Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Silence and the Lens: Innovations in wall-e

First of all, I will join the chorus of voices praising Wall-e, Pixar's newest offering. Those of you who watched Cars may have thought the company was finally in its decline (I had no such thought, because I haven't seen any Pixar film since The Incredibles). Wall-e should have proven you wrong -- the studio is still at the top of its game.

Even the best Pixar films... The Incredibles, Monsters Inc, and Finding Nemo... were simply excellent films. Since they revolutionized 3D animation with Toy Story, Pixar hasn't really managed any kind of true innovation. Like any good artist, they've simply been developing their motifs and honing their craft, building a body of work that demonstrates a commitment to their art. Wall-e, however, may actually represent a break with this trend. It doesn't just feel like an excellent film... it feels like a groundbreaking piece of work, maximizing and ultimately transcending the style that Pixar has been developing.

It's hard to identify exactly why this is true. After all, the film follows certain Pixar formulas to the letter. It's a journey of self-discovery undertaken by personified non-humans endowed with exaggerated but deeply sympathetic personalities, created with computer animation, and appealing to a wide age range by way of simple emotional cues. What makes it such a fantastic movie?

Perhaps the reason Wall-e is such a brilliant piece of cinema is that it wrestles with a number of formal and narrative boundaries at the same time. Though it might go unnoticed by the casual viewer, the actual technical treatment of the film is actually rather groundbreaking... aside from the obvious adoption of live action video, the film also introduces certain tropes of camera-work, like depth of field and real-world positioning, to simulate the actual craft of cinematography. They discuss this in the fourth section of this article, and in the middle of this video.

This seems subtle, but it has a profound effect. The use of realistic angles and tropes from the perspective of cinematography makes the world seem more present, and more evocative, than the previous primary-colored universes of Pixar have been. Roger Deakins, the cinematographer that Pixar consulted, has turned the virtual camera into something closer to a real one, and just as his shots through the reeds made us feel like we were actually on the prairie in The Assassination of Jesse James, so they made us feel the reality of a deserted, post-apocalyptic Big Apple in Wall-e. Don't mistake this for a novelty... deferral to a real-world cinematographer is a powerful new idea in computer animation.

Of course, just as it pushed this formal convention, so Wall-e expanded its narrative dimension, as well. Forsaking dialogue, the storytellers gave us characters that communicated almost entirely in gesture, so all their semantic messages were pared down to the simplest possible sentiments. This probably has something to do with the earth-shaking effectiveness of the pathos and sentimentality in Wall-e. This is not a lazy love story -- just as the world shines through Deakins' camera lens, so the characters' emotions pour out of their rudimentary movements and gestures, and the audience is able to appreciate Wall-e as an iconic sentimentalist, the most childish, desperate kind of romantic, whose love can drive a whole sequence of universe-spanning events.

In my rush to show how Wall-e was a unique moment in cinema, I've picked it apart for innovations, and I'm in danger of losing sight of the work of art itself. The political message of the film -- something that apparently has conservatives all tweaked out -- is below remark, doing little beyond supplying a premise and giving the film some topicality. It's not a film about humans destroying their world, nor is it about the heroic merit of rediscovering your humanity and returning to your home. The film is really a simple love story (rendered in brilliant non-verbal storytelling) set in an empty, hopeful world beyond the reach of human trivialities (rendered with the help of a visionary virtual lens). The innovations do what innovations must do in order to avoid becoming gimmicks: they vanish into the texture of a story whose power becomes the defining feature of the work of art.


Anonymous said...

Wall-E totally looks like the robot from "Short Circuit"... minus the cheesy 80's style

Jesse M said...

Agreed. Johnny Five is reincarnated in a Pixar animated masterpiece. He's much cuter this time, though... looking less like an assemblage of kitchen appliances and LED lights.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for writing this.