To celebrate the success of WALL-E, RT brings together eight key collaborators on the project to share the world of the film, and the journey it’s taken since that infamous lunch in 1994, with readers.
I had to trick the guys here to get the project going. After we finished Finding Nemo and I came back from vacation – you’re basically under-the-radar and no-one’s paying attention to you here at that point – with three storyboard artists I secretly boarded the first act of WALL-E, because I felt that if I even tried to talk about it with people here, or how it should work, I wouldn’t be able to do get it across. I felt I had to prove it to them and they’ll either say, “Yes you can do it,” or “No you can’t,” and we won’t waste any time. And that’s how this movie got the green light.
For WALL-E we faced a number of distinct challenges separate from other projects here. One of the biggest ones was the fact that most of the movie had no dialogue. As storyboarding artists a lot of the burden fell on us to try and convey a lot of character and emotion and nuts-and-bolts storytelling without the benefit of lots of dialogue.
We looked a lot at Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin – old silent film. It was treated more like we were making a semi-silent film for much of the movie. We all watched The General one day at lunch, they screened it for us. It’s really amazingly affective – piece by piece it works, but when you see it all together you really feel those references.
We also looked at lots of movies that did that so well – 2001, The Black Stallion, Never Cry Wolf – and those are movies where a large portion of them are dialogue-free or not dialogue-dependent. But we found that most great movies have elements like that so it’s not that foreign a moviemaking technique, it’s just one of those things that if you talk about it, people can convince themselves that it won’t work, or they won’t go and see something like that.
Talking is so prevalent in all animated movies, as it is in ours as well, and it was a big challenge to complete abandon that device. WALL-E has to be so charming that you fall in love with him without dialogue.
So much of the emotion and the feeling and the connection from the audience is going to be individual to a degree – and that was the point. How do you get the audience to be emotionally invested in the journey? Maybe some of it is by not being told what’s happening all the time.
To me the best movies and the best movie moments draw you in. People want to work for the meal, they just don’t want to know that they’re doing it. So your job as a filmmaker is to seduce them and entertain them so much that they don’t realise that they’re working so hard with their brains saying, “Well, this plus this equals this.”
The other challenge with WALL-E and EVE is that they don’t have faces that you can move around a bunch. Their design is so simplified – with EVE you have two blue dots that you need to use to explore the full range of emotions that a human face can give you. But that’s why detail is really important, because all of it works together. It’s also about trying to keep the integral part of the character and not taking the easy way out of trying to mimic human expressions and all that. You build from that but you try to keep it in character for WALL-E and EVE. WALL-E is a robot who’s been on the planet for a long time and he’s rusty and all that. EVE is this new machine. You have to be true to those characters in the animation.
The design sensibilities are that everything about WALL-E is on the outside and he’s kind-of like this old bulldozer or something. He has this kind-of steel with yellow enamel paint that’s been chipped away. There’s a very relatable, tactile, construction machinery sense about him. EVE, by contrast, has all of her moving parts on the inside, and you see indications of that in the shoulders and the armpits. When you see the arm unfold you get a glimpse of the mechanism, of how she works, and that gives relatability to her. She could easily look too computery-soft. We tried to make that aspect work.
WALL-E was doubly interesting because it was probably closest to a bridge between live action film and animated film that Pixar has ever attempted. Live action footage has been integrated into the film and that had ripple effects throughout the production. Those choices created a texture for the world that had to be much more anchored in reality because when the live action came it in had to make sense with world. Hopefully that stuff works OK and doesn’t feel too jarring. But it was definitely exciting to involve in that.
One thing that was exciting for me and was a nice fit for me was that Andrew had such a photographic idea in mind for approaching this. He wanted to, as he put it, get out of Andy’s back yard and bring a photographic convention so that it had a feeling it was filmed rather than recorded on a computer. That was a nice connectivity for me since I’d obviously spent a lot of time trying to fit computer graphics into live action movies. It was nice to be able to be involved in that.
WALL-E is the character who’s going to take you through the journey of the story and that world so you really need to relate to that character for him to take you over and get you hooked into seeing what’s happening next. That’s what Andrew really wanted to achieve – seeing how far he could go with one character and trying to discover a world through his eyes without reverting to the normal devices of delivering exposition or talking to another character. His friendship with the cockroach too, all of those are little details that makes that first part of the movie a special one.
To give you an idea of the way the film evolved during the process, the gel guys in Lifted – the short that opened with Ratatouille – I think there was a little cross-purpose there with WALL-E, because originally the humans in the film were actually aliens that spoke an alien language and there were all these other things happening. It wasn’t until midway through that we realised that things needed to change and it needed to be us in the future. The notion of us being stranded on a cruise ship and everything else snapped into place and it felt that it had to be that way. In drawing terms, every six or seven months we would have a new version of the boards for evaluation. A tremendous amount of drawing went into making that revision. It actually began as more of a Spartacus movie, with WALL-E helping the robots stage an uprising against alien enslavement. It’s changed quite a bit since then!
