Bill Desowitz talks to DP Jeremy Lasky and Directing Animator Angus MacLane about making the new look old in Pixar's latest animated masterpiece.
From the very beginning, Andrew Stanton wanted to make WALL•E (opening today from Disney•Pixar) in the great tradition of sci-fi classics that he adored from the late '60s and '70s. Trouble is, despite Pixar's pedigree, it wasn't set up to make animation emulate the live-action look (rack focus, barrel distortion and certain ovals of light), and so it's probably just as well that this sweet Robinson Crusoe-like space tale was put off as long as it was. Then there was the additional challenge of pulling off an improbable love story between two futuristic bots, with minimal dialogue. But then Pixar has always embraced "reaching for the stars."
Jeremy Lasky, DP camera, who worked in close collaboration with Danielle Feinberg, DP lighting, was eager to break new ground at Pixar. "At the very beginning of preproduction, when I came on, Andrew had a lot of preconceptions of what he wanted for a film without traditional dialogue. All of the staging, all of the shots have to be really clear for the audience to understand the backstory in addition to the main plot of the film. The planet's covered in trash: What happened? So we had to convey it visually. As always, the first pressure is just telling the story right. Only in this case, there's no dialogue crutch.
"So the question became: How can we make this work? Shots have to be so specific that you're always following what's going on. On top of that, Andrew said, 'I want it to feel real.' He wasn't talking about photoreal, but that you believe you're watching a little robot doing what he's doing. To me, that triggered the notion that we have to raise our game a little.
"We have this virtual camera that we've used with variations of the same camera package for years, but we've never pushed it to be more like a live-action camera. So we took it apart and rebuilt it from the ground up to emulate the way a 35mm anamorphic camera would move: how it pivots, where it tilts from, how it works on a dolly. We based it on the concept of how you would shoot a sci-fi movie today with anamorphic lenses.
"We rented some equipment and used the live-action DP [Marty Rosenberg] who eventually shot some of the live-action elements. He helped us do some lens tests. Our depth of field, our cameras never look as we expect them to. The focus always feels very deep in our films and we've always been told the math is right by the guys that wrote the software, who claim our depth of field maps are correct and that calculating everything should be fine."
But the filmmakers said it instinctively just didn't look right. So they made a cardboard WALL•E and a foam EVE and shot "wedge tests" with different anamorphic lenses.
"We used a spherical lens as a kind of control to look at depth of field and barrel distortion and the optical breathing you get when you rack from things really close to really far away," Lasky continues. "It gave us a chance to have something tangible. We used an Arriflex camera with Panavision lenses. We looked at lens flares and how to focus lights in the background. There's that shot in the truck [his home] when EVE's looking at the lighter for the first time from WALL•E's POV and you see the bokeh stretched in the background. And this is the kind of thing we discovered doing those tests."
As if that wasn't enough, they consulted with a live-action DP for the first time in Pixar history -- and chose one of the contemporary greats: Roger Deakins, who recently shot the Best Picture winner, No Country for Old Men. They particularly wanted to know about the process he goes through with camera and lighting set-ups.
"It started as just a lecture with Roger Deakins and then later we individually sat down with him to discuss different shots and some ideas in more detail," Lasky explains. "It was amazing to hear him walk through a sequence -- and it was the one in the truck between WALL•E and EVE -- just to get his take on how he would move the camera, and how he would try to bridge some of the shots together in a motion that you can take advantage of in such a small space. He's so meticulous about his work, yet it feels so effortless."
Stanton adds that the new virtual camera system was set up to make both the robots and the environments look more believable. "Life is nothing but imperfection and the computer likes perfection, so we spent probably 90% of our time putting in all of the imperfections, whether it's in the design of something or just the unconscious stuff. How the camera lens works in [a real] housing is never perfect, and we tried to put those imperfections [into the virtual camera] so that everything looks like you're in familiar [live-action] territory."
The filmmakers were fortunate in having producer Jim Morris -- a vfx expert and former ILMer -- on hand, and they also got to pick the brains of another visual consultant, ILM's Dennis Muren. "Dennis has this amazing eye for mistakes," Lasky suggests. "Not in a bad way, but [with regard to] the little inconsistencies that you can put in CG that make it feel like [objects] were really filmed and not studied pixel for pixel, month after month, which is what we do. For us, it's a lot of the hand-held nature of the movie, feeling like the cameraman is a little behind WALL•E. It's also that the camera is always moving a little bit -- it's always adjusting, always reacting to the environment in all the shots. [The first act] is all designed to feel like we're shooting with a camera on an operator's shoulder or just on a tripod, but very loose.
"And when we get to the Axiom space cruiser in acts two and three, we change that look to make it feel like it's all shot with a Steadicam to mirror the very clean aesthetic of that design of the cruise ship, with a much cleaner and elegant feel to the camera, but still making it feel part of one film. In shots where the focus lags a little bit, or the cameraman sees something and catches it a few frames later, or as we're tracking, there's an extra little bump that makes it feel a little more real."
This would not have been possible in the past. On the old Pixar camera, the tilt and pan point of rotation was right where the lens was. So any time you did a tilt or a pan, it was just a 2D move. And Lasky says it looked like you could do it in After Effects -- there wasn't any change in perspective.
