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The iBot and the Rust Bucket: An Interview with 'WALL•E' Designer Jay Shuster

Joe Strike talks to the Pixar artist about cars, Cars and the creation of the robotic couple of the year.

Pixar's Jay Shuster fulfilled a fantasy when he was assigned to design the robotic stars of WALL•E. All images © Disney•Pixar.

Like a youngster running away from home to join the circus, Jay Shuster left the Detroit world of automotive design for a shot at creating his own version of the science fiction worlds that had inspired him as a child watching Star Wars. Ironically enough, when he achieved his ultimate goal -- a position with Pixar -- he wound up in the middle of a veritable traffic jam -- the studio's 2006 movie Cars. But in terms of his fantasy, Shuster hit the bulls-eye when he was assigned to design the robotic stars of the studio's new release WALL•E. With the film's opening just days away, I had the opportunity to speak with Jay about his past, present -- and future.

Joe Strike: What did you do on WALL•E?

Jay Shuster: I worked on WALL•E himself. What I brought to it was from my industrial design roots in Detroit, growing up doing the car thing. I worked in [the automobile industry] for a little bit, then came out here and got my job on Cars. John [Lasseter] was really, really into maintaining the authenticity, the honesty of the materials in the design of those characters.

It was the same thing with WALL•E: pulling in the realism, making him as believable as possible with his engineering and the design of his mechanisms.

Strike: Would a real WALL•E be totally functional?

Shuster: He's right there at the edge. We maintained a size but kept him cute -- he couldn't just be a gigantic earth-moving machine. We wanted to work with a certain-size package to keep his character. We did have to cheat a bit, allowing for his head, the arms, the treads to fold into his body. Everything does kind of collide inside, but we worked really hard to get to a point where the animators could run with it and make him look like he really works.

I worked really hard, for a long time. I spent about a year and a half on WALL•E and EVE [WALL•E's cybernetic object of desire] alone.

Strike: You probably had an easier time on EVE; she barely had any moving parts.

Shuster: Yeah, she was my relief from WALL•E

Strike: There was a lot of expressiveness designed into WALL•E.

Shuster: We went back to the drawing board a lot. The lens cluster, the aperture and the shutter blinking mechanism [of the binocular-like lenses that comprise the robot's "face"] actually came late in the process -- that was the point [at which] WALL•E really came alive.

Jay Shuster.

Andrew [Stanton] started me off when he first pitched the project. He told me he wanted these [lenses] for the eyes, because we already had a lot of expression just out of those forms and his big eyes -- they were very childlike. We already had three things: the binoculars, the cube body and his ability to fold up into a cube -- he's a trash compactor. That really left the door wide open for me to explore all the different ways to design him.

The story guys who were the earliest members of the WALL•E team were pretty much the first to draw him. He didn't change a whole lot from what they were doing until I was really finished with him -- I was the person responsible for going in and finessing the forms, but he did remain this cube -- very simple geometry, with those binoculars.

My dad was a car designer, and I went to school for industrial design -- products, cars and things of that sort, but I really got turned on when I was six and saw Star Wars in 1977. I always wanted to get out of Detroit and stop drawing cars and start designing spaceships and other things of that nature.

I got out here around 1994 and got into the Star Wars art department for Episode I.

Strike: You wanted to do it and you did -- how?

Shuster: It was amazing. I was working for a small start-up called Rocket Science. The employees were mostly ILM people who decided they wanted a change and jumped ship to do a fresh start-up. I met a bunch of people who knew Doug Chiang -- the art director on Episode I. A friend of mine at ILM set up a meeting with Doug -- and I got in. [Jay gives a slightly embarrassed laugh at his good fortune, then continues.]

I stayed there for about four years, then took about a year and a half off, which was the exact time it took to land the job here at Pixar.

Strike: It took a year and a half of work to get into Pixar?

Shuster: It was two interviews and a lot of waiting -- but well worthwhile. I got into Pixar in 2003, just in time to work on Cars. It was so amazing working with John. He's just so invested in this project, so enthusiastic. It really rubs off around here too, they're so into what they're doing.

It took Shuster more than a year to get hired by Pixar, but he arrived there just in time to work on Cars.

Strike: And back in Detroit you were working as a car designer.

Shuster: Not actually a car designer. I made it to a few internships doing car interiors. I never made it to the Big Three. I... didn't want to do it.

Strike: Your heart was someplace else.

Shuster: I felt like I might get too comfortable. Because my dad had done it, why should I? I just had the space thing in me, I just had to get that out.

Strike: You must've had a whole stack of designs, fantasy drawings.

