Writer-director Andrew Stanton got in on the ground floor at animation studio Pixar and apparently never looked back. He's been involved in virtually all things Pixar for the past decade and a half; he co-directed A Bug's Life (with John Lasseter) and Finding Nemo (with Lee Unkrich), collaborated on the scripts for the Toy Story movies, A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., and Finding Nemo, and provided voices for almost all the above, plus Cars and The Incredibles. This year sees the release of his first solo writing-directing project, the Pixar picture WALL—E, about a trash-compacting robot still doing his job after 700 years alone on an abandoned Earth. The A.V. Club recently spoke with Stanton about the Pixar mentality, making live-action films in slow-motion, WALL—E's resemblance to another movie robot, and why WALL—E is so obsessed with the Barbra Streisand movie Hello, Dolly!
The A.V. Club: The first teaser ad for WALL—E focused on the idea that back in 1994, when Toy Story was being completed, Pixar's creative leads sat down for lunch and brainstormed the ideas that became A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., and WALL—E. What do you remember about the very first ideas for those films? What form were they in when you left that lunch?
Andrew Stanton: Well, we were very careful with our wording, and we made sure we weren't saying we came up with all of those scripts. We had the ideas that inspired those movies. So we talked about subjects and scenarios like the ocean and facing your fears, and that's about the farthest it went. It's interesting to look back and realize that those settings stuck with us, and ended up going on with Nemo and Monsters. The bulk of the lunch was about A Bug's Life, in that we truly came up with a large chunk of that movie in that lunch. And probably the second most concrete idea that came out of that thing, though even then it was half-baked, was the conceit of the last robot on earth, just a machine left running, not knowing that it could stop doing what it was doing. And that was it. There was no name. There was no storyline. It was this character conceit. But it was so strong. We were in the middle of Toy Story at the time, and we had just come off of two hard years of banging our heads against the wall, trying to make our main character, Woody, really appealing. And it was so hard to do, and it was a lesson for us, to suddenly say a sentence like that and already care about this sort of anonymous character. It just kinda blew me away. And I think that's why it stuck around.
AVC: What kind of decisions went into deciding which ideas to develop into films?
AS: Well, the Bug's Life thing, we kept running with during the lunch. Pretty much the entire lunch became about that, and we walked away going "That's our next picture." But we're a director-driven studio, so these other things, these other initial sparks, were sort of out there in the ether, free to grab for any of us after that. It's really whatever inspires the director. We're not a collective think-tank that sits around and goes, "Hey, this is our grand design." It's more, "These are our directors. What does Pete Docter want to do next? What does Andrew Stanton want to do next? What does Brad Bird want to do next?"
AVC: Has that attitude been fairly consistent since the early days?
AS: Yeah. We looked long and hard at why Toy Story worked so well. We realized that one of the biggest reasons was that we were not in L.A., and that just with our guts, we could trick ourselves into thinking these movies were for ourselves. We're not trying to second-guess what the demographics are, or try to second-guess who our audience is. We're just going to make a movie we want to see. We feel like we go to the movies enough that we know what we want: Movies made by a singular vision. Made by a filmmaker who knew what he wanted. That's why I go to the movies—I go to see what those filmmakers want to make. I don't go to see what a studio wants. And so we've applied that ever since.
AVC: How much would you say Pixar has changed as a company since the era of that brainstorming lunch?
AS: It actually hasn't. It's weird. It's changed incredibly, and it hasn't changed at all. And what I mean by that is that it hasn't been the same place for more than a year and a half at a time. It has continually grown and grown and grown. When I started, there were less than 10 people in the animation department, and now there's a thousand. But the tone and attitude of how we work, and the kind of atmosphere we create to make it as artist-friendly and to encourage as much risk-taking as possible, has always existed, and it has adapted itself to work with this scale. And that, I am very impressed with. And shocked. I remember my dad, who formed his own company and went from 12 people to 200 people, the moment he saw us go to 200 people, he said, "Oh, it's all going to change." And he meant that in a negative, skeptical way. And it did change, but it only became more inviting. And I think some of that is because we had a mentality when we were young to hire people based on who they were, not based on their talents. They had to have the right requirements on their résumés, but the most important thing was, "Do I get along working with you? Can I work with you all night in the trenches? If you can get along with everyone in the group, then we'll see if you're the person with the best requirements for whatever the task is." And we've kind of kept that attitude ever since we've grown. It's almost this theory of "If you put a whole bunch of good apples in the barrel, the bad apples just can't stay."
