I talked to producer Lindsey Collins about new developments that have allowed new possibilities in story and design, how new characters were developed, her love of her job, and how excited she is to see women in ever-expanded roles in animation:
L: Andrew had a co-director (Angus McLane) and co-writers (Victoria Strouse and Bob Peterson). How did they balance each other out or figure out how to break down tasks?
LC: It’s really very specific to the film and to the people but on this one Angus is a great compliment to Andrew because Angus got a great comedic sensibility. He’s able to jump into the animation in detail with the art and character design that’s his strength. They’ve worked together a lot before, they knew each other’s strengths and weaknesses. From the beginning Angus was as involved as he could be in story and editorial and then as things got really crazy as the film progressed we would have them divide and conquer with Angus taking certain parts like effects and often animation all the way through so that Andrew could focus on getting the rest of the pipeline done. With the writing, Victoria come in very early on and was instrumental in putting some of the structural points together for the film and Andrew was very excited about having a female voice on this one, since it was a “Dory story” and then Bob Peterson is kind of Pixar’s secret weapon. He just oozes character charm and knows these characters so well having worked on the original film so he can add his quirky elements. I don’t even know what it is about him, but he walks into a room and within 20 seconds everybody’s laughing. He would just come in an add a character or a moment to a scene that you see makes it that much better.
L: There’s a fine line in keeping the story optimistic in the face of loss and in the journey of self acceptance and a fine line representing characters with disabilities in a nonjudgmental way, and all of that is well achieved in the film. What were the guiding principles there?
LC: Ironically the one who best embodied walking that line was Dory herself. I think that’s why people respond so well to Dory. She sees right past people’s flaws. I don’t think she ever mentions Nemo’s little fin in either film. When she meets Destiny, who says “I’m sorry, I don’t swim very well”, Dory says “I think you swim beautifully” and instantly goes on to talk about something else. So it was in a weird way following her principles and how she would treat a given character or situation. It allowed us to feel we were doing right by these characters by approaching them the way that Dory would approach them. The other thing that was interesting is that the only person Dory doesn’t do that with is herself. She apologizes a lot for herself. I think that’s what bugged Andrew so much after watching the film so long a few years ago. He said “I hate that she still apologizes for herself”. The goal of this film was to get her to a place where she felt she no longer had to do that.L: I know Pixar has artists that like to utilize a wide variety of styles in their concept work. How much of it was done in traditional illustration?
LC: Our art is ridiculously good. We could film all the artwork from any of our films and it would make a perfectly great stand alone movie. They spend so much time and energy. The art department on this film had the benefit of having great shoes to fill. The first film is known for how visually beautiful it is. The production design of the film was what we were able to start with and then sort of plus it out from a different set of sensibilities and because we were in different sets and settings but also because the technology has improved so much in the last 13 years.
L: I’m fascinated by Hank, because I know he took 2 years instead of the usual 6 months to build. It would be so easy to make an Octopus (or Septopus) villainous by the creepy way it moves, Especially if you google “mimic octopus”, which is a real thing! Was Randal from Monsters Inc. any help?
LC: I wish! No. I think in some ways we obviously looked at him for reference when we were talking about camouflage, when Andrew was figuring out how we wanted it to work. We asked questions: Is it like Randall? Is it like the alien in The Abyss? Does he disappear completely? So we used him as a reference in terms of trying to define what we wanted the look to be or if were going to see the outline at all still but unfortunately the technology as Andrew says is like booting up your computer after 8 years. “I don’t even know how to make this thing work!” You just can’t make the technology from then work with what we have today in any seamless way. We had to do it all from scratch.
L: What were some of the challenges in design? I loved hearing that Hank being a septipus was a design solution, but what other issues got solved and how?
LC: One of the biggest ones was knowing how much we wanted to lean into how octopi move and work. How much of that do we want to characterize or caricature? As you said, the mimic octopus is super creepy so that was not what we were going for. We spent a lot of time deciding what we thought was naturally cool or special about them to lean into for his character design. At the same time we wanted to make him likable and enjoyable as a character. One of the things we solved a lot was when we showed his mouth, because where octopi have mouths is really weird. They sit really low, almost on the ground. So you may not notice but most of what you see of Hank is not his mouth, so much of it is in his eye, cheek, and facial expression, because the mouth is in such an odd place on the character. We were always playing around for about a year figuring what made him charming while still having all those cool octopus factors.
L: Please talk about casting Idris Elba and Dominic West as Fluke and Rudder. Did they do any improv? Gerald, who is voiced by Bob Peterson, reminds me of the hyenas in The Lion King. What is the origin of that character?
LC: Tough casting! I think more people wanted to go to that recording session than any one Pixar has ever done! We love The Wire and so it was an inside joke we were asking “I wonder if we could get away with these big lazy sea lions have a very thick British, almost cockney accent”. They were our first choice because we love The Wire and we thought there was something great about them playing these very different, these lazy characters. We tried them out just to hear what they’d sound like and we had the opportunity of recording them together. They recorded their first session together and so we went to London and it was funny. They were like “Hey, mate! Want to go have a pint after?” because they hadn’t seen each other in a while, and we all wanted to go with them, of course! We didn’t get invited. (laughs) They were lovely.
L: Did Idris show up in one of his wonderful suits looking like a million?
LC: No! He was wearing flip flops and sweats. Which looked absolutely gorgeous on him. (laughs) And then Gerald was something that actually Bob Peterson came up with as a joke. He just thought it would be funny that these two would have a weird sense of ownership of their rock. That was his idea, and the minute it went on the boards it just killed in terms of humor so we just kept him in.
