The road to Pixar curves through a range of neighborhoods, a metaphor not lost on those familiar with the Animation Studio itself. After taking the highway off-ramp, visitors to Pixar’s Emeryville, California, headquarters pass into a sleepy part of town, an area where a black Chevy with 14 stuffed animals wedged between its cab and bed seems right at home outside the local market. A place where the 30-something woman walking in bedazzled jeans with a child looks as nonchalant and normal as a talking toy in Pixar’s first Disney film.
In a matter of blocks, the scene changes dramatically. One busy intersection is embraced by a church on one corner, a 7/11 on another, a wheel/rim store and a pristine (and crowded) Whole Foods Market. A quarter-mile later, the scene changes again, as an auto-auction lot adorned with cyclone fences and razor wire sits near paint-chipped houses and boarded-up buildings, indicative of an area long since forgotten.
Just seven blocks later, Pixar’s headquarters is a sign of the future built soundly on its past. Working in a reclaimed fruit-packing warehouse, Pixar employees dash on Razor scooters from one end of the office to the next, frantically finishing the last scenes of WALL*E. Smiles abound in the lobby and behind closed glass doors, but the focus is clear. WALL*E is almost complete.
Pixar has traveled as far as WALL*E in its relatively short life, from an upstart studio to a Disney juggernaut, an Oscar-winning company-that-could to a Steve Jobs investment with enormous clout. Yet unlike the revitalized mixed-use warehouses across the street, Pixar isn’t hot, new and fresh. Its technology may be, but as a company, Pixar’s ideas, aspirations and values have never really changed. This is obvious in the brief time we spent watching WALL*E.
“We make the movies we want to watch, because nobody else is making them,” says Randy S. Nelson, Dean of Pixar University and the host of our studio tour. Nelson walks briskly through Pixar’s atrium, an immense two-story lobby capped by skylights and rimmed with faux billboards from the WALL*E universe. As he strides up the stairs to Pixar’s main office section, he points out Pixar University, where employees can spend four hours each week learning about painting, screenwriting, improvisation…basically, anything that will keep their minds and imaginations engaged and fresh.
Before entering the West Side Gallery, an open area at one end of Pixar’s second floor, Nelson points out the gym, soccer field, volleyball court, swimming pool and massage-therapy room. Strangely, each one is vacant.
“We’re recording the last bit of audio today [April 3],” says Tom Porter, Associate Producer of WALL*E. “We’ve got about 210 shots left to complete, and we hope to wrap by the end of April. We’re very proud of how this one is coming together.”
Porter sets the stage for WALL*E in one of Pixar’s two on-site theaters. The audience shuffles in their seats, a sound that’s only audible in the sound-proofed Green Theater because jeans make a rustling noise against the velvet material of the olive-green sofas. Porter’s quick WALL*E summary is already familiar to Pixar fans, but hearing it from the Associate Producer and in Pixar’s own theater clearly has the audience’s attention.
“As the film opens, you see Earth has been buried in trash, and humans have abandoned the planet, leaving it to be cleaned by a robotic cleaning crew,” says Porter. “But things aren’t going exactly as planned.”
The lights dim, and the digital projector lights up.
WALL*E represents a major step forward for Pixar, both in terms of graphics and storytelling. The graphical leap in WALL*E is at least as dramatic as the one Pixar made with Monsters Inc., which showcased hair more realistically than any animated movie before it. WALL*E looks to make a jump of similar magnitude, from depth of field effects to environmental detail. Gamers always talk about waiting for game graphics to finally be of “Pixar quality.” WALL*E is going to make old Pixar movies aspire to the same thing. In all honesty and free from hyperbole, some of the environmental elements and particle effects in WALL*E’s Earth-bound scenes are photo realistic.
The storytelling in WALL*E also represents a leap for Pixar, in large part because the film has little dialogue. WALL*E (Waste Allocation Load Lifter: Earth class) and EVE (Extraterrestrial Vegetative Evaluator) are robots, and not in the “Rosie from The Jetsons” sense. They make electronic noises and can synthesize a few sounds, but WALL*E relies on expressions and body language to communicate, not dialogue. And he does so with aplomb.
Decades ago, silent movies told stories via situations and expressions, so Pixar isn’t exactly introducing anything new. But being able to achieve that same level of clarity with computer-animated characters and facial expressions rather than real-life actors? That is an achievement.
Director Andrew Stanton first had the idea for the character of WALL*E while adjusting his binoculars at a baseball game. He noticed the binoculars looked like eyes, and that repositioning them mimicked different “expressions.” Throw in a love story and the preliminary title “Trash Planet,” and the concept for WALL*E was off and running — even if these first steps were taken during the tail end of Toy Story development and without a director (it began as a Pete Doctor film, then was re-adopted by Stanton).
Throughout the creative process, one thing remained clear: communication would remain a physical, not verbal, element. This posed some significant but exciting challenges for Pixar’s animation team.
“Storyboards inform the story as much as dialogue, but they didn’t come off as clearly with WALL*E, so I came on board earlier in the process and we had to do more animatics,” says Angus MacLane, Lead Animator for WALL*E. “I’m proud of the animation, but the context is what really tells the story. In one scene, WALL*E just tilts his head. That speaks volumes, and it communicates just as much as dialogue.”
Walking through the halls of Pixar, past the diner-like neon sign that says “Renderfarm: Open 24 Hours,” the hallway decor shows just how much Pixar has poured into character animation. Storyboards from Finding Nemo line one wall of the West Side Gallery, with each scene focused on facial expressions rather than dialogue. Character sketches and maquettes for Ratatouille line another wall, this time highlighting facial as well as body expressions. Pixar even used its object printer to print out a 3D version of Remy the rat doing his “shrug” to indicate he could cook, another reminder of the importance of non-verbal communication, and the first physical representation of an actual moment from one of Pixar’s films.
But while Pixar has explored non-verbal communication before, WALL*E marks the first time the animation studio will rely on it for an entire movie. According to Jason Deamer, Character Art Director for this latest Pixar film, EVE was modeled seven different times before they settled on a design that communicated refinement yet approachability. Pixar even had the iPod design team out to consult on EVE’s design.
As the projector fades to black and the Green Theater lights illuminate, it’s obvious that animation has taken an all-new meaning for Pixar, particularly when it’s not a vehicle for the story, but actually responsible for telling it. The company’s styles and technology have evolved, but the reasons behind them have not. At the heart of every Pixar film lie emotional characters who try to elicit emotion from viewers. Whether the studio meets the non-verbal challenge in WALL*E will help show Pixar just how far it’s come since Toy Story, both graphically and as storytellers. And few will be more critical of the results than Pixar’s own team.
“I feel very fortunate to work at a company where I can make a movie that I want to make, not one that I hope someone else will like,” says lead animator MacLane. “But if I don’t like this movie, how can I expect anyone else to?”
Having watched several scenes from WALL*E, we can safely say MacLane has nothing to worry about. Pixar has encountered some unique speed bumps, and its movies have enjoyed varying degrees of popularity, but WALL*E raises the bar. To achieve what Pixar has with animation alone is nothing short of remarkable, and we’ve seen only one-tenth of the film. If the rest WALL*E maintains this excellence, it may not only be on the fast track for a Best Animated Feature Academy Award, but a nomination for Best Picture, as well.
Special thanks to Pixar and THQ for allowing us to become the latest “stranger from the outside” at Pixar Animation Studios.
— Jonas Allen