Building the Better Robot: Director Angus MacLane on BurnE

Angus MacLane on Burn

As fans of the film Wall•E know, a robot’s work is never done. The first thing the little robot star did when he returned to Earth was start compacting trash…again. One gets the impression, even after his memory was restored, he is still doing it 700 years in the future while EVE is off hunting up more plants.

Angus MacLane certainly appreciates this sentiment. He started as an intern on Pixar’s Toy Story , became an animator on the short “Geri’s Game,” and has worked his way up the assembly line to storyboard artist and animation director on Wall•E. The spin-off short, “Burn•E,” is part of the astounding new Wall*E DVD collection released this week. It’s also MacLane’s directorial debut.

The short tells the tale of one of the space cruiser Axiom’s repair robots. He is set off to repair a minor problem on the ship. It just happens he goes off on his mission the same time Wall•E and EVE, land on the Axiom. What then ensues borders on the Chaplin-esque, or at least guided by the divine spirit of Chuck Jones, as Burn*E repeatedly attempts to do his job while the other two robots keep wrecking it.

“I first pitched the storyboard to [director] Andrew Stanton in November of 2007 and we finished production in late June 2008,” MacLane said in a teleconference. “I was drawn to

Burn•E

because his story was not fully explored in the feature. I like M•O, but he is in the feature a lot already, so I did not feel like his story needed to be told as urgently. Also I liked the idea of having a short that took place outside the central story arc of the Wall•E feature film.

“He [Stanton] agreed it was a funny idea but encouraged me to develop it into a short film. Visually I wanted to replicate, or 'pay homage' to late 70s/early 80s Sci-Fi movies. The unifying element in these films is that everything was hand made, they did not have CGI, and so it gives the worlds a tactile quality that has been missing from many modern sci-fi films.”

Then again, there’s a quiet little lesson inside the movie, one MacLane himself can testify to.

“Surround yourself with people whose work you admire and whose opinions you trust,” he said. “In school I worked really hard and sought out others who did the same. In your work make sure that you are making something that you believe in. In Burn•E I tried to have at least one thing in each shot that was true or real or relatable. Make the world of your film believable and relatable and the audience will follow.”

Then MacLane uses himself as an example.

“I lucked out when standards were low,” MacLane says about his being hired by Pixar. “When I was hired in 1997, Disney and DreamWorks were the hot places to work. Pixar was looking for animators to work on the Toy Story direct-to-video sequel. I got an internship and then worked as hard as I could to learn how to animate. I had done 2D animation in school, but I had so much to learn. I would have loved t o have worked on the original Toy Story, which is the only Pixar feature that I was not involved in. I also wish that I could have worked on some of those Listerine commercials. That's one of the great things about Pixar. There are a lot of people to learn from.”

This experience of working his way up the Pixar ladder paid off handsomely as he was working on Wall*E.

“I am a big fan of side stories,” says MacLane. “I had a side story pitch for The Incredibles that Brad [Bird] was excited about, but budget constraints kept us from doing it. I think it is important that the side story not belittle or betray the main story. If the main story is about the existence of the Easter Bunny, the side story can't say there is no Easter Bunny or it messes with the feature.

“’Burn•E’ stands for: Basic Utility Repair Nano Engineer. His name internally had been "Repair Bot" When I started the short, I envisioned him as being called ‘Weld•R.’ About two days later Jim Reardon, the head of story handed me a drawing he had done of the word ‘Burn•E’ burned into metal. There was no going back.

“I have since heard from some people that it actually be ‘Burn•A’ because the ‘E’ in ‘Wall•E’ stands for ‘Earth-Class’" and the ‘A’ would be the appropriate ‘Axiom-Class’. Now I could argue that maybe Burn•E was a robot on earth that then was installed on the Axiom, but A: I would be lying and B: What is the point? If that is the biggest problem you have with the film, then I have done my job. Now put yourself in my shoes- you have to name this robot. The name ‘Burn•E’ is funny and breaks the continuity of the film or ‘Burn•A’ which is more accurate to the feature and is not funny at all. Which would you choose? I thought so. I do love that geeks pick up on this and I am happy to be creating this controversy. I'd probably do the same thing were I not involved.”

There’s more to this repair ‘bot, too. He actually does have a cameo in the feature film.

“Burn•E (is) in the feature. I thought he was a fun character to animate. After I had animated the shot with him in the feature I wanted to know what happened to him. I wanted to answer that question with this short. I had a few ideas of places we could cut back to Burn•E in the feature, but it slowed the pace of the film down. Once Andrew encouraged me to take these ideas and develop them into a short, I needed to find a unifying story arc.

“I came up with this idea of him having a job and that job would be repairing this light. Then I thought, it would be funny to have Wall•E inadvertently cause this meteor to hit the light on the ship. This led to the central idea of the short. In the feature, Wall•E has a positive effect on everyone he meets. So I thought what if there is someone for whom Wall•E 's arrival on the Axiom isn't a good thing. Wall•E is never purposefully mean to Burn•E, it's just bad luck. Once I had that central idea I looked for key moments in the film to cut back to Burn•E to see what he was doing at that particular time.”

“I pitched the film to Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter. Once they bought off on the concept I was free to pretty much do as I wished. There were budget considerations, but there weren't any compromises that hurt the film. I checked in with Andrew periodically and if there was anything that wasn't reading or could be improved he would make notes. I would say that 95% of his notes made the film better. Mostly he had notes on pacing. “Burn•E” by nature is fairly episodic. He had a lot of notes that kept the pace from slowing to a crawl. Freedom as a director is also the freedom to make a bad movie. I had the support of an extremely talented crew so anything that was bad they did there best to fix.

“The biggest challenge was how to make a 7+ minute film on a budget. I was allowed to make a film that long if it came in on budget. I wanted the film to look like a 70's-80's Sci-Fi films. On those films they built awesome sets on limited budget. We used a lot of the same principles of repeated forms for “Burn•E”. As an homage, the floor grating in “Burn•E “is based on floor grating in featured in the movies Outland, Alien, and Aliens.”

Remember, MacLane directed this short while fulfilling his obligations to Wall•E at the same time.

“I started boarding ‘Burn•E’ on the evenings and lunches when we were in the heat of animation production on Wall•E,” he recalled. “Once the animation was wrapping up on the feature, production started on ‘Burn*E.’ It dovetailed nicely but I did have to put off a May vacation till August.”

Keeping within budget wasn’t MacLane’s only challenge.

“Communicating his thought process to the audience was the biggest challenge,” says MacLane. “He is a fairly limited character, which is appealing, but more work must be done in the story process to communicate his intentions. With ‘Burn•E’ and with Wall•E, if the audience can't tell what the character is thinking or what is going on, then they lose interest very quickly.”

Another intriguing difficulty about ‘Burn•E’ is how MacLane cuts footage from Wall•E in and around his original animation. He admits there was some challenges to doing that, too.

“There were a lot of difficult shots to pull off in this film. From a technical perspective, the shot with Wall•E touching Saturn's rings that transitions into the pebble meteor was the hardest to pull off. The Effects Supervisor, Bill Watral did a fabulous job stitching the shot from the film and a bunch of new elements that were on a literally planetary scale. On the performance side, the shot where ‘Supply•R’ drops the light on the ground was the trickiest to get right. It was something in the boards that were really funny that was extremely difficult to capture.”

But he did it. If MacLane sounds quite satisfied with himself, after seeing “Burn•E” you’ll easily see he’s justified.

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