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'Finding Dory' supervising animator leads unsung 'actors'

When families venture into multiplexes to see “Finding Dory,” the follow-up to 2003’s “Finding Nemo,” parents and children will see colorful sea creatures matched to the voices of celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Ed O’Neill. What they won’t see are the animators behind the scenes who consider themselves actors as well.

“As an animator, I’m an actor,” said Michael Stocker, the film’s supervising animator. Whether he’s working with tiny animals or talking toys, “the performance is everything. My little chunk of shots, or an animator’s little chunk of shots, is service to the story.”

Stocker, whose work on “Dory” marks his latest effort in a career that stretches all the way back to the days of “The Lion King,” said “Dory’s” story was critical given the reputation of the first film.

“So many people — my kids included — love that first movie,” Stocker said. “We had to make sure that we honored what we had done in the first movie, and they did it beautifully.”

Finding animators who were up to the task was just one of the challenges for Stocker and director Andrew Stanton, who will have both spent the better part of four years on “Dory” by its release.

“There’s not that many animators at the studio who had worked on the first one. Just a handful,” Stocker said. “And so we needed to go back and sort of relearn the swimming.”

Luckily, the team got help from a “fish guy” from the University of Washington, who was able to show the animators the ways different types of fish moved.

Still, realism in “Finding Dory” plays a different role than in a film such as the recent “Jungle Book,” which went for a live-action look.

“We’re kind of choosing to do a real world but caricature that real world to the point where it becomes a bit of a fantasy world in a way,” Stocker explained.

As someone who has worked on high-profile animation features for more than 20 years, Stocker has enjoyed a privileged perspective on the transition from 2-D cell animation to computer-generated imaging. And yet, “to me, the process hasn’t changed,” he said. “We make stories the same way. We storyboard the same way.”

Stocker employs the fundamental tools and processes that Walt Disney used decades ago on films such as “Pinocchio” and “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs.”

“It’s the same thing,” he said.

Stocker does admit one computer-related challenge: While the characters he worked with in 2010’s “Toy Story 3” are expectedly more on the stiff side, living creatures such as the sea life in “Nemo” and “Dory” require a more organic feel.

“When you’re in the computer … we have a rig, it’s like a puppet,” Stocker said. “It’s tougher to sort of shape that. So through drawing and some 2-D animation, I think we’re pushing ourselves to get everything a little more organic.”

He said “Dory’s” technology allowed for a nice compromise in the case of Hank, an octopus that helps Dory find her way around a marine institute in the film. In order to give Hank’s tentacles a more organic look, they were able to use 2-D techniques to guide the CGI process.

“If a scene has that (organic feel), it comes alive,” Stocker said.

Bringing characters such as Hank to life is the key to Stocker’s passion for the animation process.

“When you animate something, and you craft this performance and you design every pose, and then you hit ‘play’ … it’s no longer just a moving rig or a moving model,’’ he said. “It’s an actual living thing for me.”

Stocker’s big payoff is getting a real-life reaction from that effort once all those individual shots have been combined with everyone else’s hard work.

“That’s the thing,” he said. “That’s why we do it. That’s why I do it.”

Joshua Terry is a freelance writer and photojournalist who appears weekly on "The KJZZ Movie Show" and also teaches English composition for Salt Lake Community College. Find him online at