LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - One evening last August, hundreds of people filed into Hollywood’s elegant El Capitan Theater to pay tribute to the late Ollie Johnston, the last surviving member of the “Nine Old Men,” the pioneering animators who brought Walt Disney’s classics to the screen.
Among them was John Lasseter, chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios and also principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. His voice trembling, Lasseter spoke of how thrilling it was getting to know Johnston when he first came to Disney in 1979.
“We weren’t embraced at that time by many of the people leading (Disney),” he recalled. “The Nine Old Men were starting to step away and retire. But it was the Nine Old Men who embraced us. They wanted to teach us everything that they knew. They recognized, more than anybody else, that they were handing the torch off.”
The torch has been passed. Over the past two decades, the 51-year-old Lasseter has become not only the most prominent successor to the Nine Old Men, but arguably the most important figure in animation since Disney himself.
This year, he’s a key player behind two animated films: “WALL-E,” already hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, and “Bolt,” debuting November 21.
One comes from the ever-inventive Pixar, the other from Disney’s decades-old animation unit. If Lasseter is now pivotal to both, that is no coincidence: His groundbreaking work has never ignored its debt to the past.
“He’s been an extraordinary force in innovating and renewing excitement about the animated feature in this country,” says film historian Charles Solomon. And, he says, he did so “at a time when it was falling into the doldrums.”
Lasseter’s L-shaped office on the Pixar campus in Emeryville, Calif., brims with scripts, family pictures and a multitude of toys.
One wall serves as a shrine to Lasseter’s favorite animation director, Japan’s Hayao Miyazaki, with signed posters, pictures and mementos from films like his 2003 best animated feature Oscar winner “Spirited Away.”
“His films are so specific,” Lasseter says. “They have such heart. They’re so inventive. They’re always inspirational.”
Heart. Inventiveness. Inspiration. These are Lasseter’s own hallmarks, visible in everything from the free education available to Pixar employees to the imaginative way he works with Pixar’s “Brain Trust,” a group of directors who play a pivotal role on each film.
The Brain Trust is critical to Pixar’s success. It gets together regularly to look at work done by other directors and comment candidly.
It’s part of a strategy Lasseter calls “plussing,” constantly adding input from all sources.
“It’s always assumed there’s a way to make it better at every stage,” says Pete Docter, director of 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.” “John is great at saying, ‘Well, what if you did this extra little gesture?’ And suddenly it really sparkles and comes to life.”
But it would be foolish to think this happens in some nebulous ether. Lasseter’s boyish manner masks a far more driven figure.
His quest for perfection has led him to let go of actors who don’t work out, as he did with one actress who was meant to play the title role of “Tinker Bell,” a film in Disney’s newest direct-to-DVD animated franchise, the Disney Fairies. It has also led him to part ways with filmmakers who don’t share his vision -- as he did with Chris Sanders, who was originally attached to direct “Bolt.”
Sanders had conceived of “Bolt” under a different title, “American Dog.” It was in development at Disney when Lasseter arrived in 2006, but he and the Brain Trust were critical of what they saw. Lasseter gave Sanders notes to improve the story, but the director resisted. The project remained at Disney, but Sanders was let go.
“‘Bolt’ was a restart,” says Ed Catmull, president of Pixar and Disney animation studios. “The roughest concept was kept, but the look was different, the characters were different.”
The irony, of course, is that Lasseter has been there himself: Sitting back in his desk, he notes that in 1983, he was fired from the very Walt Disney Studios he now dominates.
The son of a Chevy parts manager and a high school art teacher, Lasseter stumbled upon Bob Thomas’ book “The Art of Animation” during his freshman year at Whittier High School.
“It dawned on me,” he says, “(that) people actually make cartoons for a living.”
Not long after, Disney’s 1963 movie “The Sword in the Stone” showed up in the local discount theater. When he got into his mother’s car after watching it, he told her: “I’m going to work for Walt Disney.”
Around that time, Lasseter got a letter announcing a new major at the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia, Calif.: character animation, to be taught by the last of the original Disney animators. The summer before entering CalArts, he worked for the program’s director, mostly copying the work of classic animators for use by the students.
Lasseter thrived at CalArts, where he studied alongside classmates Brad Bird, Tim Burton and John Musker. While there, he won two Student Academy Awards -- and he remains the only two-time winner in history.
Also while at CalArts, Lasseter saw another film that would strongly impact his thinking: 1977’s “Star Wars.” He was there on opening weekend in a packed auditorium at the Chinese Theater in Hollywood. “You’ve never seen an audience as pumped to see a movie as that,” he says. “I thought to myself, ‘Animation can do this (too).’ So I had deep in me this fundamental belief that animation is not just for kids.”
But when he started his “dream job” at Disney, his enthusiasm and idealism took an initial hit. After a training course, Lasseter was put to work on “The Fox and the Hound” (1981). He tried to make suggestions, but was told to keep quiet.
“It was stifling,” he recalls. “They really went to great effort to squish the young talent. The creative leadership at the time was these guys who were kind of second-tier animators. I didn’t want control, power -- that’s what they were into. I just wanted to make the movies better. The famous saying back then was, ‘What would Walt do?’ Walt died in 1966! The studio had been hermetically sealed.”
When Lasseter tried to go around a powerful manager to pitch a project, he was fired.
But his time at Disney wasn’t wasted -- he did get to meet Johnston and Frank Thomas, another of the Nine Old Men. He learned from them, and from a book they were writing, “Disney Animation: The Illusion of Life,” which became the authoritative history of early Disney animation.
