Bill Desowitz gets an exclusive sneak peek at WALL•E hosted by director Andrew Stanton at Pixar.
Last year Brad Bird hosted an edit bay preview of Ratatouille for a select group of online journalists at Pixar on the eve of WonderCon. This year we were invited back for an early glimpse of Disney•Pixar’s WALL•E (opening June 27). Only this time, instead of showing a few clips, Andrew Stanton screened the entire first act in the big screening room: 35 glorious minutes of the studio's first foray into animated sci-fi.You've all seen the trailers -- WALL•E is funny, touching and inventive. In other words, pure Pixar -- only more so, as director Stanton emulates the spacey look and feel from classics that boomers grew up with, including 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
"This story takes place in the distant future," Stanton recounted. "Earth is covered in trash, and mankind has left the planet on a mandatory five-year trip while robots clean up. Our story asks, 'What if mankind had to leave the earth, and someone forgot to turn the last robot off?'"
Stanton set up the first act with the following intro: "This is a labor of love that was the spark of an idea we had a decade ago. A radical idea. It took a few hits in a row before it was time to take a chance, so after Nemo, we got [the confidence]… It's not as commercial, but I don't feel from a film history standpoint that we're doing anything new…"
Stanton then explained that the character of WALL•E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class) gets its primary inspiration from R2-D2 and Pixar's signature Luxo Jr. lamp. This provided the challenge of imbuing an inanimate object with a personality -- an animator's dream. Naturally there was a long design phase, but Stanton realized early on that "it should be a machine first and a character second." Even though the Robinson Crusoe-like premise was "gold" and offered lots of funny bits of business, it was a lonely start to find the story. Stanton said it was fortunate that they worked very linearly. Despite its sci-fi trappings, though, the heart of WALL•E is a love story between the happy-go-lucky trash collecting robot and a mysterious probe droid named EVE.
We begin in space, of course. Beautiful images of stars, a nebula and other iconic celestial shots as we hurl rapidly toward Earth. But wait: What's that song about being "Out There"? "Put on Your Sunday Clothes" from Hello, Dolly!? What a hilarious juxtaposition as we meet WALL•E picking up garbage and all sorts of human thingamabobs that would make Ariel envious, with a likable roach on top of him as his lone friend. We glimpse the robot at work, gathering garbage at the dump, and compounding it for easy storage and disposal. Junk is piled high in trash towers in this abandoned city, as live-action promos featuring Fred Willard promise adventure in space on the Axiom cruiser. Evidently that's where all the humans have gone.
With utmost curiosity, WALL•E examines bras, car keys, paddleballs, jewelry and a fire extinguisher (which provides quite a jolt when it goes off). Once WALL•E settles in for the night in his home (a modified truck, no less), he pops in his favorite and only video, Hello, Dolly!
After several iterations of this daily routine, a mysterious ship drops off a probe droid named EVE -- the exact opposite of WALL•E. She's sleek and white, but all business. As Stanton points out, if WALL•E is a tractor, then EVE is a Mercedes. And if she happens to look like she was designed by Apple, all the better, since Apple design guru Jonathan Ive was even seduced by her.
The robot immediately seizes the opportunity to impress her, though, providing a guided tour of his truck and all its paraphernalia -- including the singing fish on the wall, an eggbeater, a Rubik's Cube, light bulb and bubble wrap (her favorite, of course), and sitting down to show off Hello, Dolly! and a bit of romance. EVE, who's quick to blast, certainly needs to lighten up, and WALL•E's happy to oblige, teaching her how to dance and chill.
Then something strange happens -- after WALL•E shows EVE a plant, she grabs it and suddenly shuts down, with only a glowing green plant insignia flashing. WALL•E must now protect EVE at all costs, including following her into space when she's picked up by her ship to rendezvous with the Axiom cruiser by Saturn, where their adventure really takes off…
Afterward, Stanton engaged in an exclusive Q&A about his experiences making WALL•E thus far. When asked, for instance, by AWN about the R&D advancements concerning virtual cinematography and 70mm emulation, he prefaced his remarks by suggesting that there isn't a desire to be photorealistic. "But there's a desire to indulge in believing that you are where you are. We've all been going to film school since Toy Story. It's not that we came on as really knowledgeable filmmakers. We're too stupid to know we couldn't do it and just kept working at it. We've gotten smarter as we go and want to keep learning, trying 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, this extra-dimensional sense, that I asked if we could do that in the air. With a little more smarts, I started to look at what other cameras were doing whenever I watched any of my favorite films: racking focus, barrel distortion and certain kind of ovals of the lights. And I noticed that our stuff wasn't doing that exactly or not at all. Invariably, you'd reach some guy who did the programming, who'd say the math's all right.
