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January 12

January 12, 1957 – John Lasseter is Born

“There’s something about John that you kind of get the feeling that [the fact that something’s never been done before] doesn’t matter. I mean, [just because it hasn’t] been done before, doesn’t mean it can’t be done.” – Glen Keane, animator (The Little Mermaid, Tangled)

John Lasseter was born on January 12, 1957, in Hollywood, California, and was raised in Whittier. When he was growing up, cartoons were seen as “kidstuff,” and part of growing up was to leave the childish things behind, but Lasseter refused to shed his love of animation. “I even watched them when it wasn’t cool in high school,” Lasseter reminisced. During his freshman year, Lasseter found a book in the library that would set him on the path of his passion: The Art of Animation, by Bob Thomas. “When I was growing up, I loved cartoons more than anything else. And when I was in high school, I found this book, this old, ratty book, called The Art of Animation. And it was about the Disney Studios and how they made animated films,” Lasseter said. “And it was one of those things that just dawned on me: people make cartoons for a living. They actually get paid to make cartoons. And I thought, ‘That’s what I wanna do.’ Right then, right there, it was like I knew that’s what I wanted to do.”

Soon after reading the book, Lasseter went to the movies to see a re-release of Disney’s The Sword in the Stone, and after seeing it, he proclaimed to his mother, an art teacher, that he wanted to be an animator for Disney. She encouraged his dream, and Lasseter began to send letters and drawings to the studio, receiving letters of support back. In 1975, Lasseter applied to the California Institute of the Arts (CalArts), was accepted into the first program that taught Disney-style character animation, taught by Disney’s great collaborators of the 1930s, the Nine Old Men. Lasseter found himself in an atmosphere where he didn’t have to hide his love of animation anymore, and was surrounded by those who had the same passion. His classmates included Brad Bird (director of The Incredibles), John Musker (co-director of The Little Mermaid), and Tim Burton.

Lasseter's class at CalArts, dated March 1976

There was no denying Lasseter’s talent at CalArts. Two of his student films won back-to-back Student Academy Awards: Lady and the Lamp in 1979, and Nitemare in 1980. His success brought him his dream job: he became a junior animator at the Disney Studios. Animator Glen Keane remarked that it was “. . . so great to meet John. There was this immediate sharing of information of your passion and excitement for animation, and he knew a lot about the history and the past.” To outsiders, Lasseter was touted as a new rising star. But inside the studio, animation had grown dormant. Budget cuts were taking their toll on animated films, leaving Lasseter brokenhearted. “This was not what I always dreamed Disney was,” he remembered.

The turning point came when employees of the studio were shown a screening of the 1982 film Tron. Lasseter and Keane became excited about the potential they saw in the use of computers for animation. They were able to get approval to experiment with a combination of computer background and 2D animated characters, first working on a 30-second test clip based on Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are. Soon after, Lasseter got approval to work with his story team on a feature film based on the short story The Brave Little Toaster, which would mark his feature directorial debut. After eight months of development, Lasseter had a pitch meeting with the then-head of the studio, Ron Miller. Miller didn’t react favorably to the story, telling Lasseter that “[t]he only reason to do computer animation is if [they] could do it faster or cheaper.” A few mintues later, Lasseter was called down to a manager’s office with this simple but staggering message: “Well, John, your project is now complete, so your employment with the Disney Studios is now terminated.”

Don Hahn (producer for Beauty and the Beast) remarked, “He got fired, because, honestly, the studio didn’t know what to do with him. Even at that early day, this Disney Studio that he dreamed about working at, turned out to be a really dysfunctional place, in reality. And he was a born director, he was a born leader, and his expectation and passion excelled what the studio was doing then.” In 1983, while attending a computer conference in Long Beach, Lasseter ran into Ed Catmull, a speaker at the conference, and a comrade in the passion for 3D computer animation. Lasseter didn’t have the heart to tell Catmull he’d been fired from Disney, but did admit that Brave Little Toaster had been shelved. This was a great opportunity for them both, as Catmull, then working at Lucasfilm, needed to bring on someone who was a real animator. John was hired on the spot under the title of “interface designer,” so as not to alarm George Lucas, as they weren’t sure he would approve of hiring an animator for the technical team.

The Lucasfilm group.

Lasseter inspired the team to create software that would imitate the squash and stretch technique that had been taught in traditional animation courses. Inspired by the design of Mickey Mouse, as well as the limitations of what the computer could do, Lasseter created a character named Andre, made entirely of geometric shapes. The group at Lucasfilm’s first short film, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B, was premiered at the 1984 SIGGRAPH computer convention, and the crowd went wild over it. Lasseter made his way into the spotlight in 1989, when he and Bill Reeves won Oscars for Best Animated Short Subject for Tin Toy, the first ever awarded to a computer-animated film. “With each subsequent short film,” Steve Jobs explained, “John got more ambitious, and the team got more experience, and the software got better.”

To save Pixar, Lasseter pitched to Disney an idea for a half-hour Christmas special based on the award-winning short. Disney, on the other hand, was trying to lure Lasseter back to direct a feature film. But Lasseter was determined to stay with the struggling company. Eventually, Pixar and Disney reached a deal for a full-length animated feature: a story from a toy’s point of view, done in a 3D plastic world. The Pixar staff was elated, and Lasseter later recalled, “Ignorance is bliss. We did not know what we didn’t know.” After many trials and tribulations, including an entire scrapping of the “jumped-through-Disney’s-hoops” version of the film, Toy Story was released in theaters on Thanksgiving Weekend, 1995. Lasseter was awarded a special achievement Oscar for creating the first computer-animated feature film. The animation community was blown away, and audiences fell in love with the story.

Lasseter being presented with a special achievement Oscar.

Lasseter continued to push his animators with the next film, A Bug’s Life. Determined to beat the “second-product syndrome,” the animators pulled out all of the stops, and A Bug’s Life became the highest grossing animated film of 1998. After the international promotional tour of the film, Lasseter came home for a well-deserved break, while a secondary team began work on a direct-to-video sequel to Toy Story, which would be the first project not supervised by Lasseter. However, the film was not very good, although Disney had said it was good enough to release theatrically, and Lasster was asked to come in and help fix it. Nine months before its release, Lasseter scrapped the entire film over the course of a weekend and rewrote it. Jim Murphy, an animator at Pixar, had this to say about the rewrite: “John came back and pitched the story to the animation department. Just in that pitch, he totally fired everyone up and inspired everyone to really do the impossible.” In the end, Toy Story 2 was another success for Lasseter and Pixar, becoming one of those rare sequels considered as good as, or better, than the first film.

With Disney’s acquisition of Pixar in 2006, Disney finally got Lasseter back, only this time Lasseter was named the Chief Creative Officer of both studios, as well as the Principal Creative Advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering. He has acted in many roles since then, including executive producer for films including WALL-E and Tangled, director for Ponyo and Cars 2, and creative consultant on The Muppets. In 2007, Lasseter was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, in honor of all of his achievements in the field of computer animation.

"So it’s become this way of working that the art challenges technology, technology inspires the art."

John Lasseter is one of my heroes, and a true example of why you should never let go of your dreams. There is so much to say on Lasseter’s influence, and it was hard to not start to write the entire history of Pixar, as the two go hand in hand. It’s interesting to see the development of a kid who tried to not be seen going to see a Disney film as a teenager, to one of the most influential people in the field of animation. The amount of dedication he and the other members of Pixar have put in their films, including their focus on story as much as their focus on the medium, is truly inspirational.

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