Finding Dory co-director Angus MacLane entertained and informed the National Film and Television School students with a Q&A on his work at Pixar Animation Studios. The session was hosted by Dan Jolin, freelance journalist and a contributing editor to Empire film magazine.
Angus’s work at Pixar includes A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Cars, Ratatouille, Wall.E, Up and Toy Story 3. As well as animating he has worked in character development on Monsters Inc and The Incredibles and won an Annie award for Outstanding Achievement in Character Animation. He was Directing Animator on Wall.E and directed the Toy Story spin off Toy Story of Terror, for which he won another Annie for best director before going on to co-direct Finding Dory.
According to Angus, working at Pixar is tremendous fun and a constant learning experience. "It’s like being in a play; when you start out as a stage hand, you think one day, I’d love to work on stage and when you get to work in the lead role, all eyes are on you and it’s no less satisfying," he said. "I’ve always been driven to be creative and it’s so great to have the opportunity to do that at Pixar."
A theme running through the Q&A was the need to continuously review and question how to "make it better". Finding Dory was put together nine different times and for Angus, this drive to relentlessly question and improve is the reason why the films are so good. Angus stressed this point as being an incredibly important one for students to learn.
Continuing on the subject of learning, Angus cited clarity as the most important consideration when storyboarding and when directing: "Don’t freak out, no matter what!" For animators, he advised: "Communicate one thing at a time, and make sure the idea is clearly communicated to the audience." Angus also stressed how important it is to surround yourself with people you trust, whose opinions you value, who will tell you when something could be better – build one another up.
The Pixar films that resonate the most with Angus are the short films Burn-e, Small Fry and Toy Story of Terror as "y voice is most evident in these films". "The Incredibles was the most fun as an animator because it was so hard," he said. "I technically animated the most footage on that film so it was the ideal scenario for learning."
Dan asked what working with director Andrew Stanton was like. "It was dynamic," Angus said. "Andrew felt it would be valuable to divide the labour. He has the vision and I help him execute it and help the crew understand it." A typical working scenario saw Angus sitting at the Cintiq animation desk and Andrew on the couch while they looked at a particular sequence. Angus might draw a revised storyboard while Andrew would write new dialogue to improve or fix a scene.
Sometimes a side character provides inspiration for a short film and Angus said he was always drawn to side stories for this reason. "It’s also important to consider the audience’s affection for a particular character and not irritate them with a storyline," he said. Side character stories can however sometimes confuse the audience and take their attention away from the main story. Angus relayed an example in Finding Dory where this was the case and a subplot involving the Tank Gang (a group of fish that live in a tank at Philip Sherman’s dentist office in Finding Nemo) needed to be cut for this reason.
"When we took it out, it elevated Dory’s story as the film should be about one person and their journey," he said. Other tactics to help keep the audience focused include the use of flashbacks and constant reminders of Dory’s goal to find her family. "This keeps the audience vested in that goal and helps them care about the character."
Angus, who has been on a lengthy press tour promoting Finding Dory, challenged the students to ask him exciting and specific questions. The NFTS students did us proud as Angus asked for additional questions because "this is the most fun I’ve had all week".
Many of the students were intrigued by the approach Pixar take with animating animals. The same specialist that was used for Finding Nemo was used for Finding Dory to advise on the way particular fish move so the animators get the motion right. The animators also watch videos of the fish in question to learn the fish locomotion. However, Destiny, the Whale Shark, was animated with a slightly different approach as they wanted her to move like a sock puppet. Some characters such as Hank, the octopus, are animated with elements of truth and stylisation so it "feels real".
Continuing the biology theme, another student wanted to know how the characters are developed. According to Angus, ‘each character is different. For example, we chose to animate an octopus (Hank) as we needed an amphibious creature that could exist in the human world. Dory also needed a humorous sidekick. It’s a triangulation of these elements that lead to Hank.’
Hank was also a very complex character to animate. In fact, Angus said: "Hank wouldn’t have been possible when we made Finding Nemo as the computing power required for such complex skin simulation and the animation of the suckers and tentacles didn’t exist back then. Hank also doesn’t have eight tentacles for that reason as they were so complicated to animate! In fact, it was a two year process to make that character."
On the subject of sound design and composing, Angus said that sound was very important to him. Wall.E was the film where sound design was involved at the earliest point as they wanted to experiment. With regards to the score, the composer came on the scene for Finding Dory early as Andrew said he was very musical and had strong opinions. This was also a good opportunity for Andrew to communicate what he was thinking about the movie and discuss the emotion to help inform the composer: "The music editing process is very important and needs to be measured with every element so the comedy works."
The students were interested to know which characteristics you need to be a director at Pixar. "Resilience," said Angus. "Every director is different but it’s ultimately a collaborative process. You need to be able to run a team and communicate effectively. Self-confidence is important so collaborators trust you and you need to not be threatened by them. You need a combination of humility and confidence which is hard to balance. The best directors are able to lift the crew and get them excited while also making them feel appreciated."
According to Dan, Dory is one of Pixar’s strongest central characters and he commended the filmmakers for not giving her a love interest just because she’s female. Angus agreed, saying that the issue was never discussed. "The fact that Dory lives in the moment and doesn’t worry about the past or the future is very interesting and aspirational," he said. "Having a strong and unnuanced female character is very important to me as a filmmaker."
Signing off, Angus wished the students luck and reminded them that the most important thing was to keep the relationships and bonds you build at the school as they were only going to continue on the outside. "If you are successful, it is probably because your friends are successful," he said. "To do this job and pursue excellence, you need to love it as you will be hard on yourself. I wish you much success!"