The Ichiro Suzuki of Hollywood, Pixar so far has batted 11-for-11 in feature film hits, generating $6.6 billion in worldwide grosses and 40 Oscar nominations. Woody and Buzz Lightyear to WALL•E and Lightning McQueen have yielded even more in ancillary revenue for parent company Disney from toys, clothes, DVDs, and theme-park attractions. Pixar has 1,200 employees so there’s a lot of credit to go around, but no single person has been more vital to the Pixar success story than chief creative officer John Lasseter. The 54-year-old, Hawaiian shirt-wearing filmmaker has directed five of Pixar’s features, including this month’s Cars 2. He’s also shepherded every Pixar production, and was the sole character animator when the company was founded in 1986.
For the studio’s 25th anniversary, Lasseter agreed to reflect on all 12 of Pixar’s features. His memories can be found in this week’s new issue (on stands June 17). But the animation wiz also discussed Pixar’s early days of struggle (when it made short films as a means to showcase its bulky graphics computer), his groundbreaking short films, and how director Tim Burton unintentionally paved the way for Toy Story.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: When Pixar was founded in 1986, you were a 29-year-old animator. At that time, what was the atmosphere at Pixar like?
JOHN LASSETER: Yeah, I was the youngest guy there. Pixar was [originally] the Lucasfilm Computer Division. [Computer scientist and current Pixar president] Ed Catmull was hired by George Lucas in 1979 and was asked to do three projects, with a fourth project added by Ed. They were insane ideas at the time: digital nonlinear film editing, digital sound editing, digital optical printing, and 3-D computer animation, which is something that Ed brought with him. They were crazy, nutty ideas, and of course, that’s [now] the way everything is made across the world.
I joined the group in 1983 as the only traditionally trained animator. It was a very small group, but it was the smartest, most amazing computer researchers from around the world. They brought me in to work on the very first 3-D computer animation of a character. It was [a short film] called The Adventures of André and Wally B. I was developing stuff [while employed] at Disney with computers doing the backgrounds and the characters still animated by hand. [Watch Lasseter's CG-animated test for Where the Wild Things Are] But Ed challenged me and said, “Let’s try to do everything with the computer.” André and Wally B. was a massive step forward — it was the first time we figured out how to do accurate motion blur.
In early 1986, Steve Jobs bought our group from George Lucas [for $5 million]. We were about 40 employees, and of that, there were only four of us that were involved in computer animation. Pixar was primarily a hardware and software company. We had the Pixar Image Computer that we developed, and we were developing all the software, like RenderMan [a program used for rendering all of Pixar's films, plus many visual effects for Hollywood blockbusters].
But Ed Catmull had this dream of ultimately making a computer-animated film…
Right. His dream, even though he was doing all this other stuff, was always to do a computer-animated feature film. That’s what led him to Lucasfilm. And when it became Pixar, it was part of the dream of what Pixar would be. But still, Steve Jobs was primarily investing in the technology and the people.
And you were making these short films to basically show off the Pixar Image Computer?
Exactly. My job as the lone animator in that time frame, starting in 1986, was to take a look at all the technology being developed and think of a little short film to show off at SIGGRAPH [an annual computer-graphics conference]. I was learning how to model [objects] within the computer. It was very painstaking entering a bunch of numbers.
Were you a computer guy before this?
[laughs] No, far from it.
So you had this enormous hill to conquer…
Well, when I came in during that era, all of the computer animation out in the world was being created by the people who wrote the software. It’s like imagining a world where the chemists who mix up the paint were also making all the paintings. I was really the first Disney-trained animator to come in and actually animate with the computer in the world.
Coming in, my approach was that I was going to need to learn computer programming. But all these other guys have master’s [degrees] and PhDs in computer science — I’m never going to know what these guys know. Then I realized, wait a minute, I was taught by the great Disney animators how to bring a character to life, and give it a personality and emotion through pure movement. That’s what I know, and they don’t know that. So instead of trying to learn what they know, I’m just going to sit next to them and we’re going to work in collaboration. That was totally unique at the time — to have a traditionally trained artist working side-by-side with these gifted computer scientists. That really became the foundation of Pixar and how the studio works: The art challenges the technology, and the technology inspires the art.
What was the genesis of Pixar’s first short film, Luxo Jr.?
In 1986, Ed came to me and said, “Okay, we’re now a separate company. I want to do a film for SIGGRAPH.” I had a Luxo lamp on my drawing table, and I was just using it as an example to model on at the time. I had started moving it around and bringing it to life, because I’ve always loved bringing inanimate objects to life. And then [colleague] Tom Porter brought his newborn son in to work. I was noticing how the scale of a child’s head to his body was very different, and is part of what makes him really cute. So I looked at the lamp and wondered, what would a baby lamp look like?
I started developing a little story with the lamp squishing a ball. At the time, we had limited computer power. There’s more computer power in that [Lasseter points to a digital voice recorder on the table]. They came to me and said, “We can’t afford any moving cameras [in the short].” Then they said, “We can’t really afford a computer background, either. It’s just going to be black.” And I said, “Okay, can you give me a floor?” So all we had was this wood floor, a plug, and a black background.
Luxo Jr. premiered at SIGGRAPH in 1986 in Dallas, and people were standing and cheering even before it finished playing. And I realized that those limitations — no moving cameras and no background — helped everybody focus on the characters. Jim Blinn, a real pioneer in computer graphics, came up to me and said, “John, I have a question for you.” I thought it was going to be about the algorithm, the self-shadowing or something like that. But he said, “Was the parent lamp a mother or a father?” That simple statement made me realize that we achieved something that computer animation hadn’t before. What was interesting to people was the story and the characters, not the mere fact that it was made with a computer.
You received an Oscar nomination for Luxo Jr., and continued making a series of short films.
The next four years, we did a short for SIGGRAPH every year. Red’s Dream was in 1987, which I jokingly say is Pixar’s Blue Period, meaning the film had a sad ending and really explored pathos. Tin Toy, in 1988, developed the idea of toys being alive, which eventually led to Toy Story. And Tin Toy won the Academy Award that year for Best Animated Short. And then in 1989 was Knick Knack, which was done in 3-D because I was crazy about 3-D, but there were absolutely no theaters to see a 3-D movie at the time.
And 1991 was when Disney finally showed interest in making a feature film?
Yes, and Disney showed interest because we were developing software with them for doing digital ink and paint. It was called CAPS [Computer Animation Production System, which allowed Disney animators to digitally paint their drawings for traditionally animated films like Beauty and the Beast]. So we had a relationship with them. Disney kept trying to hire me back after each of the short films I had made. I kept saying, “Let me make a film for you up here [at Pixar].” They always said, “No, a Disney animated film will always be made at Disney.” They had no interest in doing an outside project.
What changed their mind was Tim Burton. Tim and I went to college together [at the California Institute of Arts], and he had developed a feature idea [while working as an animator at Disney] called The Nightmare Before Christmas. He went on to become a successful live-action director and was trying to buy Nightmare back from Disney. And they said, “Why don’t you just make it for us?” That opened the door for Disney to think of these “niche” animated films that could be done. They said, “Okay, we’re willing to talk with you. We’ve got puppet animation going [with Tim Burton] and now we’ll be willing to develop the computer animation.” They said to come back when we had an idea. So we started thinking…
The resulting film was, of course, 1995′s Toy Story. To read John Lasseter’s recollections about that film, plus every other Pixar feature, pick up the new issue of Entertainment Weekly, on stands June 17.