Angus MacLane of Pixar: The Den of Geek interview

Angus MacLane, the supervising animator on Wall E, talks about the secrets of Pixar, the joys of Lego, R2D2 and his love for James Camerons' Aliens...

Supervising animator Angus MacLane has worked at Pixar for well over ten years, on shorts such as Geri’s Game and One Man Band, through to Toy Story 2, The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, Cars and Ratatouille (to name but a few). With his latest project, Wall E, soaking up acclaim across the globe, he spared us some time to talk about the film, his enthusiasm for Lego, the films that inspired him and where new animators should look to start.

The technological advances you must face with every Pixar project seem to us quite dramatic. How does that manifest itself with every new film? How early do you have to ‘lock’ the look of a project?The look of the film is locked when the film comes out, I think! You can still affect things in many ways. But initially there’s the pre-production process, and we sort out what the look of the film is going to be. Early on they’ll do painting, and the production designer Ralph Eggleston was very specific about this is the look I want, and worked with Andrew [Stanton, director] very closely to establish the look of the film.

I don’t think it changed that much as we went through the film. So that was established pretty early on. I would say two years into it, the story’s being sorted out, the look of the film has then gone through an iteration of being on the screen in actual finished film, and I think that’s when it’s sorted out.

And does the software you use alter much as you go along, over a three year production cycle?The software for the actual execution of the film doesn’t change that much. Because you really need to lock it to one piece of software. Maybe there’ll be an update here and there, and they’ll be individual sub-programs developed. For example there was a program developed for Wall E just to get his treads to lock to the ground, so they recognise the ground and wrap around and drive as you translate him along. That was technology that was developed as an offshoot from a very similar program from Cars, in keeping the tyres on the ground. But that’s about as automated as we get. Everything else is pretty much hand animated.

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Pixar has a reputation for pathfinding in many ways. How much is that determined now by the stories you want to tell, and how much by the increased pressure of competitors snapping at your heels?To tell you the truth, I don’t think internally that we’re that interested in finding the next big thing to tackle technologically. We’re not like oh, we need to make it difficult for ourselves, because the stories do that just fine on their own!

With every film, people say don’t the computers get faster? Well yeah, they do, but the appetite for what the film needs to be grows just as much. So I think that we are always interested in telling good stories. What happens is that you’ll make a movie, finish it and say what’s next. Oh, we’re gonna make a film with fish! Fish, huh? What do we need for fish? Well, we need water, and we need to figure out how we’re going to move them around, and so for whatever’s coming up next, there’s new, unique challenges for each thing. It’s certainly this film is much different from Rat[atouille], and Rat was much different from Cars. You get into a situation where the story’s going to give you plenty of challenges.

This film in particular seemed to have a much longer gestation period than many of the Pixar projects, and we’re told it was referred to in the meeting that started it all back in the early 1990s. Is it something that Pixar has always had in the background, but needed a certain level of success first?

No, it wasn’t quite like AI, where the technology didn’t exist yet to make this brilliant film. It was an idea that they’d had, and they hadn’t really figured it out yet, and they’d put it on the back burner. It’s not like there was somebody in a room waiting! It was an idea that was shelved for a while, and after a bunch of other films were made, Andrew was interested in telling that story and they went back to it. It wasn’t in constant flux. You imagine this separate office just devoted to it! It wasn’t like that at all.  It was after Nemo, and it was something that Andrew just couldn’t get out of his mind.

The look of the film, and the sheer visual scale of Wall E is remarkable, and again breaks boundaries. There were clearly some very strong decisions made at the start there, in terms of the vision of the project?

I think it was always going to be a sci-fi opera set in space, a tribute to the 60s and 70s sci-fi films that we all were interested in. Andrew was like well we’re going to make a robot movie that’s about robots, but it’s a 60s or 70s sci-fi film. Are you interested? I said yes, of course I’m interested! And he said it’s going to be a love story. It had the element of simultaneously being something new, this robot love story, with something familiar, which is to try Pixar does space. And I think that’s really kind of exciting going into it. A lot of us are movie geeks, many of us are sci-fi geeks, myself included, and we just tried to make a film that would have echoes of what you’d seen before, but would be really something unique and individual, and be very personal to us as film makers.And when you come to the point where you’re going ahead with the project, and you’re tasked with animating a robot, how did you tackle that?It’s actually very similar to animating fish!

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You think about fish, and you’re like I don’t know how I’m going to animate these things, and you look at footage of fish and start off by trying to replicate it exactly. And then once you figure out how fish move, you go okay, I’ve got a scene where a character, Fish X, says blah blah blah, and so you go after he says blah blah blah, I’ll have the tail wiggle a little bit, just to remind the audience that this guy’s underwater. And then we’ll flip the fin a little bit, and wiggle around, and so you get this thing where you’re always giving indications to the audience that the character is what they are.

In the case of Wall E, we studied machines, and hydraulics, and robots, and saw what defines robotics. A lot of it is that a robot only moves as much as it has to. It has one motor that does one thing. So if you treat it that way, have one idea at a time, and slightly overlap that so the movie doesn’t last ten hours, you can build robotic movement that’s really charming. A lot of times we’d just be focusing on making just one motor look like it was just turning the head, and you’d get so much out of that, as we’d seen in previous films like Star Wars, where you’d see R2-D2 just rotate his head a little bit. There’s something really charming about that.

Is R2-D2 as close as you’d get to a template for a robot with charm?

Yeah. I don’t think we were ever worried… well, we wanted to make him charming, but the drawings were cute, and we saw how it played in the story reel, so when it got to animation it was more about trying to make it look believable. Figuring out that methodology as to how the mechanics worked was our guide to working out how he worked as a machine. And once you’d got the machine going, you could just tweak it slightly and give it personality very easily, as previous films such as Luxo Jr showed.

