The man who could save animation
John Lasseter, the creative engine behind the Pixar hit machine, is poised to make over Disney's cartoon empire
His dad managed the parts department of a Chevy dealership in Whittier, Calif. And when John Lasseter went there to work as a stock boy at age 16, he became obsessed with the mechanics, the ornamentation, the whole history of automobiles. ”When you hear a gorgeous car rev its engine, it does something to you,” he says over a hearty breakfast one mid-March morning, during the annual ShoWest convention of movie theater owners in Las Vegas. ”And you know what? It does something to women. I’m not kidding you. They get really turned on by it. That’s why guys with hot rods would get chicks.”
Lasseter says that if it weren’t for the grounding influence of his wife, Nancy, whom he met in 1985 and with whom he referees a brood of five grade-school-to-postcollege boys, ”I’d have a warehouse full of vintage cars, and nothing else.” But an even greater passion has ruled him from early childhood. ”On school mornings, you couldn’t get me out of bed,” he says. ”Saturdays? I was up and waiting for the first cartoon to come on. I knew exactly which channels had which cartoons, and I’d watch all morning until Bowling for Dollars would come on. Even when it was uncool in high school to like cartoons and toys, I still had my G.I. Joes and my Hot Wheels. I would race home after school for Bugs Bunny and his buddies on channel 11 at 4:30. There was no recording it. If you missed it, you missed it.”
He’s 49 now, and John Lasseter’s life still revolves around great cartoons and cool automobiles — except now he’s creating them. This summer, he’ll be rolling out a combination of his two loves with Cars, the seventh film assembled by computer-animation hit factory Pixar. And soon, as an incoming chief creative officer at Disney, he’ll be helping retool the company’s entire ‘toon outfit — but let’s take his fast-track career one lap at a time, shall we?
Toy Story, Lasseter’s feature-directing debut and the first all-CG movie in history, kicked things off in 1995 for Pixar when it grossed $192 million — though most of the profits went to the Walt Disney Co. as the producer and distributor of the film. Steve Jobs, Pixar’s CEO, wrangled much better terms after that — essentially a 50-50 split — and in a hot streak unmatched by any other studio, let alone any other animation studio, the hits just kept coming. Lasseter directed A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2; he then exec-produced Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and The Incredibles, helping establish a stable of additional Pixar directors in the process. (Cars marks a return to full-on filmmaking for Lasseter.)
All told, Pixar’s films have grossed more than $3 billion globally, with huge additional home-video and merchandising revenues. That has spurred competition, and other studios have managed to craft CG blockbusters as well, though not as consistently or to comparable critical acclaim. DreamWorks’ Shrek franchise is already well past the billion-dollar mark, and the Ice Age films haven’t done badly for Fox-owned Blue Sky Studios — a place that happens to be run by an old friend of Lasseter’s, Chris Wedge. ”Actually, a lot of my Blue Sky colleagues have ended up at Pixar,” says Wedge. ”John has tried to hire me away numerous times. But he’s always supported my dedication to Blue Sky. Every time we finish something, he’s the first phone call I get. It’s nice to be wanted.” Wedge also appreciates how Lasseter and Pixar’s technical staff have galvanized the CG industry to improve its tools. In the early days, when he and Lasseter were still struggling visionaries, ”the technology was brutally unresponsive. It wasn’t interactive at all, and the images looked cold and electronic.”