First Look: Disney/Pixar’s WALL•E


During WonderCon 2008, was privileged to be invited to Pixar Studios for a guided tour, a sneak peek at WALL•E (click the photos for bigger versions!) and a roundtable interview with writer/director Andrew Stanton.

The one thing you come to realize about Pixar is that everything they do is deliberate, focused, and researched. Pixar uses their studio not only as a showcase for their previous movies, but as a way to vet the movie creation process. Thousands upon thousands of panels are drawn storyboarding the plot. Hundreds of frame-able quality art are created of each character, showing profiles, expressions, and movement indicators. Clay sculptures are crafted to show face designs in extreme expressions and body poses.

On display that day were story panels and concep art for Finding Nemo and Ratatouille. Clay sculptures from Ratatouille blanketed a set of walls and standing display cases.

Extreme attention to detail.

Even so, they have probably the worst acronym for their in-house employee education program – P.U. (Say each letter out loud. 🙂 e.g. Pixar University. I could not believe our tour guide said it with a straight face. Thankfully I didn’t burst out laughing and get escorted out of the building. I guess I’m not mature enough to work at Pixar.

After the tour we were able to see the first 35 minutes of WALL•E in Pixar’s own super-duper THX surround sound digital theater.

WALL•E has some big shoes to fill as the next Pixar film. A long string of box office hits has continued non-stop since the release of Toy Story in November 1995. I had seen the same previews as everyone else up to that point, and was not really impressed by the idea. When the movie started I was expecting disappointment. I’m not great with predictions, and the movie has some potential flaws that could outweigh the best parts of the movie – but overall this is a fun movie.

First the potential flaws: The premise of the movie is that Earth was so overrun with rampant commercialism and therefore garbage from all those purchases, that the inhabitants had to flee Earth. The population left in Starship (The Axiom) to wait out the cleanup efforts by the robots left behind. Even the cleanup robots fall into disrepair and WALL•E is the last one left, doing what he his programmed to do.

I’m not sure how the moviegoing public will react to such in-your-face preaching about the dangers of Wal-Mart and Costco. Nor the hints at weather run amok, like the hyper-dust storms that whip up out of nowhere to savage the city where WALL•E lives.

Also, within the Axiom – the logical conclusion of life without the need for physical movement is life as a couch potato – “slugs” plugged into their own personal Xbox/PlayStation.

Sci-Fi movies have preached before — Planet of the Apes; Them, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Soylent Green — and still they entertain. So WALL•E is just following along in a rich tradition. The question is will the love story between WALL•E and EVE stand above the distractions or be dragged down with the weight of them?

So, on to the positives: WALL•E himself has much more life and responsiveness than I originally expected. The Pixar animators have done a tremendous job of bringing Andrew Stanton’s vision to life while still keeping within the basic premise of a working robot. While his emotional range is limited to his robotic abilities/movement, that does not really limit his emotional range. EVE actually is more limited than WALL•E because she has just her eyes for her emotional states.

The movie does a good job of setting up the film and WALL•E’s daily routine. It also takes the time to explain the background of Earth’s state through vignettes as WALL•E scoots around the city. Video billboards, newspaper articles, etc. fill in the story line in a well-constructed way that plays with you. Daring you to do two things at once – scanning the background for more clues and watching WALL•E live his life.

WALL•E himself is charming because of his childlike look at the world. It’s a kid’s playground with quite literally tons of stuff to inspect, explore and play with. He’s the ultimate child collector, inspecting, organizing and cataloging everything he finds interesting.

The budding relationship between WALL•E and EVE is key for the rest of the film. Everything else that happens later hinges on your acceptance of WALL•E’s and EVE’s “feelings” for each other. I think it works. WALL•E is the earnest geeky suitor with limited social skills. EVE is the aloof, sexy (think iMac on estrogen) counterpart that comes to find WALL•E endearing and lovable.

We finished up with a Q/A sessions with Andrew Stanton. You can listen to the full interview here (don’t mind the odd sound coming from somebody else’s recorder several times).

The most interesting part of the interview was Andrew’s discussion about how they worked to get the same camera angle and lens focus techniques from the old Sci-Fi movies into WALL•E. They actually brought in a cinematographer (Dennis Muren), constructed small scale sets, and had him conduct classes for the animators and programmers.

This attention to the camera really shows up in the visuals of the movie. Before Pixar used to mention the special effects boundaries they were pushing, “the feel of under water” or “animated hair” – in WALL•E the boundaries are not being pushed they are being reclaimed; harkening back to the Sci-Fi movies of yesterday, with the camera angles, lens flares, and odd focal lengths.

WALL•E opens in theaters on June 27, 2008.