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Interview: Andrew Stanton and Jim Morris from “WALL·E”

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The Massie Twins recently sat down with “WALL-E” director Andrew Stanton and producer Jim Morris to discuss Pixar’s latest computer-animated feature.

 

The Massie Twins: How’s the press tour treating you?

Andrew Stanton: Other than the heat, it’s great. We’ve actually paced it so it’s not so insane. We’re fully aware and awake.

MT: What’s a typical day on the set of WALL-E like?

AS: Well, our set is sadly boring – a lot of offices. It’s very similar to a live action set. I have over 200 artists that I work with – I don’t talk to computers, I talk to artists, I direct people. They all have jobs similar to a live action set. I’ve got cinematographers, art directors, someone in charge of props, costumes, etc. I meet with them all separately. You’re seeing all of these parts and you’re hoping they come together as one file and when we show it on the big screen it’s all going to work. And it never does. So you meet several times over weeks and months, per shot – just to get the shot right. It’s like making live action in slow-motion.

MT: WALL-E’s design was pretty much perfect. How many revisions did it take to get him to the point of universal approval?

AS: He came in stages and I’d say that the sum total of time spent on him was almost a year and a half. When I first was just trying to prove in private that this could work, I had to draw something, so I said “let’s make him a box.” It’s a very masculine design. And let’s make EVE a circle. We let those be the basic ideas, and then when we got into the actual designing of it, I knew I wanted him to box up like a turtle so he could be shy; I wanted the engineering to always feel like a machine with a purpose and a function first, but that you could translate into a character. I kept using Luxo Jr. as that methodology. You always saw it as a lamp – the minute it stopped moving it’s not a character, it’s a lamp. The big thing that was a missing ingredient was “what’s the key to the face?” I was at a baseball game and someone passed me their binoculars. I missed a whole inning because I turned the binoculars around and made them sad and happy and there is so much character in that that I don’t need anything else. The hinge really made a huge sort of 2-dimensional win. The thing we spent more time on was the engineering. I wanted him built the way he’s really going to move. I don’t want to cheat, we’re not going to squash and stretch him, and we’re not going to make him move by anything but the exact limitations by which he’s built. It took a long time and it was a Rubik’s cube engineering feat. One of the biggest wins for bringing his character to life was giving him zoom lenses inside; that was suddenly a surrogate for the idea of someone’s pupils. When that peace went in, that was gold. Suddenly he’s truly alive.

MT: Is Autopilot intentionally reminiscent of HAL 9000?

AS: Yes. We didn’t try to purposely imitate him – when you see the DVD, you’ll see all the iterations Auto went through and ultimately we came up with a captain’s wheel. When we realized we needed to give it some sort of eye, it actually helped the cold, clinical tone – he had to be the most robotic of all the robots. We just embraced it and said “fine, it’s an homage.”

MT: I saw bits of Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin in WALL-E’s performance. Did the animators watch silent films for inspiration?

AS: Yes, both the story crew and the animators watched probably one Chaplin film and one Keaton film every day for a year and a half, until we’d pretty much seen their entire body of work, features and shorts. It was to get as much knowledge about the breadth of grammar that’s used in silent films and you walk away realizing “what can’t you do,” “what can’t you convey” with just imagery. Those guys just figured it all out and you realize something was actually lost with sound. We got lazy and instead of trying to support it visually, we just said it. In any good film, no matter how much dialogue, you’re trying to make the visuals so strong that even if the sound went off, you’d get what was going on. I definitely felt there was more akin to Keaton for WALL-E because he was called “The Great Stone Face.” He never had any emotion, and WALL-E technically has no changes in his face.

MT: Are you nervous about how a movie will be received, considering how long you’ve spent on it?

AS: Well I never get nervous until I go to these things. (Chuckles) You’re not thinking about it when you make the movie. It’s all hands on deck for three of the four years, because it usually all doesn’t work. You’re in this fix-it mode for so long and to be honest, the biggest pressure I feel is the pressure from my peers. I work with the most talented and smartest people, and they intimidate me. I don’t feel that smart and that talented when I’m around them. They’re like a thermometer in your face. If it’s not working, you can just sense it, and if it’s working, they get excited. It’s a tremendous amount of restless pressure.

Jim Morris: It is funny because when you’re making the film you can’t really be thinking about that too much or you’d be paralyzed in fear.

MT: Are the live action bits with Fred Willard a filmmaking element that we can expect more of in the future?

AS: Possibly, because I really enjoyed it. I have some ideas going down the pipeline that would involve live action. This was a little bit of a test to see if it would work, but it was a pretty “no-brainer” thing. I enjoyed it. The one thing that doesn’t exist in animation is spontaneity. I know it comes with way more challenges in different situations, but you definitely get to play god in animation. You can change things whenever you see something wrong, or even change your mind months later and tweak it again. We take advantage of that completely at Pixar.

MT: What was the decision behind Hello Dolly?

AS: It was an abstract choice. The minute I decided to do it, I thought, “I’m gonna be asked this for the rest of my life.” I always had the idea of old-fashioned music in front of stars. I loved the future juxtaposed against the past. But that’s a lot of options for songs. I remember a lot of the staple plays and musicals, and when it got to Hello Dolly, and that first phrase of “put on your Sunday clothes” – without explanation it just worked viscerally, so I put it in there without being able to justify it. I kept it a private thing because I thought people were going to think I was nuts. I finally realized that the reason I liked it was that the content of that song is about two guys that have never left their small town and they just want to go out for one night, live it up and kiss a girl. I thought, “that’s WALL-E.” When I saw the other song “It Only Takes a Moment,” and when I saw these two lovers holding hands, I was like “that’s exactly how I can convey ‘I love you’ without saying it.” Also, I read in a book of human perceptions and posture that holding hands is the most intimate thing you can do in public in any culture. I thought that was key. I’m not necessarily saying that that’s my favorite movie – I just think WALL-E has bad tastes in musicals.

JM: Then the challenge was persuading 20th Century Fox to let us use that. You want this why? For what? Actually they were very cooperative and nice and they let it go easy.

MT: Our colleagues insisted that we ask you about John Carter of Mars. Is there anything you can tell us about that project?

AS: I can say that it is a true rumor. That’s what I’m doing next. I’m writing it with Mark Andrews who was the head writer on Ratatouille and The Incredibles. We haven’t made any decisions on how it’s going to be executed or distributed or any of that stuff. All we’ve decided is that we’re going to use the Pixar methodology of “story, story, story.” We’re spending all of this year just trying to write the best script possible. Then we’ll make all the other decisions based on that.

 

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