It’s been over a decade since Pixar burst onto the scene with it’s brazen combination of old fashioned film craftsmanship and the cuttingest of cutting edge technology. Since then their undisputed reign as the cream of modern animation’s crop has been challenged by every studio under the sun, but they keep coming out on top, proving that their success is not just from being the only ones doing what they do, but also the best.
A key component to that success is Andrew Stanton. Originally one of Pixar’s key story leads and screenwriters (earning a Best Original Screenplay nomination for Toy Story), Stanton branched out to directing with equally impressive results with 2003’s Finding Nemo, earning an Oscar for Best Animated Film for his efforts.
It’s been five years since then, but Stanton has hardly been resting on his laurels. Despite how advanced the tools have gotten, the nature of animation hasn’t changed that much since Walt Disney first started production on Snow White and it still takes the better part of four years to create one of Pixar’s highly polished efforts. Ever since “Nemo” was released, Stanton has been busy working on the story of WALLE, the last robot left on Earth to clean up after the human race has long since abandoned the planet. With production on WALLE almost finished (Pixar tends to tweak films right up to the last minute) Stanton is finally taking some time away from Pixar’s lavish San Fransico campus to talk about his latest labor love, which brings him to the Four Seasons in Houston, in a blue sports coat and lots and lots of blond hair.
ComingSoon.net: Your hair is so long. I wasn’t expecting that. Andrew Stanton: Thank you, I love it. Yeah, I didn’t cut it since “Nemo.”
CS: There were some superficial parallels with your movie and another movie that came out a couple of years ago called “Idiocracy.” Stanton: Really?
CS: You’d love it. In the first 20 minutes the future is all trashed and human beings are essentially all sitting on a couch. Stanton: I don’t think it takes a rocket scientist to make that sort of extrapolation with the future. The reason I went that way, because I don’t have an ecological bone in my body, is because I wanted to go with something very visual and gettable. Because I knew I wasn’t going to have a narrator, I wasn’t going to have a character that was going to be able to explain what happened, I needed something you would just be able to get visually. And I also wanted, I thought it was the lowest job you could have, to be cleaning up the mess someone else left. And so it was very gettable, to see litter on the ground and know you have to move it and get it out of the way, so that’s really where it all started. Because it’s all driven by the love story for me, in everything I chose to do.
CS: Was it really difficult in not just not having any exposition, but having a character who doesn’t talk, more or less. Stanton: Well, he talks all the time. I would argue with you on that.
CS: No, I thought it was amazing how much range you got out of someone who says two words. Stanton: That’s what, well, he says two English words, but in my mind he’s got a vocabulary that’s quite extensive, and I know every beep and squawk that I would use to get a certain emotion and a certain statement. Because when I wrote the script I wrote all the dialogue and then I put it brackets and then I knew that’s what we had to convey. And then I hired Ben Burtt who had already invented languages for not only machines but for alien life forms and all that stuff in his history and I was sort of getting twenty years of experience right away, sort of jumping ahead with having that. So between knowing what the intention — what I wanted each character to say and when — and having someone who had the ability to give me that language, I never felt held back. I never felt I couldn’t convey something the way I would normally. The last thing — I didn’t want to do a silent picture. I wanted to do a picture that really played with the integrity of the character that it was, which was a machine. And I wanted it to feel like a machine because I was so smitten with the character of Luxo Jr. before I ever came to Pixar and I just loved how every ounce of you saw it as an appliance and then you imbued a character on it, which is a lot more impressive and engaging than seeing something that is designed to be a character and trying to make you throw that on it. So that was really wanted I to play in, that sort of range.
CS: Were you thinking about trying to get Ben to do the sound while you were working on the story? Stanton: Really early on, once I knew it was officially going to be allowed to be made. I kept saying “like R2D2, like R2D2, like R2D2,” and my producer, Jim Morris, said “well, why don’t we call Ben Burtt” and I said “Wow! We can do that? Okay.” So we called him and I thought, yeah, go for the guy that’s inspired the whole thing. And I told him “I want you to be two thirds of my entire cast” and I think it would be great, and he took the bait. Honestly, now that I’ve worked with him for two years I don’t think we could have achieved what we got with the character and with all the other characters that he did, if we hadn’t had him. I basically bought all that experience.
