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'Finding Dory' supervising animator leads unsung 'actors'
Destiny is voiced by Kaitlin Olson and Dory is voiced by Ellen DeGeneres in "Finding Dory." - photo by Josh Terry
When families venture into multiplexes to see Finding Dory, the follow-up to 2003s Finding Nemo, parents and children will see colorful sea creatures matched to the voices of celebrities such as Ellen DeGeneres and Ed ONeill. What they wont see are the animators behind the scenes who consider themselves actors as well.

As an animator, Im an actor, said Michael Stocker, the films supervising animator. Whether hes working with tiny animals or talking toys, the performance is everything. My little chunk of shots, or an animators 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 Dorys 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.

Theres 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.

Were 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 hasnt 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.

Its the same thing, he said.

Stocker does admit one computer-related challenge: While the characters he worked with in 2010s 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 youre in the computer we have a rig, its like a puppet, Stocker said. Its tougher to sort of shape that. So through drawing and some 2-D animation, I think were pushing ourselves to get everything a little more organic.

He said Dorys 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 Hanks 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 Stockers passion for the animation process.

When you animate something, and you craft this performance and you design every pose, and then you hit play its no longer just a moving rig or a moving model, he said. Its an actual living thing for me.

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

Thats the thing, he said. Thats why we do it. Thats why I do it.