A Trip to Pixar Studios
DVD Talk recently had the opportunity to visit Pixar Studios and talk with some of the creative team behind their latest hit, Wall-E. Pitched as "what if mankind left Earth and somebody forgot to turn off the last robot" this charming movie about a lonely robot looking to add meaning to his life was both a commercial and critical success, and stood out in a summer filled with some excellent films.
Director/Co-writer Andrew Stanton (who also wrote and directed Finding Nemo as well as A Bug's Life) was the first to talk with the press and he explained his vision of the film. "I didn't care about the apocalypse part [of the film.] What I care about is this character is alone on a planet. So I had to come up with a logical reason why everybody's gone that you could tell visually, that you could get really fast so I could get to what the story is really about which is him. Then use humanity as an amplification of what the point was. He's asking 'what the point of living? If I've been doing all these other things diligently my whole life but I'm starting to get this sense that there's gotta be more to life because it's not seeming to fill the hole. Then what is it?' It's to love somebody; it's to love one another. That's it. "
"What if, to compliment that one point of the movie, I show that humanity has forgotten that one thing? So everything suffers so the world suffers. I had no specific agenda that was about society or ecology. I used any ingredient that helps show that it will fall apart or be wrong if you forget that one thing."
One of the most striking things about the movie is the fact that there is almost no dialog in the first half of the film. When Wall-E is alone on Earth, the story is told solely through his actions and occasional squeaks. Stanton didn't seem to think that aspect of the film was a huge challenge however. "It was only challenging in the quantity. It kind of comes natural to animators. I think if you see a lot of Bugs Bunny, Tom and Jerry, Walt Disney there's lots of silent characters that use a lot of pantomime and certainly Luxo Jr. (the lamp in the earliest Pixar animated films) which John (Lasseter) did the short of is what we all refer to. It's almost the pure form of what an animator loves to do. In a sense it comes easy to us. I had to beat the animators off with a stick who wanted to work on this movie because they got to indulge in what they love doing. What became difficult is to carry a story that is feature length with as much depth as you can possibly give it in the three act structure without that luxury of the characters saying exactly what they were thinking. That was the hard part."
With the lack of dialog in the first section of the film, it's only natural that Stanton and his team referred to some of the comedies from the silent age of film. "We watched every Keaton and every Chaplin movie for over a year. Every day at lunch we'd watch one of each. These guys were the masters; they were at the top of their game. They had to do it without any help from sound and we're not going to be hampered like that. We're going to have the luxury of using sound every frame of this film. But we still knew that it would put much more pressure on pantomime. So we watched those to see how much they could get across. What's fascinating is that they got everything across. They told some of the most complex stories, the most complex relationships and situations. It's almost invisible how good they were at staging, at camera work and editing, to really help lead your brain to know what to pay attention to next. That was really informative for us to know that we can't be vague. It can't just be a cool shot; it can't just be edited because it's kind of rhythmic. It's always got to be helping tell the story. We have to be really understanding of what it is we're trying to get across. Everybody has to raise their game to fill in that hole where dialog would be."
We next had the chance to discuss the movie with producers Jim Morris and Lindsey Collins. Producers watch 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. With Pixar it's a little different as Collins explained. "It's really the people that we think about. It's not about the dollar amount, it's more about 'okay, we have 50 animators and we know that they have to start working on "Up" (Pixar's next film scheduled for a 2009 release.) "Up" is waiting for those animators to come off of our show and go on to theirs and some of them are coming off of "Ratatouille," so there's a finite period of time where you have these resources that you need and it's all about trying to accommodate." "Thank God or we'd never finish!" Morris adds.
Another difference between Pixar and the way other studios are run is in how feedback is given to the creators (be it the director, character designer or storyboard artist.) Morris explains: "One nice thing about Pixar is that everyone can give notes (comments on what is and is not working in a film or scene) 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 adds: "The notes that there is a lot of focus on and we do screenings specifically to get these notes, are notes from other directors. They are not notes from executives. 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."
"I think the difference between Pixar and other places" Collins continues, "is that the directors want to show it [rough versions of their films] when it's not working. They actually want the notes because they're stuck and they want some help. These are the guys that are going to give you the help."
