STRETCHING THE LIMITS OF ANIMATION: PIXAR'S ANIMATORS ADD ROBOTS TO THEIR REPERTOIRE
Pixar's talented team of animators has tackled some seemingly impossible tasks for the films they've created, raising the bar for quality animation on every occasion. From toys to ants, fish to monsters, and superheroes to culinary rats, they've created memorable characters that have become icons the world over. For their latest assignment on "WALLE," new challenges were posed by a colorful cast of robot and human characters. With supervising animators Alan Barillaro and Steve Hunter in charge of the group (50 animators at the peak of production), and directing animator Angus MacLane adding his experience and talent, this film represents another triumph in the art of animation.
Jim Reardon, head of story for "WALLE," observes, "What we didn't want to do on this film was draw human-looking robots with arms, legs, heads and eyes, and have them talk. We wanted to take objects that you normally wouldn't associate with having humanlike characteristics and see what we could get out of them through design and animation."
Stanton explains, "We wanted the audience to believe they were witnessing a machine that has come to life. The more they believe it's a machine, the more appealing the story becomes."
"In 'WALLE,' the animators are really operating at the height of their craft to be able to convey emotions and complex thoughts with so few words. It's more about being able to touch people through the animation."
~ Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios
One of the biggest challenges facing the animators was the need to communicate emotions and actions clearly without being able to rely on traditional dialogue.
"We felt we could do it with non-traditional dialogue, maintaining the integrity of the character," says Stanton. "In real life, when characters can't speak - a baby, a pet - people tend to infer their own emotional beliefs onto them: 'I think it's sad,' 'she likes me' - it's very engaging for an audience."
According to Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, "In 'WALLE,' the animators are really operating at the height of their craft to be able to convey emotions and complex thoughts with so few words. It's more about being able to touch people through the animation."
Stanton notes, "In the world of animation, pantomime is the thing that animators love best. It's their bread and butter and they're raised on it instinctually. John Lasseter realized this when he animated and directed his first short for Pixar, 'Luxo Jr,' featuring two lamp characters who express themselves entirely without dialogue. The desire to give life to an inanimate object is innate in animators. For the animators on 'WALLE,' it was like taking the handcuffs off and letting them run free. They were able to let the visuals tell most of the story. They also discovered that it's a lot more difficult to achieve all the things they needed to.
"I kept trying to make the animators put limitations on themselves because I wanted the construction of the machines and how they were engineered to be evident," he adds. "The characters seem robotic because they don't squash and stretch. It was a real brain tease for the animators to figure out how to get the same kind of ideas communicated and timed the way it would sell from a storytelling standpoint, and yet still feel like the machine was acting within the limitations of its design and construction. It was very challenging -- and completely satisfying when somebody found the right approach and solution."
To help prepare them for their assignment, the filmmakers and animation team met with people who designed real-life robots, visited NASA scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, attended robotic conferences, and even brought in some real robots, including a bomb sniffing robot from the local police department. To understand what the human characters might look like after hundreds of years of pampered life in space, NASA expert Jim Hicks came in to discuss disuse atrophy and the effects of zero gravity on the body.
Jason Deamer, the film's character art director, recalls one of the starting points in designing WALLE was his eyes. "Andrew came in one day with the inspiration for WALLE's eyes. He had been to a baseball game and was using a pair of binoculars. He suddenly became aware that if he tilted them slightly, you got a very different look and feeling out of them. That became one of the key design elements for the main character."
The rest of WALLE's design stemmed from functionality. "How does he get trash into himself and how does he compact it?" Deamer asks. Field trips were made to recycling plants to see trash compacting machines in action. "We knew he needed treads to go up and over heaps of trash," he says. "He also needed to be able to compact cubes of trash, and have some kind of hands to gesticulate."
DO ROBOTS HAVE ELBOWS?
One of the big points of discussion in creating the character of WALLE was whether or not he should have elbows.
"Early in the film, we had designed WALLE with elbows," explains supervising animator Steve Hunter. "This gave him the ability to bend his arms. As animators, we were fighting for it thinking he's got to be able to touch his face, hang off a spaceship, and have a wide range of motion. But when you really looked at it, it didn't feel right. He's designed to do a task, which is to pull trash into his belly. Why would he have elbows? It didn't make any sense. So with Andrew's help and an inspired idea by directing animator Angus MacLane, we gave him a track around his side which allowed him to position his arms differently and give him a range of motion. It helped us flesh out the character a lot more. Something like elbows may seem kind of trivial but the way we solved the problem makes you believe in WALLE more because we didn't take the easy way out."
Despite the relative simplicity of his movements, animating WALLE proved to be one of the toughest assignments yet for the animation team. According to supervising animator Barillaro, "WALLE has a lot of different controls including about 50 for the head alone. He's not organic like a human. We had to boil his movements down to their bare essence to make them effective. The first thing the animators wanted to do when they got a scene with him was to do all their tricks like bouncing his head around. They were trying to get too broad and too human. We had to keep reminding them to pare things down and go as simply as possible with the animation. Simpler is definitely better in this case."
