1994, the Hidden City Café in Point Richmond California. John Lasseter, Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft, the grandmasters of Pixar’s heyday, meet for lunch towards the end of production on their first feature, Toy Story. It’s clear that with Toy Story they’re onto something big, and its time to start thinking about what comes next.
The team considers a story about bugs, based on the fact that insects would be easier to animate convincingly than people. They spitball around Aesop’s fable the Ant and the Grasshopper, before concluding grasshoppers would probably just take their food from ants. A Bug’s Life comes into focus.
Next, Docter suggests working with a universal childhood fear; the monsters hiding in every kid’s closet. “Working on Toy Story, I was always amazed by how many people believed, as we do, that toys were alive when you weren’t in the room. I was trying to find any other beliefs like that I had as a kid. And I knew that there were monsters hiding in my closet waiting to scare me. So, we started exploring that. And I’m not sure who asked, but they said, ‘Why? Why are there monsters waiting to scare kids? What do the monsters get out of it?’ But that’s what sparked the whole concept.” Monsters, Inc., and the working-class scarers began to germinate here.
Stanton brings up a childhood experience of his own; peering into the fish tank of a dentist’s office and wondering whether the fish would like to return to their ocean home. He’d recently visited Marine World at Six Flags amusement park, and recalls thinking the shark housed there could be animated well, and his fretting over his young son’s safety (how easy it would be to lose him in the labyrinthine park). A picture begins to form of Marlin, the over-protective clownfish, and the film Finding Nemo.
After running through these ideas, Stanton proposes: What if all of humankind had evacuated Earth, and forgotten to turn off a robot left behind? Years later, he recalled that “We had no story. It was sort of this Robinson Crusoe kind of little character — like, what if mankind had to leave Earth and somebody forgot to turn the last robot off, and he didn’t know he could stop doing what he’s doing?” Wall-E would take the longest of any of these ideas to come to fruition a full 14 years later.
The team made some rough character doodles on their napkins, before heading back to work for the evening, probably getting significantly less done there than had been accomplished at the Hidden City Café. The team valued Hidden City enough to immortalize the establishment in several of their films, placed in the background or spelled out on license plates, and given an ode in the teaser trailer for WALL-
E. It’s stories like this that are enough to make anyone reconsider their aversion to meetings.