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Pixar's Andrew Stanton, Animating From Life

The man behind Nemo and Wall-E has warmed hearts with his unlikely heroes — a clownfish? A sentient trash compactor? He tells Terry Gross about finding inspiration in unlikely places, and in everyday objects.

44:31

Other segments from the episode on July 10, 2008

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 10, 2008: Interview with Andrew Stanton; Commentary on language.

Transcript

DATE July 10, 2008 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Andrew Stanton, writer and director of "WALL-E," on
making the film and his influences
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "WALL-E")

Mr. BEN BURTT: (As WALL-E) Eva!

Ms. ELISSA KNIGHT: (As Eve) WALL-E!

(Soundbite of music, explosion, whooshing noise, ringing)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's WALL-E and Eve, the two leading robots in the new animated film
"WALL-E." My guest Andrew Stanton wrote and directed the film. "WALL-E" is
set 700 years in the future. The earth is one big junk pile and can no longer
sustain life. Thousands of people have been on an endless space cruise,
waiting for signs that Earth can sustain life again, which would allow them to
return home. When the people left, they forgot to turn off one robot, WALL-E.
That's an acronym for Waste Allocation Load-Lifter, Earth Class. WALL-E is a
kind of cute but rusty trash compactor who is very lonely. His only friend is
a cockroach until a robot probe named Eve is sent to Earth to look for signs
of life.

Andrew Stanton started at Pixar Studios in 1990. Before making "WALL-E" he
directed and co-wrote "Finding Nemo" and co-wrote "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life"
and "Monsters, Inc."

Andrew Stanton, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Mr. ANDREW STANTON: Thanks, I'm happy to be here.

GROSS: Most end-of-the-world or end-of-life-as-we-know-it kind of films have
to do with like war and atomic bombs. In "WALL-E" the earth has to be
abandoned by humans because it can't sustain life anymore, presumably because
humans have polluted it and just treated it poorly. What made you think about
that kind of environmental end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it scenario?

Mr. STANTON: I went there very reluctantly. I sort of reverse-engineered my
decision. It was all based on character and emotion. The conceit that got me
interested in this movie was the last robot on earth, doing its job forever,
not knowing that it was a waste of time. And I thought that was the ultimate
definition in futility. I completely was seduced by it so...

GROSS: It's like the Andrew Stanton version of Sisyphus.

Mr. STANTON: Right. And so in my mind, that's what was so charming, was the
last robot on Earth, and so I had to just come up with some conceit that would
make that situation. So, to just get that kind of a character, I was forced
to come up with a scenario, and I just went with logic. I just went with,
well, I wanted him to do trash, and I wanted him to be a trash compactor for
basically three reasons. One, it gives him a very low status. It makes him
like a little janitor and he's a little more endearing for that. Two, because
I knew we'd be using what I call unconventional dialogue through the whole
thing, trash is very visible. It's clear to any age that it's dirty, it's in
the way, it needs to be moved out of the way, almost like a snowstorm in a
city. And three, which was the biggest reason, was that it allowed him to go
through the detritus and the sort of evidence of what mankind was all about,
and that was huge.

So then I just went backwards from that and said, well, one thing I know is
I'm always buying stuff online all the time. There's a million boxes coming
to my house every day between my wife and I and I just sort of extrapolated
that, what if people just did too much of consuming. It didn't really take
too much brain power to sort of go with that possibility. Like I certainly
didn't want to go with anything darker than that. So I sort of came to this
environmental state without really considering the environment.

GROSS: It's funny. Let me just read you a couple of quotes about how
political they see your film as being.

Mr. STANTON: Oh, gosh.

GROSS: So the first is from Frank Rich, who's a columnist in the Sunday
Times, the Sunday New York Times, and he writes, "The movie seemed more
realistically in touch with what troubles America this year than either the
substance or the players of the political food fight beyond the multiplex's
walls." And then in an online column on National Review Online called Planet
Gore, Greg Pollowitz writes, "I saw `WALL-E' with my five-year-old on Saturday
night. It was like a 90-minute lecture on the dangers of overconsumption, big
corporations and the destruction of the environment." You're surprised to hear
both sides of the reaction to your film?

Mr. STANTON: Sadly, I'm not surprised, but I tried very hard not to have any
kind of a lecture. I just went with logic of how you could be in this
scenario so that I could tell this story of this lonely little robot. There's
no way--I mean, this idea came literally in 1994 and slowly built up over
time. There's just no way I could have been in tune with exactly the
zeitgeist and the headlines of today. I mean, I'm not so much in a box that I
wasn't aware that suddenly the world had changed in the last couple years.
But I didn't want to change the movie for any reason in one direction or
another out of fear. That's not how I'm going to make a story. I'm going to
go with what I think is the honest, truthful way to tell this emotional story
that I've been trying to tell. So, sadly, it doesn't surprise me, but I can't
back up either direction. I really can't.

