If you’ve read my review of Finding Dory you’ll know I loved it. If you haven’t read the review I will track you down and slap you with a fish. But before I embark on this journey of destruction and smelly faces I got the chance to meet Finding Dory’s director of photography Ian Megibben at the Edinburgh Film Fest. On a movie the size of this there’s a couple of DOPs with Ian specialising in lighting. We got to talk about jiggling octopus flesh, the difficulties of lighting underwater, and the cuisine of Malta. Enjoy!
* My big question for you is on an animated film, what does a director of photography actually do when it’s all on computers?
That’s a great question. A lot of times when I tell people I do lighting for computer animated films I get blank stares. They’re like “why…what needs to be lit??” But really we have to do lighting just like we would in live action. Without lighting it would just be dark. We add lighting but we don’t just add lighting for the sake of seeing things, we add lighting to support the story telling and so that’s really what our job is in cinematography, is to help support the story through the use of lighting otherwise you wouldn’t be able to see it and it probably wouldn’t have the emotional resonance that it has otherwise.
* Were there any challenges in doing lighting for under water? What references do you use for that?
There are a lot of challenges. So much work had been put into Finding Nemo in terms of they did scuba diving trips and compiled a lot of reference and then they created a look very unique for that film. What was important on our film was that we echoed that look, not to directly replicate it but to refer to it. Since 13 years have passed we couldn’t directly copy it because the technology of the software has progressed and we so couldn’t actually do what we do 13 years ago. You could argue we can do things better or differently or whatever, but that was the first challenge, finding a way to make sure the audience felt like they were in the same world that they were in the first movie.
The second challenge is just water in general is technically very challenging for visual effects in CG movies. One of the discussions we had on previous movies is if you had characters sitting round a dinner table eating and look at all the set dressing. Looking at the glasses, do those glasses have to be glass, can it be a plastic tumbler? Better yet can it be a plastic opaque tumbler? Can it be ceramic mugs? So we’ve always been very judicious about when we represent glass or water. For a movie that takes place in an aquarium you couldn’t avoid it, so you had to take it head on.
The third challenge for us was just making sure that since we spent so much time in the water that it progresses the story forwards and we have different kinds of water for different sections of the movie.
* Probably my favourite piece of animation was Hank the octopus. The movements are amazing and you guys must have worked on that for a while. It’s a step up from fish.
It’s a technical feat and challenge, both in his rigging and the work that the animators did. There were really 3 departments involved with that. There was the initial rigging. It was a technical challenge to make the octopus tentacles look in motion and work the way it does. It was a challenge for animation because they’re focused on the performance and when you add appendages to a character and those appendages could very well be a character in of themselves, and then there’s 7 of them you could easily lose sight of the performance, that was a challenge. I didn’t work on the animation and so I may be getting some of these details wrong but I was always in awe of the work that they did. Then the third and final step was that we simulated, we had a technical department that happened after animation and that was to get the jiggle of the octupus’ flesh just right and if you go back and watch the movie a second or third time you can sit there and watch the suction cups individually come off surfaces and then reattach to other surfaces and it’s pretty mind-blowing.
*Do you think lots of kids are going to be asking their parents for a pet octopus for a gift?
I don’t know if octopus makes the best pet. They’re notorious for being great escape artists so you may have an octopus one day and then the next day you have no idea where that octopus is off to but they’re fascinating creatures. I got to handle one at one of the aquariums that we went to and the octopus, she was very inquisitive. She took her tentacle and wrapped it around my arm and I was like freaking out. It was interesting but that is just how that animal learns about its environment.
* I’ve never actually seen one in real life but I got a potato salad in Malta and I started eating it and a tentacle flopped out of it and I was like oh my god! So that was my experience with an octopus.
* Pixar don’t do a whole lot of sequels but if there was one of their films you’d like to do a sequel to, what would it be?
Well I was excited that we were making Finding Dory just because Dory was one of my favourite characters. Another Pixar movie that I absolutely adore is The Incredibles. That’s also in the works so beyond that I’m happy!
* Do you have a favourite character in Finding Dory other than Dory?
Dory’s my favourite character. Beyond Dory there is a bird who’s only in it for a few scenes but she really steals the scene. She’s very funny.
* That was Becky.
* I loved Destiny.
* And I can’t remember the name of the third sea-lion…
Oh Gerald! Funny titbit, Becky and Gerald are played by the same voice talent who is an editor at Pixar. He did the scratch board and he was hilarious for both characters.
* For many Pixar films they use real life places for inspiration. Was there a marine park or anything that you used?
We had the benefit of partnering with a few aquariums on the west coast in the US. We worked with the academy of science in San Francisco, the monetary bay aquarium in Monterrey Bay, California and the Vancouver aquarium. They were so generous and excited about our project and we got to see a lot of cool behind the scenes stuff. I got to go into these massive pump rooms, stuff that you never get to see, to walk above the larger aquariums that are usually the centre pieces. I got to walk above and see what it looks like behind the scenes. So it was really cool, I got to handle an octopus which was fun, so it was getting that kind of insight and excitement in our project was great.
* So what you’re telling me is the whole film was completely scientifically accurate?
I wouldn’t go that far! I don’t know if you know this or not but fish don’t actually talk…at least not in English!
* There’s things like Bailey the beluga whale and his echolocation…
It’s all based in scientific findings, it’s all there to support the story telling and the humour of the story.
* Finally, with Pixar having such large teams how do you actually communicate with each other?
It’s definitely one of the bigger challenges that we have is coordinating the big teams. I think we’ve gotten really good at it over the years as our teams have had to get bigger to take on the complexity of the movies and the deadlines in the movies but it’s making sure the people are talking to each other. It’s as simple as that. When things aren’t going well, a lot of times it’s because people aren’t talking to each other so the easy solution, well not the easy solution, the right solution, is to get people talking to each other.
* Just one last question, would you like to try live action direction lighting? Have you tried that?
Through school I did a lot of live action stuff, that’s where I started out but then I got involved with computer animation really early on. There’s a lot of similarities in terms of the goals of live action lighting and computer animation lighting but there’s still so much more for me to do in computer animation. I don’t know if I’ll necessarily do live action professionally ever but anytime I do a work shop in live action I find something I can apply to animation.
* Well I hope you stick to animation if they’re all as good as this one!
Finding Dory is released in the UK on the 29th July and is recommended by me. I hope you enjoyed the interview. Have you seen Finding Dory? Who was your favourite character?. Have you found an octopus in your potato salad?. Let me know in the comments below.