Pixar has come to be known for many things, among them, high-quality animation, intriguing storylines that the young and old can relate to, which are present on their award-winning feature films and shorts as well. The Wall-E DVD release, which hits the shelves on DVD and two-disc Blu-ray on November 18, features all of these aspects of this wonderful studio. Like most Pixar DVD releases, Wall-E comes with a few short films as well, one of which being the parellel tale of Burn-E. I was in on one of Disney's awesome virtual roundtable sessions where we got to see this short film in its entirety, along with an original pencil sketch run-through, which are both on the DVD, and then submit questions to the director of the short, Angus Maclane, who was also the directing animator on Wall-E. First though, let me give you a little rundown of this new short.
Burn-E is a peripheral story that takes place at the same time that Wall-E is aboard the Axiom, frolicking about with Eve. Burn-E is a repair robot and, when an exterior light goes out on the deck of the ship, he's summoned to repair it. Burn-E's movements are limited to the track that's set out for him, so, when anything and everything starts going wrong when he's trying to fix this light, there's nothing he can do about it except groan a little mechanical groan and go back to the cranky parts robot for another light, which always ends up with hilarious results. Like the feature film, (and many of their shorts) there really isn't any dialogue here, or much of it anyway, but the way this is animated and the subtle sounds we're given are more than sufficient. It's pretty cool too how they weave this short in with the events of the feature and you can't help but feel bad for poor Burn-E as he's just trying to complete a simple task... that keeps getting ruined by Wall-E, one way or another. Any fan of the film will surely enjoy this wonderful short.
After the short film, we were also treated to an original pencil sketch run-through, where we see some of the original sketches all pieced together for the short. This pencil test will also be included on the Wall-E DVD, so be sure to check it out.
We there then able to submit our questions to the short's director Angus Maclane, who was the directing animator on Wall-E and has worked on a number of Pixar's features and shorts since joining the company in 1997. Among the features he's worked on are A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. Here's what Maclane had to say during our virtual session.
Where did you get your inspiration for BURN-E
Angus Maclane:BURN-E in the feature, but Andrew (Stanton) felt that it would slow the pace of the film down. He agreed it was a funny idea but encouraged me to develop it into a short film. Visually I wanted to replicate, or 'pay homage' to late 70s early 80s Sci-Fi movies. The unifying element in these films is that everything was hand made, they did not have CGI, and so it gives the worlds a tactile quality that has been missing from many modern sci-fi films.
How did you come to choose BURN-E as the main subject of the short (and not other characters, like, say, M-O, who was interesting, too)?
Angus Maclane: I was drawn to BURN-E because his story was not fully explored in the feature. I like M•O, but he is in the feature a lot already, so I did not feel like his story needed to be told as urgently. Also I liked the idea of having a short that took place outside the central story arc of the Wall-E feature film.
How long did it take you to make that short?
Angus Maclane: I first pitched the storyboard to Andrew Stanton in November of 2007 and we finished production in late June 2008.
What is the most difficult aspect of creating a character?
Angus Maclane: For BURN-E, communicating his thought process to the audience was the biggest challenge. He is a fairly limited character, which is appealing, but more work must be done in the story process to communicate his intentions. With BURN-E and with Wall-E, if the audience can't tell what the character is thinking or what is going on, then they loose interest very quickly.
How did you come up with the story for BURN-E? Did you already think of it during the production of Wall-E?
Angus Maclane: As a filmgoer I wanted to know what happened to BURN-E. I had a few ideas of places we could cut back to BURN-E in the feature, but it slowed the pace of the film down. Once Andrew encouraged me to take these ideas and develop them into a short, I needed to find a unifying story arc. I came up with this idea of him having a job and that job would be repairing this light. Then I thought, it would be funny to have Wall-E inadvertently cause this meteor to hit the light on the ship. This led to the central idea of the short. In the feature, Wall-E has a positive effect on everyone he meets. So I thought what if there is someone for whom Wall-E's arrival on the Axiom isn't a good thing. Wall-E is never purposefully mean to BURN-E, it's just bad luck. Once I had that central idea I looked for key moments in the film to cut back to BURN-E to see what he was doing at that particular time.
Pixar has by now built a real legacy with some of the best animation film the last twenty years, beginning with short films in the eighties. Could you feel the pressure of that legacy while working on BURN-E?
Angus Maclane: Certainly, the rich history of Pixar Short Films is a bit intimidating, but making BURN-E feel like a logical extension of Wall-E was more important to me. I wanted the film to be good but I did not choose to spend too much time worrying about it's comparison to earlier work. I mostly sweated whether or not it was good enough to be in the Wall-E universe.
Brad Bird created a similarly fun companion short to The Incredibles with "Jack-Jack Attack". What are your thoughts on side-stories like these?
Angus Maclane: I am a big fan of side stories. Coincidentally, I had a side story pitch for The Incredibles that Brad was excited about, but budget constraints kept us from doing it. I think it is important that the side story not belittle or betray the main story. If the main story is about the existence of the Easter Bunny, the side story can't say there is no Easter Bunny or it messes with the feature.
Did you work on BURN-E during or after the production of Wall-E?
Angus Maclane: Both. I started boarding BURN-E on the evenings and lunches when we were in the heat of animation production on Wall-E. Once the animation was wrapping up on the feature, production started on BURN-E. It dovetailed nicely but I did have to put off a May vacation till August.
