One doesn't need a cast list to pick out the actors behind the finny characters in the animated movie "Shark Tale." Even without hearing the distinctive voices of Will Smith, Renee Zellweger, Angelina Jolie and Robert De Niro, it's easy to tell who's who from the visual clues. These fish bear an uncanny resemblance to the performers behind them, which was the creators' intent right from the start when they conceived the project nearly five years ago.
So how do you match an actor to a fish, and vice versa? In this article, we'll take a look at the process of meshing live actors with their non-human, animated counterparts.
According to Rob Letterman, one of the movie's three directors, the uncanny resemblance between the fish and the performers "was one of the style choices, to capture their look and feel in the conceptual art. The animators studied their movies and performances and watched them in some of the recording sessions. They would study how they moved and their facial expressions." Smith's videos proved to be a great research tool. "They studied all his dance moves."
Smith was cast first, "and the other actors came on board as we went along. We got everyone on our wish list," says Letterman, noting that a presentation was made to each that included a character sketch. As in any caricature, certain details were exaggerated -- Smith's ears, Martin Scorsese's eyebrows, Angelina Jolie's lips. "Robert De Niro has a very specific mouth shape, with the corners turned down. We tried to use that," adds Fabio Lignini, one of five supervising animators on the project.
Great care was taken to find actual fish that best matched the characters. First, all of the filmmakers, including the designers and animators, watched documentaries, visited the Long Beach Aquarium and studied reference books. The cleaner wrasse, a fish that cleans other fish and its environment, was the logical model for Smith's character Oscar, a Whale Wash worker. The good-hearted Angie, voiced by Zellweger, became an angelfish, and femme fatale Lola, Jolie's character, was conceived as a lionfish/dragonfish mix. Appropriately, lionfish are poisonous.
But fish do not naturally possess the physical traits that humans use to convey emotions. So the next step is providing fish with the necessary characteristics to reflect their performers' expressions.
Once the characters were set, the animators had to figure out how to anthropomorphize them. "The fish had to use chairs and tables and beds like humans do. They couldn't just float around," explains Lignini. "We had to combine floating and swimming with a little bit of gravity. This was the main challenge, and we kind of made it up as we went along."
When Lignini needed inspiration, he had only to go outside. Conveniently, "We have some fish ponds here at Dreamworks, and I would go down and watch them a little bit and go back and animate," he confides.
Another equally important aspect for the designers and animators was the underwater environment in which "Shark Tale" takes place, including the downtown Southside Reef, the upscale Top of the Reef, and the sharks' lair in a sunken ship. Artists visited New York's Times Square for inspiration, and then took elements and "fishified" them, such as billboards advertising "Old Wavy" and "Gup." "Everything had to be fishified so it had the spirit of that underwater world," says Letterman.
Since the animation was computer generated, the 70 or so animators first had to learn to make the switch from traditional methods. "This crew was mostly first-time animators on computer," notes Lignini. He continues:
Dreamworks has a very robust training program, and it took an animator about 12 weeks to go through the training. The main thing is to learn the animation program and to switch from the very intuitive and very spontaneous way of drawing animation to something you have to plan more and think of more, and do everything inside the virtual world. It's less spontaneous. It takes some people a while to adapt, to forget that the computer is a tool, and to bring back your animation skills. But everybody made the transition.
More than 200 people populated separate departments that handled background, lighting, surfacing, effects and characters. As a supervisor, Lignini was responsible for several sequences including the seahorse racetrack, the sharks confab, and the Whale Wash musical number, for which choreographer Nadine Colquhoun devised dance routines for the fish and other sea creatures -- including turtle waxers. "She demonstrated with her dancers, and we had to translate all the leg moves into fin moves. Whatever required too much gravity and weight, we had to find another way to express that in swim," explains Lignini.
One of his greatest challenges was animating the Rastafarian jellyfish henchmen Ernie and Bernie, voiced by Ziggy Marley and Doug E. Doug. "They were very complex, because of all the dreadlocks, their tentacles. The more bones and joints and contours in the skeleton of a computer character, the more difficult it is to work with them," explains Lignini. "Ernie and Bernie are constantly in motion, and we had to keep their dreadlocks from intersecting."
The animation process took a year and a half, but "Shark Tale" dates back to an idea that was developed in-house at Dreamworks -- "way before" the movie "Finding Nemo" hit screens, according to Letterman. "It happened right after 'Shrek'."
But the theme owed more to classic mob movies than other animated films. "I can't tell you how many times we watched 'The Godfather,'" says Letterman, who wrote the script. "We watched 'Goodfellas' and 'Some Like it Hot,' which is about a little guy getting in trouble with the mob."
During production, Letterman made adjustments in many scenes thanks to the improvisational skills of the actors. For example, Will Smith riffed on movie catchphrases such as "You can't handle the truth" and "You had me at hello" that were added to a scene where he pretends to slay vegetarian shark and new pal Lenny (Jack Black).
While voiceovers are typically recorded solo, Smith and Black did some sessions together in Los Angeles, and De Niro and Scorsese recorded together in New York. "They prefer doing it that way. They can listen to each other and ad lib off each other," notes Letterman. "We used a lot of that stuff."
These recording sessions, which numbered nine or 10 per actor spread out over two years or so as their schedules permitted, paralleled the ever-evolving design and animation process. "As production goes on and we get more used to the actors and watch the tapes of the recording sessions, we become more and more aware of their different ways of moving and gestures and mannerisms; we get more used to the actors, and the animation comes more naturally," notes Lignini. For example, "We tried to match Sykes' gestures to the speed of Martin Scorsese's speech."
One minor but memorable character was elevated from cameo to recurring role. Crazy Joe the hermit crab was initially just in the opening sequence of the movie. "It was a character that storyboard artist Dave Smith did, and he also voiced the character," Letterman explains. "We loved it, and we added the character to more and more scenes."
Wrapping It Up
Considering the complex nature of the process, "The biggest challenge by far was finishing the movie," says Letterman. "There was much to do, and the release date got pushed ahead by a month. I think the total between production and pre-production was three years, and that's really fast for animation. Shrek was five years," he compares. "I think the movies are getting faster now because of computer technology."
Letterman remembers the first time he saw the finished film. "Up until that time, I'd seen it a thousand times in every iteration possible on the AVID system -- we'd watch it on a low-res screen over and over again. But when I finally saw it in a theater with all its resolution, scenes I'd seen a thousand times blew me away. It was like watching it for the first time. The colors were so rich and the details -- it just looked gorgeous."
Lignini was equally satisfied to see the results of his efforts, but admits that the film has changed his perception of fish forever. He can no longer pass by a fish tank without imagining what actors they look like.
For more information on "Shark Tale," computer animation and related topics, check out the links on the next page.