GROSS: Can you describe the landscape of Earth as you've envisioned it in
"WALL-E"?

Mr. STANTON: Well, basically I just went with a dump. It's a big dump, and
I just felt like what if--I took out all the slimy, wet, oozy aspects of it.
One, it's very off-putting, and two, it's a little more difficult to execute.
And there was something sadder and more forlorn about this sort of arid dump
aspect and just having stuff everywhere.

GROSS: You're more rusty than oozy?

Mr. STANTON: Yeah, exactly, which I take as a compliment. Well.

GROSS: So, did you go visit like junkyards or dumps or things like that...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...just to get like a sense of what your version might look like based
on what reality looks like.

Mr. STANTON: Very much. I mean, that's how sexy our research were. We went
to dumps.

GROSS: Oh, boy.

Mr. STANTON: But a lot of it's also very geeky. It's like how
exactly--we're breaking it down to just the tiniest sort of visceral things of
what makes a dump feel like a dump, and there's a lot of things that may not
be obvious to people, but there's always little bits of flapping paper or
plastic, and almost like there's always movement of leaves in a tree. And
it's things like that that you go for research to pick up. It's those little
imperfect or odd details that really take it over the top and make it feel
like we've really tapped into something, for any research, let alone a dump.

GROSS: What about the colors that stood out in your mind after going to
dumps?

Mr. STANTON: Well, I geeked out at the idea of being able to do a much more
monochromatic palette. That's not usually associated with animated pictures,
and because there's this stigma of it being a babysitter or family fare and it
has to have every color of the rainbow in it and all that stuff, which really
makes me, you know, want to go in the other direction when I hear that. And I
love that just the natural setting required a monochromatic bent to it, at
least in the beginning of the film. So it's, you know, dealing with lots of
yellow and tans and browns, it made anything primary like even the
chipped-away red circle of WALL-E's "E" or the one time you finally see
something real, like a plant, really stand out, and it's almost like having
the restraint of using a close-up and not using it until the very right moment
and suddenly it has this huge impact when it's used.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Stanton, and he's a writer and director of the new
animated film "WALL-E."

You know, early in--the robot who's really a trash compactor and is the last
robot on Earth--early in the film he's just, you know going through junk,
compacting it in basically his robot stomach...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and making bricks out of it and just like piling up the bricks.
It's just an incredibly meaningless existence, but in his home he saves a lot
of the junk...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...and he kind of files it away...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: And, you know, some of the things you have in there is a light bulb, a
Rubik's cube, old like videotapes with...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...you know, like cassettes. How did you decide what would be the
things that WALL-E decides to save and file and keep? And I'm wondering if
any of those items are from your home.

Mr. STANTON: Well, none of them directly came from my home, but animators
are collectors, big-time, particularly of toys and childlike objects and
stuff, so we don't have to go too far to have a lot of options or ideas. But
we actually had to go through tons of objects, either verbally in meetings or
drawing lots of stuff to find things that were immediately "getable" because
again, I don't have the luxury of dialogue to support where his head's at.
You have to just get right away that oh, if he has a spork, of course you'd be
confused whether it's a fork or a spoon. And to find things that sort of fit
all those requirements, it was actually pretty hard and time-consuming to get
to.

Where we ended up always finding stuff was just kind of going back in our
memories--which isn't hard, again, for an animator to do--of what it's like to
be a kid and go, `OK, I remember being either at my father's tool bench or in
the kitchen and looking through the items and finding things that I had no
idea what they did,' and I got it completely wrong. You know, I thought like
an egg slicer was a tiny little harp. I remember thinking that my mom's
eyelash curler some kind of awful torture device that must have hurt, and I
couldn't watch her use it, you know. So it's just trying to go back to
remembering seeing the world that innocent and what kind of objects aren't
intuitive, but they evoke a definition. You can't help but go, `I think it
must do X,' you know. So it was a tough assignment.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Stanton and he wrote and
directed the new animated film "WALL-E." He also directed "Finding Nemo" and
was one of the writers on "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life," "Monsters, Inc."
Let's take a short break here and then we'll talk so more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Stanton. He wrote and
directed the new animated hit film "WALL-E." And he also directed "Finding
Nemo."

Now, here's one of the challenges you faced in animating "WALL-E." You know,
WALL-E is a trash compactor, a robotic trash compactor who has, you know, like
eyes and a nose and a mouth and kind of arms and stuff so, you know, there are
anthropomorphic qualities about him. But garbage trucks, like anything
pertaining to trash, we really try to keep our distance. We expect it to
smell.

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: We expect it to be very unpleasant but we have to really love WALL-E.
We have to--I mean, he's our surrogate.

Mr. STANTON: Yeah. It's...

GROSS: I mean, he's our lonely surrogate. So pan you talk about making this
robot that's all about trash and all about like rust and dirt and stuff like
that...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and yet you have to make him both human and warm and lovable enough
for us to see him as our surrogate, as the main character, as the hero of the
movie.

