| News: John Lasseter article
|So last week Variety had an article about Ed Catmull, and now today the Sunday New York Times has an interesting story about John Lasseter.
It seems you can't go anywhere these days without reading an article about my old employer Walt Disney Feature Animation (which now apparently has been renamed "Walt Disney Animation Studios").
The New York Times
He Runs That Mickey Mouse Outfit
John Lasseter, founding father of Pixar, and now chief creative officer of animation for the Walt Disney Company.
By Laura M. Holson
March 04, 2007
BURBANK, Calif. - It wasn’t the first time John Lasseter, the director of “Toy Story” and “Cars,” had sat through the screening of a not-quite-ready animated film. But when he saw an early cut of Disney’s “Meet the Robinsons” last March, he watched it with a new eye. He wasn’t just a fellow director, and a founder of Pixar Animation Studios. This time he was the boss, the chief creative officer of animation for the Walt Disney Company, which had agreed to acquire Pixar two months before.
As he sat in a dark theater on the first floor of Disney’s animation studio here, something bothered him about the villain. Almost all of Pixar’s animated movies had an evil foil. In “Toy Story” Buzz Lightyear and Woody escaped a cruel neighborhood bully. In “A Bug’s Life” an ant saved his colony from a menacing grasshopper and his thuggish crew. By contrast the lanky villain in “Robinsons,” the story of an orphan who builds a time machine in order to find his mother, was neither threatening enough nor scary.
After the screening Mr. Lasseter and his colleagues from Pixar and Disney met with the director, Stephen Anderson, and told him so. For six hours.
Ten months later Mr. Lasseter was back in the screening room, watching Mr. Anderson’s new version of “Meet the Robinsons,” which is set for release on March 30. Nearly 60 percent of the original film had been cut. A diabolical sidekick had been added. And in one thrilling scene the orphan, Lewis, is chased by an oversize dinosaur. Later, when asked about the movie’s ending, Mr. Lasseter’s rubbery smile turned upside down and he pretended to cry.
“The audience is going to be sobbing,” he said, dragging his index fingers down his cheeks. “It is really going to get them.”
A Hollywood outsider whose independent shop popularized computer animation, Mr. Lasseter, 50, might seem an odd fit for a studio built on old-school cartoons and the mythology of Snow White and Cinderella. But since Pixar was acquired, Mr. Lasseter has been heralded as a latter-day Walt Disney, a cultural arbiter who can rekindle the spirit of Disney’s famous animation at its theme parks, on store shelves and in a theater near you.
Since the days of the 1928 Mickey Mouse classic “Steamboat Willie,” animation was Disney’s undisputed long suit. But after a recent decade-long parade of disappointments, most famously the 2002 bomb “Treasure Planet,” the studio was desperate for a change of fortune. It abandoned its hand-drawn tradition in favor of computer-generated fare. In the process the keepers of the Magic Kingdom lost much of their cultural cachet.
Enter Mr. Lasseter who, along with a close team of handpicked animators had made Pixar this generation’s premier storyteller with an unbroken string of hits including “Monsters, Inc.,” “Finding Nemo” and “The Incredibles.” The first filmmaker to run Disney’s animation operations since Walt Disney died in 1966, he said he wants to reclaim the studio’s golden era.
Since those early days, though, almost everything has changed. On the Disney campus, the creative culture is tattered still from years of cost-cutting and political infighting. And in the world at large audiences have moved on. The sweet wholesome tales of Mickey Mouse and friends don’t have the same relevance for a generation raised on violent video games, distracted by 500 cable channels and preoccupied with Web diversions like MySpace.
“I’m not sure it’s a trivial challenge,” said Jim Morris, a Pixar producer who is working on the forthcoming “Wall-E.” “As charismatic as John is, he can’t do everything.”
Long-time colleagues say the force that will guide the coming changes — to the studio’s offices, to the films at the multiplex, to Christmas toys and rides that can make vacationing families queasy — is Mr. Lasseter’s own unique sensibility. He gets his inspiration from real life — his own. “Cars,” which lost the animated feature prize to “Happy Feet” at last Sunday’s Oscars, was the byproduct of a cross-country road trip he took with his wife and five sons. The idea for “Toy Story 2” was hatched when his children sought to play with toys he stored in boxes. And the die-cast collectibles he had issued for “Cars” were similar to the Hot Wheels he played with growing up in Whittier, Calif., in the 1960s.
That said, his greatest test may be getting Disney’s battle-worn animators to embrace the new culture he is trying to create while at the same time churning out a movie a year. “John doesn’t really change,” said Andrew Stanton, the director of Pixar’s “Finding Nemo,” who is a close friend and frequent collaborator. “People change around him.”
