finding dory real life inspiration

Last month, I traveled to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to talk to Andrew Stanton and the filmmakers of Pixar’s upcoming Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory. On my visit, I got to preview 30 minutes of the upcoming film and chat with many of the filmmakers at Pixar who are creating Dory’s next adventure. But not only that, I got to learn how Pixar took multiple research trips to the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which served as inspiration for the Marine Life Institute seen in the final film.

Note: the following report is compiled from roundtable interviews, presentations with Pixar creative leads and a one-on-one interview with director Andrew Stanton and producer Lindsey Collins.

finding dory aquarium concept art

Not Blackfish: The Evolution From Sea World to a Marine Research Rescue Facility

The adventure takes Dory to the California-based Marine Life Institute, a rescue and rehabilitation center and premiere aquarium. The MLI is vast, with an array of pools and educational exhibits. Some earlier reports said that before the movie Blackfish was released, the location was initially planned as a Sea World-style theme park. However, producer Lindsey Collins writes that off as the evolution of the idea.

When we first talked about it, it was all coming from a place like, where would a family be? How would she not have found them? Like how can we explain what she knows from the first film, like speaking whale and being able to read? So that kind of led us to being like, maybe she was in some sort of aquarium environment, because maybe that would lend itself to having those kind of… we loved the thought of, we laid clues kind of in the first film without knowing it. Now when you watch this film, you’re like, wait a minute, now I understand why she knows how to read. Like, why else would she know how to read? And so that’s kind of where it came from. And as kind of the idea I think [Andrew] had of having her be in, having been kind of from a facility, like an aquarium. And then it went all over the place. We went and found every research path. And then ultimately landed on some place like kind of the Monterey Bay Aquarium and then Marine Mammal Rescue. … And then it kind of also allowed us to kind of delve into a little bit of, if all of these other characters she meets also have just something a little bit off with them that would require kind of care, like that there was something really nice about her kind of being surrounded by characters that are all dealing with their own issues. And that we were able to use those as mirrors as how she felt about herself. So it kind of evolved from there.

Stanton backs up his producer, saying that the research led them to a more research-style facility. I mentioned to Stanton that the Finding Nemo ride in EPCOT at Walt Disney World actually ends at an aquarium/marine research facility, almost as if it predicted this sequel. Stanton and his producer seemed shocked to realize this, as if it had never occurred to them before. Stanton admits, “That’s so funny,” while his producer Collins is willing to take credit after the fact, “There you go, it’s like we meant it.”

finding cory concept art hank

How the Monterey Bay Aquarium Influenced the Movie

While the Marine Life Institute seen in the film is a fictional aquarium/marine life sanctuary, it’s largely inspired by Northern California’s Monterey Bay Aquarium. Pixar also took research trips to other facilities like the aquarium in Vancouver, but Monterey was the one they visited first and most frequently.

On the trips to the aquarium, they captured tons of backstage photos in an effort to make the locations in the film look real. They found the human world is very desaturated and without color, and that the water tanks are full of color in the room. The location also influenced the rectangle and square design of this backstage human world.

While on their research trips to Monterey, they took a lot of photos from the point of view of the characters, so some of the photos are taken from the floor level, to mimic what the octopus’ perspective might look like. They didn’t recreate rooms from the Monterey Bay Aquarium itself but tried to recreate the feeling of the locations, mimicking the overall look and the color and incorporating little details.

Pixar also visited aquariums like the one in Monterey Bay to research the look of the underwater locations. Monterey Bay has it’s own kelp forest, which contributed to the color and look of that location in the final film. The color of the kelp is very golden or yellow near the surface and not as green as you might expect. They took tons of video that helped them build the entire world of the movie.

They have to research every plant, how it changes from the surface to the ocean floor, how the colors change. Every rock on the ocean floor is painted, sculpted, and placed. They look to break repetition which sometimes comes up in CG.

They built an entire parking lot because there was a point where there were going to be scenes that took place in the lot, but in the final film it just appears in the background. Some of the outdoor pools are up against the water from the bay, giving a contrast between the real/natural world and the artificially created ones of the aquarium.

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