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Pixar Genius

WALL·E

a film by Pixar Animation Studios
caryl_1-100809.jpg
Pixar Animation Studios
From the 2008 Pixar film WALL·E, which won the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature

1.

There are underdogs and then there are underdogs. It is eight hundred years in the future. Earth is a toxic, dusty junkyard, awash in Himalayas of refuse, and the only one left to do the job of cleaning it all up is a waist-high, trash-compacting robot who goes by the name of WALL·E (for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter—Earth Class”). The humans who made such a mess out of their planet have long since absconded to starships where they have spent the intervening centuries being waited on hand and foot by other robots. The combination of low gravity and nonstop pampering has transformed the passengers on this “luxury cruise” into bloated parodies of themselves, baby-like fatties who are so lazy that they’ve lost any sense of what being human is all about. In his solitude, ironically, WALL·E has been evolving in the opposite direction. Over the years he has become sentient.

It’s a funny thing about sentience, though. One side effect of self-awareness is that you become aware of the absence of others, and even as he keeps making the rounds this workhorse robot longs for a sense of connection. Since there aren’t any other intelligent beings around, WALL·E, like so many present-day humans, seeks solace in the movies. He’s become an impassioned collector of odd human artifacts, and one of his most treasured finds turns out to be, of all things, a battered videocassette of the twentieth-century musical Hello, Dolly!

This immersion in 1960s camp primes him for his encounter with EVE, aka “Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator,” a robot probe that has been automatically dispatched to Earth to check for signs that life has returned. WALL·E and EVE are the perfect Hollywood couple. She’s a smooth white egg with mysterious powers and weightless grace; he’s a clodhopper, a Chaplinesque klutz whose good-natured persistence and purity of intention somehow enable him to triumph. At first EVE is all business; their meet-cute, which is punctuated by a mushroom cloud, will be a hard one for future screenwriters to beat. But WALL·E’s wooing—and the courage with which he follows her back to the mother ship to help her fulfill her mission—end up persuading her that intelligence isn’t just about following your prime directive. It turns out that it’s hard to be a thinking being without also picking up emotion, awareness, the sense of possibility—and the desire for companionship.

This notion of nonhuman beings blessed, or cursed, with a human spark has a long history, of course. It runs from the great creation myths through fairy tales (and their Disneyfied variants like Pinocchio and The Little Mermaid) and all the way up to characters like Mr. Spock and Commander Data of the Star Trek franchise. It’s a lineage that’s also rich in darker variations, from Frankenstein to the rebellious androids of Philip K. Dick and Isaac Asimov.

But the writers at Pixar Animation Studios have come up with a much wiser variation on the theme. WALL·E is no Pinocchio; he doesn’t long to be human. Nor is he in revolt against anything. He just wants to capture the heart of his beloved (and, as inspired by Hello, Dolly!, to hold her hand a bit). Andrew Stanton, the movie’s director and cowriter, has said that WALL·E’s personal mission, and the driving conceit of the film, can be neatly summed up in one of Jerry Herman’s lyrics from the little robot’s favorite musical: “We can’t go home/until we’ve kissed the girl.” WALL·E doesn’t mean to overturn the status quo on board the starship (which bears the subtly appropriate name the Axiom). He doesn’t mean to liberate the other robots from their drudgery or to give the humans an object lesson in what being human is all about. But he does. By his example, WALL·E, the artificial life form, ends up reminding them all why life is worth living—and thus inspires them to return to Earth. And it’s precisely the mismatch between his modest aspirations and the events he sets in motion that drives the story’s wistful sense of comedy.

It is a story that is told more by images than words. WALL·E, after all, can barely speak (though he and the other robots have an extraordinarily rich vocabulary of vocalizations, courtesy of the legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, with the whole underpinned by Thomas Newman’s elegant, quirky score1). The first forty minutes or so of the film get by almost entirely without dialogue—though my five-year-old daughter, to mention but one viewer, had no trouble at all following the story.

Stanton contends that contemporary Hollywood is prey to an overreliance on verbiage, and says that he wanted WALL·E to recover something of the visual intensity of the great silent films. He has made good on the promise. With more than a passing resemblance to Harold Lloyd, WALL·E has a face that is dominated by two big binocular eyes capable of expressing an astonishing range of emotion (an achievement that’s all the more surprising when you consider that he doesn’t have a mouth). The automated welcoming committee that greets EVE and WALL·E when they arrive on the Axiom evokes the frenetic assembly line in Modern Times. Stanton also pays tribute to the great sci-fi masterpieces of the 1960s and 1970s, from 2001: A Space Odyssey to the largely forgotten eco-thriller Silent Running; his team has taken care to throw in plenty of tricks with lighting and focus designed to reproduce the feel of traditional cinematography.

It’s an eclectic and often quite daring mixture of elements—yet it all coheres wonderfully. Unlike the hand-drawn celluloid sheets of traditional movie cartoons, digital animation, with its three-dimensional volumes and its extraordinarily rich lighting effects, can creep right up to the edge of photorealism. The toxic haze, the dust particles, and the oily sludge of WALL·E’s dead-end Earth are rendered with the same precision as his collection of splendors salvaged from the trash (an egg beater, a Rubik’s cube, a Big Mouth Billy Bass plaque).

