Engineering happiness

Preston Altree works at the intersection of engineering and art, bringing robots, animatronics and all kinds of magical creations to life.

Altree is a Props and Puppet Lead Technician for Cirque du Soleil, where he leads the props team in constructing, maintaining, and running props elements. During his time as a Freelance Art Technician at The Character Shop, he built WALL-E and showcased him in “Droid Alley” at Stan Lee’s Los Angeles Comic Con.

Preston graduated from Loyola Marymount University in 2014 with a degree in Film and Television Production. His studies focused on special effects and producing, interning in New Regency Productions‘ Story Department and completing visual effects sequences at Cantina Creative.

His work can be seen in feature films like “Blue Mountain State: The Rise of Thadland,” TV commercials, and hundreds of Dave & Buster’s restaurants around the country.

What was it like to work at The Character Shop?

It was incredible. My boss, Rick Lazzarini, is a living legend who has worked on everything from Aliens to Spaceballs. It was a dream come true to learn from him and the rest of his amazing team.

How did you approach the design and build for WALL-E? How long did it take from idea to completion?

I had two amazing mentors, Michael McMaster and Mike Senna (pictured with Preston below), who had both built their own animatronic WALL-Es. I knew from their experiences that this would be exceptionally difficult. Pixar never released official blueprints for WALL-E and since he didn’t exist outside a computer, the only way to make my own would be to compare his size to that of known objects in the film (e.g. a Rubik’s Cube, a cooler, a boot). From this, I found his scale changes throughout the film. After discussing this with my mentors, I decided on a size that was roughly 3/4 scale (so he could fit out the door to my apartment). All in all, it took me a year and four months from concept to completion.


When you talk to people about your creations, what are they most interested to learn about?

Most people are astounded that WALL-E looks so much like the robot from the movie. WALL-E has such specific parts and colors that make him instantly recognizable: the solar charge panel, the glowing red light, and of course his beaten-up trash compactor door with “WALL-E” printed on it. Matching all of these required countless viewings of the film and hours of research online. A fun part of his construction was learning that the iconic WALL-E yellow is nothing more than striping paint (the yellow lines you see on roads). This makes perfect sense from a storytelling perspective, because a robot in industrial environments like WALL-E would obviously be painted with the same industrial colors we see today.

For all of us who wish we had your job, what skills and training did you need?

More than anything, it’s important to do your research and, in the end, experiment. I learned so much by just trying out different things such as paint combinations and materials for WALL-E’s tread system. Many times, these didn’t work at all, but it pointed me in the right direction.

YouTube is your friend too, because if you don’t know how to do something, chances are there’s a YouTube video to walk you through it.

Anything else?

I was inspired to build WALL-E after seeing a video of Johnny Depp and Stephen Graham dressed as their characters from Pirates of the Caribbean visiting the kids at Lady Cilento Children’s Hospital. WALL-E was similarly constructed to bring to local charities, schools, and Children’s Hospitals here in Los Angeles. I think it’s incredibly important to do what you love but more importantly, share that love with others. I’m not as interested in inspiring the next group of WALL-E builders as I am making the lives and memories of others brighter through what I’m able to put together with just some wood, fiberglass and paint.

See Preston and WALL-E in action here.


photos from Preston Altree