CGI with heart: Andrew Stanton fuses faith, science and people

by DAN LYBARGER Special to the Democrat-Gazette | August 23, 2019 at 6:47 a.m.

Andrew Stanton won a pair of Oscars for manipulating pixels to get us to suspend our disbelief in worlds where fish have conversations and robots tend a ravaged earth. Steve Jobs used to be his boss. But Stanton doesn’t think of himself as a computer person.

“People think because we have computers — it’s computer-animated — that we don’t deal with human beings. But I’ve never talked to a computer in my life except maybe Siri,” he says by phone from California.

The Arkansas Cinema Society is bringing Stanton to the Ron Robinson Theater on Sunday to present Toy Story 4, which he co-wrote and two episodes of Stranger Things that he directed. (Tickets for each event are $35, and ACS co-founder Jeff Nichols, the writer-director of Shotgun Stories, Mud, Loving et al., will join Stanton in conversation. For more information see

In WALL-E, Stanton was the first Pixar director to supervise a live-action performer on camera. (Fred Willard played Shelby Forthright, the CEO of the megacorporation Buy n Large, whose image is seen on video monitors throughout the lonely robot’s world.)

According to Stanton, working with flesh-and-blood performers isn’t much of a transition.

“I think all I do is talk to human beings, and they’re all artists. And they’ll happen to use computers that are basically big expensive pencils. So all I’ve ever known for years is communicating with 200 people, and every voice you’ve ever heard come out of an animated character is an actor. So I’ve had to work with actors for years, so it’s only that you’re looking at the actor that has changed.”

No matter which medium Stanton uses, his movies and TV work aren’t easy to classify. For example, Finding Nemofeatures aquatic creatures interacting who might never meet or who might view each other as a meal, but Stanton’s movie features several ideas from the real world.

“I had a fact in the book that said goldfish have a memory of three seconds,” he says. “And I thought that was hilarious, and I thought what a problem to have. The trick became how to make sure it wasn’t annoying very quickly and just repeating itself.

“And then I listened to Ellen DeGeneres on her first sitcom in the late ’90s, and she … changed the subject of a sentence five times in one sentence, and it was hilarious. And it was a completely fresh take on how you could possibly dramatize short-term memory and make it entertaining and palatable and interesting. And it played her natural social tics, so once I knew that it really worked for me in writing the script. And then I couldn’t get her voice out of my head, and I basically wrote it just for her being the only one that could play the role. So thank goodness she took it.”

Some of the real-world inspiration also came from a source closer to home.

“At the end of the day, a story’s got to be about something, right? We’ve got to relate to it somehow emotionally regardless of whether you’re making up an animal that’s talking and doing something … we have to find the humanity. There has to be something universally [that] speaks to us emotionally. So, I had to figure out what is the story about,” Stanton says.

“I didn’t have that for a long time. I had a fish that got lost ended up in the tank and a father fish trying to figure out how to find him, but that’s not a story. That’s a plot, like what is it about thematically, and I realized it wasn’t until I was a father myself and being very over-protective … and wanting to protect him from getting hurt that I was preventing him from living or enjoying moments. And that was making me more authoritarian in my relationship with my son than it was loving. So that, I felt, was probably a very common problem for fathers [who] meant well. That must be something universal I could tap into and try to dramatize with these fish.”

The Long and Winding Road

Stanton’s ability to slip in and out of the real world in his movies also allows him and his collaborators to juggle with several themes in one movie. WALL-E, for example, explores environmental degradation and jabs at consumerism run amuck. Stanton and fellow Pixar director Pete Docter (Up, Inside Out) have also been open about their Christianity, and careful or even casual observers of WALL-E might notice Biblical references throughout (one of the robots is named EVE).

As a result, Stanton and Docter have made movies that appeal to science enthusiasts (neurologists say there is a grain of truth to how Inside Out depicts a teenage girl’s brain) and people of faith. According to Stanton, much of Pixar’s success comes from unconscious factors.


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Dan Lybarger is a freelance film critic and writer whose work has appeared in The Kansas City Star, The Pitch, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Cineaste and other publications.