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Pixar Genius

WALL·E

a film by Pixar Animation Studios
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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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Pixar Animation Studios
‘Helen finds Bob’; a lighting thumbnail for The Incredibles by Lou Romano, from Karen Paik’s To Infinity and Beyond! The Story of Pixar Animation Studios

The six thousand members of the SIGGRAPH audience who had gathered together in a Dallas auditorium immediately understood that they had witnessed something new. “It was,” Price recounts, “perhaps the first computer-animated film that enabled viewers to forget that they were watching computer animation.” After the screening Lasseter was approached by a colleague from the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory:

Lasseter braced for a question about the shadowing algorithm or some other recondite technical issue that he knew equally little about.

“John,” Blinn asked, “was the big lamp the mother or the father?”

It was true proof, Lasseter realized, that he had succeeded in applying the Disney touch of thought and emotion to his characters. (No one remembers how Lasseter answered Blinn’s question, but Lasseter has referred elsewhere to the parent lamp as “Dad.”)

The extent of this creative breakthrough can be gauged by Pixar’s subsequent decision to incorporate the hopping lamp into the company’s logo, shown at the beginning of each Pixar film.

It would be another ten years—and another several million dollars of Steve Jobs’s cash—before the company would finally make good on its founders’ original vision by producing its first feature-length film, Toy Story (1995). Pixar’s subsequent history has been nothing less than astounding. In the fourteen years since Toy Story the company has released nine straight hits—a track record that stands out against the wildly inconsistent fortunes of its Hollywood competitors over the same period. In striking contrast to most other children’s films over the past decade or so, Pixar movies aren’t just popular, but loved. (Toy Story is one of the few films of its generation, animated or otherwise, to make the American Film Institute’s list of America’s one hundred greatest films.)

For much of its early existence Pixar existed in a symbiotic relationship with Disney, which provided marketing and distribution muscle for Pixar films even as it faced growing difficulties at turning out animated hits of its own. As the years went by the tables gradually turned. As Price notes, a few years into this century Disney executives were horrified to discover from the company’s own market research that “mothers of young children trusted the Pixar brand” more than their own. In 2005, the newly appointed Disney CEO Bob Iger presided over a merger of the two companies—which, tellingly, installed several Pixar notables in key Disney management positions.
This might suggest to some that Pixar has thrived by offering pablum. The opposite is true. If anything, Pixar has come to stand for a sharp, invigorating, and deeply eccentric style of moviemaking. The heroes of Pixar’s sublimely charming movies include rats, cockroaches, sharks, and one-eyed monsters; the villains are often, well, ordinary humans. Even though the stories have a strong sense of right and wrong, they eschew the sort of lazy character design and ethical simplicity that tends to afflict Disney at its worst. There’s a lot going on in Pixar’s moral universe; when it gets dark, it’s very, very dark.
Toy Story is one of the cheeriest Pixar movies, but it also includes a pubescent villain named Sid who wears black T-shirts and gets a kick out of torturing his playthings on the barbecue—this, mind you, in a movie where the toys are alive. (As Price relates, Toy Story was such a departure from the norm that the companies that usually jumped at the chance to manufacture spin-off goods for Disney-affiliated films begged off.)

Monsters, Inc. is about the stuff of nightmares; it posits an alternate world inhabited by monsters whose survival depends on their skill at scaring kids in their beds at night. Finding Nemo, perhaps the best Pixar film aside from WALL·E, centers on the fears of a fish who happens to be a Holocaust survivor, of sorts. The clownfish Marlin (wonderfully voiced by a neurotic Albert Brooks) has been traumatized by the destruction of his entire family—save his son Nemo, whose capture by humans sets off a frantic quest by the father that, with its luminous reefs and murky abysses, lays out the beauty and the brutality of nature far more persuasively than any other animated film.

Pixar can also be refreshingly elitist. The hero of Ratatouille, a rat named Remy who happens to be a genius at cooking, defies his own rat family and human bigots to live out his dream of becoming a chef. In The Incredibles, a family of superheroes is forced to submerge their talents in the suburban limbo of a US government witness protection program, the victims of a society that has lost any interest in tolerating the exceptional.

Perhaps befitting the countercultural origins of some of Pixar’s founders, the movies sometimes take jabs at the culture of conformity in today’s America: the heroic monsters of Monsters, Inc. —that’s right, the monsters, at least some of them, are the good guys—end up rebelling against a corporate hierarchy run amok, and Mr. Incredible’s nightmarish office in The Incredibles is a loving send-up of Jack Lemmon’s white-bread insurance company in The Apartment. None of this, though, is ever allowed to slop over into sententiousness or get in the way of the story. Pixar works have been attacked both by Wall Street Journal conservatives, who hated WALL·E ‘s conceit of a Wal-Mart-style company that ends up running, and ravaging, the world, and by New York Times film reviewers, who fault the movies for being insufficiently feminist.

Earlier this year, moreover, the New York Post could only snarl when Pixar had the temerity to release a new film, Up, that centers on a bad-tempered widower who decides to dodge “assisted living” by floating his house away to South America on a cloud of helium balloons. How could kids possibly identify with a hero like that?3 Nevertheless the movie—which is deeply touching, beautiful to watch, and even has a few things to say about the joys of two people growing old together—has been another resounding success.

3.

