Mr. Movie

Q&A with Pixar star MacLane

Angus MacLane is one of the shining lights at Pixar.

He worked as an animator on The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Cars, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc., Toy Story 2, and A Bug’s Life.

WALL-E director Andrew Stanton hired MacLane to help develop the story. Later, he moved over to animation and did animation pre-production as directing animator. The directing animator helps establish character attitudes, the way characters move, and communicates those finding to the animation crew so the character looks the same in all scenes. The directing animator also assists the director with ideas.

MacLane also directed a short film about one of the characters in WALL-E. It is a delightful little ditty called BERN-E. It is included in the DVD of WALL-E. MacLane sat down with Gary Wolcott -- the Tri-City Herald’s Mr. Movie columnist -- and talked about WALL-E, which now is the No. 1-selling DVD in the country.

After reading the interview, if you’re interested, Mr. Movie’s review of WALL-E is the next link down.

Wolcott: I have to be upfront here. I loved WALL-E. If pushed, I might say to date that it is the best movie I’ve seen this year. It will certainly end up as one of my top three. The greatest thing about it is the silent movie aspect. Eve and Wall*E are in love, but they never say anything. Just “Eve…WALL-E.” It is the best love story of the year. What did you have to do with the story?

MacLane: All the stuff I did for the story early in the movie didn’t make it into the movie. But it made it possible to get the movie we got. We call it "story re-boarding." You do something with the story. Throw it out. Re-do it, throw it out. So everything I did story-wise made it possible for the movie to be made. It was the foundation of things. There were some jokes that I came up with like the spork joke. He can’t decide whether it is a fork or a spoon. But what I really added to the story is the (character) attitudes.

Wolcott: But little things, like the spork joke and the attitude of the characters -- are very important to the movie.

MacLane: You need to know what’s important at any given time and make sure it serves the story. It’s an editing function. You’re looking at all times, choosing a path and making decisions performance-wise what to add and what to take away.

Wolcott: How many years did you work on WALL-E?

MacLane: Three and a half years. Maybe four years.

Wolcott: Is that all you did during that time period?

MacLane: No. I directed BERN-E. The short film. I did that at the same time.

Wolcott: So what makes you spend that kind of time, dedicate 3 1/2 years to a movie, make that kind of commitment to a project?

MacLane: First of all, the material is very strong. I like the movie; it was always very compelling. The title, being directing animator. And I like robots a lot. It’s a wide variety of things. It’s a chance to learn from Andrew. Working on a robot picture with Andrew Stanton who, when you put the films he has written together, make him the most successful screenwriter of all time. To help bring this character to life. There’s a lot of small things that I helped contribute to and to have a lot of personal ownership of things I believe in in the universe and really wanted to make sure they were done correctly. It is a long time. But you’re always learning, and you’re doing it with good friends.

Wolcott: What exactly did you do? Directing animator to the average film goer is just a name and title in 10 minutes of credits.

MacLane: The team I assisted was two supervising animators. There is an animation manager that organizes the department. I’m on the ground working one-on-one with the animators and making artistic calls. I worked with 40 or 50 animators. I was also working with other departments, technical and art, to bring everything together so the models we had were the best they could be.

Wolcott: I often ask this of people who create movies. There is the movie you have in your head. Then there is the movie you write. You then shoot the movie. And then you edit. The end product rarely looks like the movie you had in your head when you began. How close is WALL-E to the original concept?

MacLane: From when I started on WALL-E, the first 30 to 40 minutes is almost exactly the same. The rest of it, figuring out the end of the love story, changed quite a bit.

Wolcott: Tell me about BERN-E. Was he supposed to be in the movie more? He has that short part when WALL-E accidentally locks him outside the space ship.

MacLane: I was pushing for those scenes to be included in the movie, to close the story of BERN-E. That’s what I was pestering Andrew about. Closing the story. We find out what happens to him in a series of jokes. But it didn’t fit with the pace of the story and slowed it down. The way it worked out is for the best.

