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Toon Tuesday : How Pixar fixed "Finding Nemo"

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Toon Tuesday : How Pixar fixed "Finding Nemo"

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It's the story that won't go away. How back in 2001, Michael Eisner reportedly told Disney's board of directors that he'd be postponing any further contract talks with Pixar Animation Studios.

"And why would the then-Chairman & CEO of the Walt Disney Company do that?," you ask. Because Eisner had just come back from a work-in-progress screening of "Finding Nemo." And he supposedly told the board that this Andrew Stanton movie was the weakest thing that Pixar had produced to date. Which is why Michael wanted to wait 'til this fish film flopped before he then re-opened negotiations with that Emeryville-based animation studio.

You see, Eisner believed that it would be far easier for Disney's attorneys to get Steve Jobs to agree to much more favorable terms if Pixar were coming off of its first "reality check." Which is why he wanted to put off any talk of an extension of their co-production deal for a year or so.

But then when "Finding Nemo" opened in theaters nationwide on May 30, 2003, it became this huge critical & financial success. For a time, that Academy Award-winning film was even the top grossing animated feature of all time ... At least until "Shrek 2" came along and knocked off that clownfish's crown.

 Copyright 2002 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

And as for Eisner ... Many people (Roy Disney included) used Michael's "Finding Nemo" box office prediction as an indication of how truly out-of-touch Disney's Big Cheese had become. Which helped speed Eisner's fall from power.

But here's the thing: Michael Eisner wasn't actually wrong about "Finding Nemo." At least not when it comes to the shape that this Pixar production was in back in the Fall of 2001.

Back then, this Andrew Stanton film was in awful shape. It was saddled with at least one too many plotlines, one lead character that had a rather unappealing secret as well as another character who was desperately in need of a new voice.

As for "Nemo" 's extraneous plotline ... Early on, Stanton wanted to keep moviegoers in the dark for long as possible about why Marlin was so over-protective, why Nemo had this damaged fin. Which is why he initially tried to handle this father & son's tragic backstory through a series of flashbacks.

As Andrew explained on the visual commentary track of the "Finding Nemo" DVD:

Andrew Stanton with the Oscar that "Finding Nemo" won
for Best Animated Feature. Copyright 2004 Academy
of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences and ABC, Inc.
All Rights Reserved

Earlier (on), we had flashbacks. And we were going to dole them out, this whole backstory. We were just going to tell a little bit at a time ... And you'd get these little windows of the past ... And it was all leading up to this tragic event with the barracuda.

So why did Stanton eventually decide to discard this rather stylistic way of revealing of how exactly Coral died, how all of Nemo's brothers & sisters got eaten?

Ultimately what made it fall apart was there was nothing big to reveal at the end. There was no "Ah Ha!" or surprise slant to it ... By the time you were getting near the end of the movie, you kind of suspected what the tragedy was. (Which is why we decided to) remove the flashbacks and just (reveal the barracuda attack) right up front. Which is what almost every Film 101 book tells you to do.

Mind you, it took a couple of passes before Stanton finally came up with an opening for "Finding Nemo" that hit all of the right emotional beats. One that made Coral being eaten by the barracuda, the destruction of most of the eggs in the nest " ... powerful and yet not overly brutal." After all, Andrew's initial intent was to have the audience bond as quickly as possible with Marlin & Nemo.

Which is why -- for a time anyway -- "Finding Nemo" opened with the Father clownfish telling his son a bedtime story. And as Coral's death, that was explained away in a single poignant exchange between Marlin & Nemo.

Copyright 2003 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

NEMO : And then the ocean took Mommy away?

MARLIN : (Rueful) That's right. It did.

But in the end, the quickest way to get moviegoers to care about the two clownfish was to actually show the tragedy that bonded these characters together. Which is why "Finding Nemo" eventually opened with that barracuda attack on Marlin & Coral's anemone.

FYI:  That opening sequence was not in the work-in-progress film that Michael Eisner saw back in 2001. He saw a version of "Finding Nemo" which opened with Nemo's first day of school. Where Marlin was already twitchy and over-protective, but you didn't initially understand why the Father clownfish constantly hovered over his son. Which made that character rather difficult to like.

And Marlin wasn't the only "Finding Nemo" character that audiences initially had trouble warming up to. Early on, Gill (i.e. The leader of the Tank Gang) was also a very unlikable character.

Copyright 2003 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

But that was only because Stanton wanted to reveal that this angelfish (Which the young clownfish had begun looking up to as a possible replacement for his father) was no angel. In a now-deleted scene from "Finding Nemo," Nemo was supposed to discover that Gill's colorful backstory (i.e. That Gill grew up in Bad Luck Bay and had four brothers -- Marco, Polo, Lester & Linus -- & one sister -- Lulu) had actually been cribbed from a children's storybook that P. Sherman made available to patients waiting in his lobby.