Mr. STANTON: Yeah. I get asked this a lot, or at least versions of this
question, of how do you make a robot appealing, or how do you make this trash
robot appealing. In a weird way, it's a tough question to answer. I find it
interesting that you said he had a nose and a mouth and he doesn't...

GROSS: He doesn't?

Mr. STANTON: ...and it's funny how...

GROSS: OK.

Mr. STANTON: It's how much you've thrown...

GROSS: I just assumed he does.

Mr. STANTON: It's how much you've thrown...

GROSS: God, I'm--you know...

Mr. STANTON: I...

GROSS: I'm looking at his picture now and you're so right, there's no mouth
there. But I kind of re-drew him in my mind.

Mr. STANTON: But that's more of a statement that you see him as a whole, you
see him as a real person, I think. I learned once I got to college--because I
came from a very small town where I was one of few kids that could draw in
class, and there weren't a lot of kids that liked the same things I did, and
we were drawn to each other. And then when I finally went to college, which
was a school called Cal Arts in Los Angeles, which actually teaches animation,
one of the founders was Walt Disney, I met all these other kids of my type;
and that's when I found out I was a type, that we all thought our bike was
cold in the rain, that our fish was lonely in the fishbowl, that a leaf would
be afraid of heights when it fell. It's just the way we looked at things.
And I can't remember never not looking at the world like that. And I think,
in a weird way, I don't think about things like, `Oh, how do I make this
appealing so that people will like it?' I think it's more just through
scribbling and just observing the world, finding things that already do that
to you, that already elicit that from you, and just taking and capitalizing on
it.

WALL-E's a perfect example, at least his face. I was at a baseball game and I
missed an entire inning because somebody handed me their binoculars because we
had crappy seats, which I blame on my editor, and I missed the whole inning
because I turned his binoculars around and I was in the middle of trying to
design WALL-E and I just started making the eyes, you know, fold at the center
hinge and go sad and then mad and then happy and I saw an entire character
with a soul in it, and it just sort of answered itself. It just sort of
dropped on my lap and...

GROSS: So that's how you ended up giving WALL-E binocular eyes?

Mr. STANTON: Yeah. He's basically a binocular on a stem, yeah, yeah. And I
didn't have any other agenda than I'm just trying to find something that
feels--my big agenda was, you should see it as an appliance first and when it
moves you can't help but convey a character in it. Because I felt that's what
John Lasseter had tapped into with "Luxo Jr." He had done that short just
before I had come to work at Pixar, so I was just a fan and an audience
member...

GROSS: This is a short about a lamp?

Mr. STANTON: Yeah, a little--one of those little desk lamps that's got
springs and bends, and there's nothing about it other than maybe scale where
it's designed to look like a character. It just happens to be an object in
life that feels like it could be a character, and he was just capitalizing on
it. And I wanted that kind of purity out of any of the robots that we did,
even though we had to make them up from scratch.

GROSS: Talk about the rest of WALL-E's body.

Mr. STANTON: Well, he was built out of sort of steps of logic. I knew I
wanted him to compact trash, so we just made him a box. And this is probably
a real geeky association, but we didn't have an art department at the time
that we really started fundamentally designing him, so I had to use my few
story guys, and us, to sort of have these days where we would just sketch
ideas. And I had been to a Peter Gabriel concert in '93, I think it was,
where he had two stages that were connected by a rampway and one stage was
square and one stage was round and he had separated the songs he performed on
them based on what he felt was a more female song and what was a more male
song. Some of those were obvious, some of those were were indirect. And I
always was fascinated with just that primary shape of the square and the
circle being associated that way, so I went that way. And I said, `Let's go
with a square with WALL-E and let's go with something roundish for Eve.' And
so we said, `Well, that's perfect. We'll go with a cube where he can spit out
trash.'

And then he's got to get everywhere. He's sort of the first wave of this
cleanup task force. He's sort of--they're sort of like army ants. So we put
treads on him so that he could get over all terrains. And I think it was
honestly a couple of months before the head came, the binoculars at the
baseball game.

GROSS: OK. So you've described this kind of male-female split and Eve--or
should I say Eve or Eva? It sounds like Eva in the movie.

Mr. STANTON: Well, he calls her Eva because he can't speak correctly. I
love that he had his own electronic language and she had her own, and he's
trying his best to speak like she does, but he can't get it just right. So
she's Eve.

GROSS: OK. So Eve is this female robot who comes to scope out Earth to see
if there are signs of life yet...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...and if Earth can be re-colonized. And she--you know, WALL-E is
this like, you know rusted tractor-like robot with binocular eyes, and she's
this like smooth, ovular, egg-like...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...robot that's all white and clean and reflective...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: And I guess it's your vision of like the more female robot. I said
"ovular," didn't I?