The clinical interior of the Axiom, awash in shimmering ads and reflecting surfaces, makes the perfect foil for WALL·E ‘s grimy brand of unintended chaos. In one of my own favorite moments from the film, WALL·E, hitching a ride on EVE’s spaceship, reaches up in wonder and scoops a confectionary swirl from the rings of Saturn. It is hard to imagine how traditional animation could have achieved a comparably magical effect.

2.

The idea of using digital technology to create characters on the movie screen—without using drawings by an animator’s hand—dates back to the early 1970s, when Ed Catmull and Alvy Ray Smith, two computer scientists at the New York Institute of Technology, began dreaming of making the first feature-length computer-animated film. Their vision seems all the more remarkable considering that they came up with it at a time when processing power and memory were so limited that computer screens could barely retain complex still images. In 1979 the two men joined the studio of Star Wars ‘s George Lucas, where their computer graphics department soon came up with some pioneering digital special effects (such as a collapsing planet in one of the Star Trek movies in 1982, the first completely computer-generated sequence in a film). They quickly realized, though, that “character animation”—cartoons populated by characters who can inspire laughter or tears in audiences—was a much harder goal.

Screening one of their first short works, they realized that all their programming savvy wasn’t enough to create something that was really worth watching. They were in danger of reproducing a moment from the early history of animated cinema, when one of Walt Disney’s early collaborators, a tech genius by the name of Ub Iwerks, had set up his own operation in the conviction that he could make cartoons every bit as good as his partner’s. But it soon became clear that Iwerks didn’t have a storytelling bone in his body, and the characters he dreamed up for his own movies never really struck a chord with the public. Disney—himself no slouch when it came to cinematic innovation—succeeded by putting storytelling, character development, and emotion at the heart of his films.

Ironically, about the time that Catmull and Smith were deciding that they needed to follow Disney’s lead, his own studio, bereft of its founder since his death in 1966, was entering a creative slump. The company had put computer graphics to pathbreaking use in a 1982 live-action movie called Tron but then proved scandalously inept at capitalizing on its advantage. The potential of the new technology caught the imagination of a young animator at the studio named John Lasseter, a graduate of the Disney-founded California Institute of the Arts. Tron, he told his bosses, was exactly the sort of thing Disney could be doing in order to regain its imaginative élan. Their response was to fire him.2 He found a new home with Catmull and Smith, and soon began turning out short experimental films that exploited their technical advances. In 1986 Lucas decided to sell off Catmull and Smith’s computer graphics shop to a tech entrepreneur by the name of Steve Jobs, already well known as the brilliant but monomaniacal cofounder of Apple Computer. (He had been fired from the company the year before by its executives, and would take revenge by firing many of them when he returned to Apple in 1996.) The new company called itself Pixar, a coinage meant to sound like an active verb derived from “pixel.” In 1986 the twenty-nine-year-old Lasseter’s new bosses asked him to show what Pixar was capable of by coming up with a demo film for the annual convention of American computer graphics experts, known as SIGGRAPH. If you happen to have a broadband Internet connection handy as you read this, go to your search engine and enter the title Luxo Jr. Click on one of the proffered videos and you’ll be treated to an elegant little tale of two lamps, a bemused parent and a frolicking child, both white against a black background. The lamps, being lamps, have no eyes, mouths, hands or feet, yet they somehow manage to experience surprise, curiosity, childish zeal, disappointment, and joy. An infectious study in silliness, the whole story lasts just over two minutes. Lasseter didn’t originally intend for the film to have a plot. One of its functions, indeed, was purely technical: to show how effectively Pixar’s computers and image-processing software handled the challenge of something called “self-shadowing”—the intricate and mutable ways by which objects in the natural world illuminate and occlude themselves. Lasseter had been conducting a series of experiments using the Luxo lamp on his own desk as a model. One day, as David Price relates in his highly readable Pixar company history, a colleague brought his infant son to work, and as Lasseter played with the boy he became intrigued by the comic possibilities of the realization that a child’s head is large compared to its body. Later an animator colleague strongly advised him to turn his lamp exercise into a proper story, one with a beginning, middle, and end.

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    Both received Oscar nominations for their work. WALL·E ‘s supporters actually instigated a campaign to have it considered for Best Picture. In the event, the film did get an Academy Award for Best Animated Feature, a minor category that was created in 2001 for films that are usually aimed primarily at children. WALL·E was not only one of the year’s biggest box-office successes but, according to a collation of Internet viewer surveys, earned more critical accolades than just about any of its competitors. See Matt Bandyk, “Academy Awards Controversy: Wall-E Gets Snubbed for Best Picture Oscar,” Risky Business blog, US News and World Report, January 22, 2009.

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    The skeptics included Frank Thomas, one of the legendary “Nine Old Men,” the elite team of Disney animators responsible for creations such as Pinocchio and Snow White. In 1984 Thomas published a withering take on the prospects of computer-generated character animation, expressing profound doubts that computers would ever be able to summon up the human qualities required in order to produce convincing animated cinema. “The subtle pantomime, believable dialogue, appealing drawings, and most of all that personal electronic statement may be beyond our reach in the mechanical area of electronic circuitry,” Thomas wrote. “Old-fashioned animation has more control and more freedom, and also offers a greater range of expression.”

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