- There is one particular scene early on in “Wall-E” where Wall-E first shows Eve his home. This scene looks different from all previous Pixar films and most other feature-length animated movies.
- This is thanks to legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, who worked as a visual consultant on the film.
- After consulting with Deakins, the animation team decided to light several scenes (including this one) with “practical lighting,” causing the scene feel more realistic and intimate.
- Practical lighting means lighting a scene by using only the lights that appear in the scene – not adding in any extra lighting off-camera.
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Following is a transcript of the video.
Narrator: Most animated films have vivid colour palettes and bright lighting, packing their frames with intense hues and gaudy characters. And that’s why I love “Wall-E.” Specifically, there’s a six-minute sequence that takes place in the dark interior of Wall-E’s home that breaks the mould of typical animation. And it’s unlike any Pixar scene that came before it. Not only is it Pixar’s first ever romantic scene, but it also has spectacular and unique cinematography, which elevates the intimacy of the sequence. To understand why this “Wall-E” scene is so special, let’s take a look at the lighting of a previous Pixar film, “The Incredibles,” which was released four years before “Wall-E.”
Like most animated movies, “The Incredibles” often uses extra lighting that emanates from impossible sources. For example, there’s only one light source in this scene, an overhead light. But if you take a look at the children’s faces, they are somehow fully illuminated from the front. This extra lighting doesn’t make any sense in terms of logic or physics, but it allows for the audience to see the expressions on the children’s faces. This impossible lighting isn’t really a problem, because the audience doesn’t notice unless they’re looking for it.
Teacher: He moves! Right there!
Narrator: Adding extra lights is extremely prevalent in 3D animation because of how easy it is to create any number of virtual lights with a click of a button. However, in this particular scene in “Wall-E,” there’s essentially none of this extra lighting. One reason for this, according to “Wall-E” director Andrew Stanton, was that he wanted the film to appear as realistic as possible. After all, the story takes place in the real world. There aren’t any talking animals or toys, and it’s the only Pixar film to feature live-action footage with actors. In fact, Stanton’s desire for realism was so great that he hired legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins as a visual consultant.
One of Deakins’ suggestions was to have the animation team strip out many of the fake lights and instead utilise practical lighting. It’s something that he often uses in his live-action movies. Take this scene from “No Country for Old Men.” This scene is elegantly lit using practical lighting, the technique of lighting the set using only the light sources that are present in the scene, without adding in any extra lighting from off camera. Deakins cites practical lighting as a great way to make a scene feel more “naturalistic.”
You can see this concept applied to the interior of Wall-E’s home, only illuminated by several lines of fairy lights. This particular sequence was lit with practical lighting because it adds realism and the lower lighting is much more intimate, matching the mood of the scene. Because there’s very little dialogue in this sequence – or the film, for that matter – most of the information has to be conveyed visually.
Additionally, by removing a lot of the extra lighting, the animation team could use shadows to its advantage, and there are several shots in this scene that wouldn’t have been possible if the scene was brighter. For example, this beautiful shot of the flame reflected in Wall-E’s eyes when he is looking at Eve that perfectly conveys his feelings for her. Or at the very end of the scene when Eve shuts down. The bold decision to remove all of the lighting, except for Eve’s pulsing green glow, not only led to a great-looking shot, but it also helped to tell the story. Wall-E’s life suddenly becomes extremely dark and empty without her.
While they removed most of the light sources in this scene, the lights that the animators did decide to keep are perfect. The fairy lights emanate a soft glow, making the scene feel warm and cosy. Additionally, these lights look amazing out of focus, the beautiful bokeh dotting the frame with colour. Bokeh is the quality of out-of-focus points of light. Soft bokeh creates a passionate feeling, and it often appears in romantic scenes.
While part of the beauty of the bokeh in “Wall-E” derives from the lights themselves, their stunning appearance wouldn’t be possible without this specific type of camera lens that the animators decided to use: an anamorphic lens. Traditional anamorphic lenses differ from standard spherical lenses in that they record increased overall image detail, but with a slight catch. The recorded image is stretched and has to be readjusted in postproduction. This stretching and unstretching results in several abnormalities to the recorded image, such as the oval-shaped bokeh in this scene.
But oval bokeh is just a small part of the major visual differences created by anamorphic lenses. Take a look at these scenes from “Toy Story 4,” which utilise both anamorphic and regular lenses. You can see how the anamorphic lens warps the background and increases the separation between the foreground and the backdrop. It’s for this exact reason that director Andrew Stanton said that he chose to use an anamorphic lens. The separation that anamorphic lenses provide helps to emphasise how alone Wall-E is. For all we know, Wall-E could be the only sentient being left on Earth.
That being said, Stanton also noted that anamorphic lenses can be extremely intimate at the same time, and it’s for this reason why anamorphic lenses really shine in this scene, the one that’s the most private scene in the film and the most romantic scene that Pixar has ever made. This extremely personal scene uses a number of close-ups, which the anamorphic lenses turn into beautiful portraits, isolating the subtle expressions of Wall-E and Eve. When Wall-E is looking at Eve, everything else in the frame is blurry except for her. He’s completely enamoured, and she’s all he can think about. As with most Pixar films, the amount of detail that the animation team put into the film is what makes “Wall-E” so special.
In fact, not only did the animators make changes to their lighting and camera lenses, they took it even a step further and changed how their virtual cameras moved. They manoeuvred as if they were real cameras, even factoring in the weight of the camera rig in regards to how fast the camera was allowed to travel. Notice how the camera subtly drifts side to side in this one long take. Or in this clip, where the nonexistent camera operator doesn’t quite nail the zoom, resulting in a lurching movement. These subtle camera movements truly make it feel like there’s a real-life camera operator. It’s more personal, and it adds to the reality and intimacy of these scenes.
“Wall-E” does an incredible job of creating the same feeling of intimacy that great live-action films produce. Take a look at the diner scene from “Moonlight.” This tender sequence has all of the same qualities as the scene from “Wall-E.” It was shot on an anamorphic lens. It has practical lighting and intimate camerawork. It even uses diegetic music in a similar manner.
♪ I’m so glad ♪ ♪ Ooh ♪ ♪ When time runs out ♪
These choices in lighting and camera helps create the romantic undertones in both of these scenes. But while “Moonlight” was able to use tender dialogue to emphasise the passionate nature of the sequence…
Kevin: You here now, man, that’s all that matter.
Narrator: “Wall-E” had to rely almost entirely on its cinematography to create the perfect mood for the scene.
Between the shadowy practical lighting and the distortion of the anamorphic lenses, it’s these perfect imperfections that give “Wall-E” charm and make it feel more realistic. It’s a film that is beautiful, unconventional, and endearing. Just like its protagonist, Wall-E.