The film opened to huge numbers in the States. Yet this was perhaps the project viewed by outsiders as the riskier Pixar project. How would you encapsulate the secret of the success?

It’s kind of like Radiohead, right? They have the success that they have, and so they so we’re going to make an album, we’re going to release it for whatever you want to pay. Radiohead is able to do that. I don’t know, I think we’re able to make the movies we’re able to make because people go to see them and support us. We make movies that we think would be good, and we’re the harshest critics on ourselves. So as long as we keep making movies that we believe in, and push ourselves to tell the best stories that we can, even when it’s not financially convenient to do so, then I think that we’ll hopefully find an audience.

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I’m happy that people are seeing the movie, and I’m very proud of this film. When I watch it I have to admit I guess it is pretty risky. It’s like wow, it’s amazing this movie got made, because you could see a bunch of aspects about it that a lesser studio would say ‘I don’t think we’re going to invest money in this’. It’s totally weird in the best possible way. And that’s why I’m proud to have worked on it.

You say you’re your harshest critics…

… oh yeah!So how late can you leave a change to the film when you’re animating something so sophisticated?

[Pause] You always try and catch things as you’re going along, and most of the time you do. So it’s just a matter of the economics of the change. Every film that we’ve made has always gone through a dark period where it needs to be reworked, and it kind of sucks. And so the strength of the studio has always been to stand behind making the best film possible. Like I said earlier, even when it’s not financially convenient.

So to be able to make that movie or rework that movie is the value of Pixar. This film is no exception. It was never horrible, there was stuff that needed work, there’s a natural story process that we do. We make it, put it on screen, see what it looks like, if stuff isn’t working, we rework it. We did that on this film, and to huge advantage.

When I went to a screening at the Edinburgh Film Festival, this probably eight year old kid asked do you like the movie, and is it what you pictured when you started working on it? And that was a very astute question. I had to admit, it’s the best version I’ve ever seen of the film, so even though when you work on a film, it’s really hard to get a perspective of watching it as a movie, after you’ve seen it a few times, I can appreciate it as an audience.

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Does the animation process at Pixar follow the almost-traditional hand drawn style, where specific animators get specific characters to work with? You yourself seem to have a brief across a lot of productions at once?It’s not quite the same, as we don’t have supervising animators for each character, and we don’t have assistants underneath that supervising animator who work only on that character. I think that the reason why is that everyone can be good at some character. And if you just limit animator X to character X, they may have a great take for a certain scene with a different character. You don’t want to just relegate them to one character they may not be into that much.

Brad Bird would say that none of us are the best animator in the world, but collectively we are the best in the world. So that approach of spending your money wisely, or giving everyone a shot to do everything is a really wise approach. It also helps keep egos in check, and you do the best work with what you’re given. Every shot can be great, I firmly believe that.

I’ve been looking at pictures of your Lego models that you make, and my personal favourite is Chewbacca as a DJ. What do you think is the best thing you’ve ever made out of Lego.

[Laughs] I don’t know! The great and horrible thing about the Internet is that you build something, and you think you’re so great, and then you look online. There are apparently people who have limitless time and money to make the most amazing creations.

I don’t know if I have a favourite. I’m very proud of the Wall E I made! I don’t have that much time to build stuff, and most of the stuff that’s online is so old because I’ve been busy making a movie. I don’t think I’ve built the best thing yet!

Would you ever consider a Lego and Pixar computer game?

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Oh I hope so! I would be over the moon if they sorted that out! I would hopefully be very much involved with that process! But at this point I have no knowledge of anything.

What would be the non-Pixar movies that inspired you, that you’d recommend to our readers?

I would say that if you’ve never seen Le Cirque Rouge, that’s a great movie. My favourite movie of all time is Aliens. Recent favourites include Children of Men, that was just amazing. The best film I’ve seen this year is The Visitor, directed by Tom McCarthy, and – I’m trying to think of some wild card – you know what else I saw that’s great? It’s called Planet B-Boy, it’s a documentary about a breakdancing competition. A fabulous character study, totally amazing.

Trying to thing of other oddball films to recommend! We have a thing at work called movie club, and I’m a total movie nerd so some of the younger animators I’m telling them ‘if you haven’t seen these movies…’ and I’m sending them out, telling them they’ve got to watch Two Days Of The Condor and Parallax View, Taking Of Pelham 123, The Guns Of Navarone… We all have a real affinity for that era, the 70s films. I think the films that we’re most inspired by are live action films. If you haven’t seen Mon Oncle, that’s pretty sweet. It’s totally slow but it’s totally an animator’s movie, if you’re into that kind of thing.Finally, for anyone looking to break into animation, what advice would you give them?

I would say be persistent, and keep trying. A friend of mine, he’s a music composer, he’d got some advice from an old pro when he started. And the old pro said to him that people who succeed in the business are not those that are the most talented, and they’re not the people that know the most people, but they are the people who are able to endure. I think that there’s something profound about that. It’s the old saying, it doesn’t happen by mistake: it’s opportunity met with preparation. So when you get the opportunity, make sure you’re prepared.

And start drawing! Because nobody draws anymore. It’s such an amazing thing. I think that things that will make you a good animator are the things that make you a good drawer, and vice versa. So keep drawing!

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Angus MacLane, thank you very much!

Check out our reviews of WALL-E by Seb and Ron.

And Martin caught up with Andrew Stanton, Sigourney Weaver and Ben Burtt at the Wall-E press conference as well, and the full report is here