Shuster: In school, rather than design the TV, the "this or that" they wanted, I was always doing storyboards, crazy sci-fi scenarios, anything that didn't apply to the project at hand. But thankfully they let me do that.

Strike: WALL•E and EVE are the alpha and omega of design -- mechanical and clunky vs. sleek and electronic. In fact, she looks a lot like an Apple product, like an iPod. Andrew Stanton [WALL•E's director] mentioned someone came in from Apple during production.

Shuster: Jonathan Ive [Apple's SVP of Industrial Design] came in and sat with us for an hour and went over design futures. I definitely related with him on many levels, coming from the same field.

It was a lot of exercise designing both WALL•E and EVE at the same time, a lot of work jumping back and forth between those two modes: very streamlined, sexy, floating parts, [then] back to this rust bucket.

Strike: After my first look at WALL•E, the robot from Short Circuit crossed my mind.

Shuster: Ohh... [Shuster gives a slightly exaggerated laugh.]

Pixar consulted with Apple on design for the film, and maybe that's why EVE looks a lot like an iPod.

Strike: Has that come up before? There's really not much resemblance beyond both having binocular eyes for stereo vision. Did anybody else say that early on?

Shuster: Oh, yeah. In fact, a lot of people here looking over my shoulder at the initial designs were, "oh, you've seen Short Circuit." Well, no, actually I never have.

Strike: You're lucky.

Shuster: I've heard that too. Also, reading [about the supposed resemblance] on online chat boards, things like that does tend to get me a little riled. In fact I did pull [the Short Circuit robot's] silhouette off the web and did a little comparison study for myself. They're nothing like each other. I'm preparing myself for a lot of that kind of comparison, but wow -- it's completely baseless.

Strike: Did you do any other design work on the movie?

Shuster: I designed the exterior of the Axiom, the luxury spaceliner. The hardest thing about that design was keeping the scale in check of how huge it was. This was supposed to be carrying hundreds of thousands of passengers, layers upon layers of service tunnels for robots to travel through. It was really more a kind of an architectural exploit, making sure the thing still had a human scale to it, even when we were a quarter-mile away.

Actually Dan Holland here in the art department did the initial studies for the Axiom -- he kind of established the bones of the ship. I came in late in the project after wrapping up EVE and WALL•E and basically put a skin on the ship.

We were working very closely with Andrew at the time because there were a lot of critical areas on the ship that we had to fly into. We wanted very simple forms, so you could identify exactly where we were at the time just by identifying the shape of the ship.

Strike: You weren't much involved in the interior?

Shuster is bracing himself for comparisons between the design of WALL•E and the binocular-eyed robot in Short Circuit. But the artist never saw the earlier film.

Shuster: No. Early on designing the interior we had a couple of gag sessions, dreaming up how these people were living and interacting, but my focus was basically the exterior.

Strike: You left Detroit to get away from designing cars and make it to Pixar, where they tell you "we want you to design a lot of automobiles"!

Shuster: I saw what my dad had to do to move up through the ranks at GM. He started really fresh-faced and optimistic, and he drew and designed -- it was really a great job at that time. But he had to sacrifice that in order to go further in the company -- sacrifice the artistic side of things. He had to stop drawing and start managing.

I saw what that did to him. It's not like I had the same idea that I was going to manage at GM. There's only so much you can do and I felt the market was so saturated with auto designers. It was the whole focus of our school in Detroit, the College for Creative Studies. I just thought, why compete with all these people when I can just design spaceships and actually have a really good time and be one of the few people who's doing it?

Strike: I'd think there'd be some competition there too.

Shuster: There is now, with schools pumping out tons of students with a specific entertainment curriculum, but back in the day, 12 or 13 years ago, it was still building to the kind of fever pitch it's at now. Oh man, I just... heard horror stories of fellow grads getting a job at one of the big companies and spending months on one thing like a door handle or a spoiler. My God, it just sounded horrible -- what an existence.

Strike: Usually, it's piecemeal, you get the dashboard, somebody else gets --

Shuster: Yeah, it's by committee.

Strike: Speaking about Cars -- the movie -- they had you designing to be faithful to the real materials. Were you designing any of the lead cars?

Shuster: Being my first project here, my first character design, I worked closely with Bob Pauley, the production designer on Cars, who's been one of John's favorite artists here since Toy Story. [Sighs.] Just working with Bob and discovering this whole new world, and applying my industrial design side to the Disney/Pixar [aesthetic] was just an amazing experience.