CS: In the credits there were two visual consultants, Roger Deakins and Dennis Muren. Could you talk briefly about them? Stanton: One of the big things that I really wanted to improve upon on WALLE was the use of our camera. I’m getting a little geeky but exactly how the lens was working. Because I felt going into shallow focus and barrel distortion and things you’re used to seeing on any live action film, it wasn’t doing exactly the correct thing. And I knew on this movie, because there would be less dialogue, you would be hanging onto understanding what was going on, your sense would be more focused on the visuals and how do I create intimacy in a dystopian world with two metal boxes? And I realized that I would be using the lens a lot, making it more soft and intimate by bringing in the focus very, very narrow. And I wanted that kind of wonderful distortion you get where things that are lights in the back suddenly become big transparent ovals. Where something’s so close to the camera it actually starts to become transparent and blurred out, and I wanted all those sort of imperfect artifacts that we’ve been used to forever. So we actually called a consultant and we again, my producer Jim Morris said, one of the best guys out there is Roger Deakins. Why don’t we call him up? He gives a weekend seminar. And we were like, okay, bring him up! So he gives a weekend seminar and we got so much out of it, enjoyed it, we asked him to stay for a couple of more weeks and advise us, and at the same time we sort of ripped apart all our software and fixed problems where it wasn’t accurately doing what a real camera does and with [Dennis Muren’s] advice as well, those two combined, we really did actually go a major step in how accurate we can film stuff, and it would look like a real camera. Which was a real point. I really did want you to feel like you were a fly on the wall sort of capturing this little guy alone on a planet.
CS: There’s one close up, between the two of them, were we see her visor, wrapped around. Stanton: And you get that. One of my favorite scenes visually is when they’re in the truck and she’s looking at the lighter and he’s just sort of staring at her and we get to full bore play with what our camera’s can do now. And I just felt it made it that much more intimate.
CS: You said in the early teaser that this was one of the original storylines explored by Pixar. Stanton: Yeah, it was, well to get really picky, it was an original character that we came up with at that lunch. The story I didn’t start on until the “Nemo” years, but out of that lunch came just a quick little concept of like, sci-fi and robots and what if everyone left the planet and what if there was this one little robot left collecting all the garbage that just didn’t know it could stop doing its job. And I thought that is such an exercise in futility, I could even buy a character that’s a machine, after seven hundred years of doing the same thing, finally asking the question “there’s got to be more to life than what I’m doing.” I just thought that that was great. But it was such an abstract concept even then, before we’d even proven that we could do “Toy Story,” we were like, well no one would ever give us the money or the opportunity to do something like that, that was so out there. So it got put on a shelf and we became much more experienced, much more involved in other pictures, much better filmmakers and so by the time “Nemo” came out I felt we were at a place where maybe I would internally get the okay to make a movie like that but maybe the outside world would be open to coming to a movie like that. So maybe in a weird way it was better, letting it simmer for so long.
CS: Because the story isn’t so far out there. Stanton: No. Because it is a very conventional love story, just told through very unconventional means with very unconventional characters, and to me that’s the thing that was interesting.
CS: I mean things like the obesity, one in four children is obese. Stanton: I didn’t know any of that ten years ago when I began to work on this and I’m not that psyched that some of these things became prophetic. I just went with simple logic. The thing that made me pick humans the way they were. It’s funny, I actually tried to avoid obesity. I wanted blobs, I wanted babies. Because in doing research with our, one of the consultants to NASA and his expertise was long term residency in space and the reason we don’t send a man out to Mars right now is because if we do, they’ll come back with almost no bones because disuse atrophy will kick in with very little gravity and osteoporosis will occur and you will lose a large percentage of your bones, and you’ll just be this jello blob. And, so I thought oh my gosh, that’s a perfect sort of thing dealing with people, later on in life, who have everything solved for them. We don’t have to farm anymore, we don’t have do all these things that make us get up and survive and what if technology was so advanced that all these things were solved. How to live longer, regenerative food, all that stuff, what would you do with your time? Because the theme of the movie was irrational love defeats programming. I just love the idea of a machine that basically had more of an understanding of what living was all about than everything else in the universe that was living and he was almost like the involuntary keeper of the flame of that. And what if everyone that was truly human living had forgotten all that, that they were so distracted and so programmed into their habits and their rituals, that they were filling their days but they weren’t really living. And that’s really what drove it. And the whole realization that if you were out in space for that long you would sort of have a lot of bone loss made me feel like wow, you could almost buy that people would be stuck in their beach chairs and we be almost babies. And I thought that was a great metaphor for having to grow up again and stand on your own two feet. And that’s what drove it.
CS: I thought the “keeping the flame” line was an interesting point because it seemed like there was a lot of mythological underpinnings. He’s really like Prometheus, except instead of fire he’s bringing a plant back. Stanton: Yeah. You don’t consciously go in — I’m a little bit more of a proponent of going with your gut and going with your subconscious and then maybe somewhere midstream analyzing what you’re going with because I think you get to a truer place that way. At some point you have to take responsibility and go what is my theme, but it’s more like what is this story telling me it wants to be. But things like that, yeah, we did sort of fall into, and I don’t know why they do, but they just made sense. One thing that I know, to be honest, when I first came up with the plan, I had not a single ecological issue, I just loved the idea of something real trying to survive among all this stuff that’s manmade. And so you have the idea of life, or the point of living, trying to survive through the soul of this robot, and I thought this plant sticking up through all this garbage was such a perfect visual metaphor for exactly what was WALLE that I felt that they were these two characters that just meet each other. Same with the Captain, who’s just somebody that’s having the same Monday everyday, who has no reason to be there, everything’s going to work without him, so what’s the point? So I almost felt he and WALLE were soulmates, about having the same questions about what is the point of why I’m here? And that was really, it’s weird, those were the three points I had before I had anything to say.