Copyright 2003 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Copyright 2003 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

And while making Gill a liar was an interesting story choice for the leader of the Tank Gang, it also confused "Finding Nemo" 's test audiences. They couldn't decide whether they should still root for this angelfish's escape plan. More importantly, they wondered if they could really trust Gill to keep Nemo safe during his time in the dentist's office.

Realizing that they unintentionally complicated the middle portion of their movie, Stanton and his story team eventually dropped the whole Gill-stole-his-backstory-from-a-children's-book idea and just made this angelfish a determined loner who would do whatever he had to in order to escape from P. Sherman's seawater aquarium. Which then brought an emotional clarity to Act 2 of "Finding Nemo."

But -- again -- that's not what Michael Eisner saw. He saw a version of "Finding Nemo" where Gill was this charismatic but delusional character. Where Nemo didn't know who to trust while he was stuck in that aquarium, waiting for his father to come rescue him.

Speaking of Marlin ... One of the other reasons that Disney's then-Chairman & CEO wasn't all that enthusiastic about "Finding Nemo" was the actor that Andrew initially hired to provide the voice of the Father clownfish. William H. Macy's vocal performance in this role just lacked ... something. Though this award-winning performer tried his damnest, he just couldn't make Marlin a character that you cared about. Which is why Stanton was eventually forced to recast this role.

And as for the actor that Andrew eventually did hire to play the Father clownfish, the "Finding Nemo" director had this to say about that performer:

Albert Brooks. He absolutely saved this picture. He is exactly what I needed this father character to be. You needed someone who was neurotic, over-protective but still appealing throughout. And that is one of Albert's gifts. That he can sort of play both. Usually it's such an off-putting thing. But he just makes it so winning.

 (L to R) Ellen Degeneres, Alexander Gould and Albert Brooks at
the premiere of "Finding Nemo."
Photo by Dan Steinberg.
Copyright 2003 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

But -- again -- the version of "Finding Nemo" that Michael Eisner saw didn't have Albert Brooks performing the voice of Marlin. But rather William H. Macy. Who's a very talented man but not the right guy if you're looking for the proper performer to voice an over-protective clownfish.

You getting where I'm going yet? That the version of "Finding Nemo" that Michael Eisner saw back in 2001 was pretty bad. Which is why the then-Chairman & CEO of the Walt Disney Company was right to feel the way that he did. Michael genuinely believed that he was looking at Pixar's first flop. Which is why Eisner felt justified in telling Disney's board of directors what he told them.

But Pixar Animation Studios ... They had the time (More importantly, the talent in-house) to make all of the changes necessary to turn "Finding Nemo" into a hit. Which is why that Andrew Stanton film was such a huge success when it finally rolled into theaters in May of 2003.

"So why bring this up now?," you query ... Well, "WALL-E" has had several test screenings over the past six months. And while audiences have supposedly fallen in love with the movie's title character, they have also reportedly raised some concerns about this new Andrew Stanton film. Which allegedly has been described " ... as the darkest motion picture that Pixar has ever produced."

 Copyright 2008 Disney / Pixar. All Rights Reserved

Among the issues that these test audiences have supposedly cited are "WALL-E" 's depressing settings (i.e. The first act of this film is set on Earth 700 years from now, where -- thanks to humanity's wasteful ways -- our planet is now basically one big trash heap floating in space) as well as the picture's depiction of people (i.e. In the future, mankind has grown so slothful that everyone weighs 500 pounds and has lost the ability to walk on their own. Which is why we all make use of these devices that look like floating barcaloungers).

So should we be at all concerned about the somewhat negative comments that have been coming out of these early "WALL-E" test screenings? Is this new Andrew Stanton film -- which obviously pokes fun at today's consumeristic society -- really going to have a tough time finding an audience during summer blockbuster season?

I say ... That we should probably pay attention to the hard lesson that Michael Eisner learned back in 2001. Which is that it's really not wise to predict how a new Pixar film will do based on the work-in-progress version of that particular picture. Which is why you may want to discount any rumors that you may have heard about disappointing "WALL*E" test screenings.

Don't worry. They've got time. They can fix it.

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  • Thanks for the article, Jim!   I can see how audiences might find the darker tone of this film a little jarring.   Especially given the story elements you've mentioned above.    I still have faith in Pixar's storytelling and reserve judgement until I've seen the finished film.  

  • Jim and JHM readers,

    John Lasseter himself will tell you that, at some point, EVERY film Pixar has worked one could be considered the absolutely worst movie ever made -- IF it were to be released as they've seen it.

