The Interview: Pixar Animator Angus MacLane
The Pixar film "Wall-E" is beginning to scoop up critics' awards, but it was a much smaller film that I hotly anticipated when the "Wall-E" DVD recently hit consumer shelves. I'd heard about this short called "Burn-E," based on a stranded side character: the little repair robot who has every reason to be resentful of sweet ol' Wall-E. Fortunately, "Burn-E" does not disappoint. To discuss both films, Comic Riffs recently caught up with Pixar's ANGUS MacLANE, 33, who directed "Burn-E" and was the animating director on "Wall-E."
MICHAEL CAVNA: You attended the Rhode Island School of Design. How does someone from RISD end up at Pixar?
ANGUS MacLANE: It was kind of an experiment: Can someone NOT from CalArts do it -- succeed at Pixar? "Toy Story" came out when I was in school, and ... in 1997 I got an 8- to-10 week internship. I went back to school and thought about doing comic books, but it was so depressing, what was going on with comic books at the time. ... Storytelling had taken a back seat. It became a collector's market, and that ruined it. ... That was disheartening. It was really isolating; I had taken illustration and it was not as social as I wanted to be. I always wanted to be an actor and an artist.
MC: So then you end up at Pixar?
AM: Yes. I gravitate toward people who [are] interested in constructive criticism. It's similar to the school environment. By surrounding yourself with people whose work you respect, ultimately you benefit.
MC: So how did you rise within Pixar?
AM: I've gotten older and have stuck around. Those are my qualifications, I guess. There was a bit of a leap for me when I did "Toy Story 2." I did Buzz Lightyear "2" and got a certain notoriety for that. My motions were based on my animation limitations at that time -- my complete lack of understanding of doing more subtle work. I worked 3 1/2 years on "The Incredibles" and the same amount of time on "Wall-E." I took leadership roles in those, and I've certainly learned a lot.
MC: What's your favorite Pixar film?
AM: I like them all for different reasons. ... With all the films, we've grown as filmmakers. We're interested in all-ages storyteling.
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MC: How would you characterize John Lasseter and the other folks who head Pixar -- and how does that play in the films?
AM: They're all different personalties. You see different themes. John [Lasseter] is very much about friends and families and the importance of community, and he [creates films] similar to that. ... It's like different family members have different quirks. As you go into battle, you get used to them.
MC: Describe briefly your process and evolution in working on "Wall-E."
AM: For the first nine months I was working on the story and on storyboards and dealing with the animanics, because [director] Andrew [Stanton] wanted to see what sensibility each animator would have and how that would inform the story. There was another nine months in animation development and trying to find the characters, motionwise and emotionally.
MC: And what about the physicality of the characters?
AM: A lot of people worked on that. There's so much in ["Wall-E"] about how he transforms and what his function [is]. ... Because of how he unfolds, design changes happened as a team.
MC: So how did "Burn-E" [Basic Utility Robot Nano Engineer] come about?
AM: Initially, I was drawn to the character because of my father. My father was a welder and an engineer, and I wanted to do that character to do my father proud. He liked it a lot. My parents are extremely supportive. I thought he was funny -- this little welder-guy -- and after I animated that, I wanted more [time] with him. As an audience member, I wanted to know what happened to him. I kept pitching ideas to Andrew about what we could do with him. ... Andrew said: 'This doesn't help the movie ["Wall-E"].and will slow the pace. Now, if you make one cohesive film and not just gags, we could do this as a short film for the DVD.'
MC: There's definitely a Rosencrantz and Guildenstern-like quality to this film. Can you speak to that?
AM: That's intentional. I like Shakespeare. I like some of the weird ones; I like "The Tempest" -- [something that] has a darker side. I think the thing about that -- the concept of taking something that's familiar and opening that world to find out what happened to side characters. ... It's really great to hear that people's children are enjoying it. "Burn-E" is kind of at the kids' table of the movie. Kids identify with the outsider nature of Burn-E.
MC: Growing up, what films influenced you, as a filmmaker and as an animator?
AM: ...Definitely "Alien," James Cameron. ... Every year in the early '80s there was a movie to be excited about it. I saw "Empire Strikes Back," "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "E.T.," the "Return of the Jedi," then "Ghostbusters," then "Back to the Future," then "Aliens," then "RoboCop." That was the progression of inspiration. In between, there was bad sci-fi TV and "Battlestar Galactica" and Warner Brothers cartoons.
MC: What can you tell us about Pixar's next film, "Up"? Any nibbles for readers?
AM: The other [Pixar] team was making that film, but for me, it was a chance to get back "on the street" as an animator. I think it's going to be an "original" movie -- I hesitate to use that word -- but it's an amazing story and [will be] the first time they'll release a 3-D stereoscope version at the same time.
MC: If there's one thing we should know about [Pixar founder] John Lasseter, what is it?
AM: The best directors have the ability to inspire, but John also has the ability to get everyone involved in the process and makes it an enjoyable experience for everyone. There's a communithy sense to it -- making films with friends -- and he makes it an experience where he wants to hear what people have to say. That made Pixar.
| December 11, 2008; 12:45 PM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists, The Animation
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