Digital Archaeology - Converting Finding Nemo to Three Dimensions

Steve Withers

Director Lee Unkrich talks about the new 3D version of one of Pixar’s most popular films

Although technically Toy Story 3 has made more at the box office, when you adjust for inflation, it’s Finding Nemo that remains Pixar’s most popular film. The timeless tale of a father’s search for his missing son contains all the ingredients that have made Pixar’s movies so great. There’s memorable characters, incredible animation, plenty of laughs, a dash of danger and, perhaps most important of all, there’s genuine emotion. In fact you could go as far as to say that Finding Nemo is the perfect Pixar movie because it has everything. Well perhaps not everything, as when Finding Nemo was made back in 2003, 3D had yet to make a comeback.


With the release of Up, Pixar took the step into three dimensions and since 2009, all of their new films - Brave, Cars 2 and the aforementioned Toy Story 3 - have been in 3D. However when Pixar began production on the third Toy Story movie, they decided to convert the previous two Toy Story films into 3D as well and re-release them at the cinema prior to the third film opening. This particular strategy is being repeated this year with Monsters Inc. being converted to 3D for a theatrical re-release prior to its prequel Monsters University opening this summer. Now it’s the turn of Finding Nemo to receive some added dimensionality and with its underwater scenes, what better film is there to take full advantage of 3D.


To Pixar’s credit, when they decided to convert their films to 3D they took the unusual step of going back to the original files and actually re-rendering the films as if they had been originally created for 3D. This process is far more time consuming and expensive than just converting the finished film but the results are much better, with a film that is genuinely 3D. Back in 2009 when Pixar decided to convert Toy Story and Toy Story 2 into 3D, this decision proved to be far more complex than initially realised. In order to re-render these older films, there was a four month period of locating the original computer data, a process that Pixar head John Lasseter referred to as “digital archaeology”, followed by six months of additional animation.


To produce the 3D version, the animators place a second virtual camera into each scene, thus creating the left-eye and right eye views needed to achieve the perception of depth. This same basic approach has been used on all of Pixar’s 3D conversions to date and whilst time consuming, it allows for a far greater degree of creative input when adding a sense of depth. The entire process is overseen by a lead stereographer, who uses the added dimensionality to enhance the emotional impact of the narrative. The stereographer studies the film and looks for story reasons to use the 3D in different ways. For example in Toy Story, the stereographer deliberately narrowed the depth of shots in Andy’s bedroom, where the toys would feel safe. However out in the real world, he made the 3D much deeper to make the environment more frightening and overwhelming.


The result of these efforts is a genuine 3D experience and having seen all of Pixar’s 3D conversions to date - Toy Story, Toy Story 2 and Monsters Inc. - we can vouch for the success of the process. Interestingly, whilst none of these films was originally conceived for 3D, it is a testament to the skill of the original animators, as well as the stereographers, that the resulting conversions look as good as, if not better, than many films that were actually made for 3D. The same is true for Finding Nemo because whilst it also wasn’t created with 3D in mind, there are plenty of scenes that will lend themselves perfectly to the added dimensionality.


Finding Nemo was co-directed by Lee Unkrich who is also the Vice President in charge of Editorial & Layout at Pixar Animation Studios. As the director of Disney•Pixar’s critically-acclaimed box-office hit Toy Story 3, Unkrich was awarded an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. He was also nominated by the Academy in the category of Best Adapted Screenplay for his story credit on the film. In addition to his Oscar win, Unkrich received the Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature, and the award for Best Animated Film from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA). Before co-directing Finding Nemo, he was co-director for Monsters Inc. and the Golden Globe-winning Toy Story 2. Unkrich began his Pixar career in 1994 as a film editor on Toy Story and was supervising film editor on A Bug's Life. In this short interview, Unkrich discusses the 3D conversion of Finding Nemo and how it helps to enhance the enjoyment of the film.

What were your thoughts when you first saw the movie in 3D?

I was pretty staggered when I saw Finding Nemo in 3D, because we hadn't designed the film to be a 3D film and it was so amazing to me to see how much of it looked like we had. Everything from Bruce the shark lunging at the camera to the amazing scene with all the jellyfish to what is probably my favorite part of the movie in 3D, which is Nemo and his dad going through the coral reef on their way to his first day of school. That scene was so lovely - so colorful and rich in detail - and now there's a whole new element that really brings it to life and gives it so much depth.

What makes Finding Nemo such a good film in 3D?

When we were making Finding Nemo in 2D all those years ago, we worked really hard to give a sense of depth to the images because so much of the movie was taking place in the ocean in open water - and that could have easily felt very flat. So we did a lot of work to the look of the water to give it a sense of depth. And it's amazing now seeing the movie in 3D - all of that work we did to give a sense of 2D depth has now turned into a really amazing 3D film. Even the scenes in the movie that have nothing in them - when it's just Marlin and Dory in open water with nothing around them - look cool in 3D because we did so much work putting all these little tiny particles and bubbles in the water. In 3D, those details come out a bit into the audience, creating a greater sense of depth - making the audience feel like they’re out in the ocean with these characters.

Are there any specific scenes in which 3D really helps express the storyline?

I was really impressed by the scene in the East Australian Current with Crush and all the sea turtles. We struggled when we made the original film to define that shape in the space - this weird current of water flowing through open ocean. I wish we had 3D tools back then because when you see it in 3D, it's completely clear what's happening and it's just amazing to go on a wild ride through this current that's actually under water. The scene with the sharks is really cool, especially when we first meet Bruce, the great white - he’s lunging at the camera and his teeth are coming right at the audience. It was fun in the original version and it's really cool in 3D.

Are you excited that the film will be in theaters again?

Absolutely. I feel so fortunate to have worked on Finding Nemo and to have helped make a film that generation after generation seems to love. It’s exciting to have it back in theaters again because I strongly believe that best place to see a movie for the first time is in a movie theater. I'm glad that by releasing it in 3D, a new generation will see it as it was meant to be seen - up on the big screen. One of the neat things about 3D is that it can elevate the emotional intimacy with the audience. People get drawn in - it can be a little more intense than when you're watching a 2D film. And with Finding Nemo in particular, I think people are going to find that they're experiencing this world and these characters in a way that they never have before.


Finding Nemo in 3D goes on nationwide release on Friday the 29th of March and will be available on Blu-ray and 3D Blu-ray later in the year.
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Just a heads up , finding nemo in 3D is out on bd 3d in Norway. Why the earth is uk so behind?

Phil Hinton

Staff member
Why the earth is uk so behind?

Because it looks like they are taking advantage of the Easter Holiday period to re-release the film in 3D at the UK cinema. Then release the BD. Not saying it is ideal, but that is what they are doing.

big boss

Well-known Member

Steve Withers

Yes I know that Finding Nemo is already available in other territories, I own the US 3D Blu-ray. However as Phil has pointed out, Disney often time UK releases to tie-in with school holidays. The purpose of the article is to show how Pixar convert their catalogue titles to 3D and how incredible they look, despite not being originally designed for 3D. Ultimately I feel that Finding Nemo 3D is worth seeing, either at the cinema if you live in the UK or on disc if you live elsewhere.


Bought the movie myself 2 day. liked the toy storys 3D conversions if nemo is as good this may be a gem.

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