“In ‘WALL•E,’ the animators are really operating at the height of their craft to be able to convey emotions and complex thoughts with so few words. It’s more about being able to touch people through the animation.”
~ Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios
One of the biggest challenges facing the animators was the need to communicate emotions and actions clearly without being able to rely on traditional dialogue.
“We felt we could do it with non-traditional dialogue, maintaining the integrity of the character,” says Stanton. “In real life, when characters can’t speak – a baby, a pet – people tend to infer their own emotional beliefs onto them: ‘I think it’s sad,’ ‘she likes me’ – it’s very engaging for an audience.”
According to Ed Catmull, president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, “In ‘WALL•E,’ the animators are really operating at the height of their craft to be able to convey emotions and complex thoughts with so few words. It’s more about being able to touch people through the animation.”
Stanton notes, “In the world of animation, pantomime is the thing that animators love best. It’s their bread and butter and they’re raised on it instinctually. John Lasseter realized this when he animated and directed his first short for Pixar, ‘Luxo Jr,’ featuring two lamp characters who express themselves entirely without dialogue. The desire to give life to an inanimate object is innate in animators. For the animators on ‘WALL•E,’ it was like taking the handcuffs off and letting them run free. They were able to let the visuals tell most of the story. They also discovered that it’s a lot more difficult to achieve all the things they needed to.
“I kept trying to make the animators put limitations on themselves because I wanted the construction of the machines and how they were engineered to be evident,” he adds. “The characters seem robotic because they don’t squash and stretch. It was a real brain tease for the animators to figure out how to get the same kind of ideas communicated and timed the way it would sell from a storytelling standpoint, and yet still feel like the machine was acting within the limitations of its design and construction. It was very challenging -- and completely satisfying when somebody found the right approach and solution.”
To help prepare them for their assignment, the filmmakers and animation team met with people who designed real-life robots, visited NASA scientists at Jet Propulsion Laboratory, attended robotic conferences, and even brought in some real robots, including a bomb sniffing robot from the local police department. To understand what the human characters might look like after hundreds of years of pampered life in space, NASA expert Jim Hicks came in to discuss disuse atrophy and the effects of zero gravity on the body.
Jason Deamer, the film’s character art director, recalls one of the starting points in designing WALL•E was his eyes. “Andrew came in one day with the inspiration for WALL•E’s eyes. He had been to a baseball game and was using a pair of binoculars. He suddenly became aware that if he tilted them slightly, you got a very different look and feeling out of them. That became one of the key design elements for the main character.”
The rest of WALL•E’s design stemmed from functionality. “How does he get trash into himself and how does he compact it?” Deamer asks. Field trips were made to recycling plants to see trash compacting machines in action. “We knew he needed treads to go up and over heaps of trash,” he says. “He also needed to be able to compact cubes of trash, and have some kind of hands to gesticulate.”