By Bill Desowitz | Thompson on Hollywood August 23, 2012 at 4:45PM
I went up to Pixar last week to see "Finding Nemo 3D" (which platforms theatrically September 14 at the El Capitan and elsewhere before surfacing Dec. 4 on Blu-ray & Blu-ray 3D from Disney Home Entertainment). It'll be interesting to see how "Nemo" performs after 9 years in light of Disney racking up a record $94.2 million for "The Lion King" (in 3D) last year and "Titanic 3D" generating $57.8 million this year.
And if "Nemo 3D" succeeds -- by the way, it looks spectacular -- it'll be another case of nostalgia and techno superiority converging with audiences flocking to revisit a beloved classic while allowing a whole new generation to experience it on the big screen. ("Nemo" deservedly took home Pixar's first Oscar for best animated feature and is the fourth-highest-grossing animated movie of all time).
First of all, I was reminded, of course, what a great movie "Nemo" is. It really was a touchstone for Pixar, not only because of its breathtaking animation (I remember how hard they worked to get the ocean and the coral and the particulate and the jelly fish), but also because of its daring storytelling. "Nemo" is truly Pixar's "Bambi," the way it opens with the death of the mother and all of Nemo's siblings, leaving poor, neurotic Marlin (Albert Brooks) on his own to raise his lone offspring. It's funny (Ellen DeGeneres steals the movie as the wacky, memory-impaired blue tang, Dory) and touching and essentially paved the way for "Wall-E," "Up," and "Brave." No wonder it resonated so deeply with audiences.
"We honestly had no idea how audiences and critics would react to it because it was darker in tone than anything we'd made," admits co-director Lee Unkrich ("Toy Story 3")."The whole movie has to hinge on this neurotic father worrying about all the dangers that might befall his son. This is a world that you can be eaten by something and be gone in an instant. And every kid wants to go out into the big, dangerous world."
And "Nemo's" tailor-made for 3-D: you're that much closer to the action in this Lost in the Ocean adventure brilliantly designed by Ralph Eggleston; the sense of beauty is richer and more dynamic and immersive. It's all about bringing greater intensity to the staging and depth that are already present and everything is heightened in 3-D, particularly the particulate, which had to be stereoscopically fine tuned. Sure, Dory looks funkier and Bruce the shark looks more terrifying, and the chase through the submarine is more thrilling, and the ride on the Great Barrier Reef is trippier, but it's the quieter moments that most pleased Unkrich, who's prepping his "Día de los Muertos" ("Day of the Dead") feature that he's still not ready to talk about.
"Moving through the coral reef when Marlin is taking Nemo to school on the first day reminds me of when I was scuba diving in the Great Barrier Reef. What we were always trying to straddle with 'Nemo' was the beauty and danger of the ocean and how you can't separate one from the other. It was a technical and artistic challenge to create the illusion of being underwater, and [director] Andrew [Stanton] wanted the film to feel very real but not photoreal. So what does that mean? If you look at the ocean, it's very chaotic. Any one item might have a symmetry to it or a sense of design, but when you look at everything -- all the different coral, all the different fish, all the different plants -- it just becomes a cacophony of color and design and we needed to find a way to capture the feeling of the ocean but have some rules still, to contain it somehow to some basic shapes and colors."
Meanwhile, the Pixar stereoscopic team headed by Josh Hollander (director of 3-D production) and Bob Whitehill (stereoscopic supervisor) honed its craft on "Nemo," which provided a perfect storm of obstacle and opportunity. In fact, both Stanton and Unkrich were very hands-off and only provided some minor notes. (Stanton was unavailable for interviews presumably because he's busy with the "Nemo" sequel for 2016, which Pixar is also mum about.)
"There's an interesting balance in catalog titles because the older the film, the simpler the [3-D] complexity," Hollander explains, "but the harder it is to convert the software files to the latest technology. 'Nemo' seems to be this interesting worst of both worlds in that it is old enough that the technology isn't readily accessible but new enough that it's actually a very complex film. We're also working on 'Monsters, Inc.' [alongside the 'Monsters University' prequel], so the complexity is a notch easier."
Whitehill points to the tense jelly fish sequence as a difficult one because the fish were so diffuse. Here's an instance of the 2-D being at odds with the 3-D recreation. "You want it sharp enough to fuse left and right eye images smoothly but you don't want high contrast sharp edges that'll cause ghosting. But again, it's the composition and movement of the camera and positioning of the characters that makes that sequence work so well. When Marlin goes back to rescue Dory, we're seeing his POV through Z space."
As Unkrich suggests, when viewers watch 'Nemo,' it doesn't feel like a stylized version of the ocean, but it really is. Judging from the great advances in water simulation along with everything else at Pixar, a 'Nemo' sequel will look even more dazzling in 2-D, let alone 3-D.