We arrived at the romance much later than the original concept. The sad, lonely robot was there from the conception. The character sat around for ten years and then, as I was writing on Nemo, especially during rewrites, I would beg for time at my office, throw pencils at the ceiling and procrastinate and I suddenly thought of this character.
They’re designed to be opposites – she’s a circle and he’s a square. They are very much of the worlds that they’re from. She’s from this streamlined future and he’s from this dirty past. Everything is encapsulated between those two worlds. They spent some time in each world and eventually they meet and their worlds meet at the same time, and that’s broad enough that it could be read to be a symbol of their union or that those worlds collide.
I listen to a lot of soundtrack music and I remember I had Goldsmith’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture score going. It just made sense to me – what’s the opposite of loneliness? It’s love. It’s the point of living. Suddenly the only way to tell the story was to make it a love story.
For me the challenges with WALL-E go back to R2-D2 and problems I faced a long time ago – How do you get the human element into it without making it too human? How do you get the machine element into it without being too cold and impersonal? It’s a sort-of 50/50 blend.
I knew I needed Ben Burtt immediately, as soon as I got serious about it. I knew I needed to get a sound guy in right at the beginning of the production and I kept saying, “Like Ben Burtt, like Ben Burtt, like Ben Burtt, like R2, like R2, like R2.” Fortunately Jim Morris, my producer, had just come over from ILM and he’s got the golden rolodex and he just said, “Why don’t we just get Ben Burtt to come over?” I’d never thought of it! He’s sort-of like that about anyone I talk about…
The fun of being a sound designer is always to create a world of sound and, especially if it’s a science-fiction movie, you get the challenge of really creating a whole world because most of the sounds you hear in the movie – from the ambiences, to the motors of the robots, to, in this film, the characters themselves – have to be created. You get to invent something that hasn’t been heard before to some extent, it seems original, yet it has to be familiar enough that people know what it means. There’s almost that contradiction in the challenge for sound.
When Ben came over I pitched him what was probably a half-assed version of the movie at that point, and I said to him, “I really need you to be 80% of the cast.” I wouldn’t blame him if he’d said, “I’ve spent twenty years of my life making robots, I’m not into it anymore.” Fortunately I think he was seduced by the idea and the challenge of coming up with so many R2s and how to differentiate them. It really was a long process of discovery.
Andrew, in the very beginning, wanted to convince the audience that the characters of EVE and WALL-E were machines, so they had to sound like machines. It’s not so difficult to, say, create a talking machine, but usually they’re lifeless – there’s no soul to it. It’s a matter of coming up with a way of doing voices and collecting an array of sounds – of motors and other things – such that you give a character a sense of being alive; a soul, so to speak.
The clarity of ideas is the most important thing. When you have the challenge of animating a character that doesn’t talk and is just expressing through sound effects, every move he does you really hammer into it and try to make the audience understand exactly what he’s trying to do. All those little gestures and the moves with the head and the arms was so important because everything had to be really clear.
The end result is that it’s exactly the film I wanted to make. I just closed my eyes and took a gamble and hoped that the rest of the world would want to see it as well, because I was just getting sick of everything and I just wanted something different. I think there’s something underestimated about wonder. It’s a hard thing to quantify, but to me that’s the ingredient. If I look back at all of these movies that run an incredible gamut of genres and ratings, the ones that stick with me are the ones that tap into the wondrous response that I had either as a kid or a young adult. I think a lot of us here at Pixar are junkies for that – we want to recapture it for ourselves as much as our audience.
RT – Pixar’s and Stars’ Favourite WALL-E MomentsSigourney Weaver, Angus MacLane, Ben Burtt, Jim Morris and Andrew Stanton share their most memorable moments from the film.Get an insight into the animation process as WALL-E Directing Animator Angus MacLane.Rotten Tomatoes’ cameras are given a look inside animation mecca as Pixar opens the doors of its Emeryville, CA campus to us.Key WALL-E staff including Andrew Stanton, David DeVan and Derek Thompson tell IGN what it’s like to work at Pixar.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.Director Andrew Stanton explains, in his own words, why the WALL-E experience has been a special one and how he crafted the film.Story Artist Derek Thompson gives RT readers an exclusive look at the storyboarding process on the film and shares some boards.Critic Anna Smith delivers her verdict on Pixar’s latest and adds to the film’s fresh Tomatometer…The world’s most renowned Sound Designer exclusively teaches RT readers the basics of building WALL-E‘s world of sound.