Wall-E a triumph of the crafts, Stanton, Burtt and PIXAR in-depth

If you are a creative type and love being in a stimulating environment that defies cubicle corporate settings, PIXAR is the place to shoot for vocationally. 

Once an old, empty warehouse, PIXAR headquarters was cleverly recycled and retrofitted to efficiently service a small city of employees.  The first floor houses a room devoted to nothing but free self-serve breakfast, with every cereal in the world displayed in Lucite jewel boxes.  An edible art installation. 

Every obscure flavor of TAZO tea is representing, exotic coffees percolating, a world-cuisine themed café to get the most delicious organic lunch; a complimentary hair salon and buff up place; on-site massages; yoga classes; expert childcare; continuing education; a heated pool; sand volleyball court and the best healthcare and retirement package outside of Congress are just some of the amenities that benefit the fortuitous PIXAR family of workers. 

All of this workplace Valhalla is set amidst beautifully landscaped rows of abundant multi-varietal apple trees loaded with fruit, hybrid rose gardens, a perfect home of the finest modern day children’s classic animation films, including November 18th DVD release of director Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E.

Disney/Pixar’s Wall-E will be released as four different editions – a standard definition single-disc, a standard definition triple-disc, Blu-ray double-disc, and a Blu-ray triple-disc edition.

This gem of tale introduces us to a romantically inclined little robot that restores lost humanity and introduces a drive for personal connection to a Diaspora of grossly corpulent earthlings trapped in the Axiom space cruise ship, rendered moribund over the years by their own mindless consumerism and consumption. 

Stanton even manages to make a cockroach endearing in this sweet tale of curiosity and kindness, and the restorative powers of love and loyalty.

PIXAR employees of all levels, from multi Academy Award winning Ben Burtt, to the executives who oversee the right and left brains of PIXAR and keep everyone to budget, Lindsay Collins and Jim Morris, to the story visionary of Wall-E, director Andrew Stanton, and all the men and women who drew over 46,000 storyboards and recreated physical models into 2 D to 3 D computer animation drawings, shared a commonality of drive, passion and a sense of pride in completing the best end product to hang their collective hats on. 

With Wall-E, PIXAR took their game to new levels of excellence.

Aandrew Stanton and Wall-E

Aandrew Stanton and Wall-E

“There is a prevailing feeling here to keep to a high standard and wanting to make the best movie we can make.  Everybody brings their best ‘A’ game, and the work of the artists, engineers and craftsman combined ensures it,” said Lindsay Collins, co-Producer of Wall-E. Collins has been with PIXAR since 1997. “I think the difference between PIXAR and other studios is that the directors want to show their film when it’s not working.  They aren’t afraid to ask for help.”

Producer and GM Jim Morris joined Collins at PIXAR when Monsters and Critic joined a group of journalists who got the grand tour, and talked directly to the PIXAR brain trust that gave us their latest film.

“Producers have to mind the budget, and on a live action film that traditionally means telling the director what he can and can’t afford to do in the way of locations, special effects, and actor salaries.”  Morris elaborated. “With PIXAR it’s a different process, we have to keep the people we need for the scale of the project in mind.  It’s more about budgeting manpower, say we have 50 animators and we know that they have to start working on ‘Up’ (the next film scheduled for a 2009 release.)  So it is managing the animators for one project like ‘Up’ and rotating the teams from one film to the next.  There’s a finite period of time where you have these resources that you need and it’s all about trying to accommodate all the projects going on with the right people.”

Monsters and Critics asked Morris about the notes (scene specific comments from other studio principles and creatives) process with a PIXAR film.

“One nice thing about PIXAR is that everyone can give notes and everybody does give notes but the notes are not mandatory, even from the top.  There’s no team of executive that gives notes that have to be attended to.  Now, that said, if you get three notes from John Lasseter you might not want to ignore them because they’re probably smart and they’re probably something you should take a look at, but everybody’s very collegial and egoless when it comes to that here.”   Collins added, “Disney doesn’t give us notes.  It’s John Lasseter, it’s Pete Docter, it’s Brad Bird, it’s Bob Peterson, it’s our brain trust and they all give each other notes.  Andrew (Stanton) is right there a month after he’s shown his film and gotten his notes he’s there sitting across from the ‘Up’ directors talking about their film.”

Massachusetts native, director Andrew Stanton is the story guy.  He talked about the tale of Wall-E which had been tickling his brain for nearly a decade. He was over the moon about this film, a real labor of love for the man who gave us “Finding Nemo,” another original story of his that he co-wrote along with directing.  Stanton’s strength is his imagination and the heart of stories he has worked on, like “A Bug’s Life”, “Monsters, Inc.” and “Toy Story 2″, where PIXAR’s team of artists gave life to his words by hand and keystroke.

Ben Burtt and Andrew Stanton

Ben Burtt and Andrew Stanton

“This is the first time where a format exactly represents how good a film looks in the building here. It used to be that you’d only go downhill from here after [creating films in the studio]. We sweat over every pixel.”

Stanton discussed deleted scenes as well.

