RT was among a group of journalists invited to the factory that Luxo built: Pixar Animation Studios. We were given the whirlwind tour as the company winds up for its big summer release Wall-E, set to pop on June 27, 2008, and also got to see the first 30 minutes of the film. Finally, we ended with an intimate Q+A session with the film’s writer/director Andrew Stanton.
“Small on the massive backdrop…”
Andrew Stanton said that during our interview in reference to a story element in Wall-E but he could has just as easily been describing Pixar’s clean, green, and charmed campus-like headquarters off a quiet backstreet in Emeryville, CA. Small is the building itself, in terms of production houses at least. Its physical footprint is tiny. The massive backdrop is of course Hollywood and the billions that have been transacted around the stories and art coming from said building, a whole world of profit and cheer and excellence emanating outward, movie magic in every sense.
Check out this “all Certified Fresh” Pixar roll-call and Tomatometer scores:
Our tour began in the enormous and airy central lobby which connects two sides of the building and houses everything from a cereal room to employee mailboxes, bathrooms to comfy chairs to lounge on, and of course a delicious-smelling café. The idea is not unlike a quad on a university or a student center, a place where despite their ultimate destination, all must pass through and interact with one another. In this instance, the place was still packed with Ratatouille paraphernalia hanging from the posts and walls while tucked in the corner were past standees of other Pixar films. In fact, all through the halls of Pixar, one finds concept art, exhibits, and some amazingly realized figurines and maquettes.
Shall we play a game?
We then rolled up to a massive server room that reminded me of something out of Wargames. I expected to see WOPR standing there in a corner humming away. Racks and racks of servers relentlessly chewing away on data. Our tour guide told us that despite the advances in processing power, it still takes an incredible amount of time to render one second of film.
Deeper in the building we found the art department and animators. No cubicle farm here, the brass at Pixar decided to let individuality be the reigning factor in office design. From a tiki lounge to a storage shed complete with window-boxed flowers to one of apparently several functioning bars, the animators looked to be a happy bunch whose creativity spilled over into all that they did.
After our tour, we were led into a plush screening room where Stanton briefly set up Wall-E for us, noting that we were among the first to see the first 30 minutes of the film. The lights went low, a comet flashed overhead in a star sky ceiling, and that familiar Pixar logo crawled across the screen.
The planet is awash in garbage. It is piled high, in fantastic towers, while dust-choked skies and unchecked winds ravage. Tales of a quick exit and desertion are everywhere: scattered newspapers and display monitors imploring people to leave, storefronts left open, and running through it all is a single robot tagged Wall-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class). Wall-E is, like all machines, doing exactly what he is supposed to be doing and what he was programmed for: cleaning up. Throughout the course of the first few minutes though, we learn that he has also developed a personality.
He is self-repairing (stopping along the way to retread his “feet” from another, broken down Wall-E unit) and works to compact and pile the garbage. He collects trinkets as he is cleaning up garbage, shiny things, toys, which he stores in the maintenance shed in which he lives with a cockroach. In seems, despite being the last of his kind, that Wall-E has survived how most of us do: just getting through the day until he comes home to his sanctuary. It is here where we really get to meet Wall-E. While watching Hello Dolly, he gently clasps his hands together and stares at the screen, obviously alone.
The design of Wall-E is nothing short of spectacular. The movie instantly looks and feels exactly like what it is supposed to. Wall-E himself, has cute giant eyes, a short stumpy body, and whirrs and clicks that sound child-like and kind. He oozes personality and charm. It’s almost too cliché to repeat it but we’re doing it anyway: we forgot that we were watching animation.
A Robot’s Life
Day in and day out Wall-E toils until a massive ship plops down and drops off EVE, a sleeker newer, fiercer unit who not only tries to blow Wall-E away but begins scanning the planet with an almost crazed sense of desperation. A monster dust storm rolls through and EVE and Wall-E take cover, getting to know each other through cautious interaction, like every first date ever. When EVE finally finds what she is looking for, she buttons into a pod-like device and awaits the return of the mothership. As the ship blasts off into space, Wall-E decides to jump aboard and off into space he goes, toward his rendez-vous with the former inhabitants of Earth.
