'WALL-E' took uphill path to awards season

ANATOMY OF A CONTENDER: The 'lonely robot' idea materialized after 14 years and six full drafts.

Back in 1994, over lunch at a restaurant not far from Pixar Studios' base in Emeryville, Calif., four of the company's leading lights -- John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft -- were kicking around ideas for movies. Just as they were heading back to the office, Stanton threw out a question: "What if mankind left Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off?"

That was the genesis of "WALL-E," Pixar's ninth hit in a row and one of the most acclaimed animated features ever. Today, 14 years after it was conceived, Disney hopes it will become the first animated release since 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" to be nominated for a best picture Oscar.

If anyone had mentioned this when Stanton and his colleagues were tossing around ideas, they'd have laughed. At the time, he says, they all knew "nobody would ever let us make a movie like that."

For seven years, the project remained dormant as Pixar built its reputation on hits like 1995's "Toy Story" and 2001's "Monsters, Inc.," and Stanton gained experience directing Oscar winner "Finding Nemo."

But in 2002, when Stanton was halfway through "Nemo," he thought again about "the lonely robot."

"I knew a lot more by then," he says. "I'd written so many more movies and been behind the scenes of so many of our films -- it was clear to me it should be a love story. And I loved the idea of having these two genres meet so organically -- a love story and science fiction."

Stanton, a graduate of CalArts who had been a player at Pixar since its earliest days, started writing. After his first draft, he felt he needed help, so he brought in an old college friend, Jim Reardon, a director on Fox's "The Simpsons" for more than a decade.

Together, the duo worked on what eventually would stretch to six full drafts.

As the writing took shape, Stanton thought more about his robot's voice. WALL-E doesn't speak for much of the film, but Stanton knew how important it was for him to sound just right when he does talk.

"More than anything, (Stanton wanted) to keep WALL-E and other characters feeling like appliances," producer Jim Morris says.

For that, he thought of Ben Burtt, a sound designer who during a long career at Lucasfilm was nominated for seven Academy Awards, and helped create "Stars Wars' " R2-D2. But that meant persuading Burtt to come on board.

To help craft the pitch, Stanton turned to Morris, who had been with Lucasfilm for 17 years.

When Morris came on in late 2004, Stanton already had created a story reel -- hand-drawn images strung together -- for the first act. Now Morris began putting together a budget and schedule and hiring key crew -- including the animation supervisors and director of photography -- while Stanton approached Burtt.

"I pitched him as, 'How would you like to be 80% of the cast?' " Stanton remembers.

"This was a fantastic challenge for a sound person," Burtt says, "because not only was it science fiction, you had the challenge of creating the whole world of unknown sounds."

Burtt and Stanton started to look more closely at some of the great silent movie comedians, especially Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton. "People say ('WALL-E' is) a silent film, but it isn't silent," Burtt says. "It's a nonverbal film. It's similar to 'City Lights' (1931) or 'Modern Times' (1936)."

Of the four years it took to make "WALL-E," Burtt spent his first year creating sounds.

"The trick was always to come up with sounds that gave the sense of what he was feeling," Burtt says. "One of the first (sounds) I tried was just toys -- the sounds of whistles, kazoos. (Then) I cut little motor sounds together."

Eventually, WALL-E's voice came to be composed of three elements: sound effects, electronic sounds and vocalization through grunts, groans and processed sounds. It was an exhaustive endeavor. "I ended up making more than twice as many (data) files for this film as I would for a typical 'Star Wars' movie," Burtt says.

He adds, "The thing that is different about animators is they are amazingly meticulous. They are used to working on shots almost one pixel at a time. (Stanton) was the same with sound: He wanted to hear everything and judge every detail."

When it came to casting, Stanton turned to the man whom Walt Disney Studios chief creative officer Lasseter refers to as Pixar's good luck charm, John Ratzenberger, to play John, a human. For the largest voice role, the Captain, Stanton wanted "a modern-day Jackie Gleason" and cast Jeff Garlin of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm." The woman in space who learns how to be human again became Kathy Najimy, and Fred Willard was cast as Shelby Forthright. For the small role of the ship's computer, Stanton paid homage to "Alien" by hiring Sigourney Weaver.

As the movie progressed, the story reels evolved. Being far from Hollywood, Pixar depends on company employees to voice the "scratch" tracks during development, to be replaced later by stars. For the voice of Eve, to be processed and remade by Burtt, Stanton used an assistant named Elissa Knight, who had had some previous acting training. She did so well, "we just stayed with her," Stanton says.

Adding to the sound elements, he worked with composer Thomas Newman to "capture a bit of the wonder and feel of what I had seen in my favorite science-fiction movies during what I consider the golden age of sci-fi, between 1968 and 1982 -- 'Star Wars,' 'Close Encounters,' 'Silent Running,' 'Alien,' 'Blade Runner.' I wanted to capture what it was like to see those movies as a kid."

Through all of this, Stanton met regularly with the guiding force behind Pixar's creative work, the "Brain Trust," composed of Lasseter and other Pixar directors.

"We put up story reels for the Brain Trust, and they beat us up and tell us what they think is working and what isn't," Morris says. "And Andrew takes the notes, thinks about them, and we go back into the story and do it all over again."

Their suggestions, given every six months during the four years, were particularly important in the creation of the humans living in space. "The thing that was really hard for me to get my head around was how to represent humanity," Stanton says.

"I had this 'Planet of the Apes' conceit, where humanity had even forgotten that they were humans, and it was so extreme and silly," he adds. "They didn't even speak like us. It just became too much."

Stanton settled on making his humans fat and complacent in a world where they don't ever have to grow up. "It was a perfect analogy to have to have mankind grow up again," he says.

Released in June, the film has grossed more than $475 million worldwide and earned more positive reviews than almost any other film this year. But one thing that makes Stanton bristle is the suggestion that "WALL-E" carries an environmental message. "It was never a statement on today," he insists. "It was a fable. I take a very childlike view of it."

He adds, "I tried hard not to follow any convention. I just tried to let the film be as true to itself as it could be. If that broke people's unnecessary conventional thinking about what an animated film or a sci-fi film is, then great. That's why I go to the movies: to be surprised and entertained in a whole new way."