“We have more of what you would expect a deleted scene to be on this than we do for the other movies. A lot of people don’t realize that we only animate a section of a film when we know it’s working, and so all of our second and third tries and cut scenes and scenes that we think are almost working are in storyboard form with the sound and the audio and stuff. People think that they’re getting ripped off – that they’re seeing early drafts – but these are later drafts.”

Stanton continued: “There were two moments in the film that I had wrong all the way through to the finished animation. It’s a testament to how great this place is and how great my crew was in that when I suddenly realized that I had it wrong and I had the right answer, they recognized it and said, “OK. All right.  The one scene when they’re out in space, and the pod is almost blown up, and they reunite with the fire extinguisher, and he (Wall-E) shows Eve that he has the plant still. She’s all happy, and then they sort of hug, flying around the ship.

Well, it used to be that she was just happy that he was alive, and it wasn’t until after they flew in the ship that they had a scene in a closet where they were sort of sneaking back into the ship that he revealed that he had the plant. The whole same moment happened in this little closet, and he tried to confess that he loved her and it didn’t work.

These were necessary beats, but it stopped the rhythm of the picture and we couldn’t get our heads around it. It always seemed to make sense, and it always seemed to work as a scene, and when we watched it, it dawned on us that the showing of the plant should happen much sooner and much quicker in space, and then it would motivate her being that happy for them to fly around the ship and be much stronger.

Another scene that had to be redone was when Eve got hurt. Wall-E and Eve went down into the trash, and Wall-E jumped in after her and saved her from the air loft and fixed her.”  Stanton later felt the scene would work better if Wall-E suffered the injury, instead of Eve.

Stanton shared it was very unusual for PIXAR films to have any deleted scenes, because of the linear animation process that has the final animation rendered only after the scenes and story are completely agreed upon. “It’s just so expensive to animate that we’re just not going to animate it until we’re sure,” Stanton said.

Stanton noted the bonus of the Blu-ray format.  “With Blu-ray, you get the maximum impact of how the sound really is. Since Wall-E communicates with only electronic blips and not a voice, the sound quality is of the utmost importance.”

“We can experience, in a new way, all the other distinct sounds from the film. There were over 2,600 sound files for the film, and some were quite creative.”

The crafts shine brightly in a masterful film like Wall-E, and sound guru Ben Burtt was a large part of why we fell in love with the little robot.  Burtt was the voice of Wall-E and served as M-O and Sound & Character Voice Designer for the film.  

Four-time Academy award-winner Burtt gave us all the sound of Darth Vadar, Indiana Jones’ films, all the Star Wars films, E.T., and a long list that also includes “Munich.”

Enthusiasm and passion define Burtt’s work ethic. He energetically demonstrated how certain sounds were “born” for the key scenes and functions of Wall-E, Eve, the cockroach and the howling dirt storms that hit during the windswept sundown.  

Burtt shared that with Wall-E, there were special problems that he had in designing the sound, and worked hard to keep realism to the actual sound effects, over 2600 individual ones, to weave the audial landscape together.  

Burtt demonstrated various contraptions and devices to create key sounds, such as an electric toothbrush, an extended slinky that was used for the laser gun sound for the character Eve; a real police Taser for the cockroach, and a visit to the gym yields exercise balls plopping down carpeted stairs, which was used with the humans aboard the Axiom. For one sound, Burtt turned to eBay to purchase an old crank generator.  Even the opening strains of a PC booting up were thrown into the mix.

Burtt joked that he had a fill of robots and wasn’t sure he wanted to pursue the project. “When Andrew pitched this idea and I realized it was all robot voices at first I thought I am sure I have anything left in me – have I got a new idea, but it was a very different set of characters.”

He elaborated that Stanton’s story hooked him: “The idea always is to create the sense of the character with sound. The aim is to create the sense that these talking machines have a soul.  You could have imposed a human voice on to the robots and audiences would have accepted that. But with Wall-E it was important to give the sound an aspect of being a machine.”

Burtt shared that for the three years he spent on Wall-E, his workday was a solitary affair for the most part. He created many of the effects with his various recording gear and mixing consoles, speakers and a keyboard he could put sound effects on while he played a musical composition.

“I discover a combination and that gives me something to work on. If I need a human input then I can record myself or I can bring in a PIXAR employee, which happened with Wall-E. I was just using my own voice as a trial – I was not supposed to be the voice – but I was experimenting. I auditioned for Andrew many concepts for Wall-E. Some were sound effects because initially we did not know whether he would talk or he might just whistle like R2D2. I think the first version of Wall-E was almost with electronic tones. Every time I pitched Andrew an audition he would pick two or three things out that he liked. So I began to make a favorites list.”  

Burtt had his favorite moment in Wall-E where he was especially proud.  “I loved the scene where they’re out in space together with the fire extinguisher, I think it’s the lyrical nature of that, the calm in the middle of the storm. That moment, there’s something about putting those two characters out there dancing in space that really takes me back to Peter Pan when I was a kid.  It’s that wonderful ability to be transported to a wonderful place where you feel warm and completely secure. Where it occurs in the movie it feels that way to me, it’s great.”

Cereal row at Pixar

Cereal row at Pixar

Wall-E (Three-Disc Special Edition) [Blu-ray] is now available at Amazon. Visit the DVD database for more information.

Note the date on this article may be incorrect due to importing it from our old system.