"And I've learned that it doesn't answer the problem. I don't care if the math's all right -- it's not doing what it's supposed to. We actually hired Roger Deakins, the famous cinematographer [No Country for Old Men], to give us a crash course in cinematography and then liked him so much that we asked him to stay for another week or two because what we do is so foreign in our approach. We just want to get to the same result. And it happened to coincide with us deciding that we were going to rent actual Arriflex cameras and 70mm [film] and shoot a stand-in WALL•E, three-dimensional with a grid, in the Atrium here and do all the things that we wanted the camera to do -- lens flare and all that stuff. And then we would make a virtual set of exactly the same thing in our computer and compare and prove that they didn't match. And that's all our computer engineers needed to see to get challenged and frustrated and start to fix things. And so we've been able to now play a much more accurate grammar of what we've all unconsciously been used to seeing in a lot of our favorite sci-fi films."
For example, there's a scene where WALL•E's looking at EVE while she's got the lighter, and all the Christmas lights turn into nice, bright, transparent circles all over one another. "And that's achieved by a very, very narrow, shallow lens that blows everything out into a distortion and blur," Stanton continued. "But the way it does becomes very magical and romantic, and we weren't getting those kind of looks whenever we were going out of focus at all, and this may seem indirect or obtuse, but I was looking at a lot of Gus Van Sant movies, particularly Good Will Hunting and Finding Forrester, and he likes to direct your eye with focus and uses a very narrow lens, so even when there are four people talking close to one another in a shot, only one person's face might be truly, truly in focus. I said there's an air of intimacy that you achieve that is part of your storytelling that I want to use in this film because it's such a cold, mechanical, clinical world. Where do I get my intimacy from?"
In fact, Deakins wasn't the only visual consultant on WALL•E. So was ILM's Dennis Muren, which is rather ironic. "Dennis Muren [was helpful], yes, especially in the kick-off of this film. He's spent his whole life integrating effects into live-action plates and shots, and is unmatched in his ability to do it and is writing a book about it. And so we had to hit the ground running and play in that same world a little bit, and we knew that we were touching into their territory [at ILM]. Again, not trying to get photorealism, but pretty believable looks. So he was with us for a couple of months. To be honest, our dailies, how we work with animators every morning looking at shots and everyone joining in and [providing constructive criticism], are derived from John [Lasseter] working at ILM in the early Pixar years and watching Dennis Muren, so it was sort of full-circle to have him come back around and look at our dailies."
With Pixar co-producing (with Disney and Warner Bros.) Brad Bird's first live-action feature, 1906, about the Great San Francisco Earthquake, and Stanton reportedly setting his sights on adapting a John Carter of Mars film trilogy by Edgar Rice Burroughs, the discussion led to Pixar's first-ever live-action footage in WALL•E.
"It came out of a logistical conceit that I knew that I wanted to use a musical from a live-action movie," Stanton explained about the surprising presence of Hello, Dolly! "I have the luxury of evolution on my side, so we don't have to worry about matching. Since we knew we were going to use footage from Hello, Dolly!, that's what made us go, 'We'd better make some promotional stuff,' using, as our own source, the live-action footage."
And why Hello, Dolly!? "This is the one question I'm going to be asked for the rest of my life. And the one thing I want to dispel is that 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. No, he's not that discerning."