    The beauty of Pixar's films comes from that fine-tuning of story -- from getting the director, the brain trust and the story team together, screening the footage and being honest about what works and what doesn't and creatively addressing the issues.

    It comes from Ed, John, Steve and every artistic-minded staffer standing up to Disney over "Toy Story 2" and saying ... "the film's not good enough, we can't deliver it" and then busting their tails to not only "make it good enough," but to deliver one of the rare sequels that's every bit (and some would say better) than the original.

    As someone with a deep interest in animation, I've read or heard about some problems in just about every Pixar feature -- from minor scenes to major plot points, from characters that didn't quite gel for assorted reasons. Both "Toy Story 2" and "Ratatouille" were nearly complete overhauls with the clock ticking.

    The reason the studio and its artists have my respect is because it's so evident when you watch any Pixar film, that they care, that they know they're working on timeless treasures that will entertain families and generations yet to come.

    Not only do they "trust the process," thanks to the late Joe Ranft, they "understand and respect that process." They keep hammering away until they get it right -- or as close to perfect as they can.

    I simply wish more adults would really take a hard look at Pixar's films, judge them against the best Hollywood offers us every year -- LIVE ACTION or animated. Realize just how special, how creative the team at Pixar is and then appreciate the talents who so richly entertain us.

    What matters most is the full-blown worldwide released film -- not the numerous work-in-progress screenings in-house or versions screened for test audiences.

  • I like that it is depressing. Possibly, if the ending is completely tragic, they can fix it up to include a nice little ending without compromising the storyline too much to the point that it becomes too P.C.

    Granted, its Disney that we're talking about, but lest we not forget BAMBI?!! Mother dies and its sad sorta, and then in the end, the main character prospers and there's a happy ending. Maybe if they worked harder to provide that nice little happy tag.

    I think it was great how they used the song, "Brazil" for the commercials. It implies a somewhat tragic but lighthearted story. By the way, watch the classic, "Brazil" by Terry Gilliam. It's wonderful.

  • Amen, mnmears! I think the reason some of us Disney fans sometimes get protective of Pixar films is exactly the reason you put forth, that the quality of their films is leaps-and-bounds above the garbage Hollywood puts out between January and October (before Oscar season). Hopefully Wall-E is another home-run!

  • Honestly, the "Finding Nemo" I saw was pretty bad. Its definitely my least favorite of Pixar's canon.

    I'm really looking forward to "WALL*E" though. I like darker stories and settings, so if thats the only thing people are complaining about, I say bring it on and don't release an inferior picture because of it.

  • It's interesting that Disney animation has also had the benefit of test screening responses, yet didn't produce a final product which matched Pixar's. So does that mean Pixar is more disciplined to change what doesn't work? Or that there wasn't as much questionable material in the first place?  

    Add: I've got my fingers crossed that they fix the "message". If there's one thing guaranteed to annoy it's slap in the face morality plays critiquing my lifestyle efficiency from multimillionare creative artists on contract to multinational corporations.

  • Rufus,

    I think Pixar's simply been more disciplined to change what doesn't work under Ed and John's creative culture. To some extent, Pixar works a bit to educate the non-creative support staff about the creative process so that when an artist says he needs more time or money, there's more of an understanding that they're all on the same team -- all working toward a similar, singular goal of creating a timeless classic.

    I believe that Ed and John are trying to establish a similar culture -- a throwback to their university experiences where everyone helped one another -- at Disney Feature Animation. It's been reported that most of those working at Disney Feature Animation are more optimistic and hopeful than they've been in decades. Floyd Norman can tell you a lot more about that than I can.

    Now, as to your fear of a "message" movie. I don't necessarily see anything wrong with it. There's been a message of some sort in every one of Pixar's films -- from "Toy Story" to "Ratatouille" -- just look for it.

    "Finding Nemo" has a message for adults about learning to let go and trust their young -- and that message provides much of the story's heart. It's part of what makes "Nemo" an emotionally moving picture -- and coupled with the sheer beauty of the undersea world -- a good part of the reason for its universal appeal and box office performance.

    I appreciate films that leave me thinking, even when I might not agree with the filmmaker's point of view. I'm not so closed on most issues that I can't consider one's opposing viewpoint. I'm a First Amendment proponent -- I may not agree with what you've got to say, but I'll defend your right to say it and see how it holds up in the marketplace of ideas.

    I've been watching the magnificent BBC series Planet Earth on Blu-Ray -- the environmental message is there, along with several others including one validating "survival of the fittest" as nature's way. Its environmental message isn't as blatant as Al Gore's somewhat dry "Inconvenient Truth" (where I thought the best bits were the quiet moments of Gore simply talking and not necessarily about global warming), but it's there nonetheless.

