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Feature: Supervising Animator Michael Stocker Talks Finding Dory for FINDING DORY

FINDING DORY in theaters now!
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Photo credit: Pixar Animation Studios

FINDING DORY, the long-awaited follow-up to the unbelievably beloved 2003 film FINDING NEMO, follows Dory, a good-natured, amnesiac blue tang fish (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), as she searches for her long lost parents - with a little help from her friends: Nemo (Hayden Rolence), the once lost now found clownfish; Nemo's worrywart father Marlin (Albert Brooks); two BFF sea lions (Idris Elba and Dominic West); a near-sighted whale shark (Kaitlin Olson); and Hank (Ed O'Neill), a gruff, red octopus who frankly thinks he's getting too old for this business.

"We wanted Dory to be Dory," says Michael Stocker of Pixar Animation Studios. Stocker and David DeVan, co-supervising animators, guided a team of 70 animators and played Igor to FINDING NEMO and FINDING DORY creator Andrew Stanton's Dr. Frankenstein. And like the good doctor, the creative team was tasked with reanimating as well as animating. "People love this world," he says. "So we wanted to honor that."

Stocker found the project intimidating but not insurmountable. This is not his first time at the rodeo. He served as animator on Pixar favorites UP, CARS, RATATOUILLE, and THE INCREDIBLES. He also served as directing animator for the animation studio's TOY STORY 3 and MONSTERS UNIVERSITY. So he knows how to bring life to balloons, cars, rats, toys and monsters. Adding to this impressive list is his 10 years at Walt Disney Animation Studios where he contributed to a number of recognized films including the imaginative phantasmagoria FANTASIA/2000, for which he animated one of the most well received segments, "Rhapsody in Blue."

Dory being Dory thanks to Stocker and
his fellow animators.
Photo credit: Pixar Animation Studios

"The animator is an actor," Stocker explains. His interpretation must be so thoroughly informed by character motivation, surroundings, background, etc. that the role becomes a second skin. "We are acting through these characters that we've made."

But the animator has even more in common with the physical comedian. The man who quickly maps out the extremes and adopts the key mannerisms and expressions of a character to deliver the funniest impersonation. Then, if he's good, he'll practice, repeatedly testing his movements and material for a discerning audience-whether that be colleagues or a bachelorette party (because one is too drunk and the other not drunk enough to endure a bad show)--until his comedy beat can stand next to Rob Petrie tripping over an ottoman. And finally, if he's lucky, he'll keep getting it right by leaning on the craftsmanship and commitment to delivering each gag with the frame-by-frame precision, grace and, if not real, then definitely apparent spontaneity that made Van Dyke such a consistent entertainer. Stocker reveals glimpses of these talents throughout the conversation, giving silly impressions, one after the other, with energy and ease. (He's the sort of guy you wouldn't mind having a drink with or seeing at The Comedy Store.)

This means Stocker and DeVan are casting directors too. "We make sure our 70 animators are cast in the shots that they will succeed at the best," says Stocker. Some animators are Bruce Willis-esque action stars. Others just enjoy testing sea lion animations."[Animators] gravitate to a character that they like. Some people are like, 'I'm here to do Dory. I love Dory! I'm only doing Dory,' so we give them Dory, and it's usually perfect casting."

Baby Dory tries to play hide and seek.

All things considered, it can definitely be argued that the animator has a greater hand in performing the role than the voice actor. At either rate, the job takes a lot of skill, which is fine since Stocker has a lot of it.

Stocker honed his ability to harmonize visual skill and practical application as an industrial design illustrator in Seattle. There he was required to make a product that was both beautiful and effective. This was useful for FINDING DORY character Hank, the octopus equivalent of the world-weary good cop who sees in Dory a chance at peaceful retirement. It was easy to make Hank beautiful, but not so easy to make him effective.

If you want to give Hank something,
he could use a mouth.
Photo credit: Pixar Animation Studios

The million dollar question, according to Stocker, was, "Where do you put Hank's mouth?" In a real, live octopus, the mouth is underneath the center of its body where the tentacles meet, he says as he mimics a frustrated anthropomorphic octopus struggling to speak because, well, it's sitting on its mouth. "How do you talk like that? What do you do," he asks.

After building several versions of the character, the animators decided to place Hank's mouth right above his two front, ahem, legs to mixed results. Hank's lips resembled a mustache instead of a mouth. On the plus side, the mustache further displays the character's cantankerous nature. On the negative side, it limits the character's emotional range. "In animation, you have this magic triangle between the mouth and the eyes, and that's where all the performance happens. This is where the acting is," says Stocker. "But as soon as we take something away, we're losing one of the tools of the animator." How does a character smile if you can't see his mouth, asks the animator before he answers, "It has to happen in the eyes." So they poured Hank's joy, affection, love-and crankiness-into his eyes by giving the red octopus larger eyes and prominent brows. "We could act with that," says Stocker.

Stocker's entry-level job as an in-betweener trainee for Disney's Florida Animation Studio offered the most learning opportunities. At Disney, he learned how to take direction, and how to be the spit-polish that makes another artist's work shine.

Dory meets Hank.

When Stocker expounds on his role in FINDING DORY, he deflects in favor of his director. "Andrew [Stanton] is the writer of the movie, and our job is to help him realize what's in his head." Still, there is free-flowing back and forth between Stanton and his animators. On occasion, Stocker and his staff stunned Stanton by executing his idea so brilliantly. "There are other times where he'll go, 'I want it exactly like this,' says Stocker, but Stanton also sought their input. "It's a super collaborative thing."

Disney is also probably where he learned to revel in the pleasure of creating quality art no matter the pay. In the end, he contributed to the success of animated classic THE LION KING. During the discussion, Stocker emphasizes telling stories that need to be told rather than telling stories with the intent of making a box-office hit. Despite the cries from audiences, hungry for a follow-up to the instant classic FINDING NEMO, as well as those from a famous and unbelievably popular leading actress (Ellen DeGeneres) hungry for a meaty role, Stanton slow-cooked FINDING DORY for 13 years.

Dory talks to her close friend, Destiny,
a whale shark in need of glasses.
Photo credit: Pixar Animation Studios

Stocker argues that you just don't produce UP, RATATOUILLE, or FINDING DORY for the money. He's right. You produce FINDING DORY so you can play with a nearly 70 lb octopus, the octopus being your "favorite animal in the world by far," in the name of research. "Going there and touching an octopus and interacting with it to see how the tentacles unraveled and how they wrapped around things." Stocker is gushing. "It's amazing. They can control every single sucker on their body- and there are thousands of suckers. They're incredible."

FINDING DORY starring Ellen DeGeneres, Hayden Rolence, Albert Brooks, Idris Elba, Dominic West, Kaitlin Olson, Ed O'Neill is rated PG. The film is in theatres now.

Ellen DeGeneres is adorable blue tang fish Dory.

Diane Keaton as Jenny, Dory's mother, and Eugene Levy as Charlie, Dory's father.

Idris Elba and Dominic West are the friendly sea lions Fluke and Rudder

Kaitlin Olson voices Destiny, Dory's close friend who happens to be a near-sighted whale shark.

Ed O'Neill voices Hank, a gruff, no-nonsense red octopus.

Directing Animator, Michael Stocker poses for his portrait at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville CA. February 8, 2013 (Photo by Jessica Lifland/Pixar)

From This Author - Katricia Lang

Katricia Lang started reporting in 2005 at her college's student-run newspaper. Today, she covers arts and culture instead of the Student Association’s bylaws. Her features and opinion pieces... (read more about this author)