By Matthew Garrahan
Published: January 16 2009 11:48 | Last updated: January 17 2009 01:15
Walt Disneys animation studio in Burbank, a short drive from Los Angeles, is known as the Hat building because of the huge magicians hat that towers above the main entrance. As blue as the cloudless January sky over southern California, it is a replica of the hat worn by Mickey Mouse as the sorcerers apprentice in Fantasia, Disneys animated classic from 1940.
I have come to Burbank to have lunch with John Lasseter, Disneys own sorcerer-in-chief, whose storytelling flair and willingness to push technological boundaries have made him the man widely seen as the creative heir of Walt Disney himself. Its been a long wait. The company founder died in 1966 and Lasseter, 52, only rejoined in 2006 after Disney paid $7.4bn for Pixar, the ground-breaking animation studio he helped start.
Animation is at the core of everything Disney does but the company wanted Pixar, and Lasseter, because its own animated output had grown stale. Walking into the Hat building and seeing promotional material on the walls for Bolt, Disneys latest animated film (released in Europe on February 6) and the first to be made under Lasseters guidance, I reflect that his career has come full circle. A self-described cartoon nut, he started his career at Disney in 1979 as an animator. But he was fired in 1983 for refusing to drop the idea that the companys future would lie in computer animation.
After leaving Disney, Lasseter helped found Pixar, with backing from Apples Steve Jobs. The company ushered in a new era of computer animation with the 1987 release of Lasseters Luxo Jr, a short film about a baby desk lamp. (The animated lamp still hops into the companys production logo before all its films).
The real breakthrough came in 1995 with the Lasseter-directed Toy Story, which introduced the world to Woody the cowboy (voiced by Tom Hanks) and spaceman Buzz Lightyear, and was Hollywoods first computer animated feature. A string of global hits followed, including Toy Story 2 (1999), Finding Nemo (2003) and The Incredibles (2004), while Wall-E, Pixars 2008 film about a love-sick robot, wowed audiences and critics alike.
Now back in the Disney fold as chief creative officer of the animation studio with an advisory role dreaming up attractions at the companys theme parks, Lasseter divides his time between Burbank and Pixars headquarters in Emeryville, a few hundred miles away in northern California.
DRAWING ON THE PAST
1891: Animated pictures are projected for the first time by Charles-Emile Reynaud, a French science teacher, using his own improved version of the zoetrope, known as the Praxinoscope.
1898: In the US, Albert E Smith borrows his daughters toy circus to create the worlds first stop-motion animated movie, The Humpty Dumpty Circus.
1913: Old Doc Yak, a tail-coated billy goat in striped trousers, is the first animal cartoon character.
1917: Argentine Quirino Cristiani animates the first feature-length cartoon film, El Apóstal, a political satire.
1923: Walt Disney and his brother Roy set up their first animation studio.
1928: Disney releases Steamboat Willy, in which Mickey Mouse makes his first appearance. Walt had wanted to call him Mortimer Mouse, but his wife Lilly preferred Mickey.
1935: Porky Pig makes his debut in Warner Brothers Looney Tunes cartoons, soon followed by Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and Tweety Bird.
1937: Disneys Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs is the first feature to combine both sound and colour.
1940: Beginning with Pinnochio, the early 1940s bring huge success for Disney, with Fantasia, Dumbo and Bambi. Theres another boom in the early 1950s with the release of Cinderella, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan.
1959:Sleeping Beauty almost bankrupts the Disney studio after returning only half of its $6m investment.
1964:Mary Poppins is released, combining live action, animation and animatronics.
1966: Walt Disney dies. The last film made under his production, The Jungle Book, is released a year later.
1982: Disneys Tron marks a breakthrough in computer animation, inspired by video games.
1988:Who Framed Roger Rabbit?, produced by Steven Spielberg, rejuvenates the mix of animated characters with live action.
1991: Disneys Beauty and the Beast becomes the only animated film ever to be nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture.
1994:The Lion King is the first Disney cartoon to be based around an original story. It remains the biggest grossing hand-drawn animated feature.
1995: John Lasseters Toy Story is released. Produced by Pixar but distributed through Disney, it is the first feature film to be produced entirely through computer animation. It is followed by a run of highly successful Pixar films, including Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc (2001), Finding Nemo (2003) and Ratatouille (2007).
2008: The critically acclaimed Wall-E marks the continuing success of Pixar. Made with a budget of $180m, it makes this money back inside six weeks.
His office is smaller than I expected but packed with Disney and Pixar paraphernalia. There are sketches on the wall from Susie the Little Blue Coupe, an animated short film from 1952, as well as a framed drawing from Dumbo (1941), Lasseters favourite Disney film. There are plates laid out with sandwiches and a bottle of red wine.
The bottle lifts the spirits. US executives are usually characterised by their abstemiousness, which makes for practical but rather dull lunches. I dont know if you drink wine, says Lasseter after greeting me. But my wife and I have a winery so I thought wed open one of our bottles.
He is known for his loud Hawaiian shirts and does not disappoint today, although the shirt is comparatively sombre. He is wearing a wristwatch released to promote the Pixar movie Cars (2006).
As he pours the wine, a Saint Emilion blend with a label bearing the Lasseter name, he explains how he and his wife Nancy began making wine. After he was fired from Disney, they moved to northern California. Nancy worked at Apple as a computer graphics engineer and he went to work for George Lucass Lucasfilm group, where he joined the division that would evolve into Pixar. I was commuting north and Nancy commuted south and we started having babies. The couple eventually had five sons. We had so many babies that she decided to retire.
