AWN chats with Pixar vet Angus MacLane about his new short BURN•E, available today with the DVD/Blu-ray release of WALL•E.
Remember BURN•E? The welding robot from WALL•E, who got locked out of the Axiom? Well, he's back in his own eponymous short, helmed by Angus MacLane, who was the directing animator on the feature written and directed by Andrew Stanton. We got the chance to find out from MacLane how this hapless character got his own chance to shine on the WALL•E DVD and Blu-ray. MacLane, who earned an Annie for Outstanding Achievement in Character Animation on The Incredibles, has also worked on A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monster's, Inc., Finding Nemo, Geri's Game, For the Birds and One Man Band.
Bill Desowitz: Let's begin with how this came about.
Angus MacLane: What happened was we were in the middle of production. I had animated the scene with BURN•E that you see in the movie. And I had been pestering Andrew about what had happened to this guy and pitching him like, "Oh, we have to cut back to him here; we have to cut back to him there! Maybe he should be on the side of the ship when they're re-entering the atmosphere." Andrew thought those ideas were funny, but said we can't put him back in the movie because it's going to slow the pace down, especially at that point when you're wrapping everything up.
So he encouraged me to find a way to make all these gags work in one central story as a potential DVD short film. And I was really excited about that opportunity, and in off hours and lunches I boarded up this idea and pitched him in the hallways in between meetings.
BD: And what was the central theme you came up with?
AM: If WALL•E has a positive effect on all the robots and humans that he meets on the Axiom, what if there was someone that he didn't have a positive effect on? And in doing that, he inadvertently gets locked out of the Axiom in the movie. So that was my touchstone. WALL•E always made his life hell and didn't mean to, but it just worked out that way. It was kind of like bad day at work. Now the idea of him fixing the light pole was something that I added and we subsequently changed the shot before the movie was released. I liked there serene moment of WALL•E touching Saturn's rings and that could cause this chain reaction and that would be a nice inadvertent thing to destroy this light. And his job would be to fix this light 'cause he used to weld this little box. Once I came up with that, then it was a matter of figuring out what other points in the movie we could conceivably cut back to. That was the concept of the driving force behind BURN•E.
BD: So what was it like making this short?
AM: It was a tremendous opportunity for me and was only possible because Andrew felt safe with me after working on WALL•E for three-and-a-half years. I started in story. The film is seven-and-a-half minutes long and we reuse some stuff, but there's an economy to it that you get from knowing that universe and that world. So it was easy to riff on that, knowing what the [assets] were like and what we had to build. There were some built for the film: the new character of his boss, SUPPLY•R, and all those hallways had to either be rebuilt or repurposed to look like it was more of the same, even though a lot of that production design is intended to look a little darker and a little danker than, say, the Axiom itself. You're doing more dirty, used-tech, which is a lot easier to do and is, I think, a lot more fun because you can do more shadows and more lighting.
I'd done a sequence in the movie a long, long time ago, which was the subterranean lair, and there were a bunch of jokes from that that I tried to put back. When it came time to choose a story team -- I had done a lot of the initial boards but needed someone to help out -- I got Derek Thompson, who did story with me on WALL•E and had also boarded the hallway sequence that was cut after I'd done it. So we were both excited about exploring some of the visual ideas in BURN•E that we were not able to do in the feature.
BD: How large was your crew?
AM: Around 75 from start to finish but not all at the same time. In animation we had around eight people -- it was a real small crew. It was like, "We can make this seven-and-a-half-minute film on this budget," and they left us alone if we met that budget. It was competitive with other [Pixar] DVD shorts but there were a lot of locations, new characters where we had to do a lot of planning upfront. It was a pretty tightly boarded film, so we knew what we were building. So if there were new sets, they'd only be built on one side. Everything was built right for camera.
BD: And how long did it take to make?
AM: We started in November boarding and the whole thing wrapped in June. So it was a pretty quick production, but the reason was because we had a lot of seasoned people on it. As departments would finish on the feature, we'd get a subset of that working on the short. So you had these crackerjack teams of people that had been used to making it look like WALL•E and are now making this short look like it's just cut footage from WALL•E. And it was very important for me that it would be this extra story, so the mythos of the film would allow you to imagine this other story but it wouldn't take away from the experience of the feature.
BD: Talk about working with Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter?
AM: Certainly. When we started the initial idea, I boarded tons of different ways that we could cut back to him. I met with Andrew maybe a total of two hours over the first couple of months, but it was broken up into half-an-hour increments. And a lot of that was just story review: I'd pitch him stuff and he'd say that was funny but a little esoteric; that's a good way to do it, but you could stage it differently. He was a great sounding board about what was working and not working. The biggest thing about this film was it was very episodic by nature and you'd be cutting into later moments in the feature and jumping around quite a bit. In fact, there was a point in the film when we had a visual idea of using a placard with the time, date and location of where they were at. And it was John's idea to take it out because it wasn't needed and I think it really helped the pace of the film.
BD: What was the most pleasurable part of making BURN•E?
AM: Oddly, enough, it was working with departments I had never worked with before. As a director, getting people excited about the project was important, because if you're not excited about it, no one's going to be. So even when stuff is really tough and you need to know what movie you're making to involve them with infectious excitement, and I don't think it would look nearly as good or be as successful as it is if other people didn't believe in it, and that was a lot of work upfront to make it worth making. It had to be something new and something appropriate. So getting people involved and seeing them getting excited, even when they were super tired from making the feature, was really very satisfying to me.
Now, on a personal level, getting the opportunity to make the film, with support from both Andrew and John, was a tremendous learning process for me. It's one thing to see it happen and be involved in the process of making a film, but it's another to have the freedom where it's up to you to make it good or bad.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN and VFXWorld.