MR. LASSETER rarely sits still. His hands dance and wave in the air in front of him as he rattles off ideas, a sometimes artful stream of consciousness that can range from the shape of a tree he saw that morning to the laws governing wheelchair ramps under the Americans With Disabilities Act. Even during a lunch interview at Disney’s studios after several days of being shuttled between hourly meetings and nightly screenings, he is alert and focused.
How then, he was asked, did he plan to restore Disney animation’s cultural prominence?
He seemed almost dumbstruck by the question. He sat mute for a moment then turned to two attentive publicists sitting close by, searching their faces for an answer.
“I don’t know what to say,” he uttered, sounding mildly annoyed. “I don’t think like that. I trust in my instincts. I’m a product of what this company has created. I do what I do because of Walt Disney. Goofy. Mickey Mouse. I never forgot how their films entertained me. I also love my toys. My Hot Wheels, my G.I. Joes.”
But of course he has a plan.
Mr. Lasseter and Edwin Catmull, a Pixar founder who was named president of the combined animation groups of Disney and Pixar and who oversees operations, have designs for a new headquarters in nearby Glendale. While the building will have Silicon Valley-style comfy couches, coffee stands and open spaces for animators to gather, it won’t be a replica of Pixar’s 16-acre campus in Emeryville, Calif., where artists play afternoon badminton games and executives zip between in-house meetings on scooters. “When we came to work here, we said Pixar is Pixar, Disney is Disney,” Mr. Lasseter said. “We did not want to come here and turn it into Pixar.”
Still, the cultural shift they are devising seems more like Pixar than not. For one thing, Mr. Lasseter and Mr. Catmull are encouraging animators to experiment more with their craft. For another, they hope to reintroduce hand-drawn movies. Simply put, the two do not want to see the art form lost. “One of the things I find distressing is that when money gets tight, the money for drawing dries up,” Mr. Catmull said. “When people draw, they are learning to see.”
Since taking over, Mr. Lasseter and Mr. Catmull have instituted a program to revive the hand-drawn animated short. “The whole purpose is to get these artists ready for feature films,” Mr. Lasseter said.
The day after he won a Golden Globe for “Cars,” Mr. Lasseter and 13 animation executives gathered in Story Room 1 on the second floor of the studio in Burbank to hear an art direction pitch for a new short film featuring Goofy titled “How to Hook Up Your Home Theater.” On one wall were nine boards with images of Goofy drawn by Disney artists between 1942 and 1948. Looking at one image, Mr. Lasseter said: “What I love about Goofy is the flesh on his cheeks. You can almost feel it. That is something to make sure you have. Do the pupils have different shapes for expression?”
“Sometimes they change size,” answered Dale Baer, an animator.
“I like it when they are a little bigger,” Mr. Lasseter said.
“I love this stuff,” he said later, reflecting on the 60-year-old Goofy drawings and the animation division’s new logo, a short scene from “Steamboat Willie.” “We want to look back and look forward at the same time. This stuff lasts forever, every single movie. ‘Dumbo’ gets me every time. That moment when, at the same time, their trunks are touching? Long after I am gone they will make audiences cry.”
Mr. Lasseter talks a lot about making audiences cry. “John will go straight to as much emotion as possible,” said Lee Unkrich, the director of the recently announced “Toy Story 3” from Pixar. “It can become sappy.”
But as much as Buzz Lightyear had Woody, Mr. Lasseter has a creative foil in Andrew Stanton, whom Mr. Unkrich described as having “a more biting way.” Mr. Unkrich said, “You never felt them slip sliding into something emotionally shallow.” (Mr. Stanton has stepped into a leadership role at Pixar now that Mr. Lasseter spends two days a week in Burbank.)
“I am, by nature, an honest person,” Mr. Lasseter said. “I wear my emotions on my sleeve. There is no ‘behind closed doors’ with me. It’s the nature of Hollywood that there are the people in power and the people who tell them what they want them to hear. We choose to be honest and open.”
So much so that Mr. Lasseter established a “story trust” at Disney, a mirror of the “brain trust” at Pixar where directors and story editors criticize a movie’s flaws more than any filmgoer might. “They are not back-patting sessions,” Mr. Catmull said. The six-hour meeting about “Meet the Robinsons” was one such session. Mr. Anderson later called it “one of the hardest days of my life.”