With WALLE's voice being such an important part of his personality, the animators worked in close concert with sound designer Ben Burtt to inspire one another. Typically, the animators would work with the rough designs to prepare test animation. Burtt would then add WALLE's voice, and send it back to the animators for another pass. Voice and animation would get edited together, and out of that would come the final performance.
"She has this gracefulness and elegance in the way she moves which you'd expect in a technically advanced robot."
~ Angus MacLane, Directing Animator
Animating EVE also posed its share of challenges for the group. With only two blinking eyes and four moving parts, she required a lot of advanced thought and just the right subtle movement. Designed to look like a futuristic robot, EVE is the epitome of elegance and simplicity.
"We wanted her to be graceful," says Stanton. "There are different ways to convey what is masculine and what is feminine in this world and we felt that she should be fluid, seamless, she should have attractive feminine qualities."
MacLane explains, "While WALLE's movements are more traditional with motors, gears and cogs, EVE is this sleek egg-shaped robot who moves through the use of magnets. Every frame and composition has to be cheated ever so slightly so that it's pleasing to the eye. She has this gracefulness and elegance in the way she moves which you'd expect in a technically advanced robot."
Hunter adds, "Every plane change, every angle, and even the way her head curved around to the back when rotated had to be posed in a certain way to make it feel right. Everything with her had to be really, really subtle. Basically, she consists of only four parts, and two eyes that blink. We had a lot of discussions about how she would move using her arms. We treated her almost like a drawing in some ways and came up with just the right poses to express emotion. It's pretty amazing how much you really read into her."
In addition to some of the other main robot characters - Auto, M-O, the reject bots, among others - the character design team created a catalogue of robots and crowds of up to 10,000 humans to populate the Axiom. A modular robot system was devised using a series of different robot heads that could be combined with a variety of arms and bodies. Painted various colors and otherwise differentiated, countless robots were created.
Co-producer Collins notes, "We created a library of characters with interchangeable parts so that we could do a build-a-bot program. We could choose from different kinds of treads and arms. You could swap them to create different silhouettes and characters. We had close to a hundred variations and about 25 different basic silhouettes that we could mix and match to make the world seem fuller."
MacLane credits Stanton with inspiring the animators to do their best work. "What makes Andrew such a successful director," says MacLane, "is his ability to see the film in its entirety at all times. He's able to zero in on what you're working on and suggest how to make it better for the sequence. His sense of story is so strong and he knows how to communicate that to the animators. He likened good storytelling to telling a joke. He's ultimately trying to tell a really good joke over a period of nearly 90 minutes. We have all these building blocks that evoke emotions and he's trying to figure out the best way to tell it. Our job in animation is to make sure we're communicating clearly to the audience and that it supports his ideas for the story."
Stanton sums up his appreciation for the animators on the film. "They were just such champions of this movie, and they really loved the concept, and particularly the challenges and the limitations that we had put upon ourselves for designing all the characters the way we did. They got it from the very beginning."
WHAT THE BEEP?: LEGENDARY SOUND DESIGNER BEN BURTT CREATES UNIQUE ROBOT VOICES ALONG WITH A UNIVERSE OF SOUNDS FOR "WALLE"
The cast of characters in "WALLE" includes a wide assortment of robots, including several that speak or communicate in their own unique language. For the film's producer Jim Morris, and director/co-writer Andrew Stanton, there was only one clear choice to create the specialty voices for these robot characters and design the sounds for this film. And that choice was multiple Oscar-winning sound designer Ben Burtt, the legendary talent who created the voice of R2-D2, the crack of Indiana Jones' whip, the hiss for "Alien," and many other iconic sounds known to moviegoers everywhere.
"Ben is one-of-a-kind," says Stanton. "He is such a master of sound design, and he's the name that's been made famous by every kid who ever liked 'Star Wars' and all the films that followed.
"When I realized I was actually going to get the chance to make 'WALLE,' I knew that in many ways the film had to rely on sound to tell the story," Stanton continues. "I wanted our robots to communicate more on the level of R2-D2 than C-3PO - with their own machine-like language. I felt it would be more clever, more interesting that way. When Jim told me that he had worked with Ben at ILM for many years and suggested that we invite him over, I was thrilled. I pitched the movie to Ben and told him that I would need him to be a good deal of my cast. Thank goodness he said yes because it soon became obvious that we couldn't have done it without him. He's the absolute best."
Jim Morris adds, "Ben's ability to create other worldly voices and special voices that have emotion and sentiment made him a perfect casting choice for WALLE and we're so delighted that he worked on the film. Some of the character voices he created are completely synthetic, some are made up of a conglomeration of various types of sounds that Ben has found or created, and some of them are based on a little bit of human performance that is then manipulated. Ben was also extremely important with all the sounds in the movie."
