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WALL-E director Andrew Stanton explains how to make a trash-collecting robot into a lovable hero.

Hit machine
DROID STORY Stanton built Wall-E to last.

Andrew Stanton is a cheerful guy, even by the standards of animators (a notoriously happy-go-lucky bunch). In our telephone interview, we can almost hear the WALL-E director grinning. Of course, with an Oscar (Best Animated Film for Finding Nemo, which he directed) on his shelf, writing credit on most of Pixar’s successes of the last decade (Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and WALL-E) and another hit in theaters, he’s got a lot to grin about.

Disney used to send animators to study animal anatomy, and Chuck Jones used to hang out at the zoo. How do you prepare somebody to animate a robot?
In a way weird way, the same way you’d study a deer or fish and start to become familiar with its physical grammar, start using it as a way to translate human gestures. We did the same thing for the robots. We brought over local policemen who had those bomb-detecting kind of robots and stuff. We went down to JPL [Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a space-exploration research center] and saw the latest and greatest of exploration vehicles, the little rovers and things. And God bless YouTube: There was just so much footage of factory arms and all types of robotic devices. We took it all in so that we had as large of a mechanical vocabulary as possible.

You’ve got Ben Burtt (famous as the “voice” of R2-D2). That was an inspired choice.
It was the only choice. When I was trying to describe this beforehand, I’d say it’s like I’m trying to make R2-D2: The Movie. And I said that enough times that my producer said, Why don’t you just get Ben Burtt? I told Ben when he came, I’d really love you to be two-thirds of the cast. I think he loved that challenge.

The voices of the different robots seem so distinct.
Well, that’s where we spent the first year—just him coming up with the sounds and me sort of categorizing them and sifting through them. When we had about 25 or 30 sounds for each character, then we went to phase two which was using them like I would dialogue. Sometimes I needed it to be faster, seem a little urgent, or be a little sadder. Ben, like an actor, would go back and do different takes of it.

There are times when WALL-E reminds me of the silent comedians. Was that something you thought about?
I had seen everything that Keaton had done before I did this movie. I wasn’t as familiar with Chaplin. What we did is we decided that for a year and a half, the animators and story team [would] watch a different Keaton and Chaplin movie every day for lunch. These are the masters; these are the guys who spent their entire adult life mastering this craft.

I have to ask about the choice to use the musical number “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” from Hello, Dolly!, because now I’m stuck with the song in my head…
[Laughs] Wasn’t that the oddest choice we’ve ever made? Early, early on I knew I wanted to have old-fashioned music against space. I went through standards, and a lot of standards come from musicals. When I got to Hello, Dolly! and I played the beginning of “Put On Your Sunday Clothes,” that phrase ‘out there’ just had a great sting to it and out of context worked for cutting to the stars. Honestly, that was this little foothold I had and I couldn’t justify it for any other reason. I remember telling my wife I’m going to be answering this question for the rest of my life if I go with this.

But in general you tend to be less prone than a lot of animation people to using pop-culture references…
Yeah, because to me we’re making the movie for the grandkids, not the kids. I want to make a movie that you’ll still get the same enjoyment out of 10 or 20 years from now. And pop-culture references, unless there’s something that clever, it’s not going to hold up.

The premise of the movie is pretty serious. Did you find any resistance when you said it’s set in the future and humans have left the Earth in the care of clean-up robots…?

No, it’s all about counterpoint. I think it makes WALL-E that much more appealing to have that as his backdrop. That was the initial conceit way back in ’94, the last robot on Earth. I think it’s the structure of that whole situation that makes him appealing.

The movie has a message about the environment and our sheeplike tendencies, although I think it’s very gently handled…
It’s because I didn’t go in to make a message. I ended up, through very natural ways, putting in all these elements that became, in an eerie way, very parallel to the zeitgeist now of the green [environmental] stuff. But I couldn’t have planned that ahead of time, or else I would have started picking lottery numbers a long time ago.

WALL-E is in theaters now.

Author: Hank Sartin

Issue 175: July 3–9, 2008



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