Feature: WALL-E and Pixar
Fri, 21 Nov 2008 13:43:19
Ben Burtt Videos
For the select group of journalists chosen to tour Pixar studios in anticipation of this week’s WALL-E DVD release, the title of a certain “Happiest Place On Earth” was, without a doubt, usurped. Pixar is a place where dreams are realized and the simple credo of “story first” is adhered to at all costs. If Pixar is an anomaly in the modern moviemaking world, then they’re an aberration of the best sort. The sprawling Emeryville campus is equipped with state-of-the-art technological accoutrements, a Grecian-inspired outdoor amphitheater where meetings are occasionally held, and facilities for, of all things, midday sword fighting classes. With a bevy of creative stimulation surrounding its employees, who are treated with an unparalleled degree of care and respect that every company should strive to emulate, it’s no wonder they release a consistently stellar column of work.
WALL-E is no exception. From its inception through the extensive development process leading up to release, the film is regarded as one of Pixar’s dearest projects. There was no race to the finish line for the team behind the movie, as the average incubation period for each film is about five years. Says director Andrew Stanton, “Just to make these things consumes every cell of your body…It takes years and so long [to complete that] you just get consumed in it.”
This is certainly true of the animation process, wherein characters are imagined and go through a “Plussing” procedure—visual traits are added, taken away, and altered to best suit story needs and provide the most stunning look possible for audience members. Jason Deamer, a Character Art Director on the film, describes WALL-E’s creation as particularly engulfing.
“WALL-E[‘s animation] went on for a year-and-a-half. This amazing guy, Jay Schuster, who used to work at ILM [Industrial Light & Magic]—he’s just got an engineer’s brain. [The animators] really set out to try and make WALL-E completely functional. The amount of work and detail that went into engineering all [his] little parts is really amazing. I don’t know how many iterations [we went through]. A thousand, maybe?”
Those 1,000-plus incarnations led toward an overall look that isn’t painterly in the vein of Ratatouille or vaguely comic-book inspired as with The Incredibles, but inarguably the most film-like of all Pixar’s movies. The contribution of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who often collaborates with the Coen Brothers, explains this marriage of fantasy and realism in WALL-E. “I know, for him, it's just [as simple as] A, B, and C,” says Stanton, “I think that's his gift. He’s able to take very complex problems and find a simple solution for them. [They seem] so deceivingly simple, his answers. "Just put the light over here and put the camera there." We were so inspired that we asked him to stay for a couple more weeks and advise our Director of Photography.”
From Stanton to Deakins to Ben Burtt, the latter who voiced WALL-E and engineered his sounds using everything from a World War II generator purchased on eBay to electronic assistance, a virtual dream team of collaborators united to bring the intergalactic love story to life. With some of the savviest creative minds lending their expertise, everyone involved felt impelled to put forth their best effort, day by day, week by week, throughout production.
Even Stanton, who helmed the project, readily confesses to being humbled by the talents of those around him.
“Frankly, I work with the most talented, intelligent, funny people I've ever met in my life that I think are smarter, funnier, and more intelligent than I am. So you feel like you've got to show up and hold your own everyday here.”
This unspoken pact to “hold one’s own” resulted in the creation of a critically-lauded and audience-loved film, now available on DVD and Blu-Ray, and brimming with Special Features fit to please AV-aficionados (read: DVD geeks, and that’s meant with affection). Stanton believes the Blu-Ray release to be especially stunning.
“The thing I love about Blu-Ray is that you'll be able to watch these movies and see them exactly how we see them in this building. We always used to complain that this will be the best it will look for us and, for everyone else, it will look worse the minute it leaves the building whether or not you see it on Laserdisc or DVD. When you watch the Blu-Ray you're pretty darn close, if not exactly, [seeing] how it looks for us.”
Producer Jim Morris is equally excited about WALL-E coming out on the Blu-Ray platform, and agrees with Stanton’s assessment of its visual quality.
“The really cool thing about the Blu-Ray is that everybody can see the film in almost the full-resolution as it was originally made. There’s a bunch of other things on the Blu-ray in particular. There’s a feature—Cine-Explore—kind of like the hot-rodded narration track by the director or others, where, in addition to hearing the comments about the film and the thoughts of the director, you’re able to pull up images that relate to that [commentary]. So, if they’re talking about a design problem in a particular scene, concept art can pop up and you can get a view into that process. For people who are cinema buffs, I think it’s really cool stuff.”
Cool stuff, to be sure, and one wouldn’t expect anything less from today’s champions of animated filmmaking.