Pixar embraces heavy metal with its latest epic. Mark Ramshaw discovers how the studio set about designing a collection of robots that entertain and communicate without uttering a word
When creating a character design, you may rely on dialogue to bring your creation's personality to life. Yet Pixar's latest animated film WALL€E has two non-human lead characters who don't talk. Indeed, there's almost no dialogue at all for the first third of the movie. Even by Pixar's standards, it's a project of considerable daring.
Such is Pixar's stature that it's easy to forget just how brave the studio has been time and again. From creating the first full-length CG animated feature, Toy Story, at a time when audiences were tiring of cartoon movies, through to the way each film is crafted with genuine cross-generational appeal and real emotional depth rather than simply pandering to a lowest common denominator audience, Pixar is a studio unlike any other.
A sci-fi tale that's part-love story, part-comedy, with an eco-theme to boot, the central idea for WALL€E was first mooted in 1994. At a now-famous Pixar lunch, the ideas for A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc. and Finding Nemo were also first discussed. Years later, director Andrew Stanton returned to the idea of a robot left behind on Earth, and began fleshing out the extraordinary story of the cute little 'Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth- Class' droid known as WALL€E. In part fascinated by the idea of tackling the science fiction genre, in part attracted by the Robinson Crusoe concept, and also intrigued by the challenge of largely abandoning speech, Stanton wanted audiences to connect to a highly mechanised main character purely through his actions - inferring emotion and following the action as if watching a silent movie from the early age of cinema. A tall order, but then Pixar did make its debut with Luxo Jr, a short featuring an animated desk lamp.
The pre-production process began at Pixar's California HQ in August of 2005, although Stanton and a core team had been working on the story and carrying out proof of concept tests prior to this. Overseeing production design work was Ralph Eggleston, a Pixar movie veteran and director of Oscar-winning short film For The Birds. Working with a team including character art director Jason Deamer, Eggleston set about working on a style that would give the film a unique appearance. Old artwork from Disneyland's Tomorrowland and NASA proved highly inspirational.
"It wasn't about the specifics; rather, the notion of 'Where's my jet pack?'" says Eggleston. He explains that the aim wasn't to depict what the future is likely to be like, but what it could be like. "In designing the look of the characters and the world, we want people to believe what they're seeing. We want the characters and world to be real - not realistic-looking, but real in terms of believability."
Colour and lighting were also key concerns. Romantic and emotional lighting was chosen for the movie's first act, set on a deserted, rubbish-infested Earth. Act two, set in outer space, emphasises sterility and cleanliness. As the story progresses, the more idealised palette is gradually re-introduced.
"A big part of my job is wrangling all of these disparate ideas from the art department all the way through the production pipeline," notes Eggleston.
For director Stanton, inspiration for the look and feel of the movie and its characters also came from movies like Star Wars (particularly R2-D2), Alien, Blade Runner, Silent Running, and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind.
The works of silent movie stars like Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd also provided some valuable pointers, reveals directing animator and storyboard artist Angus MacLane: "We looked at how they were presented, how they communicated ideas - getting a feel for the language of that type of film-making. Of course the acting is often very presentational and stylised, but there are definitely some common cues and notions."
In time-honoured fashion, the Pixar crew made a number of field trips, taking in NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, robotic conferences, recycling stations, and even a manufacturer of a 'tank wheelchair' device fitted with caterpillar tracks for all-terrain capability. NASA expert Jim Hicks was also consulted to provide information about the effects zero gravity might have on the movie's cast of human characters, while Apple design supremo Jonathan Ive met with the art team to discuss futuristic design.
While much of the design for lead character WALL€E sprung from a desire to make him look highly functional, with an appearance suggesting he could actually operate as a roving trash-compacting machine, one crucial brainstorm came at an unexpected moment.
"The design for WALL€E's eyes came about after Andrew Stanton saw the acting potential for a pair of binoculars while at a baseball game," says MacLane. Stanton ended up missing an entire inning as he toyed with the binoculars, quickly realising how versatile a performance they could provide. And so it was that a pair of swivelling, zoomable lenses became the 'face' of the character.
While WALL€E needed to look workman-like yet endearing, EVE needed to appear graceful, feminine, and hightech. A fluid, seamless form was chosen to suggest femininity. Whereas WALL€E is visibly powered using cogs, gears and motors, the idea with EVE was to have a transformable robot whose seamless moves are achieved using magnets.
"With EVE we had a constant visual struggle to sell the elegance of her form," admits MacLane. "A lot of it involved very careful control of the relationship between her head, body and arms, and of course the stylisation of her eyes."
As with any CG-animated feature, character development continued as the designs were taken from paper to sculpts, and then into 3D. The mechanical nature of the robotic characters made the impact of this phase more pronounced. "The thing about doing robots and complex mechanical things is that you can get the broad strokes in character sheets, but at a certain point it's almost impossible to track all the complexities that will be inherent in the 3D model," explains character modelling lead Jason Bickerstaff.
Bickerstaff points out that the design wasn't limited to the exterior appearance of the characters. In the case of WALL€E, a plausible suspension system was required, his arms needed to move in a suitably mechanical manner and needed to be able to tuck into his body, and he needed to look correctly weighted - all while possessing a range of motion that would satisfy the animation team.
In the original designs, for example, WALL€E possessed elbows. These were later replaced with a track system around his sides, giving his arms a good range of motion. EVE, on the other hand, required a 3D model and rig that would enable her to seamlessly change form, allowing her to fly as well as seal herself together like a robotic egg. Much finessing was required to create parts with a bevel small enough to give the impression of an unbroken surface.
"When you turn an orthogonal drawing into 3D there are always features you can't reconcile, and that becomes much more complicated when you need interlocking parts working in a plausible way," stresses Bickerstaff. "So the process was a little different to usual, in that we had to do a lot of design in 3D after the art had been delivered, to make sure characters could work mechanically and perform in the way the animators wanted."
What the animators did want, somewhat unusually, was a set of robot designs that, while endearing, looked convincingly practical. Where other computer-animated robot-themed movies have made liberal use of squash and stretch and other classic cartoon techniques - or had elements arranged to create highly humanoid shapes and facial structures - the stars of WALL€E were designed to remain true to their metallic materials and to utilise motions in keeping with their functionality.
"A machine only does what is necessary to complete each task, so we tried to stay true to that," says MacLane. "So WALL€E generally only moves his arms if he's reaching out or using them as a tool."
With the might of Disney now behind it, a string of box office hits, and a strong sales business thanks to its Renderman software, Pixar could be forgiven for sitting back and taking it easy. That the studio dared to craft such ambitious characters and build such an uncompromising, design-led movie around them is impressive. That the movie has proven so successful - taking close to $68 million in its opening weekend in the US, and grossing over $280 million worldwide to date - is a true testament to the studio's artistry.