When Pixar's "Finding Nemo" was released in 2003, critic Roger Ebert was so impressed with the immersive underwater world on screen that he wrote: "I wanted to sit in the front row and let the images wash out to the edges of my field of vision."
That was 13 years ago, an eternity in technology.
With "Finding Dory," the long-awaited sequel set for release in mid-June, more than a decade of technical advancements will make that vast blue ocean seem even more expansive and engulfing. They've also led to the creation of a blobby sea creature that wouldn't have been possible 10 years ago.
"Computers have gotten a heck of a lot faster," John Halstead, supervising technical director for the film, said during an interview at Pixar's studios in Emeryville, California. "Our algorithms are smarter, and also our pipeline has drastically changed." For example, he said, animating water has gotten a lot easier.
Pixar says a character like Hank the octopus wouldn't have been possible when "Finding Nemo" came out 13 years ago.
Ebert's words do seem prescient given one of today's hottest technologies: virtual reality. Pixar said it has been experimenting with VR, though on an informal basis. It has nothing to announce yet.
"There is a lot of interest at the studio right now to see what might be capable," said Halstead. "I personally am interested in investigating how that technology might be able to help tell a story like 'Finding Dory.'"
That story, of course, is about Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres), a blue tang with short-term memory loss, as she journeys to find her family. Marlin and Nemo (Albert Brooks and Hayden Rolence, respectively), the clownfish father-son duo, aid her along the way. Newcomers include Hank the octopus (Ed O'Neill) and Bailey the beluga whale (Ty Burrell).
At the film's helm is Andrew Stanton, director of the original "Nemo" movie, which won the Academy Award for best animated feature film in 2004.
For Pixar, the experimentation with VR is inevitable. The Disney-owned studio has been at the forefront of the intersection of technology and entertainmentsince it began as a division of George Lucas' Lucasfilm in 1979. Now, with VR the obsession of every tech giant, from Google to Facebook to Samsung, Pixar's dabbling makes a lot of sense.
"Our goal at Pixar is to tell fantastic stories," Halstead said. "And so, a lot of us are kind of thinking, surely there's a way that we can harness technology to tell fantastic stories."
When Steve Jobs, Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith founded Pixar in 1986, the goal was to create the first full-length, fully computer-animated movie. But technology hadn't yet caught up with its founders' out-sized ambitions. So the studio started as a computer company, hawking software and hardware specifically built for creating visual effects.
Pixar bided its time and started making short films. The reasons to go with short films were twofold: Pixar could show off to potential buyers what its computers could do, and Pixar animators could hone their skills while Moore's law rushed to meet them.
It all finally coalesced in 1995, when Disney and Pixar released " Toy Story."
By the time the studio premiered "Finding Nemo" in 2003, Pixar was already a hitmaker. "Finding Nemo" is now a modern classic, with a 90 percent rating on Metacritic and a 99 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was so popular that the population of clownfish, Nemo's species, declined because of enthusiastic fans buying the fish. Scientists are worried the same could happenafter "Finding Dory" is released.
One challenge with revisiting a movie more than a decade later is people's attachment to the original. From a technical standpoint, the animators could have done much more with "Finding Dory." But they found themselves holding back.
"Every time we thought we were maybe making something for the better or making it a little easier for animation, we always ended up ripping it out and going back to something that was similar to what was done before," said Jeremie Talbot, character supervisor for the film.
If you miss the mark even slightly on one character's facial expression, "people would say, 'That's not Dory,'" Talbot said.
Luckily for Pixar, it has some practice in that department, having brought back beloved characters for sequels to "Toy Story" and " Cars."
But there's one major new character in "Finding Dory" that freed the engineers and animators to push the limits. Hank, a cantankerous, color-changing octopus, wouldn't have been possible with the tech available in 2003, Talbot said.
In one scene, Hank slinks out from in front of a painting where he was camouflaged, slides across the room, turns white to blend in with the wall, and then makes his way to the kitchen sink for a garbage disposal gag.
The scene took animators two years to complete.
That's because the fluidity and weight each of the tentacles must look real as the creature moves. The attention to that kind of detail is what makes the illusion more believable.
"You'll see all that drippy, squishy motion that we all worked so hard on," said Talbot.
It's the kind of scene that Ebert, who died in 2013, and all of us love to be immersed in. Here's hoping Pixar ends up doing more with VR than just experiment.
"Finding Dory" is set for release in Australia on June 16, in the US on June 17 and in the UK on June 18.
Banner Photo Credit: Disney•Pixar