The closing of Disneyland's submarine ride in 1998 disappointed not only park-goers, but also many “imagineers,” the folks at Walt Disney Imagineering (WDI) who design the theme-park attractions. Determined to rescue the subs from dry dock, a team of imagineers considered concepts based on Disney films such as The Little Mermaid and Atlantis, but none proved viable, until the 2003 animated Disney/Pixar mega hit Finding Nemo — the story of a clownfish searching the Great Barrier Reef for his abducted son — provided an ideal storyline for an underwater journey.

Rechristened the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage, the eight-sub fleet — the original 1959 vehicles, refurbished with additional seating, electric instead of diesel engines, and bright yellow and blue paint — made its official return on June 11. Interspersed with newly designed Audio-Animatronics® marine creatures and 3D sets is a technological innovation: animated scenes inspired by the film, with son Nemo, father Marlin, memory-challenged tang fish Dory, sea turtles Crush and Squirt, and shark Bruce swimming and conversing in the aquatic depths.

Pixar Animation Studios created 15 minutes of animation depicting yet another search for the wayward Nemo, but this time, he's off playing with Squirt. Riders view the scenes through portholes as the subs glide through the water.

The imagineers prefer to maintain the mystique of the “imaging technology,” as the animation projection is officially called. Internet sites of longtime Disney followers have reported that projection equipment is placed in dry aquarium-like tanks; when viewed through the portholes, the scenes appear to be underwater. Most of the animation is located in a rock grotto set and an area beneath Disneyland's Autopia ride.

One of the imagineers' greatest challenges was how to effectively tell a linear story in a moving vehicle where guests wouldn't be seeing and hearing the same scenes at the same time. With two rows of 20 portholes, the scenes change every four portholes, affording five ride perspectives.

“We had to create a soundtrack and a way of seeing very different video and wind up giving the same story from the front of the sub to the back,” says Tony Baxter, senior vice president, creative development of WDI, himself a former sub skipper and the executive director of the Nemo project.

Accordingly, WDI Technical Concept Design director Mark Mine developed a 3D simulator recreating the ride virtually using a newer version of software proprietary to WDI that had been invented some years earlier. Set models were miniaturized and digitized; imagineers, wearing 3D glasses, watched the digital footage from portholes in a full-scale sub mockup.

“We were able to see what the sub would see, how long it would see each character as it passed by each scene,” says Rick Rothschild, WDI senior vice president and executive show director. “There was a lot of preparation and advance design work. At the point where Pixar joined us, we sent a second virtual system to [Pixar's Northern California base at] Emeryville. The animators were able to use this virtual world as they were animating.”

Rothschild worked closely with Roger Gould, who directed Pixar's footage. There were some differences from feature animation: “Here, the camera is always in movement, going away and coming back, so the animators had to learn how to work with that,” Rothschild notes. “And there is interaction between the physical animation and the Pixar animation. There were age-old tricks combined with modern techniques to create the illusion.”

Perfecting that illusion took about two years, to refine the animation so that it looked good from every porthole and to coordinate various show elements, such as matching set lighting to animation digital lighting and synchronizing animation with dialogue, music, and sound effects audio tracks.

In all, the Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage took more than three years to complete. But for all of the painstaking work, it's not the technical aspects Baxter hopes Disneyland riders will remember. “The technology is buried,” he says. “People get caught up in the story of these two fish. If we're doing it right, it's the emotion that will count.”