Wolcott: On the one to 10 scale with one being the worst, how happy are you with WALL-E?

MacLane: Compared to what I envisioned it to be, it is probably a nine or 9.2. For me, the point being there are things that could have been done better. But that’s the way with every movie. There is always things that can be improved upon. I think it’s a well-executed version of what it was.

Wolcott: What leads you to this kind of work?

MacLane: Obsessiveness.

Wolcott: Yeah, people ask me why and how I got to be a movie critic. I always say, “Bad day, I guess.”

MacLane: It’s a need for pain and obsessiveness. I like performing, and I like drawing. It was a great combination of those two things. I thought of becoming a graphic artist in the comic book industry, but it’s in worse shape than the movie industry. I wanted to become an animator, but I wasn’t quite good enough to be a Disney animator. So Pixar was a good place for me at the time.

Wolcott: So you don’t do a lot of actual physical drawing?

MacLane: I actually do for storyboarding. You’re drawing right on a computer like in Photoshop, but you’re still drawing. When I started on WALL-E, I was on paper, and when I finished doing the storyline I was working on a computer.

Wolcott: When you were a 10-year-old kid in grade school in Portland, Oregon -- where you grew up -- did you ever envision something like this?

MacLane: It would be hard to picture the organization and such, but it is something I definitely wanted to do. I figured I’d be living in Portland and, at best, I would be doing cartoons for The Oregonian or working at a studio doing commercials.

Wolcott: What’s next?

MacLane: I’d like to direct a feature. A lot of that is timing and if they feel they want me to do that. I want to keep working with the people I’m working with. I’m having a good time with them. Right now, I’m working on Up, a film that is coming out in May.

Wolcott: It’s the guy with the balloons, right? I saw a trailer the other day. The guy’s house floats up into the sky, and the Boy Scout knocks on the door and wants to be let in. The guy says, “No.” Funny. What are you doing on that project?

MacLane: I’m just doing animation. It gives me a chance to work again with the people I worked with on Monsters, Inc. Hey, it was, do you want to do some animation for a bit of time.

Wolcott: How soon after you finish your work does a movie like WALL-E get released?

MacLane: The animation would finish up in April, and the movie would come out in June. It would be finished sometime in the middle of May. It’s pretty quick. To be specific about it, they’re locking a reel at a time. They get one reel finished, and they set it up to send to lighting and post-production. It’s not like they finish it up and then send it to post-production. It is constantly going there, so they finish as they go. So when the final reel ships for animation, it’s probably about a month before that real is completed in post-production.

Wolcott: So it’s not like a live-action movie where they shoot scenes here and there, and then clump it all together when they’re done shooting. An animated feature is done in a more linear fashion?

MacLane: No, you do shoot in clumps. You shoot sequence by sequence. It’s not in order, and often times, the delivery order of the reels is out of order.

Wolcott: Do you work with the vocal talent, too?

MacLane: No. In this film there was very little work for vocal talent. In the short film BERN-E, I did direct the voice talent and half of it was me.

Wolcott: How important is the vocal talent to an animated movie? The guy who did the captain, Jeff Garlin, was funny and some of the lines from the others in the film were pretty funny.

MacLane: Pixar does a good job of matching the appropriate voice to the character. It is very important. You don’t get anything for free, but the voice is so much more important than the name. Sometimes "X the famous actor" gets the role, and you’ll ask someone how they did in the movie and get an answer like "they’re very boring to me."

Wolcott: The interesting thing about animated movies to me is that these days the deepest, richest, most layered and multi-dimensional characters are found in animated films. A few years ago, when Million Dollar Baby wound up as everybody’s pick for best picture, it was the best movie by far. I didn’t get a chance to screen it before picking my best of the year. So I ended up in a coin toss between The Incredibles. And Shrek 2 and finally decided on The Incredibles as the best picture. In the end, it’s the second-best picture of the year. And this year I’m going to have a hard time not picking WALL-E as the best of this year. Why is that?

