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Toon Zone Presents a Virtual Roundtable with "BURN-E" Director Angus MacLane

One of the bonus features on the DVD and Blu-ray disc of Disney/Pixar’s WALL•E is a new short film called “BURN•E,” which fills in the story for of one of the robots on the giant starship Axiom that we see briefly during the movie. The short is the directorial debut for WALL•E‘s Directing Animator Angus MacLane. Toon Zone was able to sit in on a virtual roundtable with him along with other journalists. The following conversation is edited from the 2 roundtable sessions held with MacLane.

Q: 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.

Q: What did being the Directing Animator on WALL•E involve?

MACLANE: The Directing Animator’s job is to help the other animators keep their animation on model so that the acting and movement are consistent for each of the characters over the entire film. They work to be both a surrogate voice of the Director when he/she is available, and also offer acting and performance suggestions. Directing Animators also help to define the motion and character of the main characters in the film. The Directing Animator reports directly to the Supervising Animators. On WALL•E (as well as The Incredibles) I worked under the Supervision Animators Alan Barillaro and Steven Hunter. They interface more with the production staff about the direction and management of the WALL•E animation department. They also serve as both a surrogate voice of the Director and also offer acting and performance suggestions as well. Time permitting, Supervising Animators will also help to define the motion and character of the main characters in the film.

Q: Where did you get your inspiration for “BURN•E”?

MACLANE: BURN•E the robot is in the feature. I had a few ideas of places we could cut back to BURN•E in the feature, but Andrew felt it slowed 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 70’s and early 80’s science fiction 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.

Q: How hard was it to think of a name that sounded like a robot but was a pun for a human name (Bernie)?

MACLANE: His name internally had been “Repair Bot.” When I started the short, I envisioned him as being called WELD•R. About two days later Jim Reardon, the head of story on WALL•E handed me a drawing he had done of the word BURN•E burned into metal. After that, there was no going back.

Q: WALL•E is an acronym for “Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-Class” What does BURN•E mean?

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.

I have since heard from some people that his name actually should be BURN•A because the “E” in WALL•E stands for “Earth-Class” and the “A” would be the appropriate “Axiom-Class.” Now, I could argue that maybe BURN•E was a robot on Earth that then was installed on the Axiom, but a) I would be lying, and b) what is the point? If that is the biggest problem you have with the film, then I have done my job. Now put yourself in my shoes: you have to name this robot. You can use the name “BURN•E,” which is funny and breaks with the continuity of the film, or “BURN•A,” which is more accurate to the feature and is not funny at all. Which would you choose? I thought so. I do love that geeks pick up on this and I am happy to be creating this controversy. I’d probably do the same thing were I not involved.

Q: How did you get selected to direct “BURN•E?”

MACLANE: I think it was opportunity met with preparation. Andrew liked the idea of the DVD short being about BURN•E. He encouraged me to storyboard the film. After the story was approved, Andrew asked if I would be interested.

Q: 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)?

MACLANE: I was drawn to BURN•E because his story was not fully explored in the feature. I thought he was a fun character to animate. After I had animated the shot with him in the feature, I wanted to know what happened to him. I wanted to answer that question with this short. 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.

Q: Did you already think of the story for “BURN•E” during the production of WALL•E?

MACLANE: 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.

Q: Did you work on “BURN•E” during or after the production of WALL•E? Did you construct any plot points in the feature to facilitate the short, or vice versa?

MACLANE: Both. I started boarding “BURN•E” approximately 5 months before WALL•E was completed, 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.

However, no plot points were changed in the feature to make the short work. There were things that were changed in that one shot in WALL•E that featured BURN•E after it had been finished. The light spire that he welds was not originally in the shot.

Q: Did you have to scrap any ideas that just wouldn’t fit with the existing story?

MACLANE: I came up with as many places in the movie as I could think of to cut back to. We cut whatever wasn’t funny or slowed the pace down. Oddly enough the scene from the feature that sparked the original idea for “BURN•E” was cut from the feature. The scene is too complicated to explain. Maybe that’s why it never made it.

Q: How long did it take you to make the short?

MACLANE: I first pitched the storyboard to Andrew Stanton in November of 2007 and we finished production in late June 2008.

Q: Are there any Easter Eggs we should watch out for?

MACLANE: There are a few small nods here and there to various sci-fi properties. I won’t go through all of them, but I will mention that there is a graphic on the elevator inside the Axiom that reads “ELV 426″ indicating that this is elevator number four hundred and twenty-six. This is, of course (pushing my glasses up on my nose), a reference to LV-426 the planet that is the setting of the movie Alien and Aliens.

