We talk to Jim Reardon, the man who decides if Wall-E gets a happy ending or not!
Continuing our Wall-e week, we go back to the very beginning – the storyboard process. For Wall-e that process started over four years ago with the Pixar story-artists drawing and redrawing the movie until they arrived at a blueprint from which all the other departments could work their magic.
Jim Reardon is the ‘Head of Story’ at Pixar animation studios. He’s been on the Pixar team since March 2004 – as long as Wall-e has been in the works. He’s the man responsible for supervising the story artists – reviewing the storyboards with the film’s director, and helping to improve storytelling throughout the production process.
Having previously worked on ‘The Simpsons’ for 14 years, who better to talk us through the gruelling process (with over 125, 000 images produced for this one film alone) of bringing the storyboard to life.
Movies.ie met the man to talk us through the wonderful world of Wall-e.
Q: How do you approach the storyboard – is there a completed script before hand?
A: There was a full script pretty early on, but it changed so dramatically that ultimately the story reel document becomes essentially the script. A lot of the writing choices and shot planning and story points begin to be developed visually as well as in terms of pages.
Someday we had pages, other days we were brainstorming and then we would transcribe it and ok that’s a screenplay. And that’s what’s unique about animation- you cannot write a screenplay, unless they start animating. It has to work visually so, any time we just sometimes realised it doesn’t work. It may look like it works on a written page, but when you see it with characters moving, it doesn’t work.
Yeah, so Wall-E d definitely stood out as probably one of the most complex and sophisticated story reels we’ve had so far in the history of the studio. I would say that the closest approximation of how we did this movie is how they did the silent comedies of Chaplain and Keaton. They had a story, they often just had an outline but they would go and shoot the stuff and decide if it works and if it doesn’t they would change it so it worked visually.
Q: Do you think there’s a bigger audience because of the romantic theme and no dialogue -maybe not just for little kids?
A: I don’t know. Well we never write them for little kids, we write them for ourselves. What Andrew wanted to do from the very beginning was he wanted to do a love story and he loves sci-fi, so it has a very sci-fi theme to it. But above everything else, above any kind of environmental message we wanted a story about two characters falling in love that you can make the audience care about. And that alone is hard to do. But then to bring in other worlds, made it doubly difficult.
Q: The public rave about Pixar, its look and the animation and the fact that it is beautiful, but then you talk to people in the industry like (John) Lasseter and Roy Dig and all that and the mantra is about the story.
A: Yeah, it’s the foundation and the story. The skeleton, you know. This is the blueprint. We feel that if you can look at these story reels that we put together and that’s what John Lasseter and the brain festival look at, and if a sequence works, drawn without animation, and without music then we know it will work even better when it’s animate, voices and music but, if it doesn’t work here then no animation in the world is going to save it. That’s a mistake I think that a lot of studios make, they get to a certain point with their story and say it still isn’t really quite right, but we can fix it down the road, but you can’t.
Q: Steve and those guys talk about music being used was great for them that they kind of knew the tone of the moment with the animation and everything else, I don’t know whether you guys had that too, if you were told we’re going to go with a nostalgic song and if you could give that impression.
A: Yeah, we talked about it, what songs we were going to use, and what mood we wanted. But it’s always in service to the story. It’s constant changing organic process to, I mean we are on the journey of discovery as much as anyone else so there is a kind of an excitement to see what unfolds and it’s like puzzle solving but in a very creative way. I mean we don’t know what the finished picture is supposed to look like but, we get a good idea.
Sometimes, the film will tell you what it’s going to be, and it’s not what you expected it to be. And then you say, oh this isn’t working and then you try something that does work and say ok. An example of that is for a long time, we were struggling to get a character arc for Wall-E, how does he change, and we struggled with that and then about half way through we thought of, like looking at Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplain films and they’re characters don’t really change if you look at their films they’re kind of a constant on how the affect everyone else. And so we said, well if it worked for Chaplain, then it would be alright so the character’s arc in the movie is really Eve’s character. She goes from being a robot that is just doing her job, to being someone capable of falling in love. So the picture is as much about her as it is about Wall-E, but we didn’t set out that way, the movie kind of made it self-evident to us as we worked on it.
Q: 125,000 drawings! How long does that take?
A: Well we worked with the story; I worked three years and six months on the story from the script to when we got the storyboard. So just under four years to get the version of the movie that’s being made now.
Q: Was that average, or was that longer? Is it like three or four years, usually?
A: It’s about average. Some movies have been longer here, some movies have been five or six years. And it’s pretty amazing that Wall-E got to that point in less then four years, given the dramatic changes that it went through. It’s been several very different movies along the way. We were probably doing a different version every six months. So in the three years or so, we had six or seven screenings maybe. Seven I think, some of them weren’t the whole movie, just somewhere to relax.
Q: What was the most dramatic shift in direction you did undertake during the process?
A: Well it was, early on we had more of a Spartacus story, where Wall-E kind of accidentally caused the revolt of the robots. It was like an alien civilisation with robots as slaves, and there was an uprising.
Q: So the idea of Wall-E as solitary wasn’t in that version and actually came down the line
A: Well the first act has always been fairly close to what Andrew set out to do. It was the second and third act it changed several times, but it feels natural. What it has become, it’s funny reflecting on the movie that it used to be, when I think of the movie that it is now. It’s like of course, this is the movie it has to be. But it wasn’t obvious at the time. And that’s the beauty of the story processes, it’s coaxing these answers.
Q: What has been the most difficult thing to show in the movie?
A: The biggest problem is that it’s a story with very little dialogue, is conveying information. Especially emotional information. Or sometimes even physical, if you’re doing live action movie, you can say – “whatever you do, don’t go into that red barn, down the hill ‘cos there’s bad guys there.” But when you’re not talking, how would you convey that to someone. So we had to learn to plant these things in kind of a surreptitious way, like putting in Wall-E breaking his eye and then having to replace it. We’re planting that at the beginning of the movie and that pays off at the end of the movie but you don’t want to do it in a way that screams, ‘this is important!” you know?
Q: What’s the pitch, the initial pitch that you gave, how did it start?
A: What if somebody forgot to turn the last robot on Earth off. Well I mean in a general sense, what Andrew said was, ‘I want to make R2D2 the movie’ And that ‘I bet we could make a movie like that, where the character didn’t actually talk.’
Q: Now Lucas gets a percentage, right?
A: Oh, well we have Ben for this one so…
Q: That kind of pitch would produce seven, ten maybe twenty movies, different movies, so it’s yours.