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Published: Sunday, 6/4/2006

Walt Disney, Version 2.0

BY CHRISTOPHER BORRELLI
BLADE STAFF WRITER

This is a puff piece.

But an understandable one.

It d be a stretch for it to be anything other than positive. Because it s about John Lasseter, and John Lasseter is always right. Always. His employees love him, and his instincts are unfailing. The guy s nice, too; and his ideas are clever. And so it s hard to hate him, despite this infuriating charmed life. The company he co-founded 20 years ago and still oversees, Pixar, has never made a single bad movie; indeed, within those movies (seven features, countless shorts), you d be hard pressed to find a single bad scene, character, line of dialogue, or moment. How many mistakes did you make before turning 20?

Exactly.

Naturally, he s worth millions.

That s being modest.

Disney finally purchased Pixar last winter, after years of speculation that Lasseter s company (feeling unappreciated by former CEO Michael Eisner s Mouse management style) would find a new distribution partner, or even strike out on its own. So successful was its string of family movies (from the Lasseter-directed Toy Story films, to Monsters, Inc., to Finding Nemo, to The Incredibles), Lasseter s box-office record became more consistent than any filmmaker in Hollywood even Spielberg.

Disney paid $7.4 billion.

When they did, there was even speculation Pixar got ripped off.

Lasseter, however, did not.

He became Walt Disney.

A job he s been training for.

Going on a decade now he s been to computer animation what Walt, 50 years ago, was to old-fashioned cell, pencil-and-ink animation; so much so, every digitally animated feature not made by Pixar these days is still informed by Lasseter s decisions in some way just as Warner Bros. Looney Tunes, Disney s primary competition, often defined itself in relation to Walt.

And so it s hard not thinking of that much-watched deal as a coronation: Though Lasseter still directs movies (his latest, Cars, opens Friday) and oversees the thinking and look of everything bearing Pixar s name, now he ll do the same for Disney s animation department, which has become a shell of its legendary House a Mouse Built. Disney s last animated hit was four-years ago, Lilo & Stitch. It s since closed entire divisions, laid-off 1,400 animation employees, and swore off the old-fashioned cell animation it s synonymous with.

Now change is afoot.

With Lasseter at the helm (executive vice president of creative, is the title), the studio s plans for a Disney-helmed-Lasseter-free Toy Story 3 were tossed. He s already been outspoken about straight-to-video quickies like Cinderella II diluting Disney s name. And though the success of Pixar digital animation helped wipe it off the big screen, plans to revive s Disney s traditional animation legacy are revving up.

When I first met him back in January, he was in Detroit for the North American Auto Show, meeting with promotional partners on Cars. I asked him if Pixar had been too successful for its own good, if it s been so innovative to American animation, in a way it s harmed to the art form.

He stopped cold. He has avian eyes. You know, I worry about that, he said. But I don t think so. Our success is based on great characters and great stories, and then that it looks cool and was made with a computer. But Hollywood looks at us and sees that traditionally animated films haven t made any money but computer-animated ones have.

So they assume computer animation is what people want to see. But I don t think people get any more excited about digital animation than they do about movies made with new Panavision cameras. Why should they? You re going to see a billion CGI animated features in the next 10 years, and the vast majority will stink. No, traditional animation has become a scapegoat for bad filmmaking and lousy stories.

And then he adds:

But it s a good question.

In February, at the Visual Effects Society awards, after his new title as the creative head of Disney animation was announced (he ll do double duty with Pixar), a cheer went up and his friend, actor John Ratzenberger, of Cheers (and a character voice in every Pixar production), told the assembled: Walt has stopped rolling in his grave.

The cheer got louder.

John Lasseter John Lasseter
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Lasseter, 49, is not a big man, but he looks big. He has a round Charlie Brown head and soft features and a genial, hang-loose air that gives him the appearance of either your coolest uncle or a hip younger brother of Dave Thomas, the folksy founder of Wendy s. He wears a black suit coat over a dark Hawaiian shirt, patterned with Route 66 sign posts. It s a subtle plug for Cars.

The man does his research.

During the five years of production on Cars, he traveled to Detroit countless times, attending design conferences, visiting the Henry Ford Museum, ducking into restoration shops, and a few abandoned old auto plants.

He s saying all this, then stops.

Wait, Toledo, right? Oh, hey we have a Jeep in the film. Jeeps are made in Toledo. He s a tough guy, lives next door to George Carlin, who s a Volkswagen bus, a hippie who makes his own organic auto fuel. The Jeep is voiced by Paul Dooley. His name is Sarge. I came up with him because I d seen these documentaries on Jeeps and how the Germans in World War II would leave behind captured tanks but always grab the Jeeps.

He goes on, and on.

Jeeps meant so much. The Willys Jeep. It was truly inspirational for us, because the movie s about a world with no people, just cars, and some old and revered, like people, like the Jeep.

And on, and on. About what auto makers had the Jeep contract, which copied it, which old factories are better than others, the humble design of the Jeep.

He knows his stuff.

I stop him and ask if, you know, aren t cars kind of cold, though? Not as cuddly as Nemo?

Well, cars guys would argue with you. I m a car guy. But to answer, here s what we did. I ve always loved animating the inanimate. To do that you identify what is the head, what is the face. That s the window into the soul of any character. Most people see headlights as eyes, a grill as the mouth. But that leaves you with a lot of body. So we put the eyes in the windshield, the hood becomes the nose. In short, the whole car is the head, and the tires become more like the legs.

