“You couldn’t even say the word octopus on Nemo,” said Andrew Stanton, director of both Finding Nemo and the upcoming Finding Dory.
“Oh my god, we would have been booed out of the room,” agreed Lindsey Collins, his producer.
Most of the Pixar long-lead press days I go to have the same basic narrative structure: look at how we advanced the tech this time! I gotta be honest with you, that mostly bores me. What makes the Pixar movies so magical, so special, isn’t the technology of computer animation, it’s the old fashioned storytelling and their almost maniacal focus on making that work.
But this time - this time I found myself really wowed by the tech. And not because the Pixar team was able to create better water or lighting (they were) but because they were able to bring to life a character they couldn’t have even dreamed of dealing with way back in 2003: Hank the octopus (technically he's a septopus, but whatever).
In Finding Dory the lead character - Dory the forgetful fish, voiced by Ellen DeGeneres - goes off on a mission to find her long-lost parents. That mission takes her to the Marine Life Institute, a riff on the real-life Monterey Bay Aquarium (where Dory was researched, and where Pixar held the press day from which all the following information sprung). The first creature she befriends there is Hank, an octopus who fears being returned to the open ocean, voiced by Ed O’Neill. The two become unlikely partners in a jail break, one where Hank’s camouflage and extreme flexibility are key.
Stanton explains how Hank entered the picture as one of the earliest characters in the film:
I brought on a writer very early on this one, Victoria Strouse, and she kind of came up with it mainly because she thought it would be fun to have a curmudgeon to be a foil against Dory. Dory needed somebody to bounce off of to be the Dory we know… and to also have somebody who had memory to be able to help track things. (Strouse) came to Monterey at the same time as we did in 2012 (and) we learned about the octopus, as like an escape artist. W said, “Oh my gosh this is a perfect physical vehicle to take a fish through places that fish just can’t get around.” The most ambulatory creature that there is from the ocean, and again it’s an escape artist. So the two married so well together, and fortunately that came early because we needed all of the calendar time we could with that.
They needed that calendar time because creating Hank was going to be a major, major technical challenge. See, octopuses (and I went behind the scenes at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and met an octopus and his handler and was told ‘octopuses’ is correct, so don’t leave comments dammit) don’t have any bones. Which means they don’t have the kind of structure animators need to create movement points - instead of having joints that move, octopuses can just move any single part of themselves.
And then on top of that Hank needed to camouflage - he disappears completely against his environment. As if figuring out how to move a model that has no joints wasn’t a big enough issue, the animators were also going to have to tackle the textures needed to make the octopus blend into the background.
Oh, but before they even got that far the character designers had to crack the details, such as how does Hank even talk? The octopus doesn’t have a mouth placed in any traditional spot on his face, so how do you create a character who can not only speak but also be expressive in human ways we understand?
Now you get a sense of why Stanton would have been booed out of the room if he wanted an octopus in Finding Nemo.
The design stuff took many iterations; for a while the Pixar team just gave Hank a big ole mouth on the front of his head, but that didn’t work. Then they tried simply hiding his mouth and having him speak with a muffled voice (after all, an octopus’ mouth is on the bottom of his body), but that also didn’t work. Then they hit on the right answer - Hank’s mouth is where it should be, physiologically as an octopus, but his body lifts up to reveal it when he speaks. Not only does it look good, it gives Hank an appearance that is sort of like a guy with a big droopy mustache.
The camouflage stuff - I don’t even understand that. It’s all algorithms and stuff. But the motion, that I get a little bit. And it took the team a helluva long time to get it themselves.
It helped that Pixar first started playing with tentacles in Monsters U. The tentacles there were good, but they weren’t exactly right for Hank. The Pixar team went to the Monterey Bay Aquarium and had the chance to touch and play with the octopuses, and that truly defined how they approached Hank.
