'Finding Dory:' How "Reluctant Superhero" Hank the Octopus Made it to the Screen

"An octopus is super elastic, and almost gooey when it moves."
Courtesy of Disney
'Finding Dory'

Disney/Pixar's Finding Dory  — the sequel to 2003 Academy Award winner Finding Nemo — sends a cast of characters including Dory (Ellen DeGeneres), Marlin (Albert Brooks) and a curmudgeonly new octopus named Hank on an aquatic adventure that could collect as much as $120 million to the North American box office this weekend.

But in the case of Hank, creating a color-changing, shape-shifting "gooey" creature that couldn't follow the traditional rules of animation meant overcoming numerous design, as well as technical, challenges.

Director Andrew Stanton (who helmed Finding Nemo), co-director Angus MacLane and the rest of the filmmakers agree that Hank, voiced by Modern Family’s Ed O’Neill, was the most challenging new face in the production. The inspiration for the red-orange 'septopus' (he has seven tentacles) is a mimic octopus, which, according to character art director Jason Deamer, “is capable of changing the color and texture of its skin to almost vanish. They are also known to form the shape and motion of other fish. That’s where I got to thinking about Hank as a reluctant superhero and exaggerating that talent — to change color and shape shift.”

Pixar movies always begin with research, and so the filmmakers studied real octopuses at the Monterey Bay Aquarium and San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences. Producer Lindsey Collins described some accounts of octopus behavior: “Its ability to camouflage and their knack for opening enclosures and slipping through the smallest of cracks was unbelievable. We heard stories about an octopus escaping in the middle of the night. The security guard would think it’s a piece of trash in the hallway, until he’d reach down to pick it up. It was like a horror film."

A tricky aspect of the design was Hank's mouth. “An octopus’ mouth is underneath it, but you never see it and it didn't work in the Dory world,” character supervisor Jeremie Talbot said, adding that after trying different options, they put the mouth in front, but they relied on his eyes for much of his communication. “Animators could get a performance because he acts a lot with his eyes. [When he speaks] you didn’t have to see every syllable out of his lips. It was more suggested by his anatomy. He has a [visible] mouth in some scenes when you see him yell. But often his mouth isn’t in the frame.”

Talbot added that another issue was that Hank had to be "easy enough to animate so we could focus on the performance rather than technical side."

Said CTO Steve May: “Animating tentacles is very complicated because there’s an arbitrary number of joints — and Hank has seven legs. That's a lot for an animator to animate by hand. Plus an octopus is super elastic, almost gooey when it moves. We had to develop a new system to help the animators animate him with key frame (hand) animation, plus simulate the dynamics of the tissue, to get the weight of the tentacles.

“For Presto, our in-house animation system, we added the ability for animators to just draw the shape of the tentacles in 2D on the image," he said. "And then the 3D tentacles would fit the 2D drawing of the shape. That would allow them to quickly try out an idea. And then they would go in and do key-frame animation.”

Summed up global technology and simulation supervisor Patrick Coleman: “A big part of Hank’s design — from character design through animation and into simulation — is to find that sweet spot between believing it’s an octopus and making it so authentic that it looks unappealing. We simplified a lot. For example, a real octopus’ suckers are always doing something and moving, which is not only distracting in animation, it starts to look a little creepy, so we don’t do that in the film.”