Disney/Pixard honcho John Lasseter doesn’t sleep under his office desk anymore. But in 1986 — when the young animator was sprinting to complete a short film using the fledgling medium of computer animation — Lasseter commonly worked at Pixar’s San Francisco Bay Area offices until 5 a.m., crashed in a sleeping bag for a few hours, and then continued animating. The resulting two-minute short, Luxo Jr., was nominated for an Academy Award. And its star character, a hopping desk lamp, became Pixar’s mascot. Since then, Pixar has grown from an unprofitable computer company into Hollywood’s most enviable studio. Its 11 animated films have grossed $6.6 billion worldwide and received 40 Oscar nominations, and no one has been more integral to protecting that track record than Lasseter. He’s overseen every production and directed five of them, including this month’s Cars 2, featuring the return of race car Lightning McQueen and his tow-truck buddy Mater.
For Pixar’s 25th anniversary, we asked Lasseter — now the chief creative officer at both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation — to reflect on the studio’s unbroken chain of hit features. ”Every movie has had a time where the story wasn’t working,” says Lasseter, 54, ”but we never lose hope because we believe in ourselves and the process.”
For [the voice of] Buzz Lightyear, we first talked to Billy Crystal and he passed. I was a huge fan of Tim Allen’s stand-up. What Tim does so well is the Everyman, and we rethought Buzz’s role based on the first recording session. Instead of him being this ”I am a superhero!” guy, he’s just like, ”How are you? It’s Buzz Lightyear. Glad to meet you.” As for Tom Hanks, his role as the manager in A League of Their Own really inspired me because he was not that nice of a character but was so appealing. I thought that’s what we needed with Woody, because he has to do some things that aren’t really nice, like knock Buzz out the window. And Tom was really great with props. My sons had one of these joke arms that you slam with the car door or hang out of the trunk, and I brought that with me and gave it to him. All that stuff in the movie with the best-friend handshake is Tom ad-libbing.
A Bug’s Life
[Former Pixar CEO] Steve Jobs was sitting there looking me in the eye and saying, ”Sophomore slump — we cannot have it, John.” So there was a lot more pressure on us. The level of complexity jumped up tremendously. The more geometric something is, the easier it is to do with a computer. But when you look at nature, it’s organic and not geometric. We did research right outside around the garden [with a tiny camera], and when you get down at that level, everything is translucent. It’s like stained-glass windows everywhere.
Toy Story 2
We started it as a direct-to-video sequel, but Disney quickly said, ”This is a theatrical release.” And it was not going well. I stepped in as director, and we had a two-day off-site in Sonoma, Calif., and basically rehashed the story. We made that movie in nine months. There was something really fun about making a film that fast. Literally, if it made us laugh we storyboarded it, and by the end of the next week it was animated. It was our biggest dash, but we don’t want to do that again to our people. About a third came down with repetitive strain injury [a painful condition caused by tasks like computer typing], and a few people were really hurt. We threw out all the chairs and keyboards, and everybody got new stuff.
I didn’t want Pixar to be a place where only John Lasseter directed movies. I wanted it to be a studio of great directors who were all making their own movies. Pete Docter was next up and had developed Monsters, Inc., and Andrew Stanton was developing Finding Nemo. We are like a band, and instead of breaking up and doing solo albums, we let different people be the lead singer.
One of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my career is getting The Incredibles greenlighted by Disney. [Director] Brad Bird had the reputation of being difficult to manage because he’s so passionate. Spy Kids had come out, which Disney had released [through Miramax/Dimension]. And superhero movies were all being done in live-action. Disney thought that was the form that those movies should be in. But I knew Brad would take our medium to another place. We had never done a film with the lead characters being humans. They are the hardest things to do in computer animation, and we jumped right in and learned to swim.
It was a very personal story for me. My dad was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership in the heyday of the great Chevrolet muscle cars of the late ’60s and early ’70s, and I was a parts delivery boy at 16. So I love cars. In 2000, I took the summer off. We bought a motor home and devoted two months to this cross-country trip [with wife Nancy and their five sons]. We went down Route 66, and I learned that the journey in life is a reward. I came back and said, I know exactly what this movie needs to be about. A race car is built from the ground up to do one thing: go as fast as it can. But what if it got stuck in a place where everybody moves much more slowly? Also, I met this amazing guy in Charlotte, N.C., at a NASCAR race. His name is Mater and he’s the self-appointed mayor of ”Redneck Hill,” as he calls it. There’s a real Mater.
There are a few instances at both Pixar and Disney where we’ll start with a project and have great belief in it, and the director just doesn’t work out. Creative differences. Leadership. All these things. Ratatouille wasn’t quite clicking with Jan Pinkava, so we called Brad Bird. The film is one of my personal favorites, and what I found interesting was that it made huge amounts of money in France. It was [produced] during the whole ”freedom fries” era — remember that? — and it was our love letter to France regardless of what was being said in Washington.
My favorite movie of all time is Dumbo, and Dumbo never speaks. [Looney Tunes director] Chuck Jones always said that with great animation you should be able to turn the sound off and still tell what’s going on. We had this cool idea — what if our main character doesn’t speak? In the initial idea, the humans were these globular, gelatin characters who were see-through. At first you thought they were aliens, and later on you discovered it’s the evolution of humans. But we brought it back to couch-potato [human characters]. We talked to scientists about long-term space travel and [what it does to] bone density. It was a fascinating bit of research.
I’ll never forget sitting in a meeting when [director] Pete Docter and [codirector] Bob Peterson were reading the first treatment of Up. Bob read the beginning of the film, about the life of Carl and Ellie, and I had tears rolling down my face. I am so incredibly proud of the first 10 minutes of Up because it’s a tour de force of storytelling. There’s no dialogue — it’s pure animation with music.
Toy Story 3
Toy Story 3 was an idea we had back when we were finishing Toy Story 2, and I wanted to do it right then and there in 1999. But we had a deal with Disney at the time. We had to do five movies, and sequels did not count. So Steve Jobs said no. Disney bought Pixar in 2006, and the first thing I said was ”I want to do another Toy Story.” I was too busy to direct it, so I asked one of my Toy Story 2 codirectors, Lee Unkrich. We went to the same little house on Tomales Bay, Calif., where we wrote the original Toy Story. And in a weekend we hammered out the story.
We had a scene in Cars where Lightning McQueen goes on a first date with Sally at a drive-in theater. The movie playing was a spy movie, starring this [British] character named Finn McMissile. It got cut, but I never forgot how cool it’d be to do a spy movie with cars. I was excited about this idea because it’s completely, utterly different from the original. We’re not just rehashing. Most sequels are done from a business standpoint, but that’s not why we do it.