I had the same opportunity; as a member of the press I was allowed ‘backstage’ at the aquarium and got to touch a Giant Pacific Octopus, that old classic big-headed, red guy who defines the octopus for us all. The experience was beyond unique - the octopus moves in a way that is truly alien because of its lack of joints; each of its tentacles appears to be doing its own thing, and even segments of the tentacles seem to be doing their own thing. The octopus wrapped a thick, slimy tentacle around my forearm and squeezed tight and the next thing I knew he was trying to lift himself out of the tank.
That, apparently, is what these guys do whenever possible. Like Stanton said - escape artists. I watched the tentacle slide around my wrist, like a living thing with its own mind, and I felt each of the dozens of suckers clamp onto my flesh. The bulbous head of the octopus was suddenly (terrifyingly, if we’re being honest) rising up out of the water at me, but the octopus wasn’t looking at me. It was sort of looking into the middle distance, like I wouldn’t notice it was trying to scale my body in an attempt to bust loose from its tank.
After some help from the octopus handler I had the slimy guy disengaged from my arm, but he left behind a series of hickeys. I was happy for them because I was late to my interviews, and when you burst into a room showing off octopus hickeys everybody forgives your tardiness. Being held by an octopus is clearly a good excuse.
Having met an octopus and having seen Hank in action in extended sequences from Finding Dory I can say that the Pixar animators met the challenge. It took them a year of tweaks and efforts to find the right way to move their digital puppet, to create the infrastructure that would allow a boneless, floppy creature to have agency, but they nailed it. Each of Hank’s seven (yes, seven. He’s down one) tentacles has a dozen or so points of articulation, and the way they interact is complex. His sac-like head hangs in weird ways thanks to the in-computer physics, and the animators can hand-shape or distort his floppy noggin more if they need to.
All of this technical detail melts away when you’re watching the movie. Hank just moves, and he moves in a way that looks right. The end goal here isn’t to have you marvel at how hard it was to crack the physics of a boneless octopus but rather to make the octopus as seamless as possible so that you can fall into the character and the story. While each of his hundreds of suckers is individually articulated, the Pixar animators kind of hope you never notice. They hope you just fall for Hank.
I think you might. He’s kind of a great character, one who evolved during the story process. A challenge in Finding Dory was making sure that Dory was the lead character of the movie. That sounds obvious, but think back to Nemo and what made her work is that she’s really great at being there to bounce off the main characters. And Hank - being a grump, being an escape artist, being the character who knows the Marine Life Institute - is a character who can very quickly and easily expand to fill a scene and take the lead.
Even before Dory got to Hank Stanton knew they had to work hard to make sure she was the lead. “We had a long circuitous route to figure out what to do with Marlin and Nemo,” he said, talking about the process of breaking the story. “For Dory to learn to drive on her own, basically, they had to be separated.”
That was often the answer in individual scenes in the movie as well. One sequence we saw had Hank leading Dory through the air vents of the Marine Life Institute followed by a trip through the dreaded “Touch Zone,” where kids can put their grubby hands on marine life. The Pixar team showed us an early version of that scene where Hank was front and center, holding Dory as they dodged and weaved through a bombardment of child hands. But it became clear to them that the scene was about Hank, not about their lead. And so it was back to the drawing board, and they separated Hank and Dory, and made Dory’s objective in that tank finding Hank.
“She’s so good at supporting that she basically complements (everybody),” said Stanton. “You know how to write that role, like she can say this and it’ll make Hank really funny, and then she can do this and will make (these other characters) really funny. She’s so wired to tee up everybody and put the spotlight on them. And we kept falling into that trap.”
But even with the story team careful to place Dory front and center Hank makes a huge impression. It seemed to me that Hank is going to blow up from this movie much as Dory herself blew up from Finding Nemo. Stanton agrees… sort of.
“As far as depth of character, it’s going to be Hank. He spends a lot of quality time with her and they form quite a relationship. But I would not be surprised if there were some other names (that pop).”