Interview: Pixar and Disney Creative Chief John Lasseter!
by Alex Billington
November 21, 2008
Pixar co-founder John Lasseter is somewhat of a legend in the eyes of Pixar fans like myself. He directed Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, and Cars and is responsible for so much of what makes that company as brilliant as it is today. He has brought that Pixar magic to his newest role as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Lasseter's first animated film with Disney is Bolt, which hits theaters everywhere today. Earlier this week I was given the incredible honor of sitting down with Lasseter, in his awe-inspiring office on the Disney lot in Burbank, California, and talking with him about his role at Disney, involvement with Bolt, and so much more. Without further ado, let's get into the mind of John Lasseter.
Before we get too far into this interview, I want to be sure to express how much I loved Bolt. Not only was it very entertaining, but it seems that Disney has finally been able to capture some of that Pixar magic in a movie of their own. Sure it's about adventure and mayhem (of the hamster kind), but it's also about love, and I mean that in the most honest way. Bolt believes so much that his owner Penny truly cares for him, he won't give up no matter what. It's that mix of charm and entertainment that I think only Pixar has been able to pull off until now. With that in mind, let's get right into this interview with a legend himself.
Can you explain what your position is at Disney now that you've moved here?
John Lasseter: I'm Chief Creative Officer. What that means is I oversee all the things that go on with the studio, the creative side of it -- the storytelling, the look of the films and all kinds of the things on the creative side. We work hand-in-hand with Ed Catmull, who's president of the division, and Andrew Millstein, who is the head of production and general manager. And so we're heavily involved also in what goes on with the studio. Like the decision to create the "caffeine patch" [coffee break area] by knocking down a conference room. We wanted to try to give a kind of a sense of a center to this studio. Kind of like what we were familiar with Pixar with the big atrium. This studio didn't have anything like that, so creating a small space that just has a sense of center to the building.
I work really closely with consumer products and parks and things like that. I do a lot of work over at the parks as well. One of the things that I wanted to -- one of the parts of the animation studio that I'm so excited about is the animation research library which houses all the great animation art. And so, all these reproductions on my walls here are -- those are from the ARL. And one of the things that I wanted to do was -- well, this is the first thing -- when we came in we changed the name back. They used to be called Disney Feature Animation, we changed it back to the Walt Disney Animation Studios because I believe this is the same studio that Walt built. And to the outside world that's the name of it anyway.
So we created this letterhead and we scanned from an original piece of Disney stationery, from the studio, this Mickey Mouse and put it on there. But the cool thing is that we went to the animation research library and found great Disney art and on the back of each piece is a reproduction. And I love this stuff so much. So one of the things we've done is -- not just with the stationery, but this book comes out, I believe, tomorrow. It's the first book in the new Walt Disney Animation Studios The Archive Series and we worked very, very closely with a group over at the animation research library -- all the archivists over there. This one was on story so it's just story sketches, great reproductions from story sketches from -- all through the heroes and movies from short films and everything. And just looking at this great art, it's just page after page of new stuff, old stuff from all the great artists. But it's sort of an example of, I think, the notion of celebrating the unbelievable heritage of this place that is unique only to Disney. But also, like this is to serve that this -- I'm holding the bar really high because Walt Disney's name is on our films and we have got to make these films as good as he did. So I have that really, really conviction of making these films great for our audience but also for the artists here.
What crossovers have you brought from Pixar? Have they felt the influence here of Pixar and has Pixar felt the influence of Disney from your crossover?
Lasseter: Well, I think that the one thing that we brought down -- they're two separate studios and they'll kind of remain that way. A studio is really -- it's not the building but the people. So the one thing we did bring down from Pixar is the notion that this is a filmmaker-driven studio now, not an executive-led studio. It always was an executive-led studio before. And to me what we've created at Pixar is something where -- it's these filmmakers, it's their stories, it's what they want to be doing and it's coming from them. We surround them with the other directors and story people in order to create this atmosphere. And the focus is 100% on the creative and making the movies the best they can be. And that's what we've brought down here is that notion.
We've created a creative brain trust at this studio and it's all the directors plus the key story people. And it's making these movies as best as we can make them. Everything is focused on the story, the characters, and that's what we've always had at Pixar as well. And frankly, at Pixar we've always made our movies in the model of Walt Disney anyway. The type of films where they're great for families, for kids, as well as adults and for teenagers and young adults. We make the movies for ourselves. Walt Disney always said for every laugh there should be a tear. And I think with Bolt especially, it's one of the funniest films I've ever been involved with but it's also, I think, one of the most heartwarming films.
