How Pixar and Wall-E Got Game

Wall-E writer/director Andrew Stanton talks about the convergence of film, animation and gaming within Pixar

Disney/Pixar Writer/Director Andrew Stanton, whose last film, Finding Nemo, won the first-ever Best Animated Film Academy Award for a computer-generated movie, is back with Wall-E. Although Finding Nemo currently holds the record as Disney/Pixar's highest-grossing movie, Wall-E, which is riding a rocket of critical acclaim, could give that film a run for the money. That's good news for THQ, which has shipped Wall-E games for every gaming platform in tandem with the theatrical run.

Stanton was on hand at Pixar Animation Studio's pristine headquarters in Emeryville, CA to discuss with GameDaily BIZ how far the video game industry has come since he first entered the CGI business in 1990. Back then, the Boston native was the second animator and ninth employee at the start-up. The first movie he worked on, Toy Story, was nominated for a Best Writing, Best Screenplay Written for the Screen Oscar in 1996.

"I remember finishing Toy Story and thinking that they're going to be able to make video games that look as good as this," said Stanton. "And it's WAY passed that now. Now it's at this scary place where it's just lapping at the heels of what we do for the films. And it's only because of the manner in which they've got to use the technology so interactively that it's keeping it at all from matching or exceeding what we do. I think we're maybe months, years away from it being indiscernible."

Stanton has watched the game industry grow in large part through the eyes of his son, who was born while the animator was working on Toy Story.

"I have literally seen his involvement with computer graphics and particularly with games advance with each year as he gets more involved in playing games," said Stanton. "He's now 16 and very much a gamer. And I'm just constantly shocked at how good it looks."

Over the years, especially through its relationship with THQ, Pixar has become more involved in the production of games based on its properties.

"The biggest thing that we provide is just consistency," said Stanton. "We make sure that the same aesthetic or whatever rules that we've made for ourselves for the production of something match the game. It's not that they don't have the abilities or the talent to make a great looking game on their own, but everything, all this stuff, is just aesthetic choices that we've decided—the palate is going to be these colors, or that we're never going to make a character do this or whatever."

Because of the nature of Pixar's development cycle, which focuses on story and characters—even though many viewers marvel at the technology, Stanton said they just start out and sometimes things evolve into a broader rulebook of what that movie's particularly going to be about aesthetically. THQ usually enters the film process in the middle of production, since it can take four or more years to create a feature like Wall-E.

"They can't wait until the movie's done to then read from the final rulebook," said Stanton. "They have to sort of come in midstream and ask us 'what is it you guys are thinking of doing, why are you guys making it look like this?' And a lot of it isn't intuitive for them and it's really helpful that we check in with them every once in a while. We may have decided the character isn't going to look like that anymore, or that this set is here, or we've decided that we never make the character jump like that. We hope that it'll help so that when you do come play the game, you don't feel like it's made in a different universe, you feel like it's an extension of the universe that you got familiar with for about two hours on the screen."

With the challenge of having to create an interactive adventure that spans 12-plus hours of gameplay, THQ and its development teams often turn to Pixar looking for characters, sets and ideas that were ultimately left on the cutting room floor.

"They're always trolling for that," said Stanton. "They're always looking for something that you got rid of that they can use. With Wall-E I don't think there were any sets that we got rid of. I know that on Nemo we had a sewage treatment scenario plant that we got rid of—I don't know if they ran with that or not in the game—but that would have been a perfect example. One thing that we felt (with Wall-E) is we just tap into a small area geographically on the earth that we're dealing with as well as only very specific section of the axiom spaceship. So there's just a lot of these two worlds that can be realized that—it's really sky's the limit as to what they want it to be. And they just sort of extrapolate off of what we've done. And in that instance we were very supportive. We'd love to know what is on that ship or on this planet."

For Wall-E, THQ and developer Heavy Iron Studios were able to explore new areas of the huge Buy N Large (BNL) luxury spaceship and add new enemies for Wall-E and EVE to contend with. In addition, some gameplay was built around Wall-E's use of a laser gun, which is only briefly touched upon in the film.

Stanton said that games and films, at their fundamental core, are very different in purpose. With games, a developer is trying to make it as interactive as possible and let the user go wherever he or she feels inclined to go and somehow be able to continue the stories and the characters that are going on. He said it's the exact opposite and on the other end of the spectrum when you're making a movie.

"We want to have already made those decisions for you and just let you enjoy the ride," explained Stanton. "That's why it's always fascinating to see how these two mediums are eventually going to merge, particularly when you're thinking of a game becoming a movie because at some point you have to just lock it down. With a movie, that's what you're paying money for—somebody's made some great decisions for you—for you to sort of get caught up in. Where it's the opposite—let me make those decisions when I'm in the game—so it's interesting."

Pixar comes well equipped with games. There are PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and Wii kiosks in the main hall and there are game consoles spread throughout the upstairs area of the studio, where the movies get made. Guitar Hero and Rock Band are favorites of the Pixar staff.

"The biggest role games play is time wasting!" joked Stanton. "They play the role of venting all your stress levels and just trying to bring it all down. There have been times when there's been doors locked and we're supposed to go look at someone's shot and you peek in and there's like a million guys playing on their PSPs and they're all like linked together. And it's pretty funny. But these guys are as passionate about their games and the movies they go see as they are on the movies that they work on. And that's an interesting change. That used to not be the case in my generation. At least now the guys that are in their 20s or early 30s are equally passionate because that's what they were raised on and that's very fascinating to see because they have very strong opinions about what they want to see as far as the game extensions."

When it comes to mainstream coverage of gaming, Pixar is often the gold standard that journalists point to when comparing games to CGI movies. Stanton said that's a nice compliment to have.

"That's certainly something we strive to do, get it as good as can be," said Stanton. "We're not trying to outdo the next person though; that's certainly not our thing. We're just trying to find, especially now with the technology as advanced as it is, the truest way to make a film look for the story that we're telling. Toy Story's a perfect example. As we go to a Toy Story 3, we're not going to make it look as if it's photo-realistic; we're going to make it look as if it comes from the camp of the other Toy Story movies—keeping the integrity—so it's not always about trying to top the next film."

When it comes to what's next for Stanton, he's currently writing John Carter of Mars for Pixar.