"The first thing we did was move that away so it felt like where the camera was rotating from was different from the lens. It's one of those things that's very subliminal, but any time you moved the camera -- and we moved it a lot -- it felt like it was actually in the space rather than looking at a screen through something. That was a big change. So many camera packages out there work that way, but we had never taken that step.
"We also radically changed the depth of field and Andrew wanted a shallow-focus film. He looked at Gus Van Sant's films, especially Finding Forrester, which used focus as a compositional tool. Andrew thought it gave it extra depth that he liked. That's what he liked about Finding Nemo: He felt that, being underwater, you had all this extra depth in the shot because there was all this fluid between the camera and the characters. And he wanted that same sense in the air.
"One of the things we added, aside from atmosphere, was extra depth of field, so that made us redefine how that code worked in the camera to make sure we were getting it right. So that when we switched to anamorphic lenses, we were actually getting what the correct depth of field would be at different f-stops based on the shooting tests we did with the live-action equipment."
During act one on Earth, Lasky suggests that what helps depth of field is you have farther distances to play with, as opposed to being in a hallway on the Axiom later on, where everything is close and more objects are in focus. They found that in the latter case they had to crank the depth of field more to get background objects to blur.
"In space it was kind of a battle -- wanting to get a soft focus on things, but not wanting to blur out the backgrounds so much that the stars disappear and you have a black velvet sky. We played with a few tricks there. Luckily, you can cheat space. It was the same with camera motion, where WALL•E and EVE go flying around and we follow them there. We made up something that seemed in the nature of the film and worked. Everything had a roll on it to mimic weightlessness."
Lasky says one of the other great innovations was that they were able to previs the key lights prior to shooting so that they would have a better idea of what the final film frame would look like. "There are several sequences where we tried an experiment [by having] animation block out their action first, and then we shot it later. They would go back and then re-animate. Normally, we're blocking and staging everything in an animatic. Then the animator takes it shot-by-shot and does their acting and then we refine the camera. And in a few cases where there is no dialogue and so it's performance-driven, we decided to have an animator take a beat of the movie and animate it all in rough form and we'd just shoot it like live action, to see what we find in terms of character interaction.
"It was nice. We didn't do it as much as we wanted, but just the fact that we had an insight into the way they were thinking totally changed how we thought about a shot. You're really filming an actor doing something -- a character that's already alive, because the animators put much more of themselves into it than we ever would."
For the animators, reaching back to silent movie acting methods was especially inspiring. "Initially, there was a deliberate attempt to bring animation in much earlier to help sell the idea of more pantomime," says Angus MacLane, the directing animator. "We wanted to figure out a language for WALL•E's motion as early as story. A lot of it was [determining] first how he moved as a tool, as an appliance. It was very similar to Finding Nemo when first we had to crack the code of making fish appear as though they were swimming. In this case, we would look at how we wanted the character to appear as though it were actually a tank-based trash compactor. And so by first solving the challenges of selling him as an appliance, we would find his character."
MacLane describes WALL•E as a kind of bulldozer with a tank's maneuverability -- something like a really fast Mars Rover. The important considerations were his motion and mechanism.
"We have a set group of things to work with," he continues. "He has two arms and no mouth. No traditional shoulders, so how does he gesture? We needed symbols for human emotion. When he's doing his job, we have his shoulders go back to the base of his neck so he looks more heroic. But when he's communicating with EVE or when he's unsure of what he's doing, we bring the shoulders down in front of his stomach area and have his hands right in front of his chest. These are all visual clues.
"His eyes and hand positions are all based on dramatic context. He sees dancing on TV [from Hello, Dolly!] and then mimics it, and it grows from there. If ever there was a gag that didn't work, it would really pull you out of the movie. If you jiggle the tread a certain way, it would remind the audience that he was a machine, whereas the acting would be more anthropomorphic. It was always a balance between machine movement and vaudevillian acting like Fozzie Bear.
"EVE was the antithesis in design and emotion to WALL•E in every way. WALL•E boxes up in a very complicated way. She is very elegant and is all circles and ovals, and he is a bunch of boxes and hard edges. Likewise, her movement is based on figure eights and arcs and his is on right angles and unrefined movements. She is a combination of porpoise meets wind chime... lots of undulated movements."
As for the humans they encounter, they are babies in space as a result of their lazy evolutionary state. They are large fleshy characters that don't move much, so Pixar adopted a less-is-more concept. No squash-and-stretch here. "The level of control for these computer puppets can very easily get them off-model, so it was a balance," MacLane advises. "You have the power to move the face around, but couldn't do it here because of the general aesthetic."
Aside from the virtual camera innovation, there were really no other noteworthy animation advancements on WALL•E. "There was nothing specific made for this film," MacLane confirms. "It was just a continuation of tools from previous films, such as a driving system for WALL•E's treads that was an offshoot of the system for Cars."
That was just fine for Stanton, who had plenty to contend with for this "unconventional love story told in an unconventional manner," in which WALL•E saves humanity by demonstrating how to get off automatic pilot and embrace life again.
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.