Mr. STANTON: You did. I definitely knew that I was sort of tapping into
some sort of female-slanting elements that were fundamental. The other was
almost going just off of electronics in the sense that he was low-technology,
is the way I put it, and so I thought, let's make her the opposite. Let's
make her high-technology. He touches the ground; she floats. How he works is
very obvious. You can look at him almost like a lawn mower or a motorcycle
and kind of figure out how it works. Her, everything's hidden. She's a
mystery, like women. And she's got really interesting things going on just
under the surface, very subcutaneous, and it's almost like an art object. And
I've gotten a lot of people saying, `Oh, this is--you're making an Apple
product.' And I can't deny that, you know, that by today's standards, the most
fascinating and gorgeous-looking machines to me are Apple products because
they could be art objects without having any function.

GROSS: So it's like if Brancusi was designing for Apple?

Mr. STANTON: Right. Right. And so it was just all these elements put
together that just sort of worked for--I was inspired by going--I was so
enamored by the hardware aspect of binoculars covering for eyes for WALL-E
that I loved going to the other extreme and trying to find another way of
doing expressive eyes on a robot through electronics, and having something
that was a display on her little black face. And I was kind of inspired by
Lite-Brites, but more high-tech in the sense that you have all these little
pixellated dots that could sort of re-shape the eyes to anything we wanted,
which is a much more cartoony way to go. We could squash and stretch these
blue eyes and stuff.

GROSS: I know you love Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. What have you
learned as an animator by watching their movies?

Mr. STANTON: The biggest thing we learn is there's almost nothing you can't
convey without dialogue. Those guys were the masters of their craft. They
had done almost every kind of situation plotwise, emotionalwise,
relationshipwise, gagwise, combined, and if you add in Harold Lloyd you've
pretty much covered it all. And that we got lazy as filmmakers when sound
came in initially and stopped doing a lot of stuff. And frankly there's--I
think if you were to watch any of the Pixar films and turn the sound down,
you'd be surprised at how much you still understand what's going on, because
even though "WALL-E" showcases that, we put the same amount of effort into any
of our films that the posing and the action and the timing of everything we do
visually is supporting as much as we possibly can the intention of what's
going on in the scene.

GROSS: Andrew Stanton will be back in the second half of the show. He wrote
and directed the new animated film "WALL-E." Here's a song from the
soundtrack. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of "La Vie en Rose")

Mr. LOUIS ARMSTRONG: (Singing) Hold me close and hold me fast
The magic spell you cast
This is la vie en rose

When you kiss me heaven sighs
And though I close my eyes
I see la vie en rose

When you press me to your heart
I'm in a world apart
A world where roses bloom

And when you speak angels sing from above
Everyday words seems to turn into love songs

Give your heart and soul to me
And life will always be
La vie en rose

(End of soundbite)

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Andrew Stanton, the
writer and director of Pixar's new animated film "WALL-E." It's set in the
future after Earth has become an uninhabitable pile of junk. The only signs
of life are WALL-E, a trash compactor robot, and an indestructible cockroach.
WALL-E is very lonely until a robot probe named Eve is sent to Earth to search
for signs of life. Before making "WALL-E," Andrew Stanton directed and
co-wrote "Finding Nemo" and co-wrote "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life" and
"Monsters, Inc."

OK. And now for the music question.

Mr. STANTON: OK. Why "Hello, Dolly," right?

GROSS: Why "Hello, Dolly," but let's start with the song. The song--you
know, I went into this movie thinking, if there's a song that's going to open
the film, it'll be, you know...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...like an original song because there's so many Disney kind of films
that have...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...original songs for them. And I heard the song that opened it and
didn't realize it was from "Hello, Dolly." I don't know--I just know like
"Hello, Dolly" and one or two...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...other songs. Didn't know this one. It's actually a really catchy
tune, so let's hear it and then we'll ask why in the world did you choose it.
So here it is, and the song is "Put on Your Sunday Clothes."

(Soundbite of "Put on Your Sunday Clothes")

Mr. MICHAEL CRAWFORD: (Singing) Out there
Is a world outside of Yonkers
Way out there beyond this hick town, Barnaby
There's a slick town, Barnaby
Out there
Full of shine and full of sparkle
Close your eyes and see it glisten, Barnaby
Listen, Barnaby

Put on your Sunday clothes
There's lots of world out there
Get out the brillantine and dime cigars
We're going to find adventure in the evening air
Girls in white in a perfumed night
Where the lights are bright as the stars
Put on your Sunday clothes,
We're going to ride through town
In one of those new horse-drawn open cars

We'll see the shows at Delmonicos
And we'll close the town in a whirl
And we won't come home
Until we've kissed a girl!

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: That's "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," from "Hello, Dolly," sung by
Michael Crawford, who is famous for the original "Phantom of the Opera," the
original Broadway version of "Phantom of the Opera."

Mr. STANTON: That's correct.