Harder still for those animators who don’t adapt. Chris Sanders, a longtime Disney animator who was a director and writer of the hit “Lilo and Stitch,” had developed a movie called “American Dog,” the tale of a Hollywood dog star who gets lost in the desert. Last year Mr. Lasseter and directors from both Pixar and Disney attended two screenings of the movie and gave Mr. Sanders notes on how he might improve the story, Mr. Unkrich said. Mr. Sanders resisted the suggestions, Mr. Lasseter said. So in January he was replaced by another director.
Asked about the episode, Mr. Lasseter abruptly interrupted an interview to confer with publicists, asking “What can I say here?”
After a brief discussion Mr. Lasseter explained that Pixar often added or replaced a director if a film needed help. “Chris Sanders is extremely talented, but he couldn’t take it to the place it had to be,” he said carefully.
Mr. Sanders, who is negotiating his exit from Disney, declined to comment. “John doesn’t force his solutions on you,” said Brad Bird, who directed “The Incredibles” and is close to Mr. Lasseter. “But that doesn’t mean he is going to go quietly.”
MR. LASSETER was born in Hollywood in 1957 and raised in nearby Whittier. His mother was an art teacher and his father a parts manager at a car dealership. After graduating from the prestigious California Institute of the Arts in 1979, Mr. Lasseter became a Disney animator for five years before joining Pixar in 1986. As a youth he was a ride operator on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. It remains a favorite.
In the early 2000s Disney’s theme parks were derided for being shabbily maintained, and when Mr. Lasseter joined Disney, the chief executive, Robert Iger, made him a creative adviser to the theme parks, in part to oversee the quality of Disney’s attractions.
“No jokes today,” Mr. Lasseter said as he suppressed a smile halfway through a recent 8 a.m. meeting with a design team from Walt Disney Imagineering that was showing him a prototype of the new Toy Story Mania theme park ride based on “Toy Story.” “I want to play!”
Toy Story Mania is a video-game-style attraction designed by Disney in which riders seated in moving cars earn points when they shoot targets on a 3D screen. Mr. Lasseter climbed into a makeshift seat propped up on a plywood platform and hunkered down, ready for a test run. As the design team yelled, “Go! Go! Go!,” he concentrated, his tongue darting out the side of his mouth while his finger quickly grazed the trigger.
“I got a little confused as to which color was mine,” said Mr. Lasseter as he climbed out of his seat after earning 32,500 points, 1,700 more than his opponent. When one executive suggested rewarding high scorers by having a treat like an ice cream cone or a cookie show up onscreen, he said, “I have a diabetic son, and I don’t think we want to give food as a reward.”
But what concerned him more was when he was told that an outsider had been hired to animate some of the characters on the screen, including Woody.
“Are we making the right decision to have the characters animated by another company?” he asked the game’s designer, Sue Bryan. “I’m not comfortable with these people animating the characters, especially if we are dealing with Buzz Lightyear and that clear helmet and the reflection. We want to that to be right.”
“We’ve got the groundwork laid,” she replied.
Mr. Lasseter remained firm. He instructed a Pixar colleague, Roger Gould, to talk to the outside company. “I really want to control quality,” he said. “I don’t want outsiders rendering the characters.”
Mr. Lasseter has an executive from Disney’s consumer products division, Mary Beech, assigned to work with him on merchandising ideas.In addition to toys, he wants to expand Disney’s offerings for adults. Pixar’s coming film “Ratatouille” is about a rat named Remy who lives in a French restaurant and adores good food. That gave Mr. Lasseter an idea. “We had our people over to the kitchen of Thomas Keller at the French Laundry restaurant and we camcorded him cooking ratatouille,” he told Ms. Beech when she stopped by the Burbank office recently. “Thomas Keller went nuts for Hanley china,” he said, referring to the British china maker. “That got me thinking about the high end. It’s really elegant, but slightly cartoony. Maybe we could do the same idea for china.”
“Sur La Table is talking a real soup pot and ladle,” Ms. Beech said, referring to the upscale gourmet cooking store.
“One of our favorite gifts we’ve given out at Christmas is the cheese of the month club,” Mr. Lasseter said of himself and his wife, Nancy. “What if we used ‘Ratatouille’ to do that? What if we did with Costco the cheese of the month club? We could have Remy writing about cheeses. We could have an in-store display.”
Ms. Beech smiled as two onlookers in the office laughed. Mr. Lasseter’s notions about cheese and china sounded a little un-Disney-like.
But then again, maybe not. Disney recently announced a new line of wedding gowns inspired by Sleeping Beauty and Cinderella that sell for as much $2,900. And, as every wedding-goer knows, brides want new china too.
© The New York Times Co.
|posted by Josh @ 9:04 AM