Disney•Pixar’s Finding Dory, out tomorrow in 3D, is full of amazing new characters that you will instantly fall in love with. These are characters that fit perfectly into the aquatic world established in 2003’s classic Finding Dory, while expanding that world exponentially, adding even more color, texture, and personality. Among the new characters are argumentative sea lions, cuddly otters, a nearsighted whale shark, a neurotic beluga whale, and one very ornery octopus. It’s this octopus, named Hank and voiced by Modern Family star Ed O’Neill, that really steals Finding Dory.
Hank comes into the story when Dory (of course voiced by Ellen DeGeneres) is on her quest to relocate her parents (Eugene Levy and Diane Keaton). She gets scooped up and put into a Marine Life Institute, where she meets Hank, a slippery character who has motives of his own. Eventually, much like the mutual admiration, respect, and friendship that was forged between Dory and Marlin (Albert Brooks) in the first film, Hank and Dory become a team and conquer some pretty overwhelming odds.
And while the finished film is a flawless piece of art, and Hank one of the most enjoyable characters on screen, it took a great deal of time and effort to actualize him on screen, with countless animators, technicians, and one very skilled performer, channeling their inner mollusk.
“My department sits in between art and animation—animation is responsible for delivering the performance, and art is figuring out the design,” Jeremy Talbot, the supervising animator who worked on Hank, explained. “We’re kind of responsible for making it. We make the puppet that essentially animation uses to act with. We have to figure out how to make a character squish and squash into the variety of shapes, but to not fall apart, so that when animation works with them, it reacts in a way that makes sense to them.”
This was particularly important for Hank, since he has a floppy body shape and can shape-shift and change colors (just like real octopuses, who have the ability to squeeze through any opening bigger than their hard beak). Talbot is particularly proud of shots when all of the elements come together–scenes that, in his words, “show both the oozy, crazy caricature motion that the puppet provided, but also the camouflage.”
Mike Stocker, who was one of the supervising animators for Hank, says that a sequence early in the film when Hank first meets Dory (a sequence that was screened at D23 Expo last summer), “took six months to do.” Stocker elaborated: “Just to give you the how hard it was to animate this character story—when I was asked to do this movie, I was excited for two reasons. One, it was my kid’s first movie and two, this character. There’s no way we could have done anything as hard, at least in the animation department, than what this was.” The team studied footage of octopuses in the wild and visited places like the Monterey Bay Aquarium, to watch real octopuses. (They got to feed, pet, and hold the octopus.) “One of the hardest things we had to do was deconstruct how this works and then try to mimic this in the rig that Jeremy built. As a person, I have bones, I have joints, and they have rules — my arms can do certain things and I know what they are,” Stocker said. But when he watched footage of the octopuses, he said, “this is a mess.” Stocker went on: “I don’t know how to look at something and say, I’m now going to make something animated that look like that.”
Even after Talbot had completed a “super complicated rig,” Stocker and the other animators “had no idea to work it.” Stocker said, “it was sort of like, he made a Ferrari and we didn’t know how to drive.” It took the team an entire year just to figure out how Hank would walk. But that was worth it. Stocker describes it as a “watershed” moment. Now the team could get a grip on how each tentacle could move, what the weight of each one was, the texture and buoyancy and heft of it all.
Not that everything was accurate – Hanks mouth, located just underneath the webbing, was something that the team took “a little liberty with,” while paying “homage to an actual octopus.” If Hank was 100% accurate, he would have had a beak in the middle of his body, which isn’t exactly conducive to dialogue with other characters.
The final polish on Hank was done by John Halstaad, the supervising technical director of Finding Dory, meaning he does the things that really bring Hank to life but that no moviegoer seeing the film this weekend will ever think about. “There are a number of issues after animation has finished a shot with Hank, that still need to be addressed,” Halstaad said. “Ground contact is one of them. When Hank is sitting on the ground or a portion of the set, what we want to make sure is that the suckers contact the very top of that surface, and don’t interpenetrate with it, and we also don’t want to squish out the suckers to convey a sense of weight.” (And for those wondering, there are over 350 suckers on Hank.)
Another issue Halstaad dealt with was Hank’s mantle, the kind of bulbous sack that hangs down behind his head. “What we’re trying to do is get something where the arm is pushing something up the mantle and the mantle is holding something over-on-top of him,” Halstaad said. “So this is where our simulation department comes in. Our simulation department uses tools and techniques that will simulate real-world physics on Hank.” The simulation department also dealt with the suckers, and, in Halstaad’s words, “how to make Hank feel soft and fleshy.”
For O’Neill, who voices Hank, the process wasn’t nearly as arduous, although he didn’t quite know what he was getting into. He got a call to be a part of the film two years ago, assuming that it would be a cameo, since they didn’t allow him to see the Finding Dory script. “You know that would make sense that it’s not even big enough to show me the script,” O’Neill recounts. “And I said oh okay, it’s Pixar, I’ll do it.” Slowly, though, O’Neill caught on that his role was bigger than he initially envisioned. “I had my first session, it was slated for 4 hours. I thought I’m going to get it all done in one day. And I went in and they showed me a black and white drawing of Hank. Then we started doing the voice and after that they said, ‘Okay well we’ll probably call you back in about 2-3 months.’ I said, ‘Okay so it’s not finished. This is more than just a cameo, especially since all my stuff is with Ellen.’” Still, he maintains that, “no one ever said to me this is a feature role. I never heard that.” O’Neill even has his own theories for why he kept being brought back: “My guess is that the animation of Hank was so brilliant that they probably had a meeting and said look let’s just keep this guy going.” (O’Neill also maintains that director Andrew Stanton never told him how Hank lost one of his tentacles.)
O’Neill said that he was invigorated by the “primal” aspect of acting alone in the voice booth (“Like a boy alone in a sandbox”), and also the creative environment of the Northern California Pixar campus. “I was so impressed with their level of involvement and their passion for what they do. I mean they’re the friendliest people in the world,” O’Neill said. Not that they weren’t tough. “And I remember thinking, They’re so nice, but I’m not getting out of here until they get what they want.” And they got what they wanted–a fully nuanced, beautifully etched performance inside a character that was beyond complex to create. O’Neill said that when he saw the final movie, he had to ask Stanton to make sure it was entirely animated; it looked that real.
“I use this analogy and it’s probably corny, but I say a Pixar movie is almost like a fine wine because there’s so many different taste you can enjoy it on so many different levels,” O’Neill said, after watching the movie the night before. “And the first thing is you’re watching and impressed with is how it’s made. I mean it’s brilliant. So you’re struck with, how did they do that? How are they doing this? What am I going to see next? And the story is good, the characters are well drawn and they’re funny and moving; just the whole thing.”
Later in the interview, during a moment of introspection, O’Neill paused, thought about his role in Finding Dory and his decades-long career, and said, “It’ll be the most famous thing I’ve ever done.” That’s right–for a movie concerned with a lead character that has problems remembering things, Hank will never be forgotten.