AVC: At what point along the way was it decided that you personally were going to direct WALL—E?
AS: It went to the wayside very quickly after that lunch, because we didn't know what to do with it. And frankly, we knew right away, "You know, what would be cool is if it could be like [Pixar's animated-lamp mascot] Luxo Jr. or R2D2, this character that would speak based on the way it was built. Wouldn't it be cool to do a whole feature like that?" And we said, "That's so arty that no one will ever let us do it." We hadn't even finished Toy Story, so we said, "I'd see that, but I don't know if anyone else would let us make that." So it just died right there. So I think it was, basically, it took that many more years to become better filmmakers and to get that much more confidence in what we wanted to try doing, and also for the technology to advance. When I was in the middle of Nemo, I said, "Well, what do I want to do next?" 'Cause usually, I start writing whatever I want to do next while I'm finishing the feature I'm on. And that little guy came back into my head, and I think I had learned enough by then to realize, "Look, the thing I am attracted to is that it is the loneliest character I could have ever heard of. And the opposite of loneliness is love." I was just completely sparked by the idea that it was a love story in a sci-fi backdrop, and suddenly I just couldn't stop writing. And that's very rare for me. It's very arduous for me to write. And I just took that as a sign, "That's what I gotta to do next."
AVC: You've said you've been working full-time on WALL—E for about four years. At what point in the process did the animation actually start?
AS: We started doing early development testing probably in early 2005.
AVC: Did you have side projects during those four years? How do you stay sane working on just one project for four straight years?
AS: [Laughs.] No, it consumes me. Sadly, my hobby is what I do for work, so I don't go off and go fishing. I go home and veg, and then I go back to work. I was that kind of kid that was going to the movies every weekend, I couldn't get enough of the movies, and now I get to make them. So I kind of have a one-track mind.
AVC: You've complained about how it takes weeks to make any change to a Pixar CGI film, because of rendering times. Does the speed and processing power of computers these days make rendering animation any faster, or does the complexity of the animation balance that out?
AS: It does exactly what happens with your home computer. Once you've got more memory, then you just want to do more with it. And you end up feeling like it takes just as long to do now the 16 things in five minutes instead of the one thing you used to do in five minutes. It's the exact same thing with us. Our appetites have grown in the exact same proportion to the technology.
AVC: How much concern was there over having a lead character who essentially doesn't talk?
AS: None. Very early on, we were completely excited by the idea; we just didn't have the confidence to try it until later. That's what I love about Pixar; it's an artist-driven studio, so we never even think about whether it's commercial or demographic or anything like that. We really trust the filmgoer in ourselves, and go, "Lookit, I would love to see a movie like that." And if the rest of your buddies say "I would too," well, that's all it takes. And then we make it.
AVC: What did the script look like, with almost no dialogue for the first half-hour or so?
AS: Exactly like a regular script. Well, there was a slight difference. In my mind, WALL—E was going to speak. He's speaking from frame one, all the time. It's very conscious, the sounds we pick and what they mean. So I wrote every character as if they were speaking, and just put their dialogue in brackets, so I knew what I was having them say—that would be the intention of the line, and we would replace it with whatever noises would be a good surrogate. I remember reading the script for Alien—it was written by Dan O'Bannon, and he had this amazing format where he didn't use a regular paragraph of description. He would do little four-to-eight-word descriptions and then sort of left-justify it and make about four lines each, little blocks, so it almost looked like haikus. It would create this rhythm in the readers where you would appreciate these silent visual moments as much as you would the dialogue on the page. It really set you into the rhythm and mindset of what it would be like to watch the finished film. I was really inspired by that, so I used that format for WALL—E. That's where the difference is. The rest of it was very conventional in the way that I have always written scripts.
AVC: Did you watch any silent movies, Chuck Jones-style dialogue-free cartoons, or similar sources for inspiration about silent comedy?
