THE year is 1994. Disney's The Lion King has hit cinemas, and at a small, ambitious studio called Pixar in California, the world's first film to be animated with computers, Toy Story, is just about finished.
At a business lunch four Pixar bigwigs scrawl a bunch of ideas on napkins, coming up with a motley crew of revolutionary ants, monsters, fish lost at sea, and a lonesome robot. Over the next decade three of these – A Bug's Life, Monsters Inc and Finding Nemo – become reality.
The fourth, the story of the last robot left behind to clean up the mess on Earth, or Wall.E as he is called, took a little longer.
"Wall.E had been percolating for years in Andrew's mind," says producer Jim Morris, referring to director Andrew Stanton, the man behind Finding Nemo and now Wall.E, which screens at Edinburgh Film Festival this month. "Then one day he was at a San Francisco Giants game, looked down at his binoculars and realised there was enough expressiveness in them to make a character. That was a critical moment."
Those binoculars, attached to a rusting, clunky body programmed to compact rubbish and a pair of treads to trundle around on, became Wall.E, short for the rather less catchy Waste Allocation Load Lifter Earth-Class. He has only a cockroach for company until Eve, a sleek iPod-like probe, jets down to investigate potential life on Earth. The sentimental robot is immediately smitten and pursues Eve into space to the Axiom, a sinister spaceship with nods to 2001: A Space Odyssey, Star Wars and Alien. Sigourney Weaver has even taken part in the joke by voicing the ship's computer.
Once Stanton began to visualise his low-tech robot – Pixar's logo of the bouncing anglepoise lamp, Luxo, was another major inspiration – he decided Wall.E wouldn't work with conventional dialogue. He wanted his film to hark back to the sense of wonder, the epic vistas and post-apocalyptic melancholy of classic sci-fi. The result is that Wall.E, in a first for Pixar and indeed most modern-day blockbusters, has very little dialogue. The love story between the robots is mostly told visually and with their 'language' of whirrs and electronic beeps. "It's a pretty unconventional movie," confesses Morris. "But we knew early on that it was the right way to tell the story."
Deciding there was only one person who could give the robots their 'voices', Stanton approached legendary sound designer Ben Burtt, who has created some of the most iconic noises in science fiction in Star Wars and E.T. Famed for bringing natural sounds to the distinctly unnatural realm of sci-fi, Burtt gave E.T. his gutteral grunts, which were achieved by recording his sleeping wife while she had a cold. For R2D2's bleeps, he used water pipes and whistles; Darth Vader's heavy breathing was actually Burtt huffing and puffing in a scuba diving mask; and the hum of the light sabre came from blending noises from his TV set with an old 35mm projector.
"It was three years ago and I'd just finished Revenge Of The Sith," says Burtt. "I went home and said to my wife: 'Oh boy, this is great. No more robots!' They are the hardest thing to do." Days later, Burtt was ushered over to Pixar to meet Stanton, who showed him some rough artwork of his robot and proceeded to act out the whole film on the spot. "He gave me the private show," laughs 59-year-old Burtt, who ended up working on Indiana Jones And The Crystal Skull at the same time as Wall.E.
"I was totally charmed. Andrew is a great lover of sci-fi, but this was so different to Star Wars. It wasn't about war in space, it was a very charming, romantic movie. The power those animators have to give life to non-human things, to make you love what is basically two eyes on a stick, was thrilling."
Burtt has spent much of the past two years holed up on his own in a concrete bunker at Pixar's studios, recording the sounds made by toothbrushes, household appliances, miniature jet planes, army tanks and his own voice. "I went to a newspaper printer overnight and recorded all the gigantic scanners and presses," he says. "There are sounds in the movie I recorded when I was a kid from my grandfather's shortwave radio. I would tune it between stations and tape the weird electronic noises. I've used something from those original recordings in every science-fiction movie I've worked on."
In 25 years in the business, Burtt has never created so many sounds for a single film as he has for Wall.E, and there are at least half a dozen that have come from "my own lungs", including the voice of the titular trash compactor himself.
It is where Burtt discovers his sounds that is most fascinating, though. One of the noises of Wall.E's treads comes from a hand-cranked generator that Burtt saw in an old John Wayne movie and tracked down on eBay.
"I saw the film and thought, that sounds like Wall.E! Then, when he moves faster I used a more high-pitched sound from a machine called an inertia starter that was used to manually crank up 1930s airplanes."
For the more hi-tech Eve, Burtt created the sound of her laser blaster by hanging an enormous slinky from the ceiling and "twanging" it with scraps of metal.
Wall.E is Pixar's ninth film, following hot on the heels of Ratatouille and The Incredibles. It took four years to make, the standard time for a Pixar film, which directing animator Angus MacLane tells me "only seems like a long time from the outside". It is also Pixar's most photo-realistic film yet, containing sophisticated crowd scenes and panoramic vistas that wouldn't have been possible to render even as recently as Ratatouille.
Wall.E is first and foremost a love letter to science fiction, though. Its epic, post-apocalypic vision of an uninhabited Earth set hundreds of years into the future, thick with dust and towering stacks of rubbish, looks wonderfully real. "We wanted it to have the feeling that it had actually been filmed," says Morris. Using subtle details such as barrel distortion and lens flare, gave Wall.E the feel of the 70mm sci-fi films of the Seventies. For the first time Pixar also brought Academy Award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins and special-effects don Dennis Muren onboard. "We wanted to get the nuance of a live action film, and actually put mistakes in with zooms and framing to give it a more immediate feel."
For MacLane, who has spent two years of his life animating the robots, Wall.E is a film that could only have been made thanks to Pixar's past successes. "There's a confidence to it that you only get from doing those other movies," he says. "It's the kind of film we felt ready as animators to do. And Wall.E is incredibly personal to me. I've been working with him for a long time."
Wall.E is at Cineworld, June 28, 2.15pm as part of Edinburgh International Film Festival from June 18 to 29. It is on general release from July 18 www.edfilmfest.org.uk, http://disney.go.com/disneypictures/wall-e/