I love every bit of this so far. The film hits on some of the best parts of sci-fi and has such rich characterization and subtlety throughout that you feel very well taken care of as an audience member. Watching this first chop of film, with little human dialogue (other than incidental) for the first 30 minutes, you feel like someone was paying attention to films like 2001: A Space Odyssey, Castaway, the Qatsi trilogy, The Bear, Faces and more. The effect is something I never thought I would see in a film from Pixar and speaks to the film’s bold ambition and dedication to a conceit.
After the film screened, we were joined by a thoughtful and clearly proud Andrew Stanton for an extended interview:
Was the intention to make Eve look like an Apple product?
Andrew Stanton: We were certainly influenced by the design. The biggest thing was, what’s the sexiest other end of the spectrum. We kept saying Wall-E is a tractor and she’s a Mercedes. So [in] the world of technology, what’s the sleekest, most seamless, where the moving parts are hidden. So we sort of riffed off of anything of that ilk. Although after we had her designed, we had Johnny Iams, who does all of the design at Apple, we invited him over and he was very seduced by it. Who knows if a weird chicken and egg thing will happen (laughs) based on that. He approved highly.
What kind of reaction were you getting because in the first 30 minutes there was no dialogue in the film?
Andrew Stanton: First of all, I think that that’s a misnomer. There is dialog all through it. All I am saying is that they are not necessarily saying words in a language that you know. What I wanted was integrity. It all comes down to just as much as I believe that Luxo is a lamp and that it has a life in it and it thinks like a lamp and acts like a lamp and I don’t have to be told that, it doesn’t have to be spelled out to me, I just get it right away, I wanted the same thing with the robots. I wanted you to believe that that’s a machine and it’s been there for hundreds of years, it’s been weathered, and it has a thought process on its own. It was designed a certain way so therefore it would have a certain way that it spoke electronically and Eve was designed a certain way and would speak a certain way electronically. I just wanted things to be sort of, logic-based, and it was all to service the integrity of the world, because I just want to believe that I am there. I want to believe it’s really happening. So that shows the look of the film, the lens choice, some of the technological advances we made so that you’ll get more of a sense of the three dimensional atmosphere. Anything we did was just to enhance the experience of believability.
Andrew Stanton: We certainly make blatant homages every once in a while. You try and make everything as original as you can make it, but everything probably comes from the collective unconscious and things that influenced you, like anything else. It’s all subconsciously quite incestuous.
Were there conscious things that you were going for?
Andrew Stanton: No. Everything tends to be just an accident. I have had a million things in other movies that I have worked on and people will go “you know, that’s just like this” and you go “oh really?” (Laughs). I want everything to come from a sincere place, from a truthful place. Whether that ends up being a choice that seven other films made, I don’t care, as long as that choice came for the right reasons.
The retrieving of live vegetation put me in a mind of Huey, Dewey, and Louie… and Silent Running.
Andrew Stanton: You know, all of those 70s films. Huey, Dewey, and Louie, definitely from the perspective of imbuing a personality on a machine, that affected me big when I was a kid, almost in the same way that Red Balloon did in terms of imbuing something on the red balloon. It’s all from that same family. It’s a very small pool to pull from, if you think cinematically, how often that’s been done, then you cull that down to how often that’s been done in sci-fi, it’s a small pool.
Children don’t need to be talked down to…
Andrew Stanton: I argue that kids are smarter than you think. Kids are wired up for the first 10 to 15 years of their life to figure everything out. So, they’re watching you all the time; they maybe don’t understand what you and Mom just talked about, but they’re trying to glean anything out of the inflection, out of the timing, out of when it’s happening, what peoples’ faces look like… They’re way more receptive to translate than our jaded adult selves.
You said you got the idea for Finding Nemo from your own child. Was there something from your life that gave rise to this idea?
Andrew Stanton: No, like I said, things came from different things for different movies, and this one just honestly was coming up with a situation of a robot left alone on a sort of Robinson Crusoe kind of situation, and that just evolved a ton. And the funny thing is that immediately, almost in the next sentence, I remember Pete Docter and I continued to talk about it after our lunch, was that without even any debate, we said, “Oh, you’d never want to have it speak. You’d want it be a real robot. You’d want it to have to speak with how it was built.” That’s the excitement about it.
Where did the use of live action come from?
