Pixar director John Lasseter on the future of animation

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Pixar animation guru John Lasseter, director of 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2' and now, creative head of four (count ’em) studios, has big 3D plans for the future. Wally Hammond meets the California dreamer

John Lasseter, director of the Pixar animated masterpieces ‘Toy Story’ and ‘Toy Story 2’, is looking relaxed. The Herculean workload he has assumed as creative head of four separate studios – the Walt Disney Animation Studios, Disney Toon Studios, Disney Imagineering and Pixar – not to mention his part in raising five sons and running a winery in Sonoma, California – hasn’t yet registered in his boyishly enthusiastic, beady-eyed and avuncular film-nerd features, his slacker mannerisms nor his retired-surfer attire.

He slumps back, ruffling up one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts, to start talking about his latest film, ‘Bolt’, Disney’s first animation to be conceived entirely as a 3D film. But first I congratulate him on the birthday he was celebrating the night before. ‘Actually, my birthday was Monday,’ the 52-year-old tells me mischievously, ‘but I tend to celebrate for a full week.’

He’s due a celebration. It’s been a long journey for this childhood cartoon aficionado and alumnus (along with Tim Burton and Brad Bird) of the animation course at California Institute of the Arts: from his first CGI short, ‘The Adventures of André and Wally B’ in 1984, through his two Academy Awards, to his crowning achievement 25 years on as studio ‘mentor’ on the beautifully cinematic ‘WALL-E’.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Lasseter has presided over a revolution in filmmaking: as a director he has played his part in reasserting the fundamentals, no less, of the art of film itself. And as creative head, of Pixar then Disney (since 2006), he has reinvigorated the stale, corporate, executive-laden world of children’s entertainment.

Not that Lasseter is resting on his laurels: ‘They talk about how we are in a golden age,’ he admonishes. ‘I don’t like that! It means that this has some kind of end. As far as I’m concerned, there is going to be no end. For me, it’s about building a studio – or building three. The creativity of a studio is about its people. But it will pass to another generation of filmmakers. And they will make great movies too.’

Bolt ’ is not a great movie. But it is a good one. Directed by first-timers Chris Williams and Byron Howard, it adheres to their mentor’s three rules of filmmaking: ‘Tell a compelling story; populate it with memorable and appealing characters; and put those characters in a believable world.’ Williams and Howard’s visually stimulating dog story is filled with acute observations (the New Yawk pigeons’ expressive herd-jerks), snappy dialogue (voiced by, among others, John Travolta and Miley Cyrus), smart visual gags and a genuine (‘earned’, as Lasseter has it) emotional pay-off.

Besides being sterling family entertainment, ‘Bolt’ is the first of Lasseter’s slate of ten releases, the bulk of which will be 3D. The next will be ‘Up!’, directed by Pete Docter, the man behind ‘Monsters, Inc.’.

Is Lasseter worried about packing so many of his artistic eggs in one technological basket? ‘For me, 3D is just a new tool that the filmmaker has to help tell a story. Every technology that comes into filmmaking is first a gimmick. Think about sound with “The Jazz Singer” or the first colour or surround sound – it takes a while for filmmakers to understand how to use it. Most of the time, when people think about 3D, it’s this images-coming-at-yer stuff. ’

He continues: ‘With “Bolt”, for instance, the inspiration came from the film that has been the most inspiring for me in the history of 3D, and that’s Hitchcock’s “Dial M for Murder”. Most people have only seen that film in 2D. But watching it in 3D, you see it’s a totally different movie. You get it. It is a masterpiece of staging in 3D – to help tell the story. There’s no gimmickry. There’s one coming-at-you effect – when Grace Kelly reaches for the scissors – but Hitchcock only uses it once, and it is so effective.’

The unique passion – and sense – that Lasseter brought to Pixar he hopes will transform the massive Disney organisation. He has already removed many of Disney’s non-filmmaking executive heads – ‘lopping off the head of the dragon,’ he calls it – and fully intends to make the company filmmaker-led. ‘After all, you are what you direct!’ he exclaims. ‘When you look at these Pixar films – “The Incredibles”, “Ratatouille” – you see Brad Bird up there on the screen. There’s no question, Brad Bird is all through those films. You look at “Nemo” and “Wall-E”, you see Andrew Stanton. They are very different directors. They have very different sensibilities. And that is what I think is great about Pixar. And, now, the Disney Animation Studio.

‘Finally, when you see “Bolt”, you see Chris and Byron. You see who they are. As people. And when you watch “Toy Story”, “A Bug’s Life”, “Toy Story 2” and “Cars”, you see me. Up there on the screen, that sensibility is me. When you have a filmmaker-led studio, it’s not filmmaking by committee. It’s not this corporate thing. It’s about true artistic visions. And it’s a unique organisation that allows these filmmakers to be themselves – through honesty and being part of a group. And hard work. And trial and error. Trial and error.’

Bolt’ opens on February 6.
‘Up!’opens on October 16.


Author: Wally Hammond



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