GROSS: So this is from the movie version of "Hello, Dolly." So why did you
decide that, instead of commissioning an original song you were going to open
with a song from "Hello, Dolly"?

Mr. STANTON: I was never interested in commissioning a original song.
There's a lot of unnecessary baggage and conventions that seem to be put on
animation. I've never seen it happen to any other medium, where people just
feel like, oh, it's animated, therefore it must have all these lists of
things, and if there's one thing that I'm very proud of about Pixar is that,
from "Toy Story" on, we've been trying to buck any of those trends and break
any of those convention. So I had no interest in doing a musical, I guess,
literally.

But I loved the idea that WALL-E was enamored with the past and had a romantic
heart or a romantic slant to things, and I loved the idea of opening up on
space and having something old-fashioned, something romantic and old-fashioned
playing against the real image of space. You know, it didn't need to be
embellished. It's how amazingly beauty in all its natural glory that space
is. Because I knew that his world was covered in cloud cover and he could
never see the stars as cleanly as we can. So in a weird way you're opening
the movie getting to see his hopes and dreams and hear them before you meet
him. And I was just smitten by that notion from the get-go.

But an old-fashioned song can be--you know, it's endless, what you can choose
from. I started listening to a lot of standards, and a lot of standards come
from musicals. And I had done just enough musical theater to know some of
those standards, you know, "Fiddler on the Roof," "Guys and Dolls," and
"Hello, Dolly" was one of them that I had done and so I was--it's like taking
swatches and putting them against your wall and wondering what color you're
going to paint the wall of your house. You're just putting--I was putting
music against the beginning of the film again and again and again and just
trying anything, and suddenly this song, "Put on Your Sunday Clothes," from
"Hello, Dolly," comes on and it starts with this phrase "out there," and it's
like--to me it was like "ta-da!" And just hitting with the image of the stars,
and I just, I immediately loved it.

And I think why it works so well is because the song, in the context of the
play "Hello, Dolly," is about two naive guys that have never left their small
town and they want to go out for one night to the big city and just kiss a
girl, and I said, `That's my main character. That's WALL-E.' So my co-writer,
Jim Reardon, had the idea of, well, WALL-E could find an old videotape of it
then, and that's how he knows it.

GROSS: So, you said you were in a production of "Hello, Dolly," what, in high
school?

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: And you were who?

Mr. STANTON: I was Barnaby, yeah, who...

GROSS: Which character is that? What did you get to sing?

Mr. STANTON: He's one of the two guys that sing "Put on Your Sunday Clothes"
with the guy--Michael Crawford's character is a character named Cornelius, and
so, yeah, it definitely draws from the past.

GROSS: So you actually sang this song in high school?

Mr. STANTON: Yeah, yeah. That's how I knew it. That's how I knew to check
it out.

GROSS: Most of the first half of "WALL-E" is without dialogue. There's some
sound, but it's the sound of what a computer who couldn't really speak might
be saying.

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: You worked with the sound designer Ben Burtt, who did the sound...

Mr. STANTON: Hm.

GROSS: ...for "Star Wars." He did the laser light saber, Darth Vader's
breathing, the voice of R2-D2. So what did you--and what was the process
through which you and he cooked up how the two main robots would sound?

Mr. STANTON: Well, one of the things that I did right from the get-go is I
wrote the script exactly like I would write any other script. So when WALL-E
was speaking or Eve was speaking, or any of the robots, I would give them a
line of dialogue in the script, and I would just bracket it to remind myself
that I would be replacing this with something else later. But it made me do
the homework of exactly what was going on with the thinking and the
back-and-forth that I was supposed to be conveying with whatever they were
going to be saying. So when Ben came on, he had this document, just a script
that he could actually follow and go, `OK, this is what I'm trying to get
across.'

But before he could even get into things like phrasing and sentences and
things like that, we had to come up with just what they sounded like. And
that took almost a year. It was really a process of him going away for a week
or so and just trying a million things. I mean, one of the smartest things I
did by hiring him was that I got 25 years or 30 years of expertise in this
field of knowledge and also just sounds that he's been storing, and he's just
done it so many times he knew exactly where to start and how to sort of get
going right away.

So when I would come and meet with him for a couple hours once a week, it
would be almost like being at the farmers market or something. He'd just play
me so many things and I could just sort of cherry-pick what I liked. And
because I was still in the process of rewriting, I'd have other characters I'd
be thinking about that I hadn't told him about and I would start saying, `Oh,
save that, we'll use that maybe for these bigger garbage bots or this cleaner
bot.' And we'd start sort of putting these sounds in these buckets until we
got to--about after a couple of months we got to about maybe, I'd say, 30 to
40 sounds per character that I felt defined them, that we felt was their
grammar. And he would certainly go off sometimes and refine with notes that I
had like, `oh, could we get it a little bit more softer,' or sometimes it was
as simple as, `I just love that direction, try more of that, just whatever
inspires you.'