The question the critics should be asking, in fact, is how Pixar’s founders have managed to institutionalize this sort of risk-taking creativity—and the implications of its model for the future of Hollywood. Both Price’s book and Pixar’s autobiographies offer a few clues. One point that stands out is that Pixar is, simply enough, a radically different sort of company—about as much like the traditional Hollywood studio as Google is like IBM. It’s a reasonable comparison, considering that Pixar—like Google as well as Hewlett-Packard and Apple—got its start in a garage, that emblematic origin story of the feisty tech start-up. Pixar is based in California’s Bay Area, not Los Angeles or its environs, and its corporate culture and its employees have far more in common with Silicon Valley than Hollywood.

Pixar employees keep programmer’s hours but also zip around their corporate HQ on scooters and ambush each other with water pistols. Lasseter seems to have spent most of his early years at the firm sleeping under the desk in his office as he struggled to complete his latest project; yet this is also the same man who showed up at an Academy Awards ceremony in a chauffeured Oscar Mayer Wienermobile. (I suspect, by the way, that the index of Price’s book is the only one I will ever read that includes entries on both Jennifer Lopez and Benoît Mandelbrot, the theoretician of fractals.)

Pixar perfectionism has become legendary. The studio’s animators prepared for A Bug’s Life by mounting a miniaturized camera on wheels so that they could get an ant’s eye view of sunlight shining down through the grass. Leading marine biologists were brought into the company’s headquarters to give lectures on fish during the creation of Finding Nemo; the artists working on the movie were also given scuba-diving lessons at company expense or sent off to examine the carcass of a beached whale, from the inside. Members of the team that made WALL·E paid a visit to the Pasadena Jet Propulsion Laboratory to study how real-life robot probes get around on other planets. Pixar has even established an in-house study center aimed at furthering playful knowledge of arcane subjects.

Pixar has certainly benefited from the simple fact that its outsider origins have enabled it to avoid many of the organizational ills that now plague the Hollywood establishment. In a paper for the Harvard Business Review, Ed Catmull explains how Pixar has managed the tricky balancing act of sustaining innovation as follows: “Creative power in a film has to reside with the film’s creative leadership. As obvious as this might seem, it’s not true of many companies in the movie industry and, I suspect, a lot of others.”4 When Stanton was asked by an interviewer about possible second-guessing of creative decisions by studio managers, he responded: “We don’t have men in suits in-house at Pixar.”5 Though each team has clear leaders, collaboration and criticism are built into the creative process; the work on each film is subjected to daily review, and anyone can offer an opinion.

The technology itself, of course, is powerfully transformational in its own right. Surely the capacity to depict such a vast array of effects on the screen has helped to unleash the filmmakers’ imaginations. Finding Nemo seems to have been at least partly driven by its creators’ desire to rise to the challenge of conjuring up the effects of light shining through every kind of sea. Up would have been a radically different story without the capacity to generate the movie’s astounding sense of depth and altitude, or subtle touches like the multihued shadows cast by the enormous cloud of balloons.

It would have been so easy, in fact, for the Pixar collective to succumb to the lure of their own engineering prowess. Yet if there’s one understanding that distinguishes the studio’s work, it’s that the technology can take you only so far. Unless you learn how to infuse it with human values (like the pleasures of storytelling), even the most seductive images will lose their way. Indeed, following in Pixar’s wake, virtually all the Hollywood studios in the animation business—Disney, DreamWorks—now use digital technology to produce cartoons. Yet none of their offerings linger in the mind the way that Pixar’s do—presumably because Pixar has managed to install respect for the art at the center of their enterprise.

In the biggest irony of all, it has been Pixar’s success at advancing the science of computer graphics that has led to the almost complete destruction of the craft of hand-drawn animation that Pixar’s animators once worshiped—a case study in what we have come to call “disruptive innovation.” Perhaps this has contributed to the pronounced awareness, which runs like a current through all of the Pixar movies, that technological progress invariably has its cost as well as benefits. In Toy Story, the old-fashioned cowboy doll Woody finds that his new rival, the “high-tech” action figure Buzz Lightyear, is threatening to supplant him in the affections of the kid who owns them both. (For a while Buzz’s cool gadgets even impress the other toys.) The villains in Monsters, Inc. scheme to replace the employees of the factory that harvests children’s screams (the main source of energy in the monsters’ world) by experimenting with a machine that would do the work by brute force. (The heroes of the film ultimately discover that they can get more energy by making the kids laugh than by scaring them.) The chief baddy in The Incredibles wants to render superheroes obsolete by overcoming them with killer robots and other clever inventions.

Disruptive innovation, in short, can also devastate—and in the real world it’s Pixar itself that has, at times, acted as a destroyer. WALL·E presents the studio’s darkest take on this problem so far, and at the same time offers its most optimistic resolution. In that film, the enemy is us; we’re the ones who have destroyed our world, and technology has merely been our unknowing accomplice. In a wonderful twist, it’s the beings we’ve manufactured that end up redeeming us. WALL·E has learned how to humanize himself—and ends up liberating his fellows, and restoring our humanity, along the way.

The final credits of the film—a beautiful mini-epic in its own right—treat us to a vision of life on a restored Earth where the once-subject robots become equal collaborators with humans. EVE (in a nice reversal of the usual male- female roles) discovers a new vocation as a driller of water wells; the same typing robot who learned the art of the casual wave from a jovial WALL·E during the film becomes a planter of seedlings. This story is also told with the help of music—a lovely song by Thomas Newman and Peter Gabriel that, yes, was also nominated for an Oscar. My five-year-old didn’t really need the help, though. The pictures said it all.

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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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    “‘Up’ Yours,” New York Post, May 24, 2009. 

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    “How Pixar Fosters Collective Creativity,” September 2008. 

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    “Bringing Wall-E to Life,” Total Film, July 16, 2008.