One of the highlights of the trip that was filled with meeting engaging and talented people was the sound demonstration that was given by Wall-E's sound and character voice designer Ben Burtt. People who enjoy sitting through credits will recognize Burtt's name as he's been associated with some of the most popular movies of the last 30 years including the Star Wars films, the Indiana Jones movies, E.T., and more. This four-time Oscar winner (including two Special Achievement Awards) was not only down to earth and humble, but he's also still excited about the work he's doing. One of the special problems that he had in designing the sound for Wall-E was making it sound different from all the other SF films out there, but still realistic. As the creator of such iconic sounds as Darth Vader's breathing and the hum of a light saber, Burtt tackled the problem with gusto.
The first thing he did was to start playing with various sounds. While many of the final effects were altered through a computer, the vast majority of them started out as something Burtt or one of his assistants recorded from the real world. To create Eve's laser blast he hung a slinky-like spring from a board perched on a tall ladder, put a guitar pickup at the top, and then hit the bottom of the spring. The high frequencies travel faster than the low ones, so by the time the noise reaches the top of the spring, the frequencies have spread themselves out giving a unique resonance that sounds like, well... a laser blast.
He also demonstrated how he created Wall-E's various sounds from items he purchased on e-bay including a WWII vintage hand powered generator (for a field radio) and the device for hand starting the motor on an old bi-plane. Still enthusiastic about sound and how it accentuates a film after all these years, Burtt's love for his work clearly helped make Wall-E a success.
The final interview was with storyboard artist Derek Thompson. While storyboarding a movie is an important step, with a Pixar animated movie it's crucial. Since the computer time to animate a scene is so intensive (with the 135,000 dual and quad processors that they currently have in place, it takes 6-8 hours to render each and every frame) nothing gets animated that isn't going to be in the final cut of the movie. Everything to the smallest detail gets worked out in the story board stage.
"With a very small team of other story artists we worked with Andrew Stanton and Jim Reardon, our story supervisor, and essentially drew the movie over and over and over and over again for years." Thompson described. "The goal of the story team is to iron out and determine what story elements and character development is working and ultimately generates a document that becomes the foundation of the movie. Every other department in the studio builds on that template."
"We have a series of regular screenings every six or seven months where we would screen the drawings cut with sound and music and temporary sound effects [known as reels.] We'd screen that to our brain trust and small groups and get notes and basically go back to the drawing board. We'd go back into the room and spend weeks with Andrew and Jim asking ourselves 'What's working? What's not working? Why isn't it? What if we did this? What if we did that?'"
"We're all looking, from different points of view, towards ways that we can make the best possible movie that we can make. The time that these things spend germinating really go a long way towards the quality at the tail end."
This process means that the film changes significantly over time. "Seriously, in the three and a half years I was working on the film it was seven or eight different movies. I mean dramatically different movies." As Thompson explained "What Wall-E was supposed to be wasn't clear at first."
Later he elaborated "You'll often find that the early reels will have sequences that are really effective. They'll get big laughs, generate excitement, everybody likes the scene. But they aren't serving the greater purpose of the story, and we sort of discover along the way that sometimes you have to take good things out to tell the right movie. Andrew [Stanton] once likened it to a paleontological dig where eventually you say 'Okay we've got all these bones and we know that we've got a dinosaur, but we don't know just what type of dinosaur we have just yet.'"
One of the most impressive things about Pixar is the amazing string of hits that they've created over the years. After spending a day at their studio and talking to some of the people who work there, it's not hard to see why their films work so well. The one thing that everyone I talked to had in common was a strong drive to work hard to create fun and enjoyable movies. At the end of my talk with Derek Thompson he seemed to succinctly encapsulate what everyone else had been saying about what it was like to work at Pixar: "To some degree everybody feels that pressure [to make a good film] exists, but I think the prevailing feeling is a sense of the high standard and wanting to make things the best that they can be. I think that pressure manifests itself as a motivated crew. Everybody brings their "A" game and when you're surrounded by a team of artists and craftsman who are all raising the bar like that on all fronts you can't help but to want to make [the movie] the best that you can make it."
Wall-E is coming to DVD and Blu-ray on November 18th.
I'd like to thank Mac McLean for inviting me along with Julia Orr, Marilyn Hsiung, and Michael Hebler, for arranging all of the details and making everything flow so smoothly. Thanks also to all the wonderful folks at Pixar for taking the time to talk with me. Extra special thanks goes to Dre Birskovich for the unforgettable tour of Pixar's parking lot.
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