And then we would spend--once I had those, I used those like dialogue. We'd
do a lot of editing early before we actually animate, so we'll have sort of
drawings or sketches of what we think the scenes are going to be like on
video, and we will put usually the actors' dialogue on there and time it to
what we think is right, and then we hand that off for the animator to use the
actual models and use the dialogue as a guide. Well, I did the same thing
with the robot sound effects. I would put them in and say, `OK, this is the
line--or the sound effect that's supposed to represent "Hi, how are you?"' for
example.

But as I started to use these defined languages, I wouldn't' have sometimes
exact takes of what I needed, and then for the last year I was using Ben
exactly like I would deal with an actor. I'd say, `OK, I need this line, but
now I need it a little bit faster and kind of sounding sad at the end.' And
he'd run off and re-perform it. So we had, you know, a lot of control over
these things and got them exactly the way we wanted, so that when the animator
was animating these scenes, they were following those sound effects as
faithfully as they would follow a line of dialogue from any actor.

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Stanton, the writer and director of the new
animated film "WALL-E." Here's an example of the sound design we were talking
about.

(Soundbite of "WALL-E")

Ms. SIGOURNEY WEAVER: (As Ship's Computer) Ten seconds to self-destruct.

(Soundbite of music)

(Soundbite of squeaks and gurgles)

Ms. WEAVER: (As Ship's Computer) Ten, nine, eight, seven, six, five, four,
three, two...

(Soundbite of music, noises, an electronic cry)

Ms. KNIGHT: (As Eve) WALL-E!

(Soundbite of beeps)

(End of soundbite)

GROSS: We'll talk more with Andrew Stanton about making the new animated film
"WALL-E" after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: My guest is Andrew Stanton. He wrote and directed the new animated
film "WALL-E." It's set hundreds of years in the future after the earth has
become an uninhabitable pile of junk.

So, you know, the humans, the thousands of humans who have been exiled from
earth because earth can no longer sustain life...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...have been orbiting space for 700 years because...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: ...earth just still can't sustain life.

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: And they're basically living lives as pointless and empty as WALL-E,
the trash-compacting robot. I mean, they're sitting in these kind of like
lounge chairs that...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...instead of being on wheels they just are kind of airlifted
around...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: And they have, you know, computer screens in front of them on which
they're probably watching TV or movies or video games and they have like those
supersized cups of soft drinks...

Mr. STANTON: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: ...that they're--I assume they're soft drinks that they're drinking...

Mr. STANTON: They're anything you want. They're any kind of food you want
in a cup, yeah.

GROSS: And everybody's quite obese because all they do...

Mr. STANTON: Well...

GROSS: ...is sit and eat and watch the screen.

Mr. STANTON: Yeah. I wasn't really--to be honest, I wasn't really trying to
go with some commentary on today, even though I know it completely starts to
match headlines. What I honestly had for almost two years was they
were--humanity were blobs of Jell-O, and they were green with like eyes that
were like fruit in Jell-O. And it was so silly I had to pull back from that
because what I was inspired by--I mean, you're absolutely right on the
pointless thing. I wanted humanity to have point to living anymore. Like it
was just, like all technology had been figured. You know, survival,
longevity, health, food, regenerative food, all that stuff. So what's the
point of living? And so it was like this hellacious, perpetual vacations. So
that was intentional.

What I definitely was inspired by was--there's a guy named John Hicks who was
an adviser to NASA about studying the effects of long-term residency in space
and there's a term that have called "disuse atrophy," which is, if you're out
in zero gravity or in any kind of simulated gravity that isn't matching
exactly 24/7 what happens to us on earth, you slowly lose your bones. You
have bone loss. And you won't get it back, which is kind of creepy, and so
that's why they're not sending a man to Mars right now for months. And they
have to figure this out, and so they've had arguments where if we don't figure
this and simulate gravity correctly, we're going to have people--they'll just
be big blobs in space, and I just thought that was hysterical. And so I ran
with the idea of, what if we evolve them so much that we can't even recognize
ourselves anymore. We're just like big blobs of Jell-O. But it turned out to
be just really silly and kind of defeated the integrity of where the movie had
been up to that point.

And so then I pulled back to make them a little bit more familiar to us and I
said, well, then, what if nature's just sort of said, `OK, there's no reason
to grow up.' And so I made us big babies. And we studied babies a lot, the
surface of their skin, how every--babies are just very cute. They're very
appealing and they have, you know, very short limbs, and their ears aren't
fully formed yet and everything's got this sort of snowy kind of fuzz on the
skin and stuff, and so that's what we ran with was big babies. And I thought
that was a great metaphor for humanity having to learn to walk again and sort
of get to the toddler phase by the end of the movie.

GROSS: How has your life as an animator been changed by computer-generated
graphics? I imagine when you started you were hand-drawing things.

