John Lasseter: Disney's new boss reimagines the Magic Kingdom
From the International Herald Tribune:
John Lasseter: Disney's new boss reimagines the Magic Kingdom
By Laura M. Holson
Monday, March 5, 2007
BURBANK, California: 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 in 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, Lasseter and his colleagues from Pixar and Disney met with the director, Stephen Anderson, and told him so. For six hours.
Ten months later, Lasseter was back in the screening room, watching Anderson's new version of "Meet the Robinsons," which is set for release 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, 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, 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, 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 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."
Longtime colleagues say the force that will guide the coming changes — to the studio's offices, to the films at the multiplex, to toys and rides — is 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 this year'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, California, 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."
Lasseter rarely sits still. His hands dance and wave in the air in front of him as he rattles off ideas. 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. "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.
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 campus in Emeryville, California, where artists play afternoon badminton games and executives zip between in-house meetings on scooters. "We did not want to come here and turn it into Pixar," Lassater said.
Still, the cultural shift they are devising seems more like Pixar than not. For one thing, Lasseter and 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," Catmull said.
"When people draw, they are learning to see."
Source URL: http://www.iht.com/articles/2007/03/...tures/lass.php