This man has the best job in the world

  • People
  • Wednesday, 10 Dec 2014

Toy story: John Lasseter’s office at Pixar Animation Studios is filled with toys.

John Lasseter, chief creative officer of Pixar and Disney, tells why he loves going to work every day.

It was close to 50 minutes into the interview – 20 minutes past the time allotted to the five journalists from South-East Asia – and John Lasseter was nowhere near done talking.

We were thrilled, of course – after all, how often do we get the opportunity to chat with the master of modern animation himself?

Lasseter in his office at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

His team, however, was fidgeting, anxious to wrap things up as Lasseter still had a couple of interviews left and time was running out.

The conversation at that point was on Frozen, the box-office smash that signalled Disney’s much-awaited creative rebirth, winning Walt Disney Animation Studio its first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature and assuming top spot as the highest-grossing animated movie of all time. Lasseter couldn’t be prouder or happier, or more eager to talk about the film that had firmly re-established Disney’s place at the top. Alongside Pixar, of course.

Frozen - about a girl who wonders why shes the one who has the powers that can hurt people – gave Walt Disney Animation Studio its first Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. 

“We really wanted to bring back the Disney fairy tale. I couldn’t understand why Disney went away from the classic fairy tale in the first place. They felt that the world had grown too cynical for that kind of storytelling, but I disagreed. Of course, you can’t tell the same story that Walt Disney did in the 1950s today … it has to be for today’s audiences,” he explained.

After Disney bought over Pixar in 2006, Lasseter – a founding member of Pixar – became the chief creative officer of both studios. Together with Pixar president Ed Catmull, Lasseter has endeavoured to re-ignite the magic that was once synonymous with Disney. The reinvention started with Bolt (2008), followed by The Princess And The Frog (2009), Tangled (2010) and Wreck-it Ralph (2012). Each movie fared better than the last, but Disney still didn’t quite reach its magical peak.

Until Frozen.

Although the inspiration was Hans Christian Andersen’s classic The Snow Queen, Lasseter wasn’t happy with the Snow Queen being the villain. So, through a series of brainstorming sessions with the studio’s directors and story editors, a new version of the story evolved.

Elsa, the Snow Queen, wouldn’t be a villain but a victim of her circumstances. Rather than being evil, she lived in fear of hurting the people she loved the most – her sister, Anna.

“When we introduced the sister, I immediately thought of my son, Sam,” shared Lasseter, his eyes softening as he spoke of his family.

Jessie (far left), voiced by Joan Cusack, is the direct result of Lasseter’s wife asking him to include more female characters in his films. In this scene from Toy Story 3, Jessie hangs out with the boys, Buzz Lightyear, voiced by Tim Allen, and Woody, voiced by Tom Hanks.

“Sam was just 10 when he was diagnosed with diabetes and it was devastating for us all. He was in the hospital for a week and every 15 minutes or so, someone would come in and take a blood sample or poke him with needles. Sam turned to his mum and said, ‘Mummy, when are they going to stop poking me with needles?’ My wife started weeping and told him, never.

“At that moment, Sam turned sad and it’s only now, 10 years later, that he’s come out of it,” related Lasseter, wiping tears that had collected in his eyes. “I still get emotional when I talk about this.”

Exactly then, everyone in the room grew still; the fidgeting stopped. Not unlike a touching moment in a Disney film that gets you all choked up, we understood the gravity of his past.

Sam, he explained, couldn’t understand why he had this disease. He was innocent and helpless and that was the emotion Lasseter wanted to bring to Elsa.

“I kept thinking that Elsa would be asking exactly the same question. – ‘Why me?’, ‘Why was I born with this ability (to freeze?)’ She’d be saying, ‘I don’t want this!’” he said.

Perhaps these all-too-real feelings are what tugged the heartstrings of millions,

to empathise with the two sisters.

Heart of the matter

True to his reputation, Lasseter wears his heart on his sleeve – in this instance, a pale yellow sleeve with the print of Disney’s latest hit, Big Hero 6.

“I have the best job in the world. I know you all think you do, but I have the best job. I love making movies and entertaining audiences and it kind of breaks my heart that movie-going, in many parts of the world, has become kinda flat. There is no growth.

