The Man Who Saved Disney
How Pixar's John Lasseter brought Disney animation back from the brink of obsolescence and turned it into a blockbuster success
There are hundreds of celebrities in Hollywood—stars whose personal lives are deemed interesting enough to be covered in magazines and on entertainment-centered TV shows. There are a handful of auteurs, whose original styles give their productions a distinctive stamp. But creative visionaries who inexorably alter what we imagine movies to be? Those are a rare breed.
Before Toy Story debuted on movie screens in November 1995, there was little evidence to suggest that writer/director/Pixar co-founder John Lasseter would be hailed as the second coming of Walt Disney. He had been unceremoniously fired from Disney’s animation studios after stepping on his superiors’ toes in the early ’80s, when his passion for computer animation put him at odds with their dedication to traditional hand-drawn cartoons. And although he had directed two Oscar-nominated animated shorts, Toy Story marked the first time he’d overseen a full-length film.
But now, after 15 years, 10 Pixar films (this month’s eagerly anticipated Toy Story 3 will be the studio’s 11th full-length feature), a dozen Academy Awards, more than $5 billion at the box office and a $7.4 billion deal that made him the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios and the principal creative advisor of Walt Disney Imagineering, Lasseter is among the most powerful and influential figures in the entertainment world. And he did it all by pursuing his passion for computer animation, a craft that he perfected and which ultimately revived audiences’ love for animation—and Disney.
In person, Lasseter isn’t what you might expect from a high-powered corporate executive. He favors tennis shoes and custom-designed, loose-fitting Hawai-ian shirts (often bearing beloved Pixar characters) over suits and ties. His modest office at Disney Studios boasts enough collectible toys to populate the next two Toy Story sequels. And he’s much more likely to get excited when talking about formative creative influences such as Frank Capra, Buster Keaton and Star Wars than discussing multibillion-dollar deals or blockbuster box office receipts.
“I was already going to Cal Arts and knew I wanted to be an animator when, in the summer of 1977, Star Wars came out,” Lasseter says, with the giddiness of a geeky fanboy. “I saw it on opening weekend at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood, and I was just shaking with excitement by the end of it. This huge crowd of people was all on the edge of their seats, and it entertained them to a level I had never seen before. I thought, ‘This is what I want to do!’”
As a student at the California Institute of the Arts, Lasseter was taught by three of Disney’s famed “Nine Old Men”—the core animators responsible for classic films ranging from 1937’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to 1977’s The Rescuers—and learned alongside a future Who’s Who in the world of family films, including John Musker (Aladdin, The Little Mermaid), Brad Bird (The Incredibles) and Tim Burton (Corpse Bride). It also earned him a job as an animator at Walt Disney Animation Studios, which was a dream come true for the lifelong Mouse House fan.
“I do what I do because of Walt Disney and the way his films entertained me as a kid,” Lasseter says. “All I’ve ever wanted to do is create animation. I grew up near Disneyland and worked as a ride operator for the Jungle Cruise. Disney is just one of those things that I’ve always loved and have always been a part of.”
Unfortunately, the company’s animation division was at a creative low by the time Lasseter made his way into its hallowed halls. The original generation of lead animators had either retired or passed away, and Lasseter felt that developing projects such as The Fox and the Hound and Mickey’s Christmas Carol (both of which he worked on) were “just the same old thing.” Determined to shake things up and take the art of animation to the next level, he recalls having a eureka moment when he got a glimpse of the light-cycle sequence from a forthcoming Disney film called Tron, which was created using the nascent technology of computer animation.
“It totally blew me away,” he says. “It was like a little door in my mind opened up. I said, ‘This is it! This is the future!’ It was exciting, but at the time Disney was only interested in computers if they could make what they were doing cheaper and faster.”
Lasseter’s passion for using computers to craft animated backgrounds put him at odds with studio management heads, who were resistant to the sort of sweeping changes he envisioned. After circumventing his superiors in his enthusiasm to get a computer animated film made, he was ultimately terminated during the production of The Brave Little Toaster, Disney’s 1987 film about a group of abandoned appliances who decide to seek out their 8-year-old “master.” But the setback did nothing to dampen Lasseter’s enthusiasm for animation, and he was soon working in the computer graphics department at Lucasfilm, Star Wars director George Lucas’ company. It was there that the budding filmmaker developed his first computer-animated short, The Adventures of André & Wally
B. When Lucasfilm’s Computer Division was bought by Apple impresario Steve Jobs in 1986, it was renamed Pixar, with Lasseter overseeing the company’s computer-animation projects due to his experience and passion for the craft.
