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Off the WALL-E 

Pixar director surfs from sea to space

When Pixar Animation Studios created Toy Story for Disney in 1994, film executives wondered whether an audience would sit still for 75 minutes to watch an entirely computer-animated film. Roughly 14 years later, executives cut from the same cloth wonder if audiences will sit still for cartoon features that aren't animated on computers.

The fact that Pixar has gone from taking a bold gamble to setting the industry's gold standard pays tribute to the talent of its creative team, which includes Toy Story director (and chief creative officer) John Lasseter, The Incredibles director Brad Bird and Finding Nemo director Andrew Stanton. Stanton joined the company in 1990 as its second animator (and ninth employee), and steps into the spotlight this summer as the visionary behind Pixar's latest release, the lovely sci-fi comedy WALL-E.

Pixar's ninth feature film, WALL-E, lives up to the level of excellence of its predecessors, which arguably has made the studio the most consistent and trustworthy "brand" in today's pop entertainment. During an interview in early June, Stanton professed dislike of terms like "brand" or "collective" to describe Pixar.

"We like to think of Pixar as more of a quality-control endorsement," Stanton says. "We want to make movies that look like the vision of a single director, not the product of a committee. The personal touches may be subtle, but they're there. It's about 90 percent the director, and 10 percent of others giving advice. When you see Toy Story, that's John. When you see The Incredibles, that's Brad."

And when you see Finding Nemo or WALL-E, that's Stanton, who based the first film's undersea quest in part on his own concerns about being an overprotective father. In WALL-E, he pushes both his old-fashioned Hollywood-style romanticism and his sharp-edged satiric sensibility further than Pixar's previous films. WALL-E offers a love story between two mismatched robots that begins on post-apocalyptic, garbage-strewn Earth and takes flight into outer space.

As if concerned that WALL-E looks like too much of a departure from Pixar's previous films about cute, talking toys, bugs, cars, etc., the movie's first teaser trailer tied the film's origins to the company's creative history. "In the summer of 1994, there was a lunch," Stanton announces in the spot. He describes how, when Toy Story was near completion, he sat down to discuss ideas for a follow-up feature with Lasseter, Pete Docter and the late Joe Ranft. (Bird would come on board a few years later.) After brainstorming the ideas that would eventually be A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo, they concluded with WALL-E, the story of the last robot on Earth.

At our interview, Stanton explains that many of WALL-E's plot points derived from that initial idea, including the parody of huge corporations: "That came from basically reverse-engineering the story. I wanted to have WALL-E making cubes of this endless amount of garbage. That was something that wouldn't need explanation -- people would understand it immediately. So I had to ask, 'Why is there so much garbage?' Because people on Earth bought so much stuff." Hence the ideas of Earth overwhelmed with trash, and mankind relocated onto a huge spaceship until the planet becomes habitable again.

Stanton had to keep exposition to an absolute minimum because WALL-E features so little spoken dialogue, especially in its first 30 minutes. Given Pixar's strength in attracting A-list movie stars as voice actors, including Toy Story's Tom Hanks and Finding Nemo's Ellen DeGeneres, restricting the voice dialogue sounds like working without a net. "In preparation we watched the old Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin silent movies, and they weren't handicapped when they made movies without dialogue," Stanton says. "I'm very confident in our visual storytelling skills, but there's still one less thing to hide behind. That forced up every other element that tells the story, like the music and the acting." Stanton and his animators also studied real industrial robots to give WALL-E's cybernetic cast convincing body language.

Incidentally, Stanton himself spoke for one of the most beloved supporting roles in Pixar's history: Crush, the sea turtle/surfer dude from Finding Nemo. In my wholly unscientific survey, Crush is the Pixar character people most like to imitate. ("Dude, no hurlin' on the shell -- I just waxed it.") Stanton says he never expected his voice to be part of Finding Nemo's finished product. "We all do 'scratch takes' for the characters, because voice actors aren't always available. I was Woody for years. I looked for a long time for someone to do Crush, but hadn't picked anyone. Then there was a test screening and Crush got a great reaction, so everyone said 'You're staying in.'" (You can catch a sea-turtle cameo during WALL-E's closing credits.)

The character of WALL-E has a celebrity voice actor of a sort. WALL-E's expressive beeps and noises come from Ben Burtt, a veteran Hollywood sound designer and the "voice" of R2-D2. "He did the sound design for the Star Wars and Indiana Jones [films]. I was thinking about how much I'd like to have someone like him, who created such iconic sound effects, and then I said to myself, 'Well, why not call him?' We worked together in two ways. First, he'd give me an abundance of choices. He's very prolific, so it was a process of narrowing down. Then we'd focus on the emotional details of a scene, so it was like working with him as an actor."

As Pixar's vice president and a creative, Stanton oversees the development of not just the company's feature films, but also the charming shorts that are attached to them. WALL-E is preceded by Doug Sweetland's Presto, a tale of the tense relationship between a stage magician and his rabbit. Presto's old-school, Looney Tunes-style slapstick makes a pleasing contrast to WALL-E's high-tech wonders, but Stanton concedes that such pairings are just happy accidents. "I wish I could say we were that far-sighted, but we're not. The shorts are more about cultivating good ideas, and cultivating talented people who may be able to direct a feature film one day."

Last year's documentary, The Pixar Story, painted the company's history in terms that made it seem like both the world's greatest place to work, and its most potentially stressful. After Toy Story's nail-biting initial success, the pressure to make a CGI feature morphed into pressure to live up to the film's success -- as if "pressure" is the proverbial can that keeps getting kicked down the road. Stanton dismissed the idea that Pixar's team stresses out over external factors.

"That's an easy slant to take," Stanton says. "I'm sure it looks like that from the outside. Instead, we're so consumed in our building that the outside pressure's always eclipsed by the inside pressure. It's a very openly critical atmosphere, in the most constructive sense of the word. You're gonna know if you're not cutting it."

Stanton wouldn't tell me on the record what he's working on next, only that he's been bitten by the sci-fi bug and is writing another project that won't be ready for at least four years. Web sites like Cinematical have reported that Stanton's developing John Carter of Mars, the long-awaited film version of the swashbuckling series by Tarzan creator Edgar Rice Burroughs. WALL-E's vision of an abandoned Earth, along with Finding Nemo's fanciful undersea adventure, suggests he's an ideal choice to bring the beloved sci-fi series to the big screen as his next venture.

As Crush would say, "Curl away, dude."

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