“But not in Asia. In your part of the world, it’s still unbelievable how many people are going to the movies and it’s just getting bigger. I’m so excited,” he said, animatedly.

Lasseter knew early in life what he wanted to spend his life doing.

“I loved cartoons, especially the cartoons of Walt Disney, Chuck Jones and Warner Brothers. I never stopped loving cartoons. Even when everyone went on to loving cars, girls and sports … for me it was still cartoons. Luckily for me, my mother – who was an art teacher – felt that art was a noble profession and encouraged me to pursue it,” he added.

After graduating from the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), Lasseter actually got a job at Disney. It was one of the high points of his life, but also one of the lowest.

“A lot of people didn’t know that I got fired from Disney (in 1984), until recently. Even my wife didn’t know (at first). Fresh out of CalArts, I knew that computer animation was the right thing to do. I was pushy; I guess I just pushed too hard. I think the people who were creatively in charge of Disney at the time were afraid of the young blood who were on fire. We kept pushing and they kept squishing us.

“It was a real low point. My whole identity was Disney ... I’d been dreaming of being an animator with Disney for so long and when I got the job, I felt I’d achieved my dream. I just couldn’t tell anyone I was fired. So I just said I followed my interest in computer animation to Lucasfilm,” he shared.

Though it was a heartbreaking experience, when he was asked to come back to Disney close to two decades later, Lasseter was excited.

“Walt Disney and the films he made are exactly why I’m doing this. He created movies that nobody else has been able to recreate ... great stories that are emotional and funny, with memorable and appealing characters. Movies that are really beautiful, like works of art,” he said.

Lasseter explained that though Pixar and Disney remain as two separate companies, the two studios share the same philosophy – making the best movies and telling the best stories possible.

Just like how Sam’s story helped shape Frozen, Lasseter mandates that all stories produced by Pixar and Disney be “from the heart”.

“The two fundamental things I brought to Disney Animation was the way of working and the types of stories we’d tell. Historically, Disney has always been an executive-driven studio with layers and layers of executives who give mandatory notes to the directors and the top person’s notes were always way more important than the rest.

When we took over Disney, the directors had lost their compass. They’d lost faith in themselves and in the leadership. They felt they were no longer making decisions that would make a movie better,” said Lasseter.

To fix things, Lasseter and Catmull got rid of the politics and the hierarchical structure of the studio.

“We wanted everyone in the studio to be focused creatively on the same thing – telling the best stories and making it beautiful by pushing boundaries of technology and animation. We created a Story Trust where filmmakers and storytellers can come together and discuss ideas for a movie.

“There is no hierarchy and although everyone gives notes, they are not mandatory. And my notes are no more important than the next person’s. It took about two years to create that safe place where everyone felt they could be honest and talk freely when they thought something wasn’t working,” Lasseter explained.

A new princess

While the rest of the world raves about Lasseter’s heartfelt stories, his wife Nancy – according to Lasseter – sometimes rebukes him, particularly for not including enough women in leading roles.

In Princess And The Frog, Tiana is no ordinary princess; she doesn't wait to be saved from dire situations.

“She was really hard on me with Toy Story, telling me that I didn’t have a strong female character in there. She kept pushing me and asking me why all the main characters in my movies were guys and I (sheepishly) said, ‘Errrr ... I don’t know why. Maybe it’s because I’m a guy?’” shared Lasseter, who married Nancy, a computer graphics engineer, in 1998. The couple has five sons and lives in Glen Ellen, California.

Nancy’s prodding finally yielded results – the character Jessie, the cowgirl in Toy Story 2, was a direct result of it, and so were the subsequent female characters in other Lasseter films. Though Disney continues to produce fairy tales, the princesses are no longer waiting for men to save them.

“My wife is a very strong female and my mother too. And none of these women are going to wait around for a guy to come save them. And I love that.

“In Princess And The Frog, the female character is the lead and it isn’t about a man, but fulfilling her father’s dream of owning a restaurant. In Tangled, Rapunzel is an independent woman and she drives the story. In Brave, Merida is a strong woman who goes against tradition. These are stories that are being told for today’s audiences. I want to show the audience something which on one level they are familiar with, but in a way, they’ve never seen before,” he concluded.

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