Clever. But not surprising.

The Pixar philosophy is called plussing. Lasseter says you hear this a lot in the Pixar offices. Even in the marketing decisions.

When the Museum of Modern Art in New York decided to put on a show last winter of the studio s designs, rather than take advantage of Cars, originally set to open in November, the film was bumped off into summer. Partly to give animators more time (animation is a foot race of tweaking), partly to avoid the appearance that a MOMA exhibition was a promotional tie-in.

If the films themselves play and feel much different than most digitally-animated features, if these films are as accessible to adults as to kids, it s this philosophy of plussing at work. The Incredibles, directed by Brad Bird, would likely be a story of how everyone has a little superhero inside them.

To Pixar, plussing that idea meant celebrating the extraordinary, highlighting that some people excel and others do not; they never reduce it to an everybody-gets-an-award story.

Plussing, in short, as Lasseter defines it, is making something pretty good pretty great, making a fine-tune here and there until the idea sings. It s a principle he says was put there when he attended the Disney-sponsored California Institute of the Arts We had all these old Disney animators who had never taught before but understood quality.

It was the mantra of Walt.

Three events stand out in Lasseter s career that suggest he was always meant to replace Walt Disney. The first is a $15 prize he won from a local supermarket. He drew the headless horseman from Disney s Legend of Sleepy Hollow. He was 5-years old.

He grew up in Whittier, Calif., part of Los Angeles; his mother was an art teacher and his father was the parts manager of a Chevy dealership (John worked there himself, experience that led to Cars). He remembers watching cartoons on Saturday mornings, then bailing when golf came on and heading to the movies. The day his mother picked him up from The Sword and the Stone, he told her he was going to be an animator.

His class at California Institute of the Arts (more commonly known as Cal Arts) included Tim Burton, Brad Bird, and Andrew Stanton (Finding Nemo), and when he graduated he went to work for a short time at Disney, doing pencil work on The Fox and the Hound and Mickey s Christmas Carol. This was the early 80s. Disney animation, more or less, was sucking for air.

Then a couple of friends working on Tron, the first film to seriously utilize digital effects, showed him their test footage. He stuck a finger in the air. He left Disney for LucasFilms computer division, then with a few colleagues, spun off into Pixar.

Cars isn t much of a stretch from then, he says. When I started with computer-animated films it was much easier working with geometric shapes than organic ones, and there are just more geometric shapes in manmade things than nature.

But you mentioned pantomime. I had to learn that to make geometric figures come to life. Then again I was learning it for years just watching the work of the Warner animator Chuck Jones. He did Bugs Bunny. I got to know him later in his life, and he told me something I took to heart: If it s great animation, you should be able to shut the sound off and have no problem following it.

The second major event in his career happened in 1984, at a computer graphics convention:

A guy ran up and asked what software he used on his short films. He mumbled something about the technique and the guys said, No, it was so funny. What program were you using?

It dawned on me computer animation was in the hands of people who didn t know a thing about animation itself, Lasseter said. It was like the early days of film and that train barreling out of the screen. You show people a picture of a chandelier over a checker board and they re like, OK, so it s not real? It s in a computer? You re kidding. Guys who wrote software were the only guys involved, and it was like all the paintings in the world were being created by the chemists in charge of mixing up the paints.

On his first Oscar-nominated movie, the 1984 short Luxo Jr., about a precocious desk lamp (a shortened version of which opens the credits of every Pixar movie), he made the decision not to move the camera (so to speak) around at all. Whatever he picked up about filmmaking, he wouldn t show off. Except one principle. He let the lamp tell the story; he focused on character.

The third important story of his career happened after Pixar was up and running. The deeper he got into the technology, the more he habitually gravitated to traditional art for an inspiration. Working on an early short, he asked a couple of his animators to make the pine trees purple. They stopped, turned, and said:

Trees aren t purple, John.

In the right light they are.

The guy went outside and found a leaf and showed it to him under a light: See, no purple.

Dissent would later become something valued at Pixar; Lasseter encourages arguments but makes the final decision himself. The Day of the Purple Trees, however, he packed his animators into a car and drove to a Maxfield Parish exhibit in San Francisco. Eventually they got the point. My friend said to me, Trees can be whatever color you want them to be if the light is right. And to this day, Parish is still a very big influence on us.

The Pixar way, he said, has evolved into being influenced by whatever moves you. We ve all become students of art first. The sculptures of Rodin. Caricatures of French politicians. We look for the emotion in the colors of a painting, and spend a lot of time studying the way the Impressionists used light in paintings.

So much time Lasseter s wife asked him to see his kids more.

So he took the wife and kids (he has five boys) on a road trip. They dipped a toe in the Pacific Ocean. Drove a rented RV across the country, spending an entire summer visiting small towns. Then they dipped a toe in the Atlantic. And that s where Cars came from life. But then like all Pixar movies, Cars feels oddly personal for animated movies.

For Finding Nemo, Lasseter insisted the staff get certified as scuba divers. And what they saw first hand became that picture. They do the leg work and that s why there s never been a studio quite like Pixar. You get amazing things when you leave the office, Lasseter said. If our goal is to the make an animated world believable, to make it true, you ve got to be alert to things you wouldn t find on your own, the things you wouldn t expect.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com or 419-724-6117.



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