a very dark and scary time in the world.

Finding Dory will be released on DVD and Blu-ray on November 16

Transcription by Emily Farrelly. Interview by Larry Heath.

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