Scene Description Spotlight: “Wall-E”

August 12th, 2013 by

Today we look at an entirely distinct way to approach scene description in the screenplay for Wall-E. I have discussed the writing style of this Pixar film before: here, here, and here. On the subject of scene description, here’s a money quote from co-screenwriter and director Andrew Stanton:

“The only thing I did that was a little unconventional, is the manner in which I formatted the script. I was very inspired by Dan O’Bannon’s script for Alien. His description paragraphs were not your typical paragraphs, they were actually small phrases that were all left justified, almost like a haiku, and they created this rhythm of just being in the moment of quiet and visual. And you found yourself reading the descriptions much more than you normally do a script because of that form, instead of just skipping to the dialogue. It really kind of paced you as a reader and gave you the much more visceral feel of what it will be like to watch that movie. So I used that for Wall-E — it really helped.”

Let’s examine the haiku style that Stanton and co-writer Jim Reardon used in the script for the movie Wall-E. In this scene, Wally sees Eve for the first time:

EXT. TRUCK - DUSK

Robot and faithful cockroach return home.
Wally stops short of the threshold.
Stares at the ground.
Continues staring.

A RED DOT

quivers on the dirt.
A single laser point of light.
Wally moves to touch it...

...The dot races along the ground.

Wally drops his Igloo.
Chases after the dot.

EXT. EMPTY BAY

The dot leads Wally deep into the polluted expanse.
He is so fixated on it he doesn't notice

MANY LASER POINTS

coming from every direction.
All racing into the valley over the contour of the terrain.
Triangulating towards a center.

Wally's dot suddenly stops.
Slowly he reaches for it.
Can't grab it. Just light.
All THE DOTS converge in front of him.
The ground shakes.
Wally becomes confused.

Doesn't see above him.
The SUN growing brighter behind the cloud cover.
A noise. Building.

Rocket engines.
Wally sense he should look to the sky.

Now THREE SUNS are descending on him.

Wally runs for it.
An enormous COLUMN OF FIRE blocks his path.
A second column of fire.
A third.
Trapped.

Wally cubes the ground beneath him.
Working fast.
Noise deafening.
Heat rising.
Digs in just as a tide of flame carpets the ground...

...Then suddenly quiet.
Smoke clears.

CLOSE ON THE SCORCHED EARTH

Wally's head rises out of the dirt.
Glows red hot from the heart.
Trembles with fright.
Everything in shadow.
Something very big looms over him.
Wally climbs out of his hole.
Bangs his head on metal.

WIDE on a massive SPACESHIP.
Rests ominously in the empty bay.

A PORTAL on its underside opens.
Frightened, Wally tries to hide.
Nowhere to go.
He places a SMALL ROCK on his head. Boxes up.

A DEVICE lowers to the ground on a long stem.
Scans the surface.

Wally creeps closer for a better look.
The device unfolds.
Wally boxes up again.

A CAPSULE descends from a chute in the stem.
ROBOT ARMS emerge from the device.
Place the capsule on the ground. Press buttons.
The capsule falls away in sections, to reveal...

...a PROBE ROBOT.

It hovers gracefully above the ground.
White. Egg-shaped.

Blue-lit eyes.
Female.
Eve.

Wally is transfixed.
Inches closer.
Watches Eve from behind the device.
Tilts his head.
Time stops.
She's the most beautiful thing he's ever seen.

Eve hovers over the ground.
A BLUE RAY emits from her front panel.
Fans out 180 degrees.
Scans random objects and areas.

The device rises back into the ship.
Exposes Wally.
He rushes for cover behind the nearest rock.
Never takes his eyes off Eve.
Watches her float away from the ship.
...from the ship?
The ship!

Engines roar back to life.
Wally digging furiously.
The rocket takes off.

Smoke clears.
Again, a red hot Wally peeks out from the ground.
Looks for Eve.
She is watching the ship rise into the clouds.
Waits until it is completely out of sight...