CS: You’ve talked about the Pixar process with “Nemo” in-depth. Did you go through the same process in putting together the story for this? Stanton: Yeah. It was very it’s always ugly and arduous and I try my best every time going into it to try and solve all my problems as early as I can, and it still, it was just very, very tough to get the story just right. I’ve started to learn you don’t have much say about when you’re going to get an idea and which idea it’s going to be that sparks stuff. For WALLE, for instance, the idea came from the character and then I tried to find a story to put around. So often it’s the other way around, you try to think of a situation or a plot device or some sort of storyline and then you start to try and build up your characters to make them dimensional enough to follow. And this was so so the opposite. I already liked him, I already cared about him, and I didn’t know where this was going to go. So In a weird way I had the beginning before I had the end and it’s what I always tell people, it’s the first lesson in my lecture, know the punch line to your joke. And that’s nice if you have a say when you’re inspired, and sadly I was inspired the wrong way, and just made life hard for myself. So I did spend the first two of the four years just reworking and reworking versions of the movie until I found the ending that I knew was the right ending to the movie and then I went back and changed even though we did all this work, I changed whatever I needed to change to make it all flow organically to the end. So it was hard. Story guys will tell you that.
CS: Every project Pixar has done has been popular and critically successful. How do you do it and why doesn’t Hollywood follow suit? Stanton: I don’t know. All I know is that I can look back and see certain factors that I know play into. I don’t think it’s one thing. It certainly has so much to do with who’s at Pixar, I just think we’ve just got an amazing crew of people and certainly a core of who started it all and as we’ve grown they’ve just been so intelligent about who they’ve hired and then those people have been intelligent about who they’ve hired so it’s almost been like good apples breed more good apples. Another major factor is we’ve never been in Hollywood, we’re out in San Francisco, so we can very easily seduce ourselves into the fact that we’re just making this for ourselves, in this building. One because it takes so long, two because when we leave the building there’s no one else doing the stuff so we go home and we’re kind of reminded on a daily basis that it’s a privilege to make a movie, so we still are excited when we get to work. So that has a major factor in it, those two things. The other is that we learned, really early on, that part of making movies is making a million mistakes, is falling on your face, is taking risks. That is not something you should be trying to get out of the equation. That is something you should actually embrace and plan for. I don’t think we’re any smarter or any more talented or any better than anyone else, but I do think we’ve gotten very good at how do you repair your mistakes. We’re very good at how do we pick up the pieces after we’ve fallen off our bike fifteen times, and how to improve and encourage each other and every crew for how to make the picture better. I don’t think people really work at that. They either freak out, they fire people, they move things along, they kill a project if they don’t like “I’m not seeing it.” If you look back we pretty much have one idea and then we stick to it until it works. You’re not going to get there and get people to stay up and keep working on it unless you’re encouraging them to fail. So it seems counterintuitive right away, but once you’re in the middle of it, it seems to work, and I think that’s another one of the key factors. Because I can’t say our ideas, our films, have ever looked as good as they do when they’re done, for most of the course of their making. I’d say for most of the course they’re in puberty and they look like “Really? This is what you’re going to make?” And it scares the crap out of us, too. So we live in fear for most of the production of these things.
CS: Was there anything that you really wanted that you had to lose? Stanton: That’s a good question. In one of the older iteration scenes, Auto used to be more of an independent moving robot that looked kind of like it was akin to the model that EVE was, had a little bit more of a sinister look, and for a long time I was going to have him secretly go to the databanks of the ship and you would find out what his agenda was before anybody else would. It turned out to not be that interesting, it was like moving shoe leather and it was weird to leave your main character for a while, and so it was much better to do it the way we now do it in the movie, but he had a very funny scene that was sort of “Get Smart” of going through these secret doors and stuff and he goes down this long shaft and he has to give this eye scan, in the middle of the shaft, to get the ID to go into this bank, and he leans and his visor just goes tumbling all the way down the shaft. And it’s just this humble moment where he has to go all the way down and find it in the dark and it’ll be on the DVD. It was very funny but because everything had to change, and that was all on boards, it was before we ever went and modeled anything.