L: In animation, water has always been a challenge. it was groundbreaking when Finding Nemo came out looking like it did, but since then there have been so many advancements, which I know you all utilized. For example the expanded use of light using the new technology. You also had a lot of scenes with surface water. Can you talk about that, like the “FISH CAM” and the “KELP FOREST”—did some scenes need to be done over and over? Did starting from scratch with the new technology and building it from the ground up again mean it didn’t need as much tszujing?
LC: Oh no, we tszujed. We tszujed all the way until the end! We knew we had to recreate anything we were going to reuse from the first film because the backlot doesn’t even exist. About a year into production the new Render Man software was getting finished and they came to us and asked if we wanted to use it on our film. Initially we said “oh, I don’t know, we’re in the middle of building these worlds right now” and then they showed us what the new renderer could do. It is so tailor-made, so perfect for doing a film in water using glass and reflection and refraction but it kind of felt like we’d be limiting ourselves if we didn’t take on the technology so we agreed to rush it and get it ready to go and redo some of the work we’d done. and from there all of the things we used to limit ourselves with in Finding Nemo, meaning telling Andrew things like “you can’t break the surface of the water with the camera” and “stay away from the glass corners of the tank” all of the sudden he had no limitations in what we could do in this film. It was mind-blowing how fast we could really close to the final look just by going through this new renderer…but then it took just as long to tszuje it at the end! We didn’t gain any time.
L: The kelp forest, which Andrew wanted to use in the first movie, it wouldn’t have really worked so beautifully without this new technology. It it would have worked at all!
LC: We were able to do the simulation on the kelp forest. Every single leaf is simulated. Not only were we not able to do it because of the plot of the first film, but also just because of the technical challenges with all the simulation and the water surface…like the kelp on the surface, the floating kelp? in and of itself that was a little celebration when we got that to work!
L: I know initially Andrew brought the tank gang back in Finding Dory. What other ideas or characters didn’t make it into the final cut?
LC: The tank gang was the biggest one that we tried so hard for and found a great subplot for them to be in the movie but unfortunately it just felt like it was taking away too much from Dory’s story. In some ways anytime you have a subplot that’s really fun you wind up asking yourself “oh no! are we going to have to cut it because it’s so entertaining we want to spend more time there and we just can’t. We have to get back to the main character.” At the very very end in the credits you see a bit of them but the larger plot for them was cut. and then, we had some flying fish at one point that helped Dory, Nemo, and Marlin get into the park. The otters had a bigger role for a period of time. We just felt like everything we did to give them a bigger role just took away from the one thing we wanted them to be which was just ridiculously cute.
L: What scene, when it was completed, was the turning point that found the flow of the whole film?
LC: Wow, certainly “under quarantine”, which is the first meeting between Dory and Hank, that was our first scene to go into production and we did that for two reasons. One, that scene was always working on the boards, and that was the quickest one to work and feel tight and two, we needed to get experience with Hank as soon as we possibly could. So getting through that scene was a huge turning point from a production standpoint and in proving to ourselves that we could make this film, and from a story standpoint i’d say the hardest scenes to crack were the scene where she reunites with her parents and the opening of the film and deciding how much story we wanted to put at the very beginning verses how much we wanted to reveal and dole out in her memories.
L: Alexander Gould, the original voice for Nemo, has a cameo. Can you share where that is?
LC: He plays one of the truck drivers in the third act. When the truck drivers are on their way to Cleveland he plays the younger kid.
L: You’ve worked at Disney and Pixar since 1994 is it? How did you choose your career path and knowing Women in Animation is campaigning to make the industry workforce 50/50 by 2025, I wanted to hear your perspective from someone who has been a woman in animation for over 20 years.
LC: Well I know people hate it when I answer this question this way, but i sort of fell into it. I was a diplomacy and world affairs major in college before working at Disney and so it was one of things where I knew someone who worked there and they got my resume in and i was doing that postgraduate search and the recruiter called me back and said there were two open positions, that one was in the background department and the other was in the cleanup department and i literally thought he meant janitorial. I said ok, which was an indication of how desperate i was at the time because I told myself, “that’s ok, I can do janitorial.”
So when I started working at Disney Feature Animation it was like a whole world opened up to me that I had no idea existed, or had not thought about. Obviously I knew Disney from their movies but had never thought about how they were made so for me to walk into this world knowing nothing was both mind-blowing and incredibly lucky. I started working at Pixar after I was on Toy Story. I’m from northern California and said “I’d like to work with those guys” and so I applied at Pixar while I was still finishing up at Disney. Again so much of it was luck. But I do think the one message is the fact that I was willing to work in what i thought was janitorial, if there’s a lesson to be learned there it’s take any opportunity you’re given because you never know where it’s going to end up! I couldn’t have predicted this is where I would wind up but i’m so so lucky and happy to have had this as my path.
As a woman, for some reason, women in production have always had better percentages, certainly in animation production. I’m always lucky in that i’m surrounded by women that i find to be incredibly intelligent and who are mentors or peers of mine. What’s really great is to watch women start to get a strong voice in the lesser represented departments of Pixar which have been animation, and story, and the art department and technical. Watching those numbers rise it’s starting to feel exponential every year, as we see the new trainees come in. All of the sudden those classes that used to only have one woman are 50/50. With the number of women at CalArts, which is one of our main feeders, so high, it’s like a complete about face from what, even eight years ago or so. I guess it’s just a trickle down, or trickle up, or over effect and it’s definitely changing the studio and everybody is not only excited about it but is actually wanting to embrace it and talk about it.
L: That’s wonderful! Thank you so much. Congratulations and good luck with Finding Dory.
Finding Dory, which is releasing nationwide this weekend, has a number of filmmakers involved who have a long history with the characters, having worked on Finding Nemo in 2003. The many advancements in technology in animation since then make it feel like an old classic, but the fans and filmmakers alike have a strong connection to the characters and anticipation is high for the new release.