“The biggest thing I learned was to make your character really feel like it’s thinking,” he explains. “Every moment should create the idea that it was generated by that character’s own thought process.”
Still, the once-brilliant student was now out of a job, with no apparent future.
“I had always dreamed of working at the Disney studio,” he says. “It was just crushing.”
The devastating impact of that firing seems even clearer when one considers that Lasseter didn’t mention it to anyone for years, not even to his friend Catmull, whom he ran into soon after the incident at a computer graphics conference.
“I didn’t tell people I got fired until just recently,” Lasseter admits. “When you’re young, your identity is wrapped up in this dream. To have the rug pulled out from under me was so disheartening.”
Luckily, Catmull was working on some new ideas at Lucasfilm’s computer graphics division, and he quickly invited Lasseter to join them for a month. He wound up staying much longer.
Lasseter had a vision of using computers in animation, but at the time they were largely relegated to creating backgrounds. Now at Lucasfilm, he and Catmull would explore computerized animation to brilliant effect, creating the very first computer-animated short, “The Adventures of Andre and Wally B.”
Lasseter calls George Lucas a “visionary,” but he wasn’t drawn to computer animation. “Lucas wanted these tools for making films, but wasn’t interested in the computer side of it,” Lasseter explains. “So we started looking around (for new financing).”
Some Disney insiders wanted to buy the company, but then-studio chief Jeffrey Katzenberg nixed it. When Apple co-founder Steve Jobs found out about Lucas’ group, he thought he sniffed a deal.
In 1986, Jobs bought the computer graphics unit of Lucasfilm for the fire-sale price of $5 million, injected another $5 million of capital into it, and renamed it Pixar -- a made-up, Spanish-sounding word meaning to make pictures.
As Pixar thrived, making Oscar-winning shorts that became the talk of the entertainment community, the Walt Disney Co. wasn’t blind to its success. In the 1990s, Disney tried to hire Lasseter back, but he stayed where he was.
“I wasn’t making much money, but I felt I was on the edge of something,” he says. “We were the cutting edge of this new technology.”
So after his overtures failed to woo Lasseter back to the Disney fold, Katzenberg made a deal with Pixar for Lasseter to direct the first computer-animated feature film, which turned out to be 1995’s “Toy Story.”
Despite Katzenberg’s enthusiasm, there was considerable skepticism at the studio. “They didn’t think you could get the emotion out of the computer-created characters,” recalls Disney Studios chairman Dick Cook. “When something new comes out, you’re always going to have a certain amount of skepticism.”
Lasseter had the opportunity on “Toy Story” to be the sole author of the screenplay, and to keep all the creative decisions to himself. Instead, he put together a core group that included Andrew Stanton, Docter and the late Joe Ranft -- the beginnings of what would come to be known as the Brain Trust -- who worked as a collective on every aspect of production.
“Part of that is his temperament,” says Stanton, director of “WALL-E.” “(John) thrives on others. The most anxious I have seen him is when he is alone too long on a problem.”
As this was Pixar’s first feature-length movie, Katzenberg gave lots of notes -- above all, to make the characters edgy so they would play to adults as well as kids. But when Pixar brought the first reels to Burbank, the studio’s leaders hated them because the characters were too edgy -- bordering on unlikeable. Executives ordered production halted and people fired.
But Lasseter, determined not to break up Pixar, begged for time to fix the first reel and was given two weeks.
“We said, ‘Let’s just make the movie we want,’” he recalls.
Two weeks later they had turned the film around, and the rest is animation history.
“Toy Story” launched a period of creativity unrivaled since Disney’s golden era.
“A Bug’s Life” (1998) and “Toy Story 2” (1999) proved digital animation was no fluke. They were followed by “Monsters, Inc.” (2001), “Finding Nemo” (2003), “The Incredibles” (2004), “Cars” (2006), “Ratatouille” (2007) and now “WALL-E.”
They were films that transformed what anyone had imagined animation could do, picking up three best animated feature Oscars in the process.
They also transformed Pixar’s financial standing.
A week after “Toy Story” opened, Jobs took the company public. In 1997, Pixar and Disney forged a new pact, splitting development costs and profits 50-50 on five feature-length films over 10 years. But after Pixar produced a few more box office hits, Disney found rival bidders on the scene.
Just who would get Pixar’s films when the Disney contract ran out after “Cars” in 2006 led to hostility between Jobs and then-Disney chairman Michael Eisner, jeopardizing relations between the two companies.
On January 29, 2004, Jobs surprised Eisner when he announced an end to negotiations with Disney on a new contract. It was only when Robert Iger replaced Eisner that relations started to improve.
Iger moved quickly to open lines of communication and not long after sealed a deal to buy Pixar for $7.4 billion worth of Disney stock.
On May 5, 2006, the deal was closed. Not only did Jobs become Disney’s biggest individual shareholder, but Lasseter was named to his current posts, making him one of the most powerful executives at the studio that had unceremoniously parted ways with the young animator 23 years prior.
He manages to split his week between Disney facilities in Burbank and Glendale and the Pixar Studios in Emeryville. He attends meetings on movies in development and those in progress; on projects at Imagineering for theme parks; on products for merchandising and licensing; and still manages to consult on other creative activities throughout the company.
For Lasseter, life is a juggling act between the executive he has become and the artist he remains.
“Working at Pixar is like being a trapeze artist, where you’re looking across at the other guy to catch you,” he noted. Like all great circus artists, he added, “you want to do something no one has ever done before.”