WALL-E - Angus MacLane interview
This article is from 2008.
Pixar’s latest creation is a sci-fi adventure about a lovesick robot who has been left behind on Earth to clean up after the human race. Eddie Harrison talks to Angus MacLane, directing animator of Wall-E
Could you fall in love with a robot? Animation studio Pixar is betting that you will. The little metal critter with designs on your heart is called WALL-E, and this summer, he’ll be giving Indiana Jones and Carrie Bradshaw a run for their money at the worldwide box-office.
One of the most anticipated films of the 2008 Edinburgh International Film Festival programme, director Andrew Stanton’s follow-up to Finding Nemo is a sci-fi adventure carefully calibrated to repeat the formula that has made Pixar one of the world’s most respected brand names: family entertainment, but with universal appeal.
‘I guess you could trace WALL-E’s ancestry back to Luxo Jr, the little table lamp that appeared in Pixar’s very first film,’ says directing animator Angus MacLane, who has been responsible for the character design and animation of Pixar heroes from Toy Story 2 to The Incredibles.
‘What was amazing about Luxo Jr was the way that people could relate so easily to that table-lamp as it hopped across the screen, and that’s the same way we hope audiences will read emotion into WALL-E. Andrew [Stanton, the director] always imagined WALL-E as having eyes like binoculars, magnifying the emotions that he feels to the audience, so you could say WALL-E’s personality drove our design.’
What kind of robot is this WALL-E then? Well, his name is an acronym for Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-class, a glorified cleaning machine. But to MacLane, he’s something more that just a fancy vacuum cleaner. ‘I guess there’s a tendency in modern animations to try and fill the screen with noise and action, but WALL-E’s story is much more about simplicity and calm,’ says MacLane. ‘He’s definitely not some cocksure superhero or male fantasy figure, he’s a really down to earth guy trying to figure out what to do with his life. He’s really easy to relate to.’
But will the world fall for WALL-E’s robot charms? After all, inferior models have burnt us before. The robot shares a few ramshackle qualities with Johnny-5 from Short Circuit, or even Huey, Dewey and Louie, the robot gardeners who helped out Bruce Dern in his battle to preserve the Earth’s flora and fauna in Douglas Turnbull’s remarkable 1973 drama Silent Running.
Ultimately though, it’s this particular robot’s predicament which may just win us over; WALL-E’s in love. ‘In the film, WALL-E has been left behind on Earth to clean up after the human race, and 700 years later some romance comes into his life in the form of Eve, a sleek, floating wind-chime of a robot,’ says MacLane. ‘They’re very different in temperament; WALL-E knows exactly who he is, while Eve is still trying to figure out how to balance up her work and her personal life. So while there’s a huge and epic quest to bring them together in the film, there’s a small and personal love story right at the centre of it.’
Stanton originally conceived the WALL-E project well before Pixar became a household name, and eagle-eyed viewers can spot the robot’s microscopic cameo appearances in most Pixar films to date. However, it took the success of Finding Nemo to give Stanton, MacLane and Pixar’s army of several hundred animators the confidence to bring WALL-E’s story to the screen.
‘We’re not interested in the specifics of classic sci-fi stories, although we are interested in what makes different parts of classic stories successful. If we like the way a certain story is told, rather than try to copy the device, we try and learn from it, to work out how we can transpose the scenario and find a way to create the same effect. Andrew is someone who knows that although many decisions are democratically made, ultimately filmmaking is a director-driven process. So he always wants feedback about what works or what doesn’t, and he’s happy to change story beats, and add or drop jokes if it makes the film better. The best idea always wins.’
As always with Pixar, it’s the details that are crucial. Making WALL-E work on the big screen led Pixar and MacLane to make the robot’s existence a nuts-and-bolts reality. ‘Something we’ve tried to make a consistent feature in our films is finding the truth in our material, and that applies to the animation in the most specific way imaginable. So, we built a real, fully operational version of WALL-E to make sure that his movements would check out, the way he can fold and unfold himself like a tortoise, or the way his head rolls around.’
And WALL-E’s trip to the EIFF will also give MacLane the chance to do some research for a forthcoming Pixar feature set in Scotland’s past. ‘At the moment, I’m trying to figure out which feature I want to work on next,’ he says . ‘I really want to work on the next Toy Story movie, as I’ve got a certain connection to Buzz Lightyear that I can’t deny. I’m also really tempted to work on another Pixar project called Newt, and there’s also Bear and the Bow, which is about a Scottish princess. So I’m not quite sure where I’m going next, but I guess, like WALL-E himself, I’ll figure it all out in the end.’
Cineworld, Sat 28 Jun, 2.15pm, £8 (£6.40). WALL-E will be on general release from Fri 18 Jul.