It's been well-established by now that every new Pixar movie comes with a significant step forward in terms of animation technology. Animating and rendering natural-looking hair, for example, has always been a challenge, but the innovation between 2012's Brave and 2013's Frozen was so consequential that animators went from placing 1,500 strands of hair on Merida's head to 400,000 strands for Elsa.
There's a paradox in animation, however, that means this kind of innovation shouldn't go too far either: Too much realism will throw the audience off, and look more creepy than natural. So how do you make the characters cartoony and relatable, while still respecting laws of physics and using beautiful textures? For the upcoming Finding Dory, the animators at Pixar have made significant progress on the look and feel of the water, as well as the creation and animation of fish with a personality.
Pixar's Renderman RIS Improves Illumination
Finding Dory has benefited from a new Pixar tool, dubbed Renderman RIS, which increases rendering efficiency for illumination. In this movie it was particularly needed for reflection and refraction in the water, where sun rays shimmer through and create a very unique kind of light. Renderman also includes a collaborative tool by The Foundry called Katana, which lets animators render frames live.
Speaking with Indiewire, Pixar's supervising Technical Director John Halstead explained that the tool was a real breakthrough, useful not only for water rendering but also for glass surfaces.
"You can see that a lot when we're in the Marine Life Institute. That environment has so much glass and water, and now we're able to describe that."
What about the characters? Character supervisor Jeremie Talbot admitted that Hank, the camouflaging octopus, was quite the challenge.
"There are so many parts that we had to break him apart. How do the suckers work? Simulation took on that task. What about the webbing between the legs and how that interacts with the face? The character department tackled that. And the art department figured out the overall aesthetic of Hank and how that fit in with the limitations of technology."
Following In The Footsteps Of Finding Nemo
The first opus of our underwater friends' adventures was released more than ten years ago, in 2003. With animation progressing so rapidly, it's also crucial not to entirely ignore the legacy of the previous film. Halstead said that they did keep the aesthetic of Finding Nemo in mind:
"There's an aesthetic that the first film brought that we're continuing to follow. One thing that's changed, though, is we start from a place that's much more grounded in reality. And then we have a choice of what we want to highlight or push back and de-emphasize."
Back in 2003, Finding Nemo's supervising animator Dylan Brown comments reflected the same kind of approach: From finding the right middle point between too realistic and too cartoony, to learning how water works and giving fish facial expressions, the challenges haven't changed — the solutions have.
"We knew we could make a Jacques Cousteau-type of documentary, but that's not what we were trying to do. What we do at the studio is caricature and it would look funny to have cartoony caricatures of fish in this realistic world. We didn't want to fool the audience that they are in a real world. You have to believe you are underwater, but it doesn't have to be photo-realistic to do that."
The team took a trip to Hawaii in 2000 to immerse themselves in the study of water, and got lectures on the science of waves. Later, they would use footage from the trip to describe to each other how they wanted the water to look — because yes, water has a mood and a feel. Technical director Oren Jacob recalled how those discussions went:
"'Remember what it was like on the boat on Thursday afternoon? I want the water like that.' Or: 'Do you want it to look more like Wednesday or Friday?' They found that referring back to those experiences was more useful than saying, 'I want it more choppy than angry.'"
It's amazing to realize so much thought could go in making water look happy or angry.
Check out Pixar's gorgeous new water rendering for yourself when Finding Dory comes to theaters on June 17!