MacLane: That’s very flattering. Animated features take so long to produce, and every shot is sweated over. If you do it correctly, (you) can throw stuff away and make the best movie you can. A lot of movies don’t have the budget to do so. And they’re working with a different set of constraints.

Wolcott: WALL-E and Eve are very deep characters and they never say anything.

MacLane: Yeah, it’s all context with that. What’s important is seeing their reaction to things. That’s really important. Animation is getting a lot of credit for this film, but I think the story department developed the proper situation for the animation to be successful.

Wolcott: It’s a great story all the way through from the metaphors provided by the humans sucking nutrition from cups and straws with screens in front of their faces and no clue about reality. All of that says a lot, but nothing spoke to me more than the wonderful love story between two robots. It’s just a great love story. I just saw Madagascar 2 and those characters aren’t that deep. What is it about Pixar? Do you just take more time?

MacLane: I think we focus on the core emotional story and everything around that emotional story. With BERN-E you understand that he has to do this job, and all of the jokes are based around that. It’s not like slipping on a banana peel. It’s very simple. A lot of it is a linear thing. His job is out here. His home is here, and he’s trying put the light on. There’s a structure to it. Once that’s established, then the characterization builds on top of that idea.

Wolcott: How long did it take you to do BERN-E?

MacLane: About nine months total. The actual production was six months, and three months of me just working by myself and with one other guy.

Wolcott: It was cute.

MacLane: He’s an appliance but feels like he’s a guy in a suit.

Wolcott: Is there any of you in the character BERN-E?

MacLane: There’s a style of animation that I like doing. It’s hard to say what aspects of it are me. I see the animated shots, and I see those animators in those shots. There are aspects of the film, though, that I guess I see myself. It’s all very personal.

Wolcott: What do you want to tell my readers about WALL-E?

MacLane: I’m flattered that you’re watching our pictures, and the ability to make films as different as WALL-E are based on the support we’ve had. It means a lot to us that people love our movies. We make them because we want to entertain people, and we make them for ourselves because we like to give our characters a life of their own once they leave the studio.

Wolcott: Does it surprise you that a critic would think WALL-E is the best movie of the year?

MacLane: Honestly, it’s been a pretty hard year movie wise. It’s hard for me because I see it as a movie. I like it a lot, and I’m very proud of it. I see a process, not a movie. I do love to hear that, and it’s very flattering, especially after something you’ve worked so long on. You see all the scenes and the stuff you wish was better. You’re never satisfied. So it doesn’t surprise me, but it’s a bit flattering.

Wolcott: I understand. For the rest of my life I will never be able to just go to a movie and enjoy it. I have been a critic too long. Can you sit down at Madagascar 2 and just watch it?

MacLane: I’m pretty distracted by animated movies. With films, it’s easy to be critical. I think my friends will say I’m an exceedingly harsh critic. They say I don’t like anything. But when I find something I do like it, generally has to do with -- does the movie do what it sets out to do? If it does, I’ll enjoy it.

Wolcott: What have you liked?

MacLane: In the last couple of years? Children of Men was the best movie I’ve seen in the last 10 years. This year, The Visitor is hands-down the best film I’ve seen. I love that movie. I’ve seen it twice.

Wolcott: Did you like The Station Agent? Same writer/director and one of my favorite movies.

MacLane: I loved it. Did you like The Visitor?

Wolcott: Not really. I loved it while the two guys were drumming and connected, but when the one was captured and at the deportation facility, the film lost steam and just wasn’t that interesting. Richard Jenkins worked for me.

MacLane: Priceless, the Audrey Tautou movie, Man on Wire.

Wolcott: Did you see Young at Heart?

MacLane: I did, and I didn’t like it.

Wolcott: That’s the one movie I’ve seen this year that might be better than WALL-E.

MacLane: I liked aspects of it and the characters, but the filmmaking was a little bit basic.

Wolcott: There was a lot of showing off. It was like when you turn a camera onto a bunch of teenagers.

MacLane: American Teen. That’s another one I loved.