A Minute With: Disney's John Lasseter on creating Oscar magic

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - Disney’s Pixar Animation Studios head into the next week’s Oscars with the only movie ever nominated for both best film and best animated film, “Up,” about an old man and boy on an adventure in a faraway land.

John Lasseter (C), chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios and executive producer of "Up", poses with characters Russell (L) and Carl Fredricksen from the film during the film's premiere in Hollywood, California May 16, 2009. REUTERS/Fred Prouser

Since its release last spring, “Up” has sold more than $725 million worth of tickets worldwide. It follows a string of successes that include “The Incredibles” and “Cars.”

Disney/Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter, a major star in the world of animation, spoke to Reuters about “Up” and the company’s moviemaking philosophy, including another Disney Oscar hopeful, “The Princess and the Frog.”

Q: Any film with the Pixar stamp seems to spell success. Do you ever worry that a film may stumble?

A: “Probably more than any other movie we’ve made here at Pixar, “Up” was the one we were the most nervous about ... Our audience is so important to us. Every single day, the question that is foremost in my mind is: ‘Are we holding our audience?’ We think our audience is very smart, especially kids. But when someone describes “Up” to you, it doesn’t seem like a movie kids would like. It’s about a 78-year-old guy!”

Q: What kept you going with it?

A: “When (writer/co-director) Bob Peterson read me the treatment, with that opening sequence (in which a boy and girl grow up, get married and live life), I had tears in my eyes. It was so moving. That was the core of the story, so we held on to that and said, ‘We have potential here; stay focused on that.’

Q: A lot of people are saying this year’s animated Oscar nominees -- including Disney’s “The Princess and the Frog” are the best ever. Describe the state of animation in Hollywood.

A: “There were 20 animated films released in 2009, which is a record. But more than that, it was the quality of the films and the wide variety. There were computer animated, hand drawn animated and stop motion animated films like “Coraline” and “The Fantastic Mr. Fox.” It was a spectacular year.”

Q: Four years ago, Disney bought Pixar and made you chief creative officer of the animation unit. What’s changed?

A: “The very first thing I wanted to do was hand-drawn animation again. So we hired (animation team) John Musker and Ron Clements back to the studio. They had been let go because Disney stopped doing hand-drawn animation.”

Q: The result was “The Princess and the Frog,” which gave birth to Disney’s first black princess and earned three Oscar nominations including best animated feature. With all the computer technology in films today, why go back to hand drawn?

A: “I love the medium. It was where I got my training. Never in the history of cinema has a medium entertained an audience. It’s what you do with the medium. But for some reason, hand-drawn animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling.”

Q: Why do you think that was?

A: “Toy Story” was the first computer animated feature ever, so I think others kept looking at the success we had and thought it must be because of the computer animation.”

Q: But you say it’s not.

A: “If you’re sitting in your minivan, playing your computer animated films for your children in the back seat, is it the animation that’s entertaining you as you drive and listen? No, it’s the storytelling. That’s why we put so much importance on story. No amount of great animation will save a bad story.”

Q: Clearly it works. “Toy Story,” “Finding Nemo,” “The Incredibles,” “Ratatouille” “Wall-E” and now “Up” have all earned best screenplay Oscar nominations. What’s the secret?

A: “I believe in research. Each movie at Pixar involves research with college professors or taking trips to learn as much as we can about a particular subject matter...I have met a lot of top chefs around the world during my travels. Each one of them has said “Ratatouille” is their favorite movie and the only movie that truly captures what they do. Auto Week called “Cars” the best car movie because the details were spot on.”

Q: Pixar’s 11th film is “Toy Story 3,” due out June 18th. What can you say about this third installment?

A: “In “Toy Story 2,” Barbie appeared. In “Toy Story 3” she meets Ken, who makes his film debut. He is voiced by Michael Keaton and it’s one of the funniest things you have ever seen.”

Editing by Bob Tourtellotte and Patricia Reaney