State of the franchise: Pixar
ANAHEIM—It would be impossible to imagine animated films today without the influence of Pixar Animation Studios. Co-founded by Apple icon Steve Jobs, Pixar changed the face of animated film with technology and technique.
The face of Pixar is not a character but a person. John Lasseter, he of the loud Hawaiian shirts and the loud laughter, directed the great films “Toy Story,” “A Bug’s Life” and “Cars.” Today he is the chief creative officer of Pixar. At the D23 Expo, Lasseter talked about Pixar and what it’s like working there today.
Asked which of the Pixar films is his favorite, Lasseter told Super each one is different. “I love the ‘Toy Story’ movies,” he said. “’Toy Story’ was the first movie I made so that has a special place in my heart. I love the Cars movies—I directed them. But I love the world of ‘Monsters, Inc.’ and ‘Nemo.’ I had so much fun making ‘The Indredibles 2’ with Brad Bird. ‘Ratatouille,’ oh my goodness.”
It’s all about making each film a standout: “We work really hard to make each movie fantastic and we work really hard to make each movie different. We only do a sequel for a film if we come up with a story that’s as good or better than the original. It takes a number of years to find the right story, like ‘Finding Dory.’ It took years to do that after ‘Finding Nemo.’”
That’s why Pixar mulls over continuing a series instead of automatically green-lighting everything that comes along. “It’s hard work what we do,” Lasseter said. “We don’t take the easy road. We don’t carbon copy the same thing and throw it out there to make money. We start from scratch and make a new emotional arc. We want to say something to the world. Right now, I’m so proud we put joy out in the world.”
Pixar has two big projects in 2017. “Cars 3” just roared through cinemas, the continuation of something Lasseter started. But in November, Pixar rolls out the cryptically titled “Coco.” The story of a Mexican boy named Miguel who discovers something eerie on the holiday of Dia los Muertos, the Day of the Dead.
You have to watch the movie to know what the title means. “It’s code name for years was ‘Coco,’ and then in the end, we were like, that’s a great title, and one with great significance within the story. And it’s a cool name,” Lasseter said.
He points out the research that they do for these films. “Every film team, I encourage them to do tremendous research. They did that for Mexico and this holiday and everything, and all aspects of Mexican music and customs. We wanted to get the details right. We didn’t want to do anything that was culturally inappropriate.”
“But there’s something bigger in ‘Coco.’ We try to make these movies as international as possible but I hope people leave watching ‘Coco,’ regardless of which country they watch it in, and think, we should talk about our ancestors to our children and our grandchildren. We have to keep their memories alive forever. And I think that’s really special. It has tremendous personal significance to me. People look at it and think it’s about skeletons but it’s about so much more than that.”
A boy who grew up loving the Disney films (his all-time favorite is “Dumbo”), Lasseter decided he wanted to be an animator after reading a book about it. “It occurred to me that people did cartoons for a living. It was a job. That’s what I want to do. I want to be an animator for Disney.”
He is considerably much more than that now, as he is also concurrently CCO of Walt Disney Animation Studios and DisneyToon Studios. In the process of handling Disney’s three animation studios, he has had to make sacrifices, such as directing 2018’s “Toy Story 4,” which will now be directed by “Inside Out” screenwriter Josh Cooley. Lasseter remains executive director. “I initially thought I needed to keep directing, which is why I was going to direct ‘Toy Story 4.’ But as the head of three studios, I was overseeing 24 films at once. What made it easy was that Josh Cooley is so good.”
Another first-time director is “Monsters University” director Dan Scanlon, who will be directing a yet-untitled “suburban fantasy about fatherhood.” Bird’s “The Incredibles 2” will be out in 2018.
Lasseter admits he works in a unique manner. “I’m a very unusual executive. I want the problems,” he said. To ensure his teams continue to be creative, Lasseter has two techniques. “We bet on people. We ask them to go away with their teams. They come back with three ideas, not one—and they all have to be brilliant.” Second, they screen their reels with their peers every three months. “And this group is really honest. There are no politics. We believe in the process.”
He keeps ideas constantly in play: “Working in animation is like entering a maze. We know there’s an exit somewhere but we don’t know where it is. We just start walking down paths. We try things.”
Lasseter remains hungry for new information. “I love finding things out. Thank god Steve Jobs invented the iPhone because 99 percent of the things I do on it isn’t social media or texting or calling. It’s looking stuff up and reading stuff.”
Finding inspiration in collaboration, the thing that Lasseter loves the most now—what drives “Cars” and tells “Toy Story”—is helping other creators bring their own creations to the screen. What Lasseter did for Pixar for the likes of Bird and Pete Docter, he does now, still at Pixar, for the likes of Cooley and Scalon. “I do get great satisfaction being executive producer of all these great directors,” Lasseter says. “I’m loving what I do. I have the best job in the world.”
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