WALLE is the latest animated film from the Disney-Pixar team behind Toy Story, Finding Nemo, Cars and Ratatouille. Already a huge hit with filmgoers and critics in the United States, WALL·E is a futuristic love story set in space. The film's title character -- whose name is short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class -- is a lonely, slightly rusty robot that humans have left behind on planet earth to clean up the mess they've created. But WALL·E discovers that there's more to life than waste disposal once he meets a sleek, state of the art droid by the name of EVE (Extra-terrestrial Vegetation Evaluator).
Angus MacLane, who was a directing animator on WALL·E, joined Pixar in 1997 and worked as an animator on A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. He talked to us about Daleks, C-3PO and why WALL·E is the most loveable robot of them all.
Q: Pixar has made films with all sorts of unlikely heroes: toys, rats, fish, cars, you name it. What was your reaction to the idea of a film about a robot?
A: I was all over it! [Laughs] I'd heard some whispers about the film when I was starting at Pixar, but then I think they decided to do other films. It came up again and I was asked to work on it just as we were finishing up on The Incredibles. Everyone knew it would be my thing because I'd done a lot of the robot stuff in that film, which I'd loved, and I'm sort of well known at Pixar for being the robot guy anyway.
Q: Why's that?
A: My office is full of robots. I mean, most people like cats or dogs, but I like robots I guess. I have all sorts of toy robots, vintage ones, robots made out of Lego, and so on, and I just picked up a K-9 robot. So WALL·E was a big deal for me.
Q: Your title on the film is "directing animator". How's that different from just "animator". Are you the boss?
A: I'm one of the bosses. There are supervising animators as well and they deal more with the organization and the scheduling of the animators. My job is to help design the motion of the characters in the film and organize the team so that the work they do is consistent throughout the movie, both in terms of the motion of the characters and the acting. I also do some of the actual animation. I did the scene in WALL·E where WALL·E and Eve meet and ask each other their names.
Q: Pixar films take a long time to make and need a lot of people to make them. How big a team of animators did you have and for how long do they work?
A: The animation department is 40 to 50 people and from start to finish is probably two and a half years, but the size of the team varies. We had probably eight people for the first six to nine months before ramping up to the full 50 at the end. People always wonder why it takes so many people, but the average for each animator is that if you worked on the film the whole way through then you would have animated two and a half minutes of the total movie. I did about six minutes on The Incredibles and about four minutes on WALL·E, which is more than the average just because I'm on the film for longer. I started work on WALL·E in 2004.
Q: At the outset, what did you think would be most difficult about making this film?
A: I'd say it was challenging rather than difficult. The thing that applies to all these films is that you have to let audiences know what's going on at all times but not so much that they're irritated by it. It's a fine line. The other thing with WALL·E was that there was going to be almost no dialogue for a lot of the movie. But as an animator you're always up for a challenge and this was sort of an opportunity for the animators to get more credit. A lot of animated movies are marketed in terms of some fancy celebrity voice, as if that's what creates these amazing characters, while the animators are largely unsung. Of course, that's partly because your goal as an animator is to make it look like you haven't done anything, that the character just exists…
Q: Which is sort of the goal of a good actor in a live-action film…
A: Exactly. The animators are the actors in the Pixar films. They just don't have to deal with being recognized in the supermarket.
Q: You said that you were already a fan of robots, but did you go and do any more research? Did you look at robots in other films?
A: As far as robots in films go, a lot of them look like a person inside a robot suit and we definitely wanted to avoid that. But we did look at real life robots. We had a bomb squad robot brought into the office and we studied the motion of that. We also went to recycling plant and I took a trip to Pittsburgh to the Robot Hall of Fame.
Q: There's a Robot Hall of Fame?
A: Yeah, it's sort of a convention and I actually met Anthony Daniels there, who plays C-3PO in the Star Wars films. He had a lot of interesting things to say about the acting required to make a robot character believable. The core thing about robots is that every motion has to be powered by a motor. So a robot never moves more than it has to, it usually only does one or two things in total, and it's always one thing at a time. So it will turn its head to one side and then tilt it up and down, but it doesn't do both movements at once. Robots don't have elbows either, which was a problem for us because we had to find a way for WALL·E to have a wide range of motion but still look like a robot. We ended up giving him a track around his side that allowed him to position his arms in different ways.
Q: When the hero of your film is a machine, do you also have to think very hard about how to make him appealing? WALL·E is actually pretty adorable…
A: Yes, that's what everyone says when they see the film! But I think we end up caring about WALL·E because of his story and his character, not because we made him cute in some obvious way. The funny thing we found with robots is that if you make them too humanoid they become unappealing. It's like a smiley face: people love a smiley face, but once you add a bit more detail to the eyes, maybe add some hair, people can't relate any more. And if you think of the most popular robots of all time, they're often the most simple. The Dalek from Doctor Who, which is my favorite, has just one eye, but it has a lot of expression… usually angry, of course. The Cybermen in Doctor Who are much more human-looking but they're not nearly as memorable.
Q: WALL·E is already a big hit in the States and it seems Pixar can do no wrong. What's the secret do you think?
A: Great stories! No matter how good an animator you are, if you're animating a story that's just not that good you can't really rise above that level. Andrew Stanton, who was the director of Finding Nemo as well as WALL·E, constantly writes and rewrites his scripts to get back to the essential story and to make sure the story is being told better than it was before. And I think that's why WALL·E works so well. There's not a lot of dialogue, not even that much sound, but at the end of the film you feel such empathy for the character and such intense emotion. It's really extraordinary.
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