'Finding Dory' animator reveals the most difficult character he's ever worked on

Posted June 22, 2016

FINDING DORY – Hank is an octopus—or actually a "septopus": he lost a tentacle—along with his sense of humor—somewhere along the way. When Dory finds herself at the Marine Life Institute, a rehabilitation center and aquarium, Hank reluctantly agrees to help her navigate the massive facility. Directed by Andrew Stanton, "Finding Dory" opens on June 17, 2016. ©2016 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved. (Deseret Photo)

The Disney/Pixar universe is filled with iconic characters that end up stitched on pajamas, immortalized in toy boxes and can even end up being inspiration for a career as a princess. When we pretend to be Rapunzel or pal around as if we’re Timon and Pumbaa, we rarely think about all the work that went into creating some of our dearly drawn buddies.

Michael Stocker — the supervising animator for “Finding Dory” — sat down for an interview and revealed the toughest character he’s ever worked on.

From commercial art to a film career

Stocker began his career as a commercial artist working for Boeing in Seattle. At the end of his education, however, Stocker took a film class that really stuck with him and he began to wonder how to get into animation. It was when he saw a commercial for “Who Framed Roger Rabbit?” that he really decided to go for it. He quit his gig at Boeing and attended the California Institute of the Arts in Santa Clarita, California, where Stocker said, “I found my people.”

A working animator for over 20 years, Stocker is an industry veteran, having begun work as an interning inbetweener (someone who cleans up other animator’s lines between shots) on “The Lion King” before being a character animator on “Hercules,” “Tarzan,” and “The Emperor’s New Groove.” After animating in 2-D for 10 years, Stocker said his interest was drawn toward the 3-D work Pixar was doing and made a shift in his career, diving head-first into the 3-D realm with 2004’s “The Incredibles.”

“The coolest thing about Pixar … was that I expected to come up and start slow, maybe do some simple shots and then move to a little harder shot,” Stocker said. “And they said, ‘Here’s the first shot of the movie,’ and it was just, boom! It was not a simple shot. It was a pure acting shot. You’re going to learn like this.”

According to Stocker, no one was handled with kid gloves at Pixar.

“That’s why they’re so good at what they do. Everyone’s in. We’re all filmmakers. We’re all making this thing together.”

‘Finding Dory’

Stocker got the opportunity to work as the directing animator on two other sequels — “Toy Story 3” and “Monsters University” — before becoming attached as supervising animator on another sequel, “Finding Dory,” about 3 1/2 years ago. Stocker called the casting on the “Finding Nemo” follow-up “perfect,” saying "the DNA of Ellen (DeGeneres) is in Dory. Her delivery, how she does reads, her comedic timing is amazing. That’s a perfect character.”

As per’s review of “Finding Dory,” the animation and the voice cast is certainly the strength of this movie. The most impactful performance turned out to have been the most difficult animation project of Stocker’s career.

Hank the octopus (or septapus, if we’re getting technical) is voiced brilliantly by Ed O’Neill (“Modern Family,” “Married with Children”), but making his movements come to life was no small task.

Animating Hank

“Hank the octopus was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done at Pixar,” Stocker said. “If you sort of tried to deconstruct how an actual octopus moves or how they do what they do, that alone is difficult.”

The Pixar animation team went to Monterey Bay Aquarium and held 70-pound octopi in order to get a feel for the animal.

“They came out of the tank, they wrapped around us and we were petting them and touching them, feeling the legs and trying to figure out how their arms work and asking, ‘What do they do?’ ‘What are the rules?’ And there are no rules. Therein lies the difficult thing,” Stocker said.

In “Finding Dory,” Hank moves not just through water, but across land (sometimes even in a baby stroller). Reconciling those movements they couldn’t necessarily witness presented a challenge for the Pixar team.

“That was the hardest thing, any contact, Hank moving across any surface becomes really hard,” Stocker said. “Underwater is hard too, but it’s a different kind of hard.”

To better conceive Hank, they had a rig built meant to “do all the things an octopus can do,” which took a year-and-a-half to create, according to Stocker. That was the beginning of what Stocker called “Hank Boot Camp.”

The team decided to aim for more realism than straight cartoon portrayal of the character. Initially, the animators were having all tentacles doing things at once, which created some problems.

“We were so excited, we had every arm doing something, and it was too hard to watch,” he said.

The animators dialed back and ended up having two or three arms operating at a time in order to bring the focus to where it needed to be — on Hank’s eyes.

“We needed you to watch the eyes. We didn’t need you to watch all this movement,” Stocker said. “There’s sort of a language we had to learn to communicate the performance.”

Stocker gave a lot of credit to his animation team, many of whom he’d worked with previously and some who’d worked on all of Pixar’s latest movies — “Inside Out” and “The Good Dinosaur” — before joining the “Dory” team. Their hard work paid off, and Stocker said he said it shows in the finished product.

“There’s not a bad shot in the movie.”


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