On a warm evening this past August, hundreds of men and women filed into Hollywood's elegant El Capitan Theatre for a memorial tribute to the late Ollie Johnston, who passed away in April.
The location could not have been more appropriate: Disney's flagship movie house, restored at a cost of millions of dollars, was the perfect location to celebrate the life of one of the Nine Old Men, the pioneering animators who brought Walt Disney's classics to the screen.
Among those paying tribute was John Lasseter, chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios and also principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering. His voice trembling with emotion, he spoke of how thrilling it was getting to know Johnston when he first came to Disney in 1979.
"We weren't embraced at that time by many of the people leading (Disney)," he recalled. "The Nine Old Men were starting to step away and retire. But it was the Nine Old Men who embraced us. They wanted to teach us everything that they knew. They recognized, more than anybody else, that they were handing the torch off."
The torch has been passed. Over the past two decades, Lasseter has become not only the most prominent successor to the Nine Old Men, but arguably the most important figure in animation since Disney himself.
This year, he's a key player behind two animated films: "WALL-E," already hailed by many critics as a masterpiece, and "Bolt," debuting Nov. 21.
One comes from the ever-inventive Pixar, the other from Disney's decades-old animation unit. If Lasseter is now