Mr. STANTON: Yeah, to be honest, most of us still come from an education, at
least, of learning how to animate through hand-drawn, and I'm definitely just
old enough, just young enough, that was my job when I first worked in the
business was doing the traditional style of animation. I'd never touched a
computer before I came up to Pixar, and that was something that was considered
kind of radical for John Lasseter to hire somebody that had never touched a
computer, but he was pretty smart.

GROSS: This was, what, 1990?

Mr. STANTON: It's 1990, 1989, when he actually hired me. It was '90 when I
finally got up there. But his radical thinking at the time, which now makes a
lot of sense to everybody now, because the computer's sort of everywhere, is
that you can teach anybody software in three months. What I can't teach them
is the skills they got to use the computer for. I can't teach them timing and
staging and, you know, a sense of acting and posing. Those are the things he
just is good at and that's why he went to school and all this stuff, so that's
what I'm hiring, and we'll be patient and put up with whatever he doesn't know
about a computer. And he was completely right about that, and we've never
hired anybody for their computer skills. That's just not part of it. It's
just a tool.

And to be honest, one thing John and I have very similar backgrounds on is
that neither of us were the greatest draftsmen. We could draw well in our
little circles, but when we got to the big time with all the other people that
could animate in the business, we were very low on the scale as far as how
good we could draw. And when you're hand drawing, your draftsmanship skills
really can hold you back from how well you can animate. And to suddenly use
the computer where you're more of a puppeteer--I always use the example that
it's like you have a virtual puppet with a thousand strings and you're just
pulling the strings--suddenly I animated--and so did John--just a thousand
times better because I wasn't held back by my drawing skills and I could use
exactly the timings and the visuals that I was imagining in my head. So it
wasn't something that I was attracted to before I came up to Pixar, but I
certainly embraced it fully once I realized that it freed me up like that.

GROSS: You know, the credits on animated films, including "WALL-E," are quite
long. And I'm wondering, as director of "WALL-E"--and you directed "Finding
Nemo"--what does directing mean when it's an animated film, though it's both
in your case. I mean, there's actors in it...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: And there's scenes where there's actors. There's scenes where it's
purely animation...

Mr. STANTON: Yeah.

GROSS: So what does it mean to be the director?

Mr. STANTON: It means exactly what it does in live action. I work with, you
know, all those--not all those names on there are necessarily the people I
directly deal with, but I directly deal with almost--yeah, 250 people by the
end of the thing. And again, it's 250 people, not 250 computers that I deal
with. And they all have the same jobs that you would expect on a live-action
crew. I have somebody in charge of props and costumes, building the sets, the
lighting, the camera work, all the same things, and I'm having the same
discussions with them that you would expect on a live-action set.

It's just more--it's like making a movie in slow motion when you're doing it
with animation. We don't have the luxury of all getting on the set at the
same time, saying `action' and `cut' in the same moment, and everybody's work
all hits together then and then you're done. Ours takes weeks per shot or per
scene, and we have to meet again and again and have everybody's files that
they're doing of their work that they're doing on their computers sort of
merge and look at it on a screen in one of our screening rooms, and it never
works because it's like playing telephone, and then we go and we get notes and
then we repeat it again and again. But the types of discussions we're having
and the things we're trying to achieve are exactly the same as a regular
movie.

And when I talk to animators, I'm having the exact--they are basically actors
behind the characters. They're shy actors, in a weird way, and so I'm telling
them about where they're hitting their mark, what scene they're coming from,
what scene they're going to, what the intention of the scene is, the exact
same dialogue I have with an actor, whether they're in front of a camera or
behind a microphone.

GROSS: Are there certain movements that are much easier to do with computer
animation than they would be if you were animating by hand, movements for
characters?

Mr. STANTON: Well, repetitive things, certainly a lot easier. Linear
things, things that have to move perfectly from one direction to another is
much easier. Crowds. You know, when you have to replicate thousands of
things, or hundreds of things, that's easier. And to get really geeky, part
of the process of animating of paper is that you draw one pose, maybe somebody
holding a ball and then you draw the other extreme end of the pose, which is
the ball at its highest point in the air, and somebody usually has to draw
everything in between that to give the sense of motion, and we call those
in-betweens. Well, the computer can do all those in-betweens for you, which
is, you know, can be very mindless work sometimes. So all the things that you
don't enjoy about animating, all the laborious and repetitive aspects,
fortunately the computer can do the task for, but all the hard stuff of really
coming up with the great poses and the great acting and the great timing,
those are still all the efforts and brain work of an artist.

GROSS: Well, Andrew Stanton, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. STANTON: Well, thank you so much, Terry. This was a real blast to talk
this long about it.

GROSS: Andrew Stanton wrote and directed the new animated film "WALL-E."