Shuster designed the exterior of the Axiom, the luxury spaceliner that is supposed to carry hundreds of thousands of passengers. The challenge was keeping the scale in check.

I designed the tertiary characters -- like Ramone [Cheech Marin's character], all the background cars, the race cars you see on the track, and other characters like Bessie the road paver. She was really fun -- she's not really a character, but she is in a way.

Strike: She's not really sentient like the other cars; basically she's just a machine.

Shuster: But John was determined that she actually work -- I spent months and months on her, making sure she laid down an even layer of tar every time.

Strike: That must be weird -- you can't just fake it, you have to actually think about the mechanics inside a machine like that.

Shuster: Exactly.

Strike: Did you have to pick up any computer animation expertise, or did you have CAD/CAM skills you could apply?

Shuster: I came in cold to the computer thing.

Strike: How much did you have to learn?

Shuster: Actually, nothing, I've used Photoshop forever to do little touch-ups here and there, but I'm pretty much a pen-to-paper kind of guy.

Everything, almost 100% on Cars, was pen-to-paper -- all the ideation, sketching, leading up to the final model packet: the instruction booklet on how to build the characters, inspecting all the details. I would hand off this small bible to the person building it, making sure they knew exactly what was going on in the surfacing of the car and whatnot.

Strike: Did you get called in to look over their shoulders at their work stations? Was it strange to see what they were doing once they took over?

Because Shuster grew up in Detroit around the car industry and apprenticed in interior car design, he felt very comfortable working on vehicle designs in both Cars and WALL•E.

Shuster: Not so strange. It was maybe a little bit strange not to be able to pick this thing up and rotate it like I was used to doing in school with a clay model. That was a leap for me.

Strike: When they called you in, were they asking you to explain stuff in more detail?

Shuster: Sure. "This is a concave area," "you need to smooth out the transition between the hood and the fender" and so on -- stuff that was inborn in me growing up in Detroit, kind of knowing what a car looks like and how it was manufactured. That was a very gratifying part of actually working here, first on Cars and then on WALL•E, was finding that knowledge again and being able to use it to make these characters as convincingly real -- and as honest -- as possible.

Strike: What are you working on now?

Shuster: I'm currently working on Toy Story 3, primarily on vehicles and environments.

Strike: What was the best part of working on WALL•E?

Shuster: When the project first started, they asked if I wanted a bigger role in the art direction of the film, an art directing credit. I debated that for a long time, but decided what I want to do is what I do best: sit down and draw and design, and spend all the time I had on inventing these two characters. I turned down that role to have the board time.

Another thing too was that Ralph Eggelston, who's our production designer, gave me that time almost uninterrupted, for months, just to sit and design. He was very hands-off and I really appreciated that. Of course there were check-ins on character and story and making sure I was giving Andrew what he needed. It was a very good, concentrated amount of time I had for these two characters and I think it turned out beautifully.

Shuster turned down the job of art director on WALL•E because it would have taken him away from designing, but now he's thrown his name in the hat as art director for Cars II.

Strike: You said you didn't want to take on an art director role. Would that have put you in the same situation you saw your dad in of having to do more supervising than creating?

Shuster: Exactly. I would've been attending more meetings and not being able to think things through for the designs. I think they would have suffered had I been away from my desk as duty called.

Strike: Would you like to take a shot at art directing down the road?

Shuster: Yeah. I threw my hat in the ring for Cars II, so we'll see what happens.

Strike: You seem to have it pretty good. Do you ever wonder "how am I getting away with this?"

Shuster: [laughs] Yeah, no, it does seem like paradise for someone who just wanted to design the coolest stuff he could. They give you the time and resources to do it. They respect it, they know you've got to use the time and resources on these films to make them great. Hopefully that'll continue.

Strike: Have you pitched them any story ideas?

Shuster: I've got some ideas for shorts, but I'm so busy on the production side, it's almost impossible to get my own thing going at times. I hope maybe in a few years I'll get a respite and type this thing out.

Strike: That's also where they get their directors -- give them a shot at a short. Do you think you might want to go that route?

Shuster: I don't know if I'm director material. Those guys are incredible -- [like] Andrew -- and what they do. They balance the entire film in their head and they can recite forwards and backwards.

I'm good at sitting down and designing WALL•E and EVE and concentrating my efforts and focus there.

Strike: You deserve a huge amount of that credit. You can't have a movie without stars and if anyone's responsible for WALL•E's stars, it's you.

Shuster: And a good amount of other people too, of course.

Joe Strike is a regular contributor to AWN. His animation articles also appear in the NY Daily News and the New York Press.