Q: What do you think was the hardest thing to get right in the short?

MACLANE: There were a lot of difficult shots to pull off in this film. From a technical perspective, the shot with WALL•E touching Saturn’s rings that transitions into the pebble meteor was the hardest to pull off. The Effects Supervisor, Bill Watral did a fabulous job stitching the shot from the film and a bunch of new elements that were on a literally planetary scale. On the performance side, the shot where SUPPLY•R drops the light on the ground was the trickiest to get right. There was something in the boards that was really funny that was extremely difficult to capture.

Q: What is the most difficult aspect of creating a character?

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 lose interest very quickly.

Q: Where do you actually start on design with so many different kinds of robots?

MACLANE: In the WALL•E universe most of the robots are designed and built around the idea of function first, character second. With the character of WALL•E we figured out his motion as a trash compactor first. After that had been firmly established we then worked on how to define his character based on the limitations of him being a trash compactor

Q: Is it harder to do an animated film with little dialogue? Does it put more pressure on the animation to do the talking?

MACLANE: It’s not harder to animate, but it is way more work in the storyboard process.

Q: How hard was it to get the right type of emotion out of a robot?

MACLANE: It is always our goal as animators to make our work clearly communicate the thought process of the characters to the audience. It was particularly challenging for us on BURN•E as well as WALL•E because of the limited nature of the designs and the lack of dialogue. Both characters limited designs are 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 lose interest very quickly.

Q: Why did you choose Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” to play a key role in the soundtrack?

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.

Q: I noticed that BURN•E does a fist-pump when he cuts through the door about two-thirds of the way through the short. What gave you the idea to include that?

MACLANE: That is a bit of an inside joke. Brad Bird’s pet peeve is the movie cliché where a character does that fist-pump and says “YESSSS!” I think that I put that joke in just to irritate him. I think there is an easter egg on the Ratatouille DVD that explains this, so if you watch that before you see “BURN•E,” the short will be 34% funnier.

Q: “BURN•E” is your first film as a director. Do you see this film as a stepping stone towards directing features? Is that something you aspire to do?

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.

Q: John Lasseter 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?”

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 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.

Q: How much freedom do you have at Pixar as a director on a short film like this?

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.

Q: Which animator or moviemaker from the past has made the biggest impression on you? And how does that reflect itself in your work?

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.

Q: By now, Pixar has built a real legacy with some of the best animated films in the last twenty years, beginning with short films in the 80’s. Could you feel the pressure of that legacy while working on “BURN•E”?

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.

Q: “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?

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.

Q: Brad Bird created a similarly fun companion short to The Incredibles with “Jack-Jack Attack”. What are your thoughts on side-stories like these?

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.

Q: What is it about repetitive failure (“Lifted,” “One Man Band,” and now “BURN•E”) that is so funny?

MACLANE: Humor usually comes about when result doesn’t match the expectation. If everything in a characters’ life goes well, it’s hard to relate to and probably not as funny.

Q: How do you – as a modern day animator – view the classic “old-school” 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?

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.

Q: How much of an animated film is software and how much is the result of an “artist’s” vision and his/her ability to bring that vision to life? What role does software play in the process? Is it a mere tool, like, say, video editing software, or does it allow animators to do things they could not do with ink and paper?

MACLANE: WALL•E was mostly created by a computer robot we have here at Pixar called the EntertainmentBot 3000. Nah, the computer is just a big, dumb pencil.

Q: One of your big hobbies is building your own LEGO creations, such as the big LEGO version of WALL•E you did a while ago. When will we get to see BURN•E in LEGO like you did with WALL•E?

MACLANE: I designed a LEGO BURN•E as a crew gift as a thank you for the hard work. I ordered the pieces, made custom decals and instructions, and hand packaged each of the sets. If there is interest, I will post a picture on Flickr soon.

Q: Any chances of a LEGO short movie in the future?

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’m 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.

Q: Is there any Pixar film that you would have loved to work on, but didn’t get the chance to?

MACLANE: I would have loved to have worked on the original Toy Story, which is the only Pixar feature that I was not involved in. I also wish that I could have worked on some of those Listerine commercials.

Q: 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?

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.

Thanks to Angus MacLane for taking the time to talk with us, along with all the other journalists who participated in the roundtable and to Disney Public Relations and Click Communications for setting it up. “BURN•E” can be seen on the WALL•E DVD and Blu-ray disc sets, available now.

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