Andrew Stanton: To be honest, it just came out of a logistical conceit that I knew I wanted to use footage from a musical, from a live-action movie. I felt I had the luxury of evolution on my side that we made up for the future for humans, so that we don’t have to worry about matching. But any retro footage, I just felt you wouldn’t be in the same world if you didn’t… since we knew we were going to use footage from Hello, Dolly!
Was it always Hello, Dolly?
Andrew Stanton: I know this is the question I know I’m gonna get asked for the rest of my life is, “Why Hello, Dolly?” And the one thing I wanted to spill is I’m a fan of the movie. I just like to think that Wall-E has bad taste in musicals. But he’s a romantic at heart, you know, he’s not that discerning.
You know, every once in a while you do change something because somebody got there first. It was frustrating to be in the same year as Triplets of Belleville, because I loved that film when Finding Nemo came out. And I was already working on Wall-E. And Wall-E originally had a French ’30s swing music at the beginning over stars, and I just loved the juxtaposition of that, the old and the new, I hadn’t seen that. And then I saw Triplets of Belleville, which had French swing music over not a lot of speaking, and the last thing I wanted to be accused of was stealing from something.
And it wasn’t hard fast and set in stone that it had to be that piece of music so I started opening my mind to other old-fashioned things, and to be honest the story wasn’t fully complete at the time, just sort of parts of the story were. I had been in Hello, Dolly! the musical, and a lot of other musicals growing up in high school, and for some ironic reason–I don’t know if you guys do this, I troll iTunes every once in a while because it has become Tower and you can’t go to Tower anymore–and I remember stumbling through and going, “I remember this,” and trying to remember the songs. I remember immediately going, “This is the most bizarre idea I’ve ever had, but it just might work.” And I juxtaposed it against the opening, and it worked. It led to me figuring out more about what other songs were in the movie and stuff, and it really opened doors for me for other arrows in the quiver for how to tell the story without having to rely on dialogue, without giving plot away.
There is a part where Eve is flying through the air, freed from the ship. It was interesting and suggested that he feels a connection to her.
Andrew Stanton: Yeah, there’s like an inkling of however he evolved, there’s something in there for her for him to be attracted to. And also, frankly, she just needs to be there, I mean he’s never seen another robot. It’s impossible not to immediately make a very primal analogy to “love at first sight,” and being able to use the sci-fi means at hands to express that. That’s really all it was. That’s pretty much been the road map for the whole movie.
It looks very distinctive and feels very real. What was your guiding principle in coming up with the look of the film?
Andrew Stanton: That’s the bane of these kinds of movies. First of all, just a CG movie, you get nothing for free. If you see it in there, somebody had to plan it, somebody had to draw it, somebody had to paint it, somebody had to model it, or matte paint it or something. Nothing came by accident. Nobody was able to go to a thrift store, a prop shop, take a photo outside… So that’s just overwhelming. It’s daunting. You add on top of that a fantasy world where those no rules and you get to make up what you think the future looks like? You almost want to give up right away, because it’s just too many decisions to make.
So you surround yourself with really talented people that have really strong opinions about how they like things to look, and you just start chipping away a day at a time until it doesn’t seem so overwhelming. It’s like that on every movie, but I gotta say, this movie and Monsters were probably the most burdensome on the art department historically here, just because of the fantasy world aspect, there’s just that much more to have to come up with. You can’t just go, “Oh, it’s a dentist’s office.” So, the end result is very satisfying, but to get there iis truly daunting.
Was there a guiding principle or was it for whatever worked with the story?
Andrew Stanton: You know, if there was, I knew that I had to tell the story with the Earth. I had to tell a lot of history. I had to tell what’s happened over 1,000 years. That almost dictated what everything was. You wanted a city that felt sort like, sort of what Shanghai’s starting to feel like now, or Dubai. And then you had to have trash towers that were amongst that. Because you’re telling a history that you haven’t seen yet, and now you’re also telling the demise of that history, and then the way to try to solve the problem of that past history, and now the sort of dystopian result of that, so it’s so layered. It was a real brain-tease. Every shot counted. It was thrilling to solve it because every part of the buffalo is used on that. But that’s really what drove everything. Just telling the story of that. But then we knew again we wanted the future to be cool.