The Lasseters often visited friends in Sonoma County, one of northern Californias finest winemaking regions. They liked it so much they moved there. The woman who was cleaning our house was heading off one day to pick wine. Nancy went with her and came back splattered and covered in red wine. He mimics his wife, breathless with passion. She said: We made wine! Make love to me! That started a hobby, which quickly became something more: the family bought vineyards in Glen Ellen in Sonoma County and now bottles and sells its own-label wine.
Before coming to Burbank, one of Lasseters assistants had phoned to ask what I might want for lunch, and I had ordered a turkey and provolone sandwich on rye bread. Disney doesnt tend to do things in small measures so it is a pretty big sandwich. Ive also been given some pieces of fruit watermelon and pineapple. Lasseter has just got the pineapple pieces.
I ask when he realised he wanted to be an animator. He tells me about his childhood in Whittier in south-east Los Angeles County. It was Richard Nixons home town. My mother was a high school arts teacher so I was always surrounded by the arts. He was obsessed with Chuck Jones cartoons. Bugs Bunny, Road Runner ... I would race home after school to watch them. On Saturday morning I would get up at crack of dawn on my own and lie on my belly in front of the TV eating Sugar Frosted Flakes until the cartoons stopped.
In his first year at high school he saw Disneys 1963 film The Sword in the Stone and realised that his passion could become a career. Encouraged by his mother, he wrote to the company, which invited Lasseter for a studio tour. Disney was nearing a crossroads: Walt had died and the Nine Old Men, a revered group of animators who had worked on such early classics as Snow White and Cinderella, were heading for retirement. But no new generation of animators was ready to replace them.
In 1975, the company launched an animation course at the California Institute of the Arts. Lasseter was the second student accepted. He was taught by three of the Nine Old Men Eric Larson, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston (the last survivor of the group who died last year). Lasseters classmates included future film directors Brad Bird, who would go on to helm Pixars The Incredibles and Ratatouille, and Tim Burton.
At Disney, where he was joined by Bird and Burton, the influence of the Nine Old Men was waning. The people who were creatively running the studio were the second tier animators during Walt Disneys time but ended up being in charge through attrition rather than because of their talent. They were threatened by all this young talent coming in. And we were on fire.
A new era was under way in Hollywood. In 1977 Star Wars was released and directors such as Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola had overturned long-held notions about the kinds of films audiences would enjoy.
Lasseter felt animation was ripe for a similar revolution and that cartoons could be enjoyed by people of all ages, not just by children. One of the big moments of my life was watching Star Wars on its opening weekend in Hollywood. I was watching all these people enjoy this film and I thought: animation can do this. But he kept running into resistance at Disney when he tried new things. I remember being told many times: We dont want to hear your opinions. If you dont want to do what youre told, theres a line of people outside the studio waiting to take your place.
I kept making suggestions and ideas we all did, myself Brad Bird, Tim Burton and we either left the studio or were fired. Lasseters hope was that Disney would embrace computer technology but his boss at the time he refuses to divulge the name told him to forget it. So he went around his back and created a 30-second demonstration, only to be shown the door shortly afterwards. He looks wistful. Ill be honest with you. I told the world that I left on my own. To be fired from the place of my dreams was something I just couldnt admit to anyone.
It was while creating that short film that Lasseter came across Ed Catmull, a computer scientist, then working for Star Wars creator George Lucas. The two men hit it off and Lasseter was lured to the Lucasfilm computer unit in northern California. With a combination of Lasseters animation expertise and Catmulls scientific know-how, they forged a collaborative way of working that would become the bedrock of Pixars way of making films.
During Lasseters first stint at Disney he found himself being asked, What would Walt do? At the Lucasfilm computer division new ideas were not discouraged, partly because of Catmulls background in science. With science there is this culture of experimentation and most of the time those experiments fail, says Lasseter. Theres a culture of failure, which is accepted and its become part of Pixar.
It was important, he says, to strike the right balance between technological innovation and storytelling. Art challenges technology but technology inspires the art. Often youll see a film where its been caught up in the technology and it doesnt captivate. What I learnt from those great Disney animators was that its what you do with the technology that matters.
Steve Jobs (who earlier this week announced he was taking medical leave from Apple) heard what the Lucasfilm computer division was doing and ended up buying it for $10m in 1986. Lasseter says Jobs funded the newly renamed Pixar for 10 years before it turned a profit. Over the years he must have invested another $50m-$60m. There is nobody else that would have supported us for that long.
I am polishing off the fruit. Lasseter has eaten one piece of pineapple while weve been talking. I wonder if he felt vindicated by Disneys purchase of Pixar, but he shakes his head. I dont look at it like that. Its all about coming home Ive got Disney blood running through my veins. I mean, I operated the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland when I was at college.
So he is back where he belongs. He has plenty to do, not least championing the companys move into 3D animation: Bolt is being released in 3D and later in the year Up, a film about a curmudgeonly old man who attaches balloons to his house to make it fly, will also hit cinemas. Lasseter says he has been a fan of the format. My wedding pictures were in 3D.
An assistant is outside, signalling to Lasseter that someone is waiting to see him and that our time is up. As I get up to leave, I ask about the pressure he faces. Surely there is a lot to live up to when people compare you to Walt Disney? He shakes his head again. Its hard enough being John Lasseter without having to take that mantle as well. With Ed Catmull being here too we really believe we can turn the studio around ... the artists are in charge again, and I just love that.
John Lasseters office,
Walt Disney Animation Studios,
1 x bottle Saint Emilion, Lasseter Family Winery
1 x turkey provolone sandwich
1 x plate of mixed fruit
1 x plate of pineapple pieces
Bolt is released in the UK on February 6
Matthew Garrahan is the FTs Los Angeles correspondent
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2009