Wall-E was the acronym of 'Waste allocator...' What does BURN-E mean?
Angus Maclane: I was called one day by Derek Thompson who worked in story on BURN-E, informing me that we had to know the answer to this question. He and fellow story artist Ted Mathot informed me that BURN-E stood for: Basic Utility Repair Nano Engineer. However, Jim Reardon, head of story on BURN-E thought of the name BURN-E.
Why did you choose the Beethoven's Ode (European's anthem) to joy to play a key role in the soundtrack?
Angus Maclane: It's true that Ode To Joy has been used many times in the history of cinema. Most notably to me in Raising Arizona, Die Hard and A Clockwork Orange. There is a reason why is this piece of music has stood the test of time. It is a great piece of music. Using it in a film is a bit of a cliché' but it is still a very effective piece in communicating a certain emotion. For BURN-E the needs of the emotion from the piece overruled the originality from the selection of the piece. I also thought that it was funny that BURN-E would be humming Beethoven.
How do you - as a modern day animator - view the classic 'oldschool' style of animation? Do you think that's a nostalgic era in animation that will never return fully? Or do you think classic animation styles will become more prominent in the future? And in what way?
Angus Maclane: I love all forms of animation. Each medium does different things better than others. 2-D or hand drawn animation allows for a stylization not achievable in CGI. The audience is open to whatever world you present them with. They just want good stories. I feel that unfortunately 2-D got associated with only one type of story and the audience for that story got tired of seeing the same thing over and over. I hope in the future there are a wider variety of stories told in all forms of animation.
As far as I can tell BURN-E is your first film as a director. Do you see this film as a steppingstone towards directing features? Is that something you aspire to do?
Angus Maclane:BURN-E was a tremendous opportunity for me. The shorts program at Pixar is designed to be a training ground for potential future directors and new department heads. Sometimes that translates into directing features or heading departments on features and sometimes not. I have stories that I'd like to tell, so we'll see what happens.
One of your big hobbies is building your own LEGO creations. For instance the big LEGO version of Wall-E you did a while ago. Any chances of a LEGO (short) movie in the future?
Angus Maclane: I'd love to do a project with Lego. Disney and Lego are two huge companies who admire each other's work but the logistics of doing a joint film project might be a little difficult. I open to it though. Imagine a film that has a main character who has to remove his head to put on a backpack. Pure gold.
BURN-E will be another great addition to the acclaimed canon of Pixar shorts. What is it, in your opinion, that makes short films like BURN•E and Presto so unique?
Angus Maclane: I'm glad you enjoyed the short. What makes the films so unique is that all of the shorts are personal stories. Pixar supports the directors realizing their unique visions and as a result you get a wide variety of stories. Presto is Doug Sweetland and Doug Sweetland is Presto. Likewise for the other shorts.
Could you tell us how you got to work for Pixar? Was it always your dream to be an animator?
Angus Maclane: I lucked out when standards were low. When I was hired in 1997, Disney and DreamWorks were the hot places to work. Pixar was looking for animators to work on the Toy Story direct to video sequel. I got an internship and then worked as hard as I could to learn how to animate. I had done 2D animation in school, but I had so much to learn. That's one of the great things about Pixar. There are a lot of people to learn from.
How much freedom do you have at Pixar as a director on a little film like this?
Angus Maclane: I pitched the film to Andrew Stanton and John Lasseter. Once they bought off on the concept I was free to pretty much do as I wished. There were budget considerations, but there weren't any compromises that hurt the film. I checked in with Andrew periodically and if there was anything that wasn't reading or could be improved he would make notes. I would say that 95% of his notes made the film better. Mostly he had notes on pacing. BURN-E by nature is fairly episodic. He had a lot of notes that kept the pace from slowing to a crawl. Freedom as a director is also the freedom to make a bad movie. I had the support of an extremely talented crew so anything that was bad they did there best to fix.
Which animator or moviemaker from the past has made the biggest impression on you? And how does that reflect itself in your work?
Angus Maclane: That's hard to say. It's been great to learn from the directors here at work. Right now I'm really into Jean-Pierre Melville and I would say that the movie Aliens (1986) is the best movie ever made.
John has previously said that Pixar's shorts provide animators with the opportunity to experiment with new challenges outside the confines and limitations of a feature. Were there any particular technical or story challenges you set out to accomplish with BURN-E?
Angus Maclane: The biggest challenge was how to make a 7+ minute film on a budget. I was allowed to make a film that long if it came in on budget. To be honest, I think the budget constraint helped. I wanted the film to look like a 70's-80's Sci-Fi films. On those films they built awesome sets on limited budget. We used a lot of the same principles of repeated forms for BURN-E. As an homage, the floor grating in BURN-E is based on floor grating in featured in the movies Outland, Alien, and Aliens.
Could you give a piece of advice to all those who start in this of the animation and dream of working in Pixar or on a project like this someday?
Angus Maclane: Surround yourself with people whose work you admire and whose opinions you trust. In school I worked really hard and sought out others who did the same. In your work make sure that you are making something that you believe in. In BURN-E I tried to have at least one thing in each shot that was true or real or relatable. Make the world of your film believable and relatable and the audience will follow.
You can watch BURN-E and the feature-length amazing animated adventure of Wall-E when it hits the shelves on DVD and Blu-ray on November 18.