AS: Well, we're way too much the authorities on Chuck Jones, so we didn't need to watch those again. But we definitely felt like, "You know, we should look at the masters, because these guys had decades to become the best at telling stories without the dependency of dialogue. So we watched a [Charlie] Chaplin film and a [Buster] Keaton film and sometimes a Harold Lloyd film every day at lunch for almost a year and a half, the story crew and the animation crew. And became pretty much familiar with their entire bodies of work. You walk away from that thinking, "What can't you tell completely visually?" These guys were just… everything seemed possible to convey. And you realized how much of that staging and legwork was actually lost when sound came in. People got lazy and just sort of relied on the dialogue to get stuff across.
AVC: Were there stages where you considered making the story completely dialogue-free, or where you considered bringing in English dialogue in much earlier?
AS: No, I was always going to have nontraditional dialogue all through it for the main characters. That was part of the conceit from the beginning that we loved about it. But to me, that wasn't the point. I just loved the idea that you're being true to the integrity to each of the things in the movie. If it's a human, they're going to speak English. If it's a robot that's high-tech, it's going to have a certain kind of language. If it's a robot that's low-tech, it's going to have a different kind of language. And to me, that's what placed it in a very believable universe, is that you weren't thinking about how it was going to be received by the audience. You're thinking more like a documentary filmmaker that's finding this fictitious world, and that's just how the world works.
AVC: People keep talking about how much WALL—E resembles Johnny 5 from Short Circuit—
AS: You know, I was shocked to see that afterward. I never thought about it. I really didn't. And I'll own up to anything. I am trying to homage to HAL [from 2001] and all that, but I honestly never thought of Short Circuit. I can see the comparison, because it's the stereoscopic eyes. I personally got that idea from a pair of binoculars somebody handed to me at a baseball game. When I saw the inner hinge on them, and how you could kind of use it to make them look sad or stern or mad—I remember playing with my dad's binoculars, and that's when I got hooked on the idea. And I loved that his design had the simplicity of the cone lamp head of Luxo Jr. And that's where it came from.
AVC: You had co-directors in your first two movies, but not on this one. How was that different?
AS: Well, there was no grand design. Each film has its own ups and downs, and some of it was training grounds. John [Lasseter] always wanted to potentially see me or Pete [Docter] get a chance to direct. I was a sort of silent deputy or Robin to his Batman during Toy Story, and he just decided to legitimize that role by giving it a title. So we gave it this term, co-director, because we felt like it's not like I'm actually directing the film, I'm sort of his second in demand, and I'm there to further the vision, or be his counterpoint for stuff. But it was also a great little four-year training camp to see first-hand what it takes to be a director. So typically, that's why someone is a co-director.
AVC: How does that differ from the producer role you've had at Pixar?
AS: Well, executive producer can mean anything in the world of Hollywood, sadly. It can be a bought title in many instances. But what it means in our world is that you were the outside consultant/coach, that you're the person that helps things along from the outside if someone needs advice, or if they need an extra hand for a while, or a creative voice of objectivity. So it's a very creative role in our world.
AVC: It seems like Pixar still sort of revolves around that small corps of people who wear a lot of hats. Would you say that's true?
AS: I think because we were small, we got very good at multitasking and sort of a Renaissance style of doing stuff, because we didn't want to be larger than we had to be. It's like anything else. The more people it takes to do something, the more unwieldy it can get. The Telephone game can happen, and the more you are increasing the chances for things to go wrong. So the smaller you can stay, the smoother things go, especially in a creative endeavor. So we've always encouraged this sort of Renaissance style of having many talents, because it can keep the body count down. But it's not a rule or anything like that. It's a little loosey-goosey.
AVC: Does there tend to be competition for resources, particularly for senior staffers who can't be everywhere at once?
AS: Yeah. That's like anything else, there's definitely a list of people that everybody wants on their films, in all different departments.
AVC: The IMDB doesn't show actual animation credits for you since A Bug's Life. Have you changed your role as far as how hands-on you are with animation in your films?
AS: Actually, the last time I ever animated was on Toy Story. And I didn't even animate a shot on Toy Story, I animated development stuff for it. I went pretty much straight into storyboarding and screenwriting, and I think that's the last time I animated, sometime around 1992.
AVC: Why is that?
AS: Because I fell in love with writing. And I found I was good at it. And so everybody kept asking me to do it.