I'm curious to learn more about your direct involvement with the directors and the story. Is it something where you're personally working with the writers almost every day? How much direct involvement do you have in that sense?
Lasseter: Well, I probably spent maybe about two days a week on Bolt, with the team. And I would spend some pretty long meetings with them. The story was the most important thing in the beginning, kind of getting [Dan Fogelman and Chris Williams into] story sessions and brainstorming and looking at storyboards but mostly looking at story reels and making comments on that. We always work on the script, but it's mostly getting straight into the storyboarding and creating the story reel, which is a version of the movie using the still storyboard drawings with scratch voices and music and so on.
And we watch -- every three to four months we show a screening of the story reels. Religiously we do that. Then we get together and make comments. It's a way that you can see how things are going, if things are getting better, or if it's not staying the same or it's getting a little more confusing. So it's a great signpost to be able to do that. So I work very closely with them on that process. Then it -- I kind of kick off and get started all the different departments and talk to them with the directors and talk about the kind of vision, with the animators getting the character designs to look great, the environmental designs and all that stuff. This is the directors' movie and I kind of let them do their thing, but I'll work closely with them and kick off all those different divisions.
I want to touch on 3-D and the future of animation, where you see it going. I know Jeffrey Katzenberg's whole thing is 3-D. Is that something that you guys see for Disney and Pixar as well moving forward?
Lasseter: Yes. Disney's made two animated films in 3-D. Bolt is a great -- it was made from the very beginning as a 3-D film. And it really looks great in 3-D. I've always loved 3-D. I made an animated short film in 1989 and I took my wedding pictures in 3-D, so to say I love 3-D is-- But in '89 there were no movie theaters you could show it in and now, of course, there's theaters all over, which is very exciting. 3-D is really kind of fun and it sort of engulfs you and brings you into the story even that much more. But the 3-D itself is not going to entertain audiences. It's the same way with computer animation. It's what you would do with it. It's the kind of stories you tell. That's really the key thing. We will always have Pixar and Disney, where we're going to be making all of our computer animated films in 3-D and I love that. Whether it's a 3-D film or a 2-D film, it's about telling a great story with great characters. That's been the hallmark of Pixar films, the hallmark of Disney films. And that's really what the essence is.
So I'm guessing for Pixar, at least, those films will all be designed from the start as 3-D films then?
Lasseter: Yes, 3-D is incorporated -- the philosophy is like, 3-D is a great technique but you have to incorporate that from the beginning and that's really the philosophy. But Up and Bolt are made from the beginning as 3-D films.
I've noticed that a lot recently with films that have been designed from the ground up in 3-D. And it goes back to the idea of voices in animation and how, when they're sought to fill the actual character rather than a name, it turns out much better in the end. That's the same with 3-D for me, as I wasn't really a fan of 3-D when it's applied after, but now I've seen it become a really well-done technique when it's designed from the start.
Lasseter: Right, exactly. The goal is, whether it's 2-D or 3-D, whether you have a big star or not a big star, the goal is, in my mind: the lights dim, the movie starts and the audience gets taken away into the story and you don't think about a thing until the movie's done. You truly, deeply entertain an audience and that's really what we're about and that's what my focus has always been. But we have been on the forefront of every new technological revolution. It's the hallmark of also Walt Disney. The first to do a computer animated film of Toy Story and now we're the first to do 3-D animated films. But it's always in the service of the story.
Jumping backwards in technology, was it refreshing to be able to get back to that hand drawn art in The Princess and the Frog?
Lasseter: I love it. I love the hand drawn animation. And I've always felt like it's such an important part of this studio. And look, I never ever believed that audiences don't want to watch hand drawn animation. What they don't want to watch is bad movies. Right? It's like 2-D animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling. And it's one of those things and it's just so -- it's about entertaining an audience, that's what it's about. I love new technology but you love to just make it so that the audience is just -- if they're aware of the technology or the artistry that's involved, you're not doing a good job as a filmmaker. And that's why I've always been inspired by the new technology and also old technology with the hand drawn animation. I just think it's gorgeous. I mean look at these drawings, it's just gorgeous. And you see The Princess and the Frog and it's just so beautiful and so immersive. And you sit there and go, oh, this is amazing. So, anyway, I'm proud to have this studio be doing cutting edge computer animation -- like Bolt with that amazing new background technology -- and then to be doing hand drawn animation as well.
Thank you to John Lasseter and everyone at Disney for coordinating this! Hopefully I'll be able to chat with Lasseter again in the future. Bolt arrives in theaters this weekend and is a must see for anyone who loves animation or just wants to be entertained.