From Friday’s Weekend Look section of The Oklahoman. To hear an audio clip of my interview with Andrew Stanton, click here.
Animation goes sci-fi in ‘WALL-E’
HOUSTON – The clever minds at Pixar have used high-tech computer animation and old-fashioned storytelling to explore the hidden worlds of children’s toys, undersea families and gourmand rats.
The animation studio’s ninth feature film, “WALL-E,” offers a cinematic journey to the final frontier.
“The biggest influence was sci-fi movies that I saw in the ‘70s … particularly the iconic ones like ’2001,’ ‘Star Wars,’ ‘Close Encounters (of the Third Kind),’ ‘Alien’ and ‘Blade Runner.’ They all did such an amazing job of transporting to these other worlds, and I just really believed they were there,” said “WALL-E” writer-director Andrew Stanton in a recent one-on-one interview at the Four Seasons Hotel.
“Some of that may have been my age, but I also think that somehow the whole majesty and wonder of that kind of fell away. … I just haven’t felt that way again, and I just wanted to kind of go back there. And I guess I realized that sci-fi is not something that you’ve seen that often in animation.”
“WALL-E” features the kind of hero rarely seen in modern cinema: A quirky, clunky robot cleaning up the Earth after humans left it covered in trash 700 years before. While all the other Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class robots have broken down, WALL-E keeps doing his job, though not before sifting a few interesting treasures out of the rubble.
His lonely existence is disrupted when a sleek probe named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator) lands on the abandoned planet. She and WALL-E form a bond, and EVE learns that WALL-E has found the one sign that people might some day return to Earth.
When EVE’S mission takes her back into space, where humans live on a luxury space liner, WALL-E comes along for the adventure.
The idea for “WALL-E” came out of a now-famous 1994 lunch during which Pixar pioneers Stanton, John Lasseter, Pete Doctor and the late Joe Ranft also kicked around the ideas for “A Bug’s Life,” “Monsters Inc.” and Stanton’s previous directorial effort, “Finding Nemo.”
While working on his Oscar-winning fish tale, Stanton also began building the story for his “Robinson Crusoe” robot.
“I didn’t want you to see him as a person; I didn’t want what I called the ‘Tin Man effect’ where it’s like the ‘Wizard of Oz’ and he’s just a metal human being,” he said.
When Stanton started the four-year process of making “WALL-E,” he didn’t have a particular look in mind for the robot, who now has Caterpillar treads, binocular eyes and a square crusher for a body. The former animator sent the film’s artists out to take pictures of different machines and develop personalities for them.
Stanton, 42, also decided his non-humanoid robots would only speak in whistles, beeps and other electronic sounds.
“I kept recalling that moment in ‘Star Wars’ where R2 was alone with the Jawas, and there was no English, it was all different languages, but you completely understood everything that was going on,” said Stanton, whose next project will be the film version of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ book “John Carter of Mars.”
After 18 years with Pixar, he knew from his experiences with the studio’s trademark animated Luxo Jr. lamp that a non-speaking character could work if done right.
“I didn’t want him silent, that wasn’t interesting to me. What was interesting to me was that he just had his own way of speaking. And I just kept using the term ‘R2D2,’ ‘like R2D2,’ ‘like R2D2,’” Stanton said, laughing.
“And finally my producer, Jim Morris, said, ‘Why don’t we just call Ben Burtt, who did R2D2?’ And I went, ‘Oh, can we do that? Wow, that’s nice. OK, well, let’s call him.’”
The legendary sound effects designer spent two years on the film, basically becoming two-thirds of the cast, since so many of the characters are robots. Each has its own identity and way of speaking consistent with its form and function.
“I really don’t think I could have solved this movie (without him),” Stanton said. “He just brought so much knowledge to the table.”
The movie’s limited dialogue helped push the ever-advancing studio into new territory, from making its cameras more accurate to incorporating live-action footage for the first time.
“I wasn’t going to be able to rely on conventional dialogue and so … everything else in the picture was going to have to rise the occasion to carry the storytelling – the music, the way the camera was staged, and on a very subtle level, the way the lenses worked on the camera,” he said.
The story involves WALL-E watching the movie “Hello Dolly!” and through the song “It Only Takes a Moment,” learning about and yearning for love.
“That’s live-action footage. So that sort of sets a precedent now that anytime you look at old footage, it’s gotta be real humans. … So I realized I was going to have to shoot live-action, which was fun.”
While change is on the only constant at Pixar, Stanton said the company stays focused on turning good ideas into the best possible movies.
“We have a lot of lunches,” he said with a laugh. “I’m surrounded by so many talented, smart people, that I think there’s a million ideas that are as worthy as the films that we’ve made that are just getting thrown around.”