Exclusive: The Storyboards of WALL-E

Story Artist Derek Thompson on the process of prep.

by | July 17, 2008 | Comments

Derek ThompsonDerek Thompson joined Pixar in January 2005 to work as a Story Artist on WALL-E. Prior to making a home at the company’s Emeryville campus, Thompson spent 14 years working in comic books, illustration, video games and live-action feature films.

Here, exclusively for RT readers, Thompson explains the process of the Story department and presents a look at some of WALL-E‘s storyboards.

I work as a Story Artist on WALL-E and I work with a small team of story artists helping our director, Andrew Stanton, facilitate and create the vision of the movie. We essentially draw the movie, redraw the movie, redraw it and redraw it, over and over again for many, many years.
In the old days we used to present storyboards pinned to a board, but more recently we’ve started doing them frame-by-frame on the computer as part of something called a story reel. There’s a mental button that gets pushed when you see a tonne of drawings pinned to a board. You tend to get ahead of yourself. So it’s really nice to have control, now, in the presentation, so that we can step through and feed the images to the director one by one.

The goal of the story reel is really to work out the problems and the kinks in advance of the rest of the departments at the studio jumping in and doing their part. It’s a fairly economical and focused way for a small team to iron out the story problems so we don’t discover, halfway through animation, that things don’t work.

Most of the work done on the story reels on the computer is made up of storyboards in sequence. A good deal of After Effects work is done on top of that. Certain camera moves, compositing the Hello Dolly stuff, explosions, lighting effects – that work would go to our After Effects guys who were facilitating those moments.

There wasn’t much in the way of actual CG pre-visualisation or animatic type of stuff. As certain sequences come closer to being on target, they’ll move down the line and become the domain of the Layout or Animation teams and those essentially become the animatics – but it’s much more specific hard data that’ll actually end up in the final shot. Our goal is to map it out so that when it gets to that stage it’s less about reinventing the wheel and more about bringing it in cinematically.

For WALL-E, there’s a lot more information packed into the boards than there normally would be. Every pose, every position, every beat of the acting has to get drawn out, because when this is all cut together into our story reel, you’ve got to be able to sit as an audience member, with a clear objective and a blank slate, and understand what’s going on.
How do you make hand signals and body language that conveys, “I like you,” or, “Let’s go over here,” or, “Don’t go into that red barn!”? There were all these little hurdles and pitfalls that would emerge. How do we wrap our heads around that? A very small team of us worked for years, sequence by sequence, fleshing out all of these story points.
Typically a Pixar film will have between 50 and 75,000 storyboards generated for the entire production. WALL-E was north of 125,000 drawings. That’s a phenomenal amount of drawings for a team of about six most of the time. We’d swell to 8 to 10 for a push, for a few weeks, and then for the last few months we were probably down to about three or four.

It’s really remarkable working with Andrew, who could have great sequences that really worked but he would know how to step out of himself and be objective enough to know what he had to lose to make the story work. The movie changed quite a few times in the years I’ve been here. It’s strange, having seen it from so many different standpoints, but hopefully everything feels purposeful, intentional, and designed with emotional and quality storytelling in mind.

And lots of moments remained unchanged from very early on. The sequence you can see in these boards was as it is now even before I started working on the film three years ago. In fact, a good chunk of the first act was already pretty-well realised in storyboards when I started and most of what changed was the second and third acts of the film, which went through numerous iterations.

One of the things that I’ve been surprised and delighted to see is that you can really see all the work we did in the finished shots, even though there’s a lot of artful stuff that’s embellishing and bringing things to another level. That’s one of the mixed bags about storyboarding – it’s not a glamour job where you get to see your finished thing up on screen – it’s very skeletal.

Andrew likened it to a paleontological dig, where at a certain point you know you have a dinosaur but you don’t really know what kind of dinosaur you have yet. Finding out what kind of dinosaur we’re building is part of what making these things come to life is all about. I love that discovery process.

WALL-E Week on RT and IGN

RT – Pixar’s and Stars’ Favourite WALL-E Moments

Sigourney Weaver, Angus MacLane, Ben Burtt, Jim Morris and Andrew Stanton share their most memorable moments from the film.

IGN – WALL-E Explained

Get an insight into the animation process as WALL-E Directing Animator Angus MacLane.

RT – Inside Pixar – A Photo Tour

Rotten Tomatoes’ cameras are given a look inside animation mecca as Pixar opens the doors of its Emeryville, CA campus to us.

IGN – The Pixar Philosophy

Key WALL-E staff including Andrew Stanton, David DeVan and Derek Thompson tell IGN what it’s like to work at Pixar.

RT – The World of WALL-E

To celebrate RT’s freshest film of the year, we bring together eight WALL-E crew to talk about the film’s journey from concept to completion.

IGN – At the Heart of WALL-E

Director Andrew Stanton explains, in his own words, why the WALL-E experience has been a special one and how he crafted the film.

RT – The Storyboards of WALL-E

Story Artist Derek Thompson gives RT readers an exclusive look at the storyboarding process on the film and shares some boards.

IGN – WALL-E UK Review

Critic Anna Smith delivers her verdict on Pixar’s latest and adds to the film’s fresh Tomatometer…

RT – Ben Burtt’s WALL-E Sound Masterclass

The world’s most renowned Sound Designer exclusively teaches RT readers the basics of building WALL-E‘s world of sound.

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