The new “Finding Dory” movie takes place deep in the ocean, but it was a University of Washington professor who helped Pixar bring the film’s characters to life.
Dr. Adam Summers has been studying fish for more than 20 years. After getting a degree in math and engineering, he was working as a diver in Australia capturing fish for aquariums. He got a series of odd requests from a customer, who turned out to be a marine biologist. Summers loved the idea of studying the ocean so much, he got a second bachelor’s in biology and never looked back, now spending most of his time running a research lab for the University of Washington out of Friday Harbor.
His specialty is “bio-mechanics” — studying how fish move.
That came in handy 15 years ago when a group of animators were looking for someone to help them bring a reef to life for a movie called “Finding Nemo.”
“When I was a post-doc in Berkeley my land-lady was the one who ran Pixar University,” Summers said. “So I found the consultant for her for ‘Monster’s Inc.’ And then later when she asked if I knew anybody who studied fish I said, ‘Well, that’s what I do.’”
Summers says he coached animators on dozens fish species, how some dart or glide, dive or slink through their unique environments.
It’s not always evident what a difference the movement of a figure makes in an animated film, but Summers knew the importance from his friend’s work on “Monster’s Inc.”
“This is a movie about giant animals,” Summers said. “And they had a bio-mechanist advising them — whose job it was to understand how giant animals move. That meant that even if there was no other scaling item on the screen — if you just had a monster and had no way to know if they were big or small or medium-sized — the very way that they moved told you, subconsciously, that they were big.”
An example of a movie that could have had better movement, he says, is “The Incredible Hulk,” which used human motion capture technology. Summers’ expert eye thought it looked clunky using people-sized movements for such a large character.
Summers was blown away how much Pixar animators were dedicated to getting it right.
“Four or five months in — this was a three-year production process — they were asking me to judge which frames were from a real reef and from a computer. And they were already at a point that I could not tell which one was which,” Summers said.
An exact replica of ocean life wasn’t the goal for animators, however. It was the overall feel of the ocean, the water, the characters, and the story.
“They went and figured out how to do reality, and then pulled back — over-saturated the colors, put in extra flocculent matter. Because if you saw a perfectly photo-realistic reef with talking fish swimming in front of it, it would make your stomach hurt,” Summers said. “So, in order to get it wrong they had to know deeply how to get it right. And they got it all the way right and then backed off and got it exactly, correctly wrong.”
Even when making compromises, Summers says producers and animators were careful. For example, when Summers had to break it to producers that fish don’t actually have eyebrows.
“I mean, fish have none of what we call the ‘muscles of facial expression,’” Summers said. “And, he said, ‘Well, that’s not going to work. I need eyebrows.’ He said, ‘You can’t act without eyebrows. So you have to find eyebrows on fish for me.’”
“And that’s what we did,” Summers said. “We actually went to a museum. We pulled out all of the characters and sort of felt them up, sort of put our hands on their heads and found plausible bones that could move and be eyebrows without destroying the ‘fish-ness.’”
Summers also had to let other anatomical incorrectness slide in “Finding Nemo,” such as giving hammer-head sharks noses. Normally, the sharks have nostrils on each outer end of their hammer-like skulls, right by their eyes. But to make them look more human — more relatable — they had to be in the center of an anthropomorphized face.
Bringing science to a younger audience
Summers says to this day he gets called out by kids who aren’t afraid to ask the tough questions.
“‘Were those boy sharks or girl sharks? You know, I didn’t see claspers on them, but they had boy-shark names,’” Summers said, for example.
“Then you have to explain to them that the claspers didn’t animate well,” he said with a sigh.
As for “Finding Dory,” he couldn’t let on much about his work, but did say that, along with general fish movements, he did a lot of work with a certain cephalopod.
“It’s no great secret that, in ‘Finding Dory,’ one of the really wonderful characters is an octopus,” Summers said. “So, I spent a lot of time talking about camouflage in octopi, and how they change texture and change color.”
What he will say is that, even with some inaccuracies, Summers wishes Pixar would churn out an ocean movie every year, so more young people will be inspired to learn about life under the waves.