We all are probably very similar because of our backgrounds here, that we all miss the Tomorrowland that was promised us from Tomorrow-and of the heyday of Disneyland, and that really said, “Well, that’s the future I want to have seen us get to.” You see it now. It’s like, this may be adding more burden to my life, but it’s so cool I can’t resist. It’s the seduction factor. It’s too convenient, it’s too cool, it’s too whatever. And to me, all of Tomorrowland at Disneyland in the late 50s-60s design was like that, anything they promised of that look was so…. I’d say, “Yes, give it to me!” We turned it into the phrase of, “I just want it to have that, ‘Where’s my jetpack?’ feel.” So “Where’s my jetpack?” became sort of the touchstone of any art direction for anything that was truly trying to tack on to the futuristic design of stuff.
One of your colleagues here [at Pixar] said that in five years we won’t be able to tell the difference between live action and CG.
Andrew Stanton: That’s a bold statement (laughs).
I think we’re seeing an indication here of that here though…
Andrew Stanton: Well, there isn’t a desire to be photo realistic. To make sure that that’s not how that’s interpreted. But there’s a desire to just indulge and believing that you are where you are.
You mentioned at Comic-Con in being able to push the virtual camera department. How were you able to capture the looks of, the essence of many of those sci-fi films?
Andrew Stanton: You know, we’ve all been to film school since Toy Story. It’s not like we came in as really, really knowledgeable filmmakers. We were too stupid to know we couldn’t do it, and so we just kept working on it. We’ve gotten smarter as we go, wanna keep learning and try to get better at something, and I remember getting to a point at the end of Nemo, I got so seduced by the underwater feel we managed to get with it–this extra dimensional sense, and I said, “Can we do that in the air?” And then with a little more smarts we started to look at what other cameras were doing whenever I watched one of my favorite films, whenever they were racking focus, the barrel distortion, and the little ovals on the lights. And I would notice our stuff wasn’t doing that exactly, or not at all on some things. Invariably, you would reach some guy who did the programming who would say, “No, the math’s all right.” And you’d go, “That doesn’t answer it for me. I don’t care if the math’s right. It’s not doing what it’s supposed to be doing.”
We actually hired Roger Deakins, the famous cinematographer, to just give us a crash-course on cinematography, and then liked him so much we asked him to stay another week or two. Because what we do is so foreign to how we approach it, we’re trying to get the same end result. It happened to coincide with us deciding that we were going to rent actual air-flux 70mm cameras and shoot an stand-in even Wall-E, three-dimensional, with the grid on the atrium in here, and do all the things with the camera we wanted to do and expect it to do like lens flare and all that stuff, and then we would make a virtual set of exactly the same thing in our computer, and then compare to prove. And sure enough, they didn’t match. That’s all our computer engineers needed to see to get challenged and frustrated, and started to fix things. We’ve been able to now be able to play in a much more accurate grammar of what we’ve all sort of been unconsciously been used to seeing in a lot of our favorite sci-fi films.
Give us an example of what that does to the image.
Andrew Stanton: Well there’s a scene where you see Wall-E looking at Eve while she’s got the lighter, and all the Christmas lights turn into nice bright transparent circles over one another. That’s achieved by a very narrow shallow lens that blows everything else into a distortion and blur, but the way it does becomes very magical and very romantic. And we weren’t getting those kind of looks when we would rack focus at all. I was looking at a lot of Gus Van Sant movies, particularly things like Finding Forrester and Good Will Hunting and he likes to direct your eye with focus.There is an air of intimacy that you achieve by using that as part of your storytelling that I want to use. I want to use that in this film because it’s such a cold, clinical, mechanical world, where do I get my intimacy from? How can I get it?
Can you talk about the sound design a little bit?
Andrew Stanton: Yes, Ben Burtt. Because I knew that, again, the dialogue from many characters generated by their own kind of style, I had to spend a lot of time with Ben Burtt just auditioning stuff. I’d talk about a character, show him the drawings, and he’d go off and come up with just a bevy of ideas of what that machine, that robot, that person would sound like. It’s the huge buffet and I would sit there and sort of cull it down. Even after that, you would come away from something like 100 sounds that are in this sort of camp. My editor and I would find that as we worked, we would even want to limit the vocabulary down from that. It was sort of this natural process over two years.
The movie suggests that we might not have learned our lesson…
Andrew Stanton: Your hunches would be in the right direction. To be honest, for all the grandeur in the backdrop and all the fantastical things that’ll continue to happen in the movie, it’s a simple love story, and we try to keep it very much small on the massive backdrop.