Bringing Wall-E to life

Total Film sat down with the key players behind Pixar's masterpiece Wall-E (Andrew Stanton [AS], Sigourney Weaver [SW], Ben Burtt [BB], Jim Morris [JM]) and they had plenty to say...

What inspired the look of the film?
JM: One of the things were we trying to achieve was to have a filmed look rather than a recorded look, which a lot of computer graphics work has. Andrew’s reason for doing that was to achieve a heightened sense of reality and believability so that the audience felt like they were watching a real movie. Not to make it look photo-realistic per se but to go in that direction and add to the overall believability.

How did you build on the original germ of the idea?
AS: It did have a long journey. It began with one sentence said over lunch in 1994 – we were in the middle of making Toy Story and it was said simply, “What if mankind left Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off.” The idea of something doing the same thing forever to me was the ultimate definition of futility and that it was the saddest character I had ever heard of. We immediately said it should speak in the manner in which it was built, much like R2-D2 did – wouldn’t it be cool to see a whole movie with a character like that? For us as filmgoers we thought that would be great but we immediately said that nobody would ever give us money to do something like that.

We hadn’t even finished Toy Story and hadn’t proven that we could make a movie so that’s where it lived and died. It took for us to make five or six more movies, for me to get more confident as a filmmaker and for the technology to improve. So about seven years later, I’m in the middle of Finding Nemo and I find my brain drifting to this little lonely robot, wondering who he is, what the story should be about.

By then I knew a lot more and I realised it was the loneliness that appealed to me and that the opposite of loneliness is love and so it should be a love story. Once I thought of it as a love story combined with a sci-fi drama then I was just hooked. Even during my busiest schedules I found myself hiding in my office starting to write this, which is always a good sign! By then we had more confidence that the audience trusted Pixar and that we could go a little bit more out on a limb and people might follow us there.

What inspired the sounds?
BB: I’ve always found that when you’re trying to create illusions with sound, especially in a science fiction of fantasy movie, that pulling sounds from around the world around us is a great way to cement that illusion because you can go out and record an elevator in George Lucas’ house, take that elevator motor sound and use it as movie and people will believe it’s a forcefield or the sound of a spaceship door opening.

On Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, a long time ago, we went to listen to a sonogram of my daughter Alice, who’s now grown up and has her own child, and there was this great throbbing sound. I was looking for some sounds of alien pods germinating so I thought “Why not?” But it did work because it was a heartbeat and it was something from the womb, so there was so some connection there that worked emotionally since we were all in the womb at some time. So it’s forging those connections between familiar sounds and illusionary sound that is the basis for the success of a lot of the sounds sound designers put in these movies.

Sigourney, would you have done it for free as a massive Pixar fan?
SW: Yes – better late than never! I was absolutely delighted. I am a stalwart, very enthusiastic fan of Pixar. I remember that sound by the way, Ben, of that horrible throb… I was delighted, even when I found out why I was cast – not for my talent but because I was in Alien, but anyway.

It’s funny because I was sent a little film of WALL-E himself, which was so endearing, and the script and the ship’s computer has a limited of lines, but then I met Andrew and I said all of the robot entities, all of the electronic beings have so much character and so much heart, that being a computer I start out as being the voice of this evil corporation that has gotten into this mess and then by the end I too want to go back to Earth and find out what a “hoedown” is. It was a wonderful world to enter, even as a computer, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. They also really let you play around and I told Andrew that I wanted to have an arc as my character and levels and he was very indulgent and we had a very good time.

What you think of the film?
SW: I think it’s a perfect movie, actually. A movie that succeeds at its best is a movie that’s about much more than just its characters in it, which this certainly is from the first second and what I admire so much is that it has this totally endearing, captivating story and adventure and romance but within such a striking context and to show Earth as it might be if we’re not careful and not pull their punches. And that’s just how the movie starts . I have so much admiration for how they’ve taken this on and gone for it. That’s why it’s such a pleasure to talk about it. There’s nothing negative you can say about this picture so it’s easy to be here.

SW: Can I ask a question? Can I ask, Ben, how you came up with WALL-E’s voice? It’s so sweet and there’s something like a little baby calf about it that imprints on your heart like you’re its mother or something…

BB: Of course, I’m guided by Andrew being the director. I would audition things for him, sets of sounds that might have just been initially just have been motors and beeps and tones. Something I’ve never told him, actually and that relates to the whole musical theatre thing, is that after he showed me maybe the first 10 minutes or so as storyboards cut together of the opening of the movie – it even had some music and some sound effects – that opening song, that voice in that Hello Dolly vocal that appealed to me in a way that I connected with the WALL-E character.

There’s a feeling about the pitch of the voice that made me start out that way – a “there’s something out there” feeling, which was a thread that I picked up and, as you know, I went through lots of experiments trying WALL-E just as motor sounds only, and some more like beeps and whistles like R2-D2. We did extract bits from all those experiments when it came down to some of the more expressive vocals, but it was a little bit in that tone from that singing voice. [Michael Crawford’s!] I’m not sure why – there was obviously something very charming and appealing about that song, I couldn’t quite pin it down.

SW: And you couldn’t quite forget it either!

BB: Anytime you’re asked to come onboard a project like this you try to pick up right away from the visuals, from the script, from Andrew’s description of what he wanted… you gather those threads together as quickly as you can and that song was one of ‘em.

AS: Jerry Herman (Hello Dolly composer) was moved to tears when he saw the film.

