The story behind robot comedy WALL-E

Trevor Heaton TREVOR HEATON looks at the story behind what many critics are already hailing as a masterpiece – Pixar’s WALL-E.

Trevor Heaton

Set in a galaxy not so very far away, WALL-E is an original and exciting comedy about a determined robot.

After hundreds of lonely years doing what he was built for, WALL-E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class) discovers a new purpose in life (besides collecting knick-knacks) when he meets a sleek search robot named EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator).

EVE comes to realize that WALL-E has inadvertently stumbled upon the key to the planet's future, and races back to space to report her findings to the humans who have been eagerly waiting on board the luxury spaceship Axiom for news that it is safe to return home. Meanwhile, WALL-E chases EVE across the galaxy and sets into motion a big - very big - comedy adventure...

WALL-E is the latest film from Oscar-winning director/writer Andrew Stanton, who joined Pixar in 1990 as its second animator and the fledgling studio's ninth employee.

He was one of the four screenwriters to receive an Oscar nomination in 1996 for his contribution to Toy Story and was credited as a screenwriter on subsequent Pixar films, including A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, for which he earned an Oscar nomination as co-writer. Additionally, he co-directed A Bug's Life, executive produced Monsters, Inc. and the 2007 Academy Award-winning Ratatouille, and won an Oscar for Best Animated Feature for Finding Nemo.

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But it was all very different for Andrew way back in 1994. He was just one of the group of young filmmakers from a little-known company called Pixar who were busily making the innovative Toy Story. With working continuing apace on what was to turn out one of the most ground-breaking animations ever made, they started thinking about what they should do next.

So over a (presumably quite long) lunch Andrew joined John Lasseter, Pete Docter, and the late storytelling genius Joe Ranft, sat down and came up with a list of stunning suggestions, which were turned into A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc and Finding Nemo. But one more idea came out of that meeting and, now 14 years later, it might just turn out to be the greatest of them all.

Stanton recalls: “One of the things I remember coming out of it was the idea of a little robot left on Earth. We had no story. It was sort of this Robinson Crusoe kind of little character - like what if mankind had to leave earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off, and he didn't know he could stop doing what he's doing?”

Years later, the idea took shape - literally. “I started to just think of him doing his job every day, and compacting trash that was left on Earth,” Stanton adds. “And it just really got me thinking about what if the most human thing left in the universe was a machine? That really was the spark. It has had a long journey.”

Stanton says he was heavily influenced by the sci-fi films of the 1960s and 1970s. “Films like 2001, Star Wars, Alien, Blade Runner and Close Encounters - they all had a look and feel to them that really transported me to another place and I really believed that those worlds were out there,” he explains. “I haven't seen a movie since then that made me feel that same way when we went out to space, so I wanted to recapture that feeling.”

In preparation for their assignment on WALL-E, Pixar's animation team made field trips to recycling stations to observe giant rubbish crushers and other machinery at work, studied real robots up close and in person at the Studio, and watched a wide range of classic films (from silents to sci-fi) for insights into cinematic expression. Sticking to Pixar's motto of “truth in materials”, the animators approached each robot as being created to perform a particular function, and tried to stay within the physical limitations of each design, while creating performances with personality.

Alan Barillaro and Steve Hunter served as the film's supervising animators, with Angus MacLane assuming directing animator duties.

Production designer Ralph Eggleston, who also worked on The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Toy Story, drew inspiration for the look of WALL-E from NASA paintings from the 50s and 60s, and original concepts paintings for Disneyland's Tommorowland by Disney Imagineers.

He recalls: “Our approach to the look of this film wasn't about what the future is going to be like. It was about what the future could be - which is a lot more interesting. That's what we wanted to impart with the design of this film.

“In designing the look of the characters and the world, we want audiences to really believe the world they're seeing. We want the characters and the world to be real, not realistic looking, but real in terms of believability.”

Adding to the believability of the film is the way the film is photographed. Jeremy Lasky, director of photography for camera, explains, “The whole look of WALL-E is different from anything that's been done in animation before. We really keyed into some of the quintessential sci-fi films from the 60s and 70s as touchstones for how the film should feel and look. We did a lot of camera work adjustment and improvements on our software so our cameras were more like the Panavision 70mm cameras that were used on a lot of those movies in the 70s.”

The combined worldwide box office gross for Pixar's first eight releases is an astounding $4.3 billion.

Now watch it grow.