"It was a weird balance between sounding like it was generated by a machine but still had the warmth and intelligence - I call it soul - that a human being has."
~ Ben Burtt, Sound Designer
Burtt explains, "My background on 'Star Wars' gave me lots of experience in working with robot and alien voices, but 'WALLE' required more sounds for the robot characters than any previous movie I'd worked on. The challenge of this film was to create character voices that the audience would believe are not human. Yet they could relate to the characters with all the intimacy, affection and identity that they'd attribute to a living human character. The voices couldn't just sound like a machine with no personality, or like an actor behind a curtain imitating a robot. It was a weird balance between sounding like it was generated by a machine but still had the warmth and intelligence - I call it soul - that a human being has."
Burtt got the call to work on "WALLE" just months after completing work on the last "Star Wars" film. He had told his wife "no more robots," but the temptation to work at Pixar on an entirely different kind of robot film proved to be too strong.
"Fortunately, it was such a fresh and exciting idea, and the challenge of the sound in the film really appealed to me," says Burtt. "Sound and the robot voices were going to play such an unusual role that I couldn't help but be inspired. So of course, I signed on to work with Jim and Andrew, and do the sound design for the film."
Regarding the voice for the character of WALLE, Burtt explains, "It starts with me in my little recording chamber in our sound department. I take those original recordings and run it through my computer in which the sound is analyzed and broken down into all its component parts. Much like you'd take light and run it through a prism to break it into a spectrum of colors, you can do the same thing with an audio file. Once you've broken the sound into all its component parts, you can start re-fabricating it back together again. But now you can control the amounts of one thing or another. I can inject a machine-like quality into the sound, and do things to it that the human vocal chords could never really do. You can hold a certain vowel longer and stretch it. You can change the pitch of something up and down. You can put two sounds close together. In re-fabricating the sound with a particular program I developed, I was able to keep as much of the original performance as I wanted but add a bit of synthetic form to it.
"If sound were silly putty," adds Burtt, "you could stretch it and make it longer. And I found a way of working on WALLE's voice where I could do that. It gave a quality that Andrew really liked, and it allowed us to keep the personality going."
In addition to the character WALLE, Burtt was also responsible for the voices of M-O, Auto and EVE, whose tone he created by manipulating the voice of Pixar employee Elissa Knight.
For the other sounds in the film, Burtt created a library of 2,400 files - the most he's ever accumulated for any film. "WALLE" was Burtt's first animated feature. "Animation is very dense and the sounds are all really fast," he observes. "When I was initially making sounds for WALLE, I found I was always doing it too slow, so I had to speed up everything in my life to get the sounds fast."
Burtt had to be resourceful in creating sounds for the film. To make the sound of the cockroach skittering, he found a pair of police handcuffs and recorded the clicking as he took them apart and reassembled them. To get the sound of EVE flying, he found someone who had built a 10-foot long radio controlled jet plane, and recorded it flying immediately overhead. Running up and down a carpeted hallway with a big heavy canvas bag created a howling wind effect that was perfect for an Earth wind storm. And a hand-cranked inertia starter from a 1930s biplane did the trick in creating the sound of WALLE moving into high gear.
"The best part of working on any film when you're the sound designer is when you're alone in your editing room and you've got some finished footage in front of you," says Burtt. "And you put the sound in for the first time, and something really clicks. You're the first one to see it and that's a sweet moment. Wandering the halls at Pixar was really inspiring because there are so many talented people there doing incredible things. I would go back to my studio and think, 'can my sound be as good as what I'm seeing?'"
READ MORE ABOUT PRODUCTION DESIGNER RALPH EGGLESTON'S FANTASTIC VISIONS OF EARTH AND SPACE
ADVANCING THE ART OF COMPUTER ANIMATION: ACCLAIMED CINEMATOGRAPHER ROGER DEAKINS AND VISUAL EFFECTS PIONEER DENNIS MUREN CONSULT ON "WALLE"
DOWN TO EARTH MUSIC:THOMAS NEWMAN & PETER GABRIEL CREATE COSMIC COMPOSITIONS
FILMMAKERS ANDREW STANTON (Director/Screenwriter/Vice President, Creative, Pixar Animation Studios) and JIM MORRIS (Producer/Executive Vice President, Production, Pixar Animation Studios)
Read an interview with Sound designer Ben Burtt who was the man hired to come up with the voices for WALL·E
OUT THERE: PRODUCTION DESIGNER RALPH EGGLESTON'S FANTASTIC VISIONS OF EARTH AND SPACE
The production design for "WALLE" required a unique cinematic vision of the future that ran the gamut -- from an abandoned trash-covered Earth to an enormous floating cruise ship in space perched on the edge of a nebula that is home to thousands of humans. Overseeing the