JM: He knew that the songs were going to be used because we had to clear them with 20th Century Fox and they were kind enough to let us use them, so he was aware of it, but he thought it was just a little snippet here and there. When he found out how much it inspired he was very glad and over the moon.

AS: Those kind of things make me feel like a million bucks, because to me getting to work with Ben or Sigourney or hearing about Jerry, I feel like I can’t give back enough what it did to me to go to the movies and what I got out of it growing up and still do and I just feel like anytime I work with anybody who has any history ahead of me I can’t thank them enough, I can’t put them in the movies enough, for me it was my whole life.

So, no pressure for you Sigourney?
SW: Yes, I’m like this really happy hitchhiker. [laughter] That’s why it’s so easy for me to talk about the movie because I don’t have a huge stake in it, I can just objectively say that I’ve seen it twice and I fell in love with it. It’s a wonderful, wonderful story.

Was there any pressure from studio to anthropomorphise WALL-E and EVE?
AS: We don’t have men in suits in-house at Pixar. Fortunately when I came up with this idea it was during the near-divorce years between Pixar and Disney so there was nobody checking in. I was pretty much a free-range chicken, allowed to give with what I wanted and to be honest a lot of design decisions I did in the year that you’re the most under the radar, the year right after you finish your picture as a director at Pixar.

They’re right onto the next picture and worrying about that one, but they expect you to go take a vacation and slowly ponder what you might do next. I decided to jump right into developing this idea so there was literally no one watch-dogging me so I got most of the entire first act up, the designs of the characters all done in private. They were pure artistic decisions from me about the look of the film.

What are the electronic voices that drive you potty in re-life?
SW: Always those voices on the phone that are so polite but never actually hear what you’re trying to do because there’s no correct button to push. It’s interesting how people try to come up with the voice that they think won’t drive you crazy – it’s always a woman, always very pleasant and very polite. That would be the one.

AS: I don’t like when my GPS thinks I’ve taken the wrong route and it keeps saying “turn left, turn left, turn left” when I know I’m going a shorter route. I don’t like that it can’t update itself and know I’m going a smarter route.

BB: I’m too much of a madhouse of voices day and night, how can I pick only one! I mean, I used to go home and have nightmares about Darth Vader breathing on a loop in my head! That’s a tough one. It might be the opening line to the song in our movie [laughter] because, much as I love it, it will not go away.

JM: Does anybody know where you can get that John Cleese GPS system that calls you an imbecile when you go wrong? I’d really like to have that.

Ben, what was the level of satisfaction compared with other famous creations?
BB: Well, when people come and say it’s a masterpiece it’s easy to be distorted at the moment in WALL-E’s favour. I’m very proud of it all – I see it as a great opportunity. Most sound people don’t get an assignment to create worlds of sound and get the freedom to try a lot of things and get the support of the team over a long period of time. Most sound work on films is done very quickly towards the end of the schedule where it’s just jammed together, you always wish that you had more sympathy from everyone, like, “Couldn’t we have started this a year ago?” Well, I’ve been on this film for three years, so the work was being developed and embedded right from the beginning. Sometimes we would do some sounds and then do an animation test to try those sounds out – those kind of opportunities are great.

So I’m very proud of WALL-E, because what film gives you the chance to do sound effects as well as key voices in the film. The only step would be to try and do a movie with no music and see if you go further. What you do as sound designers is something like making music – you create sounds, especially in a film like this where… what part of the story will these sounds play emotionally, where they’ll support the goal of credibility, to make these things seem real, that’s important but also it’s great when you have an assignment and a director who wants to ask you for a motor that sounds cute or more pathos in that servo. Those are not the questions you usually get when you’re rushing to get sound effects in your movie.

What was your favourite moment?
SW: The first time you see Eve destroy that ship – she’s my dream action woman figure. She’s so offhandly, emotionlessly destructive. You don’t really understand EVE until she giggles and her eyes do that funny thing, then you fall in love with her too. The fact that WALL-E isn’t intimidated by this gorgeous, sleek, destructive woman just gives us hope. [BIG laugh]

AS: I’d like to say that he’s incredibly intimidated by EVE but he’s willing to go past that because he’s so enamoured with her. Which is how most men feel.

SW: But look at how nice she is when he does!

BB: I really love the scene where they’re out in space together with the fire extinguisher – it’s the lyrical nature of it, the calm in the middle of the storm. There’s something about those two characters dancing in space that really takes me back to Disney’s Peter Pan when I was a kid, I loved that film and I think I was five years old when I saw it. It’s that wonderful moment when you’re transported to a magical place where you feel warm and secure. It’s great.

JM: The first time you see WALL-E go back to the truck he lives in and you don’t really know what is going on, you haven’t met any other characters, you’ve had some clues then suddenly there are all these pointers towards his personality that he’s collected and the fact that he’s watching Hello Dolly. It’s so sad, a bittersweet things, he’s trying but he’s so lonely. That scene really captures a lot of the different things the movie is about.

AS: You do try to make every single sequence as good as you can, but I can say the sequence that is special to me because it was the first one where I went “that’s what I’ve been trying to get this whole time” is a very small moment but to me it’s the most powerful. It’s when she’s in the truck with him and she discovers what his lighter does and you catch him privately staring at her while she plays with the light and to me it was a kind of maturity in using the camera to tell so much with emotion that I felt I always get out of great movies but never see in animation. And I think we finally tapped into that with that moment.

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