Wonderful, Wall-E and… Wankeriffic

I’m becoming used to seeing limousines dropping guest speakers at Chapman. But Ralph Eggleston from Pixar blew my mind and made my brain want to bound again. You’ve probably seen his Oscar-winning short, For the Birds, right? How about Toy Story, or The Incredibles (the short on that, Bounding, is brilliant too but not his), or maybe Wall-E?

Presentation at Chapman by Ralph Eggleston

There was no way I was missing this. Still upcoming in the next seven days: A presentation by someone involved win Avatar, someone from Dreamworks, and the Directors Guild lunch in LA, another Randal Kleiser session, and a screening of his film "It's My Party". Plus so many deadlines I am quivering in terror right now.

Yeah. Him. And like all really successful people, he’s generous with his fame, mentioning by name the various animators, artists, directors, art directors and influences involved in every scene. It’s amazing the contrast between people like him and the less experienced, who through nerves or insecurity don’t remember give credit to the screenwriter or cinematographer on their thesis film, referring to them simply as “The screenwriter” – if at all. When I was still a journalist, I dreaded interviewing a new band, because they’d always be the most annoying and arrogant, while an international icon like Dave Matthews didn’t take himself seriously at all. Ralph spent most of the presentation talking about old movies like Gone with the Wind, and other groundbreakers, and not about how they’d flashed their art, but how they’d used the production design to make a story better for the audience.

Dealing with the topic of Production design, Eggleton kept coming back to the fact that you need to work from the inside out. From the heart of the characters and their driving emotional needs, to the story and the setting. He calls the new Star Wars movies “wankerific” – an all big budget show and no meaning. No, he’s not against experimentation, but like the new Pepsi logos it can be pretty interesting and “…a complete failure”.

Innovative, but useless, like those owls.

As someone who recently had endure almost two hours of owl-on-owl action in 3D, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t care how good your feathers look. We have feathers in the real world. Tell me a story, or I won’t give a hoot.

And then a bit of insider stuff about Wall-E, a production that he described as “the most difficult thing I have ever done” mostly because the story kept changing. For instance, the humans were originally written as aliens. At some point they became translucent, so you could see their stomachs, but “then we were going to have to deal with the other half of their organs, so we stopped.” In the end the Wall-E Humans were modeled more on the guy in the IKEA instructions. Their movement was based on two factors: 1. the scientific knowledge that the real reason we don’t send a human to mars is that bone density decreases with every week spent in space, and 2. the way jello mixed with vinegar to give it more “hold”, wobbles.

The result, after more than 7000 drawings? Big fat babies who could no longer walk unaided and lived their lives in space age lazyboys on wheels. Ralph shows us a character in motion: “This is what we spanked jello for”, he says glumly. “We didn’t know what they were or even why they were there for most of the time.”

Because it’s hard for a robot to show emotion, Wall-E’s and Eve’s feelings were conveyed using romantic (as in emotionally intense) lighting and shots of them suspended in a huge, dead world alone with one another. But as the focus moved onto the romance between them and more of the movie was set in the ship, the need to spend money and time on locations (and reworking the whole story) meant that mood lighting was sacrificed for this setting’s sake. Actually, I did feel the movie lost some pace because of this. The joke of the space ship (a giant perennial cruise ship that exposed the denial of America’s class system with its various cabins) lost it’s appeal pretty quickly. I found the dark beginning of the movie much more intriguing. This is all easy to say NOW of course.

Imagination is a collaborative process of borrowing, as Steven Johnson says in different words in this Ted Talk, Where do good ideas come from?

Great artists know this, and so they do their research by going to real places to learn how they work. This is cool if you’re shooting Blue Lagoon. Less cool if you’re making Wall-E. “The folks working on Rattatouille got to go to Paris. We got to go to the dump,” Ralph says. But only once, because a week after their first visit a guy was killed when he fell into the shredder, so visitors were no longer permitted.

Inspiring. The Swedish guys you really DON'T want to sleep with, no matter how quickly they can assemble a bed.

What else? Apple didn’t design Eve. The dude from Apple merely approved her. The old show-tune at the beginning was used because Wall-E Director Andrew Stanton (who also pretty much rewrote Jim Reardon‘s original screenplay around the love story) had appeared in a production that featured it. And a waterfall was cut out of the space ship because “Water? Money. No.”

My brain feels alive again. Like a muscle that’s just remembered how it works and what it was designed to do. I always love the first three minutes of a 3D film, but only Toy Story really kept me excited the whole way through. Writers love Pixar, and I think the reason why is obvious.

More about pixar? Try pixarblog.blogspot.com

Wall-E's early humans' space suits.

Wall-E's early human helmets

Movies to look out for, in Ralph Eggleton’s opinion? Well his favourite recent film is Let the Right One In, so you can trust him. He hasn’t seen the US remake but says the production design is similar. Then he recommends Black Swan (a Natalie Portman show set in the world of ballet, which I nearly went to a preview of on Wednesday, but didn’t as entrance wasn’t guaranteed and I didn’t have time to stand in line). And he says an upcoming Pixar production titled Brave will “blow your socks off.”.

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4 Responses to “Wonderful, Wall-E and… Wankeriffic”

  1. Uberfiend Says:

    Damn I envy you!

  2. gracelavery Says:

    I was at the talk he gave last night; I feel like you summed up my thoughts about the whole thing in the words I couldn’t find succinctly and with a dash of humor. Well done!

  3. Tweets that mention Wonderful, Wall-E and Wankeriffic « Jean Barker's Sign Language -- Topsy.com Says:

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jean Barker, Dodge College . Dodge College said: Missed the Ralph Eggleston visit? Check out this great blog post from Dodge MFA student @JeanBarker: http://wp.me/pTAEQ-bK […]

  4. jeanbarker Says:

    Thanks Grace! Ya, I should actually have gone home and done some work, but I was so excited I couldn’t help myself. So today in Feature class when my story sucked, I kept repeating that thing about how many times they changed everything they did, to stop myself stabbing myself in the eye with my pen. Life, huh.

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