As has been said many a time the last few weeks, way back in 1994 John Lasseter and some of his most promising Pixar protégés sat down for a meal and a bull session.
They felt pretty confident their first movie, Toy Story, was going to be a huge hit. Lasseter had the foresight to realize that making an animated feature film was a long, some might say seriously torturous, process. It would be a good idea to have some more ideas to pitch before they were being told what to do. So they started writing storylines and doodling whatever popped out of their heads on the napkins and tablecloth.
Three of those seeds became the films A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc. and Finding Nemo. There was one more.
“One of the sort of half-brained sentences was, ‘Hey! We could do a sci-fi!’” recalls Andrew Stanton, who (along with Pete Docter) was one of the first animators Lasseter ever hired. “’What about the last robot on Earth? Everyone's left and this machine just doesn't know it can stop and it keeps doing it forever.’ That's really where it started. All the details weren't there. There wasn't a name of the character. We didn't even know what it would look like. It was the loneliest scenario I had ever heard and I just sort of loved it.”
Wall*EAs everyone now knows, that little seed of an idea germinated and grew into the film Wall*E. Released this past Friday, it continues to cement Pixar’s reputation as one of the most audacious and ground-breaking animation studios in the United States, if not the world. It’s also going to be another galactic-sized hit.
Currently carrying the position of Vice President, Creative at the studio, Stanton is no stranger to hard work and success. A graduate of Cal Arts, he started his career at the Kroyer Studio in the early 1980s before becoming a writer for Ralph Bakshi’s Mighty Mouse: The New Adventures for CBS. Lasseter hired him to be part of Pixar in 1990, where his writing ability has earned him a credit on every feature length film the studio has done since Toy Story. In 1998, he added another title to his credits, co-director, with A Bug’s Life. From there he went on to solo direct Pixar’s most financially successful film of all time, Finding Nemo (2003), which grossed nearly $850 million worldwide.
So here he is now, holding a teleconference to discuss his latest effort. Just listening to him talk about how he designed Wall*E's central character alone will tell you why he’s now one of the studio’s top directors.
“It's funny; being a sci-fi geek myself and going to the movies all my life, I had come to my own conclusion that there were really kind of two camps of how robots had been designed,” said Stanton. “It's either the Tin Man, which is a human with metal skin, or it's R2D2. It's a machine that has a function. It's designed is based on that and you read a character into it. I was very interested in going with the machine side because to me that was what was fascinating.
“The other thing I think really motivated me…you know, John had made "Luxo Jr.," this little short about a lamp that hops around that's just an appliance. It's not made to look like a character. It just happened to be an appliance that you could easily, by its own natural design, throw a character onto it”
“That is powerful,” Lasseter concludes. “I've had to watch that thing about a thousand times and I always am like, just before we put it on, I go, ‘I gotta watch this again!’ I get caught up every time. There is some unique power to bringing a machine to life than other kinds of machines that are designed to look like a character. There's something unique about that and I started to put it into the category of why we are so attracted to pets and infants.
“I think there's something about something that's already appealing where you're kind of charmed by it, but it can't communicate fully. You're compelled…you almost can't stop yourself from finishing the sentence ‘Oh, I think it likes me! I think it's hungry! I think it wants to go for a walk!’”
It was based on these thoughts that Stanton then took things to the next level, the relationship between Wall*E and EVE.
“I think that's why love at first sight works in movies,” said Stanton. “Nobody says anything. The guy or the girl stares at the other person. That other person walks across the room, and you go racing back to when it happened to you. You're using that personal emotional experience to fuel that moment in the movie.
“I said, "Wow, what if you could get a character that did that to you through a whole movie, just like Luxo does…on the short?’ I didn't know how hard that would be to achieve, but I know that if you achieved it, it would be really powerful. So, in a weird way, we never questioned that you could succeed at it. It was just … did we have the knowledge and the ability to be the ones that did it?”
From there, Stanton had to think up the reason why Wall*E was the loneliest robot in the universe. This was, according to press materials supplied, probably the longest part of the robot’s development process.
“We had no story,” said Stanton. “It was sort of this little Robinson Crusoe kind of little character. [Then we thought] what if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off? I started to just think of him doing his job every day and compacting trash that was left on Earth”
One thing Stanton also wants to make abundantly clear is he really wasn’t out to make any political statement about being green, either. To him, having all humanity leave on a galactic cruise liner while Wall*E was left to clean the planet was just a storytelling device.
“That was not where I was coming from when I did that stuff,” said Stanton. “I knew I was going into territory that was basically the same stuff but I don't have a political bent. I don't have an ecological message to push. I don't mind that it supports that kind of view. It's certainly a good citizen way to be but everything I wanted to do was based on the love story.
“I wanted the last robot on Earth. That was the sentence that we came up with in '94. I have to get everybody off the planet. I have to do it in a way that you get it without any dialogue. You have to be able to get it visually in less than a minute. So trash did that. You look at it, you get it. It's a dump and you gotta move it. Even a little kid understands that.”
“I wasn't trying to be anti-anything,” says Stanton. “I think I was just trying to go ‘Look, too much of a good thing of anything is a cautionary tale.’ Honestly, everything I did was in reverse. It was like I've gotta go with trash because I love what it does to my main character and it's very clear, and then I went backwards from that. I said "Why would there be too much trash?" Well it'd be really easy for me to show we'd bought too much stuff and it'd be really easy to show that without having to have it explained and it's kind of fun. It's fun to be satirical like that. You know we all have that sort of Simpsons bent, you know. So I just went with what felt somewhat true. I mean, I think we've always felt that we have to be sort of disciplined in that area.”
With main plot and motivation now in place, all that was left was to design the robot itself. For all those who cynically note Wall*E’s resemblance to Short Circuit’s #5, Stanton isn’t owning up to it. Again he points to the short “Luxo Jr.”
“You have to find a design that already makes you do it to it,” he said. “That's what happened with John and the Luxo lamp. He just happened to see a lamp and I can't help myself; I see a face on it. That's what we did.
“I was at a baseball game and somebody handed me their binoculars. I hadn't designed WALL*E yet. I knew he had to compact trash so I knew he was going to be a box at the most basic thing. I knew that he was going to collapse to possibly show that he's shy. That's all I had and I honestly was thinking of putting just a single cone lamp on there because I loved how much you just read a face into the simplicity of Luxo.
“But I thought, ‘I don't know if that's going to hold for 90 minutes.’ Then I got handed these binoculars at a baseball game, I missed the entire inning. I just turned the thing around. I started staring at it. I started making it go sad and happy and then mad and then sad. I remember doing that as a kid with my dad's binoculars. I said, ‘It's all there. There's no nose, there's no mouth. There's nothing.’ It's not trying to be a face. It just happens to ask that of me when I look at it. I said, ‘That's it. I can't improve upon that.’"
And Stanton couldn’t.