    I suspect (or at least hope) the environmental message in "Wall-E" will be a bit more uplifting than the Bruce Dern sci-fi film "Silent Running," a hit in the 1970s.

    Still, I'm not turned off by some environmental message and some entertaining warning that we should move our bodies or risk a life in some hovering lounge chair. I believe that there are things we can and should be doing for our health and as stewards of all the gifts God has given us. There's nothing wrong with being challenged to examine who we are and what we're doing (or not) to make some small difference in the lives of others or the planet.

    And, there's nothing wrong with children considering these questions ... they're the ones inheriting this big blue marble in space ... and hopefully they're talking about recycling, global warming and other issues at school.

  • Great article, Jim!  The thing that bothered me about the article is that you were talking about the screening that Eisner saw in 2001, and the movie came out in 2003.  If "WALL-E" has problems now, then they only have about 6 months or less to fix them (unless they started fixing things a while ago).  The two situations don't seem too comparable.  

    But, I enjoyed reading the little tidbits on "Finding Nemo", and I'm excited to see "WALL-E"!

  • I am sure Michael Eisner reminded everyone in the room that he was responsible for the tv sereis "Happy Days" 25 years earlier....

  • "Nemo" was a win, win situation for Eisner. If the film was a hit, that meant more money for Disney. If it failed, Michael gained leverage at the bargaining table with Jobs.

    Truth is, "Nemo" went through the same development process any animated film goes through. Being a film executive, Eisner knew Pixar was over due for a stumble, and he wanted to be the "genius" who predicted it. Which is great - - except that he was dead wrong.

    Here's a tip. If you want to know how a film's story is tracking, ask an old story guy - - not a bean counter.

  • I suspect these are very different situations.  From what Jim described, Nemo had problems with characterization and storytelling - those are fixable.  Wall E has problems with its ENTIRE PREMISE.  You can't really fix that - only junk it and start over.

  • I just hope, depending on how dark WALL-E is (really, this sounds like the most ambitious animated film in YEARS), that Disney doesn't wimp out the way 20th Century Fox did on Mike Judge's Idiocracy.

    If WALL-E turns out to be more controversial than the average Pixar film, so long as they don't get any calls from the PC police, then this may be another wake-up call that the masses need.

  • Great article Jim! I actually don't pay any attention to what people say at test screenings. Or what I read on the internet that people are saying. Every animated film goes through this. Just look at any of the double DVD's that Disney has released. I just hope they fix whatever they need to fix before the premier date. Remember that Walt was makeing changes to Snow White right up to what was it? 48 hours before it's scheduled premier at the Carthay Circle Theatre.

  • Haha, Buttermaker, that made me laugh out loud.

    As for the "message" of WALL*E, I think its incredibly timely, considering LiveEarth and the current "greening" trend. And that's amazing to me -- assuming that Pixar started working on this 4 years ago. I swear...they are always in the right place at the right time.  On the other hand, I wouldnt be surprised if Disney gets around to releasing a Tween-Green movie on Disney Channel sometime in 2012.

    And, on a Pixar-related note, does anybody have more info about that photo of UP artwork that was up on Pixar Planet this week? Is that concept art? Because it looked like it was traditional animation.  I know John L. has alluded to the possibility of Pixar doing hand-drawn and I was wondering if this was going to be their first attempt???

  • Good article Jim, thanks.

    Isn't the purpose of these screenings to find out what's wrong with the film and then fix it? I think I'd be more worried if it seemed 'perfect' right out of the box. Creating anything, including art, is a process of trial and error. Considering Pixar's track record with their finished product, I have no reason to believe they won't fix whatever needs fixing. Methinks whomever is 'worried' about the early film version they saw is either A) trying to stir the pot, or B) doesn't really understand the process of making films (or anything else).

    I'm not worried.

    In regards to the message concerns... are we really that thin skinned and possibly PC'd to the max that we complain about a movie with a positive message?

    If we are concluding that one of the 'messages' of this movie is that if humanity doesn't watch out and change some of its ways, we will end up as incapacitated wastes of space... how can ANYONE have a problem with that? Honestly!

    If someones lifestyle makes them feel abit squeamish when a subject gets brought up... guess what? It's probably because you yourself are at least slightly aware that you are heading down that bad path to some degree. Don't ignore it! Use that info and make a positive change.

    Just like with this movie... if you don't point out what's wrong, you have no hope of fixing it! I firmly believe the saying, "If you aren't part of the solution, you are part of the problem."

    Three cheers for Pixar having the guts to say something!

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