Actually, Stanton had to change the musical opening that he initially had in mind. "I was already working on WALL•E when The Triplets of Belleville came out and I loved it. And WALL•E originally had '30s French swing music at the beginning over the stars. I liked the juxtaposition and it was something new. And then I saw Triplets, which had a lot of '30s French swing music over not a lot of speaking. And the last thing I wanted to be accused of was that I was stealing something. So I started opening my mind to other old-fashioned things, and the story wasn't fully completed, and I had been in Hello, Dolly!, the musical, along with a lot of other musicals, growing up in high school, and for some ironic reason, I started stumbling through iTunes and came across 'Put On Your Sunday Clothes.' And immediately thought that this is the most bizarre idea I've ever had, but it just might work. So I juxtaposed it and it led to me figuring out what other songs were in it and it really opened doors for me for other arrows in the quiver for how to tell the story without having to rely on dialog."
Indeed, if there's one commercial challenge facing WALL•E, it's the fact that there's so little dialog. However, Stanton's quick to point out that there's plenty of communication going on electronically between the two robots, thanks to the ingenuity of Ben Burtt, the Oscar-winning sound designer of Star Wars.
"The thing is they aren't saying a language that you necessarily know. But what I wanted was integrity. It all comes down to [this]: as much as I believe that Luxo is a lamp -- and it doesn't have to be spelled out for me, I just get it right away -- I wanted the same thing with the robots. I wanted to believe that that's a machine and has been there for hundreds of years, and it's been weathered and it has its own thought process and was designed a certain way, so, therefore, it would have a certain way it spoke electronically. And the same with EVE.
"Because I knew that the dialog had to be from many characters generated by their own kind of style, I had to spend a lot of time with Ben Burtt auditioning stuff. We would discuss a character and show him drawings, and he'd go off and come up with a bevy of ideas of what he thought that machine, that robot would sound like. And he's amazing! Not only is it, 'How did you get that sound?', but it's also this huge buffet. I would sit down and cull it down to, 'This is the character.' And even after that you come away with anywhere near 100 sounds that are in this camp. And my editor, Steve Schaffer, and I even wanted to limit the vocabulary down from that. I did have this one embarrassing moment, where I was trying to describe something that I wanted for this one character from Ben, and whatever I was saying wasn't clicking with him, and I finally said, 'All right, Ben, I apologize: You know when you're in the sand crawler and there's the one sort of garbage robot that goes 'gonk-gonk?' 'Oh, the "gonk-gonk"!' And he goes on this long dissertation about how he had gotten that from the short-wave radio from the Chinese station that had come through, and that there's been an online religion from the samples that he's used. It didn't turn out so bad, but every once in a while, I have to fall back on the Star Wars shorthand."
Meanwhile, Stanton admitted that WALL•E posed the most difficult challenge for the Pixar art department since Monsters, Inc. because of the fantasy world it had to create.
"I had to tell what's happened over 1,000 years. And so that dictated almost everything else. We wanted a city that looked the way Shanghai is 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 we haven't seen yet, and you're also telling the demise of the history, and the way to try and [correct it]. And then the dystopian result of that, so it's so layered, it was a real brain tease. So every shot counted, and everything in it counted about where your eye went, what you saw, using things to tell things. It was thrilling to solve it. Every part of the buffalo is used in that first act, but that's really what drove everything.
"We knew that we wanted the future to be cool. We are all probably very similar in our backgrounds here [at Pixar] in that we all miss the Tomorrowland that was promised us from the heyday of Disneyland. And that's the future I want to see us get to because you don't embrace all the new stuff of life. You see it now: it's like, 'This may be adding more of a burden to my life, but it's so cool I can't resist.' And it's the seduction factor. And to me, all of Tomorrowland promised that. We turned it into the phrase: 'Where's my jetpack feel?' That became the touchstone of any art direction for anything that was truly trying to tack on the future."
In the end, though, Stanton told AWN that generating inventive bits of business was challenging and gratifying. "It's what animators love the most. The process of just putting shots into production almost can kill opportunities for spontaneity. It's almost like rehearsal goes away because your shooting schedule is too tight. So what we try to do early on is give the animators time to play with a shot or play with a character, but not just free range. But, literally, in a shot, take their time how they do this and then do the camera work around it, just like in the real world, where you have someone rehearsing and the cameraman tries to figure out the best way to shoot that. We've never had the luxury to do that. And we knew we wouldn't have that luxury for long, so we spent a year or so doing that to also get a sense that you discovered these moments that were captured. Never to the degree that my imagination hoped it would be, but we made baby steps in that direction, which we can now explore in later films."
Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.