...then Eve rises high up into the air.

She flies around the bay.
Soars like a graceful bird.
Does loops in the sky.
Zooms right past Wally's rock.
He is hypnotized.

Eve descends gently to the ground...
Wally sneaks up closer.
Hides behind another boulder.
Slips.
Makes a NOISE.
Instantly, Eve whips around.
Her arm converts into a LASER CANNON.
Blasts Wally's boulder to smithereens.

...Smoke clears...All quiet.

Eve, now cold and dangerous.

Scans the area.
No sign of life.
All business again.
Hovers away to probe more of the planet.

ON OTHER SIDE OF BOULDER CRATER

Wally boxed up behind what little remains of the rock.
Trembles uncontrollably.

Wonderful stuff. Three things to note with this approach right off the bat:

1. Scene description does not need complete sentences. Stares at the ground… quivers on the dirt. A noise. Building… Noise deafening… Heat rising… Eve, now cold and dangerous… Trembles uncontrollably. None of them complete sentences, yet each conveys a strong image. Which leads to the second point –

2. Scene description as short bursts of imagery. If you use less words with incomplete sentences and a haiku style, then make sure the words you use are strong, imagematic words: polluted expanse… triangulating… flame carpets… digging furiously… soars like a graceful bird. And there’s another thing to note –

3. Almost each line represents a camera shot. I haven’t done it, but I bet if you compared this excerpt to a shot-by-shot breakdown of what appears on-screen, a majority of the lines in scene description would match up to specific camera shots — which means that with this approach, you can ‘direct’ the camera without once ever using directing lingo (i.e., ANGLE ON, PAN ACROSS, ZOOM IN, CLOSE UP).

My experience in the past, when introducing students to this approach, is they almost always fall in love with it. So clean to look at and easy to read. Then what happens is they try it with their scripts and most often, it doesn’t work. Why? Because it doesn’t fit the required narrative voice.

Genre + Style = Narrative Voice

The style needs to match the genre. Per Stanton’s quote above about reading the haiku style for the script of Alien — “they created this rhythm of just being in the moment of quiet and visual” –he chose to use this approach for Wall-E because it fit the story, especially the first act with Wally and Eve on Earth, infused with “quiet and visual.” But that doesn’t mean that the haiku style would work with your script.

Remember narrative voice is your story’s invisible character, the one ‘narrating’ the story, so they have their own unique personality. If haiku fits that persona, great. If not, don’t try to cram in the haiku approach.

What other impressions did you have when you read this excerpt from Wall-E?

[Originally posted August 19, 2010]

4 thoughts on “Scene Description Spotlight: “Wall-E”

  1. Tracy Downey says:

    So happy that you used Wall-E as an example of unspoken dialogue! I just mentioned this as the alternative to Nemo! I’m giddy now! Okay, so for me, I noticed we have the ability when we write to direct the scenes, as well? Because when I do breakdown, I visualize in my head how the scene plays out. Stanton does exactly that right here with simplicity. He shows the story without telling it and describes Wall-E’s emotions-She’s the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. Full sentence! He is hypnotized. We can see Wall-E doing just that as she soars like a bird. Amazing.

  2. bolo boffin says:

    Maybe for spec scripts we shouldn’t deliver it in haiku style. But there’s nothing stopping us from writing it in haiku style first and then building more acceptable description paragraphs later.

    1. Scott says:

      bolo, you make a good point as some readers do not have much of an affinity for ‘haiku style.’ At the end of the day, it boils down to what your story’s Narrative Voice is [Genre + Style = NV]. If your story is such that this approach to description works, you may go for it.

      A more general takeaway: Scene description is more like poetry than prose. Vivid descriptors, active verbs, lean writing.

      1. harryjohnquest says:

        Bolo is right to write what works in the moment to convey meaning. After that, adapt and “submit” script to particular reader/audience. Change as change needs to be to reach and to be accepted.

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