Movies: An Epochal Lunch: Pixar’s Andrew Stanton

EMERYVILLE — The lunch meeting grew into something of a legend over the years. It’s gotten “mythified,” says Andrew Stanton, who was there.

And little wonder, since “A Bug’s Life,””Monsters, Inc.,””Finding Nemo” and the newest film from Pixar Animation Studios, “WALL– E” (in theaters on Friday), all were dreamed up that day.

It was 1994, the year before Pixar delivered its first feature-length film, “Toy Story,” the first animated movie made entirely on computers. At the table with Stanton were John Lasseter, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft, four of Pixar’s earliest creative minds who together wrote the story for “Toy Story.” Lasseter also directed it. (Ranft, who wrote “A Bug’s Life” and 2006’s “Cars,” died in a 2005 automobile crash.)

“There was something special that happened when John, Joe, Pete and I would get in a room,” says Stanton, who’s now sitting in a glass-walled conference room above Pixar’s four-star company cafe. “Whether it was furthering an idea or coming up with something, we just brought out the best in each other. It was like a band.”

Most of the talk that day, Stanton recalls, was about Pixar’s second feature film, “A Bug’s Life,” which would be released in 1998. An animated film takes four years to make.

Stanton went on to write and direct the Oscar-winning “Finding Nemo,” released in 2003. He often thought about the little trash-compactor character he and Docter came up with over lunch in 1994.

“I remember this half-baked character of a robot being left on Earth and not being turned off. That’s about the extent of it,” Stanton says. “All we had was a sad, lonely character, and that’s where we just kind of left it.

“I never forgot him. I immediately cared about him. So to have something just on the conceit to be that strong, I knew there was something there. It took for me to have all that experience that came before and be finishing up ‘Nemo’ to have the confidence to try something like this.”

Stanton co-wrote (he shares story credit with Docter and screenplay credit with Jim Reardon, story supervisor and director of “The Simpsons”) and directed “WALL– E,” a sci-fi love story about a couple of robots.

“The opposite of loneliness is love,” says Stanton. “I always knew that’s what the story had to be. Love stories are actually very conventional: boy mets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back, so it’s not the plot of the relationship that’s going to be so engaging as who they are and the setting in which they try and love one another. It’s unique in the sense that they’re two machines.”

WALL– E, the hero of the tale, is a squatty fellow with binocular-like eyes whose name is short for Waste Allocation Load Lifter, Earth-class.

The world has been uninhabitable for 700 years, and the entire human population is on a perpetual luxury space cruise. WALL– E works alone day after day — because somebody forgot to turn off his power controls — dutifully compacting the Earth’s vast trash and stacking it up in cubes.

WALL– E has a pet cockroach for company and lives in the transport truck he’s filled with scavenged treasures: bowling pins, a cigarette lighter, a square of bubble wrap, a rotary egg beater and one of those “Don’t Worry, Be Happy” singing fish. And he has a VHS tape of the 1969 movie “Hello, Dolly!” that he plays again and again. He carefully watches the romantic scenes and longs to hold a girl’s hand himself someday.

Luckily, along comes EVE (short for Extraterrestrial Vegetation Evaluator), who arrives by spaceship on a secret mission. She’s a sleek, blue-eyed beauty who resembles a combination computer mouse and penguin, with the trigger finger of Annie Oakley.

“We went with opposites,” says Stanton. “She’s clean, white, floating, and he’s dirty, boxy, touching the ground.

“WALL–E is this little dump truck, a little compactor, and he’s like a bicycle or lawn mower or motorcycle, because you look at him and can figure out how he works. What would be the most attractive thing to him? We thought (it would be) something that floats, something that doesn’t touch the ground, something that’s so high-tech and white and pristine that you can’t even figure out how it works. We’re not immune to realizing that probably the most attractive machines in the world right now are Apple products, so we were definitely influenced by that aesthetic.”

Apple and Pixar co-founder Steve Jobs thought EVE looked “really cool,” Stanton says.

Stanton is Pixar’s vice president for creative. He was the studio’s ninth employee and second animator, hired in 1990 on the strength of his student films at California Institute of the Arts.

He’s one of Pixar’s “old men” at age 42.

Today, the studio has about 900 employees, 100 of whom are animators. They work in a sleek, gated campus on Park Avenue, on the Oakland side of town. They are, for the most part, young, tattooed, pierced and usually clad in jeans and T-shirts. It’s not unusual to see staff zipping along the wide hallways on Razor scooters.

Pixar, which merged with the Walt Disney Co. in 2006, has delivered eight consecutive hits, including “Toy Story 2,””The Incredibles” and “Ratatouille,” since 1995. The eight films earned a total of $4.3 billion worldwide.

All the ideas generated at that epochal 1994 lunch have been made into movies, Stanton says. “But there have been lots of lunches and dinners since then.”