In between production of Brave and next June's Monsters University, Disney and Pixar took the time to make Finding Nemo 3D (in theaters Sept. 14) and Monsters, Inc. 3D conversions. Whereas all recent Pixar films from Up and beyond were designed with 3D viewing in mind, decade-old titles such as Nemo were crafted with traditional 2D presentation expectations. For audiences to relive the magic of classic titles in new 3D, a team of stereoscopic artists and directors convert existing computer animations into three-dimensional viewing. Pixar Director of 3D Production Joshua Hollander recently met with journalists at the California Academy of Sciences to talk about the Nemo 3D process, which took 18 months to complete.
Nine months of that time was spent digging through files—or “digital archaeology”—as the first giant step towards 3D. “The software as it was used then doesn't really exist anymore," said Hollander. "We have proprietary software that's constantly being revised and enhanced and improved, [meaning] the version we used back then doesn't exist. The first challenge is getting a software pipeline that works. Then we can gain access to the assets, the shots, the objects, the characters, and start really with the 3D filmmaking."
Pixar Stereocopic Supervisor Bob Whitehill briefly explained the software Pixar uses to bring the movie back to life. "Our animation software at the studio is called Presto. It's sort of a joke that we had to create ‘Franken-Presto’ to hobble together all of these different tools.”
The Biggest Challenge
Once the assets were roughly assembled, there were some aspects of the film that still didn't quite work right. Certain characters’ movement, hair, coloring and articulation were broken or missing and other elements needed additional fixes. Whitehill revealed one particularly daunting task his team faced.
"I think the ones that take the longest are probably the matte paintings. In 2D you can have a painting of Sydney and it looks beautiful and it seems dimensional and looks fine, but in 3D you recognize that it's just a flat card with painting on it. Dimensionalizing paintings can be challenging. We'll have an artist go in and create different layers."
Hollander touched on some additional technical problems, namely with the floating crud in the water that gives empty space a realistic, murky ocean feel.
"The amount of particulate that was in [2D] didn't work so well in 3D in all shots and sequences because you add it in to create that sense of depth and underwater environment. In 3D maybe a piece was really far out in front, so our technical team wrote tools that allowed us to ramp on and off the amount of particulate in any given shot. In addition to that, sometimes a particulate was actually behind an object."
Hey, Easy on the Eyes!
To find a comfortable 3D viewing zone for the audience, Whitehill worked with a vision scientist at UC Berkeley. “There are two different muscle systems in your eye, one for focus and one for convergence, and they're always locked together. When you watch a 3D movie, you're. . . converging in and out,” he said. "You can do that a lot for a short period of time, or a little bit for a long period of time, but [not] for too long. So we try to keep our point of interest—our characters—right around screen, usually a little bit in front."
To ease eye strain, you won’t find too much popping at you in Pixar films, though Whitehill referenced a few specific moments in other movies where off-screen objects are appropriate. “I remember particularly we had a shot in Brave where it's the Highland Games and one of the guys throws this weight up and it comes over this bar and falls back to earth so, yeah, let's go for it. It's a fun montage sequence, there's nothing terribly important emotionally going on.”
“[In Finding Nemo] you think about in the beginning where they're in the anemone and Marlin pops his head out and says, ‘We go out, we come back in. We go out, we come back in,’ you want to take advantage of the space in that moment to a certain extent but there weren't too many dangling off the screen moments."
Finally after months of hard work, the team put on glasses and viewed part of Nemo for the first time in 3D. Hollander described the scene, which also happens to be his favorite in the 3D version. "One of the first full sequences we saw was the first day of school when all of the kids get on Mr. Ray's back and he's kind of flying through the reef, and that's such a beautiful sequence to begin with. It's early in the movie and there is emotion involved and the score is beautiful and you this gliding movement in and out of the pieces of coral and rocks and it's just so beautiful."
Is there any surprise that Pixar's limited-engagement return of the underwater adventure Finding Nemo 3D delivers a conservative yet beautiful approach to 3D filmmaking? It becomes a whole new exploratory experience with little distraction, meaning nothing is shooting at you from the screen.
It's been 10 years, so in case you don't remember, Marlin (Albert Brooks), an overbearing single-dad clownfish, raises his child, Nemo (Alexander Gould) in the Great Barrier Reef. Things go awry when Nemo ventures out and gets caught by humans, and Marlin reluctantly teams up with a silly blue tang fish named Dory (Ellen Degeneres) on a dangerous voyage to find his lost son.
The stereoscopic artists tasked with bringing Nemo to the third dimension took great care to change nearly all aspects of the ocean-floor environments into deep, tangible landscapes. They kept the main points and characters of interest in focus, and also transitioned previously out-of-focus objects in the background from the original 2D version into clear view. Pixar's care to avoid eye strain is evident, as I was able to appreciate all of the minute, deep-sea details without headache or nausea.
There were two scenes I thought would look best in 3D—particularly ones involving a jellyfish jungle and the shark chase. Only the latter of the two really met my expectations, and even at that, I felt that other sequences in the film outshined the shark’s, namely the anglerfish attack and the sea turtles surfing. And even though the film avoids gimmicky 3D, certain parts of the film like Dory and Marlin’s romp through a forest of pink and purple tentacles would have benefitted from some boundary-pushing 3D. The choice to keep most of the action on the screen results in a slight disappointment in an overall remarkable 3D presentation, but does make it comfortable for most viewers.
Aside from technical aspects, nothing much has changed here. There are no Lucas-esque special edition tweaks or deleted scenes—it's still the Nemo you loved from 2003. Overall, if you’ve never seen it I highly recommend that you try and catch the film while it’s still swimming in 3D theaters. It's definitely worth a revisit to see its gorgeous undersea world from a new perspective and to see a great family film back on the big-screen.