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Writer/director Andrew Stanton found Nemo in a book and sent him on an adventure from the Great Barrier Reef to Sydney Harbour – all inside a stack of computers at California’s Pixar Animation, with the help of co-director Lee Unkrich. The pair made a very real visit to Sydney to talk about their new film, with Andrew L. Urban.

Andrew Stanton knew nothing about fish. All he knew was that he wanted to tell a story about “a father fish and a son fish, somewhere in the ocean”. With a coffee table full of books on animals, he opened one at random and a large photo stared back at him. It was an anemone, with two clownfish poking out of it. But what Andrew saw with his limited knowledge at the time, was “this tentacled thing with two adorable orange and white striped things…” 

Nemo was born. “The minute we researched it, we learnt they’re dependent on the anemone homes, they don’t stray far…it just fit the story perfectly. Too good to be true!” 

Stanton wrote and directed Finding Nemo, with Lee Unkrich as co-director, possibly the most thankless job and the least appreciated – outside Pixar, that is. (Pixar is like an independent production company, but it now has a deal with Disney which gives it the guaranteed distribution and finance to make the films it wants to.) For our interview, they share a smart settee in the smart Park Hyatt Hotel on Sydney’s Circular Quay, overlooking the very harbour where the climactic scenes take place in their wonderfully entertaining, computer generated movie. 

A tiny clown fish, Marlin (voice of Albert Brooks) sets off on a frantic search to find his even tinier young son Nemo (Alexander Gould) who, after having wondered off into open ocean from their safe haven on the Great Barrier Reef, is netted by a diver. Marlin’s perilous adventures – punctuated by a variety of sea creatures who may or may not be deadly - are shared by the scatty brained Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), with whose often unhelpful help, Marlin is gradually steered towards Sydney, where young Nemo has been placed in a fish tank with assorted other fish, in a dental surgery (not far from Sydney Harbour), where he is soon to be given to the dentist’s horrid little niece. 

"I wanted to tell a story about being a father"

Not only one of the central characters – Nemo’s dad - but a notable support fish (Crush, a cool 150 year old turtle dad who likes to call all fish dude, voiced by the writer/director himself) are child-nurturing fathers.

“I wanted to tell a story about being a father,” says Andrew, “that was my agenda. It’s a very personal story; I felt I was at a crossroads in my life: my father is still very healthy, and my son is showing little hints of what he’ll be like as an adult – and so I was equally aware of being my father’s son and my son’s father. This intrigued me and drove me and gave me an awareness that really made me want to tell a story about that. And I felt I hadn’t seen too much of that on screen…”

But why fish? Why the ocean? “I felt the ocean is so infinite, so vast and limitless in the life it can support. It’s all story driven: you have this character who has stayed fearful of life his entire adult existence, and it’s now starting to affect his child. I needed him to be thrown into life and risk everything that means. That means a lot of unknowns, adventures and new experiences.”

Several of the filmmakers were trained to dive with SCUBA as part of the underwater research, “just to know what that was like.” Even in the cold waters of America’s East Coast where Andrew Stanton grew up, he occasionally would put on a dive mask and look into the depths. “I remember seeing the murk sort of dissipating off and just wondering what was there. Sometimes it would spook me, sometimes it would fascinate me. I just felt the ocean is a perfect metaphor for life itself. That's really what drove the scope of the film."

"It’s phenomenal"

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef was chosen as the location, because “there just isn’t a better place…it’s phenomenal,” says Stanton. It also meant that the story would access Sydney’s famous harbour – and some of its famous actors, who provide voices for many of the support characters. Why not the leads? “Because I see the film as an international film, not an Australian film. I consider the ocean to be international waters,” says Stanton. “Also, I don’t live in Australia, and when you open the entire cast to be Australian…I just don’t have that pool, or that local knowledge to draw from, logistically or otherwise. I was drawn to Australia because the Great Barrier Reef held every set piece that I needed, and every species. It is the best of the best of the ocean. And Sydney has this gorgeous harbour…”

What Andrew Stanton wrote and envisioned, Lee Unkrich turned into the finished film. Making a complex computer generated animation film needs a big team. “But it’s like all the different departments you need to make a live action film – like electricians, lighting, props and so on – are separated and put in different rooms, but still working on the same shot. So you really need to be two places at once, or even three. But the biggest reason you have a co-director is that there is something creatively you can’t deliver, or a strength you want to harness.”

Stanton and Unkrich are part of Pixar’s team, having worked on several films (Toy Story, Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc). Amazingly enough, Unkrich joined Pixar after film school with no experience in animation. “But I had a lot of experience with staging and cinematography in live action, so I was contributing a lot directorially, even on the first project, Toy Story,” says Unkrich. 

And because of the nature of CGI animation, Unkrich finds it closer to live action than traditional hand drawn animation. “I think that’s what’s made our films unique; they are completely constructed and artificial yet there is something very organic and familiar about them because they feel like your average live action film. I oversee a lot of the editing and cinematography …”

Indeed, cinematography, because with CGI animation, the sets and characters are captured by the computer’s inner camera, as it were, moving through the virtual set, and that’s how the lighting is manufactured, too.

"That’s exhilarating"

But if the story is primarily Stanton’s concern, Unkrich has the most frustrating job, in the sense that “nobody sees your work,” he says. “When I’ve done my job really well, nobody knows that I’ve ever been there. My job is to create the most entertaining experience possible and the most visceral. Part of why I love filmmaking is this notion of creating something out of nothing. You take these little bits and pieces that have no relation to each other, yet you somehow find that alchemy…that way of mixing them together, and suddenly you’re eliciting emotion in an audience. That’s exhilarating.”

That’s the skill that Stanton needs from Unkrich. “That’s his expertise. I can - on paper or pitching to a group of people - evoke the kind of mood and tone that I want in the film. But Lee is able to translate that pitch into the elements that we actually use in the film.”

Published August 28, 2003

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Lee Unkrich (left) and Andrew Stanton take a dip and research Finding Nemo


Lee Unkrich (left) and Andrew Stanton

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