Pixar quickly began making a name for itself, earning a Best Animated Short Film Oscar nomination for 1986’s computer-animated Luxo Jr. (which follows an exuberant young desk lamp playing with an inflated ball), then winning the award for 1988’s Tin Toy (about a destructive baby and his one-man-band toy). But it took another seven years of technological advancements before the studio could unleash Toy Story, the world’s first computer-animated feature film. Rooted in Lasseter’s lifelong love of toys (he still has his childhood Hot Wheels collection), the movie emphasized character development over whiz-bang visual effects. Pixar’s technological advancements significantly altered the way animators made films, but Lasseter insists it was the studio’s focus on good old-fashioned storytelling that has made its movies such a hit with critics and audiences alike.
“Because animation is so expensive, we use storyboards to create a version of the movie called the ‘story reel,’” he explains. “We will work and re-work and re-work and re-work the story reel until it’s right. One of my jobs is to green-light a story reel into production, and I never let it go until everything is working great—the humor, the heart…. Our dedication to making the story work before we make the movie is the secret of our success.”
Grossing more than $350 million and setting new standards in animation and computer-generated imagery, Toy Story was the first film in a three-picture deal between Pixar and Lasseter’s old employers at Disney, in which the former handled creation and production and the latter handled marketing and distribution. While the Lasseter-directed A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2 went on to make a combined $848 million worldwide (not to mention millions more in merchandising), Disney’s animation arm continued to flounder, with The Emperor’s New Groove, Atlantis: The Lost Empire, Treasure Planet, Brother Bear and Home On The Range all failing to crack the $100 million mark domestically.
In the box office battle between Disney’s old-school aesthetic and Pixar’s new-school inventiveness, the student was quickly emerging as the master. By 2004, the seemingly synergistic relationship between the companies had broken down completely over profit distribution and story and sequel rights, with Jobs publicly declaring that Pixar was actively seeking other partners.
Finally, in 2006, Disney announced a $7.4 billion deal to buy Pixar. Lasseter’s new role at Disney allowed him unparalleled control over the flagging studio’s creative decisions, while at the same time protecting Pixar as a separate entity with its own policies (including a notorious lack of employee contracts).
“Our company caught lightning in a bottle and we didn’t want it to get swallowed up or assimilated,” Lasseter says. “But what’s nice is that Disney is great at marketing, distribution, merchandising and theme parks, which benefits us on an international level. We’re making Disney Animation a director-driven studio like Pixar, but we’re not trying to turn Disney into Pixar.”
Lasseter has already made a huge impact on Disney’s reputation, completely retooling the critically acclaimed Bolt, strengthening the studio’s relationship with legendary Japanese anime guru Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away, Ponyo) and reuniting the creative team behind the hit The Little Mermaid to make last year’s Oscar-nominated The Princess and the Frog. If you ask his old Cal Arts classmate John Musker, who directed the musical adaptation of The Frog Prince, Lasseter is doing more than anyone to keep his beloved craft moving forward.
“It’s ironic that John, who pioneered digital animation and has done such incredible things with it, is actually the biggest fan of hand-drawn animation you’ll ever meet,” Musker says. “He knows all those classic films inside and out, and I think he was the only one with the clout to get [hand-drawn] movies going again. There’s something very magical and beautiful about it, and it’s because of John that Disney is back in that business.”
Like Walt Disney before him, Lasseter and his innovations continue to resonate and revolutionize the filmmaking business. And when Woody and Buzz Lightyear—the characters who made him famous—return to the big screen in Toy Story 3, it will be a warm reminder of childhood dreams fulfilled. At the age of 53, Lasseter remains a boy at heart, delighted to see his love of cartoons spreading throughout the world.
“The animation world is in one of the best places it has ever been,” he says. “Look at all the quality filmmakers that are doing animated films now: Blue Sky with Chris Wedge [Ice Age]; DreamWorks [Shrek, How To Train Your Dragon] is getting better and better; Fox and Sony are producing some great movies; Miyazaki-san in Japan…. There are so many great artists out there, and the goal is to make great movies, you know? I’d much rather be part of a healthy industry than be the only player in a dead industry.”
With nearly a dozen computer-animated films among the Top 50 blockbusters of all time and hand-drawn animation experiencing a remarkable renaissance, Lasseter has every reason to conclude that the industry on the whole has never been in better shape. And with him steering the ship at Disney and Pixar, it’s safe to say that animation’s bright future couldn’t possibly be in better hands.