Well, now that we've discussed creating animated talking robots, our linguist
Geoff Nunberg has some thoughts about how texting and instant messaging
will--or won't--affect the future of the English language. That's after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Linguist Geoff Nunberg on the effect, or lack thereof, of
texting and instant messaging grammar on the English language
TERRY GROSS, host:

Instant messaging, texting and twittering--are they ruining the English
language? Our linguist Geoff Nunberg has his ear to the keypad and gives us
this report.

Mr. GEOFF NUNBERG: By 1848 the new electric telegraph was already being
hailed as a modern marvel that would revolutionize commerce, journalism and
warfare, and in that year a prominent New York attorney and editor named
Conrad Swackhammer wrote an article predicting that it would transform the
language as well. Swackhammer noted that the telegraph required its users to
be direct and concise. As people got use to sending and receiving telegrams
and reading the telegraph dispatches in the newspapers, they'd inevitably cast
off the verbosity and complexity of the prevalent English style. The
telegraphic style, as Swackhammer called it, would be terse, condensed, and
utterly ignorant of synonyms, and it would raise the English language to a new
standard of perfection. That was the first time anybody ever used the word
"telegraphic" to describe a style of writing, with the implication that a new
communications technology would naturally leave its mark on the language
itself.

It's an idea that has resurfaced with the appearance of every writing tool
from the typewriter to the word processor. And now there's a resurgence of
Swackhammerism as the keypad is passed to a new generation and commentators
ponder the deeper linguistic significance of the codes and shortcuts that have
evolved around instant messaging and cell phone texting. The topic got a lot
of recent media play with the release of a study on teens and writings
sponsored by the College Board and the Pew Research Center. According to the
report, more than half of teens say they've sometimes used texting shortcuts
in their school writing. The story was a natural for journalists; it combined
three themes that have been a staple of feature writing for 150 years: The
language is going to hell in a handbasket, you'll never get me up onto one of
those newfangled things, and kids today, I'm here to tell you.

It wasn't hard to find critics who warned of apocalyptic consequences for the
language. James Billington, the librarian of Congress, said that IM and
texting were bringing about the slow destruction of the basic unit of human
thought: the sentence. And the enthusiasts of the new media countered with
equally momentous predictions. According to Richard Sterling of the National
Commission on Writing, IM and texting will naturally erode the conventions of
formal writing. Within a few decades, we probably won't be capitalizing the
first words of sentences anymore. In response to that prediction, The Boston
Globe published an editorial called "The Revenge of E.E. Cummings" that had
no capital letters and was laced with LOLs and texting abbreviations. It had
me wondering which is more embarrassing: hearing old people use teenage
slang, or hearing them make fun of it.

I've got a little prediction to make myself. A generation from now, all this
stuff is going to sound awfully silly. Did people really imagine that rules
of written English sentence structure that go back to the Renaissance would
suddenly crumble because teenagers took to texting each other over their cell
phones instead of passing notes under their desks in class? In fact, apart
from contributing some slang and jargon, new writing technologies rarely have
much of an effect on the language. They can give rise to specialized codes,
but those tend to run alongside the broad channel of standard English without
ever mixing with it. As Conrad Swackhammer predicted, the Victorians
developed a breathlessly compressed style for sending telegrams, like the
message that Henry James had one of his characters cable in "Portrait of a
Lady": "Tired America, hot weather awful, return England with niece." But
that telegraphic style didn't leave any traces on Victorian prose. When you
think of James' own writing, terse and condensed are not exactly the words
that come to mind.

The linguistic features of the new media are sure to follow the same pattern.
Take emoticons. Used sparingly, they can delicately shade the reception of an
e-mail. My dean at Berkeley is a master of the deft smiley that turneth away
wrath. But it will be a cold day at the copy desk before you encounter a
smiley in the pages of The New York Review of Books. What happens in e-mail
stays in e-mail.

Kids catch onto this quickly. They may sometimes let texting shortcuts slip
into their schoolwork, but they know that there are different rules for formal
writing and that you ignore them at your peril. The people at the College
Board report that they almost never see students using those shortcuts in
their SAT essays. I mean, how dumb would that be? In fact, that Pew study
reported that a majority of the kids who use IM and texting don't consider
them as real writing at all. And if you think of writing as an intellectual
exercise, they're probably right. You're not going to learn a lot about
organizing your ideas from punching in text messages against 160 character
limit.

But there's another, more basic notion of writing, as a process of turning
mental activity into automatic manual gestures, and in that sense the new
technologies do make a difference. As the telegraph first showed, the wonder
of modern writing tools is how they can accelerate that process until it seems
almost instantaneous. They turn writing into the cognitive equivalent of a
twitch game like Pac-Man or Tetris. The difference is that in the old days
you had to go in and engage somebody to tap out your thoughts for you with his
index finger. Now we can do that with our own thumbs, from wherever we happen
to be.

GROSS: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information
at the University of California at Berkeley.

You can download podcasts of our show on our Web site, freshair.npr.org.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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