Finding Dory – The Interview

RoundTable Interview – Michael Stocker
Supervising animator with Pixar Animation Studios
Finding Dory

By Karen Pecota

The round table interview with Michael Stocker was to be thirty minutes in length with a few journalists from the Seattle area who each write a film blog. Each journalist had their questions prepared, ready and waiting for the Q and A. Upon entering the interview room as a group, the liaison from Allied Integrated Marketing, Jayme Stocker, informed us of the procedure for the interview and that she would keep us on task for the allotted time frame.

Mr. Stocker was introduced to us as we stood in the room; he greeted each of us with a smile, a handshake and a welcome to the interview. I was immediately drawn-in by his kindness and enthusiasm to meet with us. He was personal. Relatable.

Prior to the interview here below is what I learned about Michael Stocker’s career history:
Michael Stocker (Supervising Animator) joined the Pixar Animation Studios fourteen years ago. His credits include some of our most beloved animation feature films: The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, UP. He served as directing animator on Toy Story 3 and Monsters University. Prior to working for his current employer, Stocker worked ten years for Walt Disney’s Florida Animation Studio starting in their internship program. His credits with Disney range from The Lion King, Hercules, Tarzan, Fantasia/2000, The Emperor’s New Groove, Treasure Planet and Home on the Range.

Stocker’s journey toward animation art began while studying commercial art at Spokane Falls Community College. His next steps led him to Seattle to work as a commercial illustrator with companies like Boeing Aeronautics. Opportunities opened the door for him to take an internship with The Walt Disney Animations Studios in Florida and he was off and running. Stocker worked with Disney for ten years to eventually become an animation supervisor for Pixar Animation Studios–now going on his fourteenth season.

The journalists sat down around a linen-clothed table and after introductions we began our questioning. Each journalist had a turn to ask one initial question that opened a delightful conversation focused on Mr. Stocker’s work as a supervising animator on the latest full-feature film from Disney-Pixar called Finding Dory.

Q: Why after thirteen years make a sequel to Finding Nemo
Michael Stocker (MS): Not exactly sure there is only one answer. Several people wanted to explore Dory’s backstory. There was a curiosity about Dory’s story. Andrew (the director and screenwriter) wanted to explore Dory’s journey because it was unresolved in Finding Nemo. That fact was unsettling to him. The producers felt that if there was going to be a sequel it had to be the right timing. As it turned out, any earlier would have been too premature…they just weren’t ready to launch thequality that they have now with Finding Dory. It’s all about the timing.

Q: Did you use the same character/animation work as was done in Finding Nemo? Were you able to transfer a lot of the work from Marlin, Nemo, Dory, Destiny, etc?
MS: Not at all. We had to rebuild every character from scratch. We had to start all over. Though one would think we could take even the littlest of things and transfer them but it just didn’t fit. We didn’t have many veteran animators from Finding Nemo working on the project of Finding Dory. They were mostly new animators to the project.

Q: How easy or difficult was it working with different animators?
MS: The current animators we hired were able to use Finding Nemo as a road map but then they were on their own. We had the animators do an exercise taking one of the previous characters and work to duplicate it exactly. It was nearly impossible. It was impossible! Thus, the reason for rebuilding all the characters from scratch.

MS: We do a lot of research on the subjects of our creations. The animation team working on Finding Dory spent many hours at aquariums studying the sea life and engaging with the variety of sea life when hands-on interaction was possible. For example: We all spent many hours holding and observing the Octopus because we wanted feel what our creation of Hank (the cantankerous Octopus friend of Dory) was to be like and create him to be as life-like as possible. We studied how the arms moved, how they wrap around things, how their suction cups on the tentacles feel. We wanted to know how Octopus breathe and where is their mouth is located. We wanted to build our characters as life-like as we possibly can.

Q: Do you have a preference working with 3D vs 2D?
MS: No…both have their strengths and weakness…2D is purely hand-drawn and 3D one works with the hand-drawn art and the computer for dimension …which one can actually animate a whole shot on their screen now days. Basically, we start with 2D then expand to the 3D format.

Q: When you are building a character for an animation film, do you first start with creating by using the voice over actor (their persona in mind), Or the creative art design?
MS: We start with the art first. We create/design the character first. Then the story comes to life. We adapt to the script. Then we video tape the voice-over actors while they are reading the script or sides to observe their way of talking and idiosyncrasies. This helps us to incorporate them into the personality of the character. So often, one comments on how the animated character “looks” just like the voice-over actor. (laughing) Yes, it’s because we have created it so to endear the audience.

Q: Your artistic background is pretty extensive incorporating your work done as a commercial illustrator and designer…When did you become interested in animation?
MS: While I was studying commercial art at Spokane Falls Community College (Spokane, Washington), I took a film class and loved what I learned about film. This was the beginning of my love affair with film. I was interested in getting more involved with film but I wasn’t sure where to go and what my focus would be. It was during this time that I saw the film Roger Rabbit…and I was hooked…I knew I wanted to be involved in animation. I then sought out my options and landed at the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) and completed a two-year program. This took me to the Disney animation studio in Florida.

Q: In your BIO, it mentions that you were an “in-betweener” trainee. Can you explain what that means?
MS: Yes. It’s basically a person who cleans-up the animation slides or drawings once the final additions to a character have been approved and the character is ready to be put on screen. The clean-up crew is called an “in-betweener” because once the character has been finalized we need to go back and make all the lines perfectly clear, precise and distinct from hundreds of drawings. I did this job and was an “in-betweener” trainee on The Lion King. This was the first big animation film I worked on while in training.

Q: What has been your favorite project?
MS: Oh! I don’t know! It is too hard to choose just one project that I’ve worked on for so many reasons.
(However, he begins to list off one film after another saying The Incredibles because of this, and Cars because of that…and then smiles, and admits that it’s too hard to list one because he loves them all.)

Q: How much are you involved in the storytelling?
MS: As animators we are generally not involved in the beginning. However, since we are constantly collaborating with the screenwriters by creating and doing what we do best we get more involved by brainstorming and bringing up ideas of actions, feelings, thoughts that a character would have… It’s a give and take type of relationship…As for me personally, I am more involved now than I used to be simply due to the interaction I need to have with the director and/or screenwriter as to the storyline. Communication between us is key as my role as a supervising animator. I am like a liaison.

Q: What are you most proud of with this film?
MS: Without a doubt it is the development of HANK, the Octopus. It took such a long time getting him right. I am so proud of our animation team who worked diligently to create him. It was one of the hardest jobs on this film. It took us about two to two and a half years to create him. And, then capturing real moments with our animations. Real moments where our characters are so real that one doesn’t see the animation. One gets so lost in the animated character that it appears real.

Q: The question presented often in the movie, ‘What would Dory do?’, What does that mean to you?
MS: It means that Dory is valued by her peers. They have seen her in action. They trust that her way of doing things is positive. She influences others to do good. Dory lives in the moment. She’s happy, She’s funny. She’s sincere. She’s pure. She’s straight forward. She’s appropriately naive. She is positive. She’s innocent, unaffected and natural. In spite of her memory loss she has so many good qualities that her friends admire. They don’t concentrate on her weaknesses, though they know best that she has them. It’s very difficult in real life to be all that Dory is…but this is why I love Dory. I want to be like her. So, I try to be like her. I hope we can all learn the importance of ‘being Dory.’