CS: Were there any left turns, you said you kind of go with your gut. Stanton: Yeah. My most extreme left turn was I thought, what if humanity was so evolved, or devolved, that it became gelatinous, and even the language got so abstract so that even we the audience would think it was an alien race. It had more of a planet of the apes twist, and they at the end would discover, as well as we would, that it’s actually us. And it was a cool idea, and kind of got at the geek in me from the sci-fi bent, but it was so abstract and so hard to convey that I said I think I’m biting off more than I can chew. And I think it was also a little silly. So we just pulled it back to someplace where there was more to ground on. You just felt like there was only so much abstraction you could throw at somebody in one movie before it just became a chore.
CS: Why the choice of all the live action? Stanton: Actually it came out of practical reasons. Once I knew that one of the objects I wanted WALLE to find would be an old musical, and we would be looking at actual footage, I said “well he’s going to be looking at live action people, that sets a precedent.” Now, any time I have him looking at real people, at footage from the past of any humans it should be the same world, so I made them live action humans, and I figured since we’ve changed over 700 years I could get away with keeping humans CG.
CS: Why “Hello Dolly”? Stanton: It’s one of those things, I did it out of pure, unconscious abstraction at first. I just, sort of like an artist sticking two colors together and going, wow, I wonder why that works. I knew I wanted old-fashioned against the future and I loved the idea of some sort of old-fashioned music playing against the stars, almost like a Woody Allen film. And there was something about that, I just loved the juxtaposition, and then I started searching around for what the song would be. I did a lot of musical theater as a kid and there’s a short list of plays that I think everybody had to do, and I know “Hello Dolly’s” one of them. So I starting popping through it for a little bit and I heard “Put on Your Sunday Clothes” and that first phrase where it just says “Out there…” and has all this sort of hope and naïveté to it, and I thought that kind of works. And then I thought more about what that songs about and it’s about these two guys that have never been anywhere and they want to go to the big city and sort of experience life and their big goal is to kiss a girl and I thought that’s got such simple innocence to it that almost is WALLE. So then it made me explore the other songs and I found “It Only Takes a Moment” and suddenly I realized how powerful these songs could be to convey story and push story along for me. Particularly the idea of holding hands, because I have two characters that can’t say “I Love You,” they have to find some other way to express it, and holding hands is one of the most intimate things you can do in public with somebody in many cultures, and I thought that was just a perfect way to convey that over the course of the movie, so then I was hooked. Once that started delivering so many assets for me I knew I was going to use them. And I know it’s the weirdest thing and I’m going to be answering this question for the rest of my life but, so be it.
CS: We’re starting to see a lot of, especially as the tools for CG get more sophisticated, a lot of cross over between CG and live action filmmakers. Robert Zemeckis essentially only makes animated films now. Ever had any temptation to cross over and make a live action film? Stanton: I think you’re going to see mixes like that more and more, the line is so blurred now.
CS: But yourself, are you thinking about it? Stanton: Oh definitely. I got such a little taste on this movie, and it’s such small potatoes, and I loved it. It’s such the opposite of what we do. The wonderful thing about working in CG is that you have a god-like control. You can change anything at almost the last minute. And it really does allow you to, if you’re a perfectionist, to push things to their best. But there’s no spontaneity. Nothing takes, if something gets done in weeks it seems like lighting fast. But live action, you plan for it the same way, but you shoot it that day and you’re done. That just blew me away. I thought that was the most amazing and invigorating thing I’d ever done. So it’s a give and take. But I also think that how much of a thing is a hybrid, how much is a percentage of one thing or another should really be dictated by what the story is, what’s the best way to tell it, what’s the best way to see it. We never look at it from a stand point of “Do we want to do live action, do we want to do CG?” It’s, here’s a great story and I think this would be great entirely in CG, and here’s another I story I think would be great as a mix of something. As our directors sort of vary in their tastes and their strengths, and our interests in stories varies, you’ll also see the mediums vary a bit.
CS: A couple of things you mentioned, like the mixing of live action and CGI and creating new languages, those are also all part of the next project you’re doing for Pixar, “John Carter of Mars”? Stanton: [Laughs]. Look at you guys. It’s very telling who does their research on the internet and who doesn’t. That is my next project. I’m in the middle of writing it right now with Mark Andrews, who was the head of story on “Ratatouille” and “Incredibles.”I always like to say I’m a little bit country and he’s a little bit rock and roll and together we sort of cover the bases of what we feel that story should be. We both grew up loving that series of books and can’t believe to this day that we’ve managed to get it in our laps, because it was almost going to be made by so many people and we’re hoping we’re not just one of many in another line of this stuff. So we’re spending this whole year trying to make sure that the story is as worthy as it can be. It’s the one thing that I’ve learned working at Pixar is regardless of the sexiness of who you might cast or how it might be done or all this stuff, just don’t be distracted by that and write the greatest story you can write, because you’re only going to get more distracted as you go. So we haven’t even thought about how we’re going to execute it. We’re just going to devote this year to writing and improving as best we can for the screen.