AVC: I was so delighted to find out that you were the writer-director of "A Story."
AS: [Laughs.] Oh really, do you know that? You're like the first person I've ever met that would know that, wow. Randy the Killer Clown. That was my irreverent response to growing up with H.R. Pufnstuf.
AVC: That short wasn't computer-assisted at all, was it? It was very early on, and it has a very loose hand-drawn feel.
AS: I had never touched a computer in my life before I came to Pixar. That just shows you how much John was a forward-thinker, in the sense that he said, "Lookit, we should hire people that are good at their talents. We can teach them programming or any kind of computer skills over a matter of months, but I can't teach them how to be a good entertainer, I can't teach them how to be good with timing, or with whatever creative talents they have."
AVC: So "A Story" was a student project?
AS: That was a student film. That was my third-year student film at Cal Arts. The Spike & Mike Festival bought that and my second-year student film, which was something in the Arctic about a polar bear being chased by three Eskimos. Which ironically, when I think back on it, was also characters who didn't speak English, who spoke in some weird gobbledygook. I think that's just sort of an animation convention, I don't know.
AVC: Is there anything you miss about hands-on cel animation?
AS: Well, I grew up being a huge fan of it, and I definitely went to school to learn it, and my first couple jobs were doing that, so I have a fondness for it. But I'm definitely a perfect candidate for computer graphics, in the sense that my draftsmanship skills were my weakest. There was always somebody that could draw better than me. And in 2D, that really can hold you back and be a glass ceiling for how good your animation can be. And once I moved to a medium that's more like puppeteering, and my draftsmanship skills weren't holding me back, I was a much better animator. It's funny, I would compare notes with John, and he had the same sort of revelation, because he would admit that he wasn't the greatest draftsman either, yet we seemed to have a great knack for timing. And it sort of freed us up. So even though I didn't have an aesthetic interest in CGI animation at the time, I really found I was a perfect candidate for it.
AVC: The old model for animated films is that the director is in there drawing the characters and showing people how they should move. How is a CGI animation director's role different?
AS: It's exactly like being a live-action director; it's just that all the tools everybody uses to do their job are computers. But I have the exact hierarchy that you would expect in live-action. I have a cinematographer, I have a production designer, I have a cadre of actors—some of them are literally actors, some of them are my animators—I have costume designers, prop masters, all that stuff. And the jobs that they do are the same, it's just that they use the computer and we don't get to meet at the set all at once and say "action" and "cut" and then we're done. We have to meet in individual meetings, and then arrange to have all the files they're working on all combined into one file, and then watch it on the big screen, and it's always a mess. It's like a game of Telephone. It takes several iterations, i.e. weeks, sometimes months, to get our shots to work right. But the lingo that we use, the manner that we're speaking, it's like making live-action in slow motion.
AVC: You do some very live-action-camera shots in WALL—E, like the hand-held, auto-focus shot where he's being chased by the shopping carts. What are you working toward there? What's your intent?
AS: Well the whole film, I wanted to have more of a believable sense. I wanted you to have this sort of sense that it's really happening, that you're a fly on the wall and it has a slight, subtle documentary sense to it. I wanted the physics of everything that was going on with the camera, the way it moved, the way the lenses worked, the way the lighting worked, to feel as familiar to reality as you could. I wasn't going for photorealistic; I was going for depth and believability. So that you just felt like that box is really sitting there in space, in air, on the dusty ground. And the more you believe that box is there, the more you're going to be charmed when it comes to life. And that's why I pushed it that far. I am not a geek to try and match reality, I'm a geek for being transported and believing that what I'm seeing is really going on for the hour or two hours that I'm in the theater.
AVC: We interviewed Brad Bird a few years ago when The Incredibles came out, and at the time, he said one of the hardest thing in CG was physical interaction between objects. He said you could blow up the world and the animators wouldn't bat an eye, but one character grabbing another's shirt sent them into fits.
AS: Yes, very true.
AVC: Is that still the hardest thing to do?
AS: It's not so much that it's hard, it's just the nature of the medium you're working with. Every thing that you approach—it's like saying I have to use a pen vs. a pencil. One, I have to sharpen all the time, the other one, I have to keep dipping into the inkwell; one, I can't erase. It's just the nature of the medium that you're working with, and just by the very basics of CG animation, it's not truly there, it's all virtual. So surfaces can't—the perception of a surface doesn't recognize the perception of another surface, naturally. They're just going to intersect and co-mingle unless you've created programs and algorithms that are going to simulate that it thinks it sees itself. And it gets all heady and weird and makes my mind hurt. But that's just the nature of the beast, of what you're working with.
AVC: Well, in WALL—E specifically, what would you say were the biggest technical hold-ups? What did you have to work hardest to do?
AS: It was the camera. My mandate was, I wanted it to feel like you found WALL—E in some film can somewhere, and it was made in the '70s during the height of all these great sci-fi films. And they used the same production values, the same kind of cameras, the same kind of lens packages and lighting aesthetics. And we just kind of found it and remastered the film. So we had to do a lot of analysis of what really simulated the accuracy and matched the physics of those kind of cameras, and what they did. And we found the math that's in our software for our virtual cameras wasn't matching that, the cameras were "broken," and we'd been working with broken software all this time. So we spent about six months fixing it all, and I really think in a subtle way, it helped the overall feel of the movie.
AVC: Around the time of Monsters, Inc., it seemed like everybody was talking about textures, how Pixar was miles ahead of anybody else in CGI when it came to making fur look realistic. Do you have a sense now for things that Pixar is working on improving in CGI, to stay ahead of the pack?
AS: No, this is some big myth that's come out from the press. We never go into these things thinking about what we're going to technologically solve. Because that's the least sexy thing that's going to make you work for four years. You don't go "Hey, let's go solve fur!" It's like, "Let's make a cool movie about monsters!" And invariably, when you make a story you haven't seen, or has things in it that you haven't done before, you're going to, by natural process, solve some things you haven't solved before. So it's really a post-analysis when we look back and go "Oh, hey, we solved fur." So it makes great sound bytes for these kinds of press things, but to be honest, it's not something we think about. It's not something we have some road map for. Frankly, I think it's all been solved. In my mind, it's like after the last five, six years, everything you want to see can be done. The paint and the canvas and the paintbrushes have been invented. Now it's just "How good of an artist are you using that stuff?"
I don't want to imply that we care about that stuff. We only care inasmuch as "Is it going to help me tell my story?" I don't think there's a list out there of things to solve. There used to be, I think, but honestly, ever since I saw Lord Of The Rings… I think it's been solved now. I think it's just "The camera's been invented, guys, how well can you use it?"
AVC: You've no doubt already been asked this a million times, but why Hello, Dolly! in particular?
AS: [Laughs.] I was going to say that before you said it, because I knew it was coming. In all honesty, when I came up with that idea, I turned to my wife and said "I'm going to get asked this question for the rest of my life, this is the weirdest idea I've ever had." But I couldn't drop it, it just worked. And what it was… I always loved the idea of putting an old-fashioned song against space. I always loved the idea of the future against the past juxtaposed, and I just thought that was a great intro to the movie. But there were so many choices for "What's an old song to put there?"
Eventually, it led me though my song searches to standards, and a lot of standards come from musicals. I'd done enough musical theatre that I knew some of the staples, Fiddler On The Roof, Guys And Dolls, and things like that. When I got to Hello, Dolly! and I played "Put On Your Sunday Clothes," and that first phrase "Out there…" came out, it just fit musically, I was just like "Wow, that kind of works, and I can't explain it." And I kept it private to myself, this little idea, because I said "This is weird, I don't know if I'm going to lose the confidence of my crew if they see me trying this." But I couldn't get rid of it, it kept working for me. So I finally realized, "You know what, this song is about two guys that are just so naïve, they've never left a small town, and they just wanna go out in the big city for one night and kiss a girl. That's my main character." And then my co-writer, Jim Reardon, said, "You know what, he could actually discover an old tape in the trash, and that's how he got inspired by it, and it's a great way to show that he's got a romantic slant." So we started looking at the movie, and when I found the other song, "It Only Takes A Moment," and saw the two lovers holding hands, I realized "That's a perfect way for my main character to express the phrase 'I love you' without being able to say it." So I took it as fate that I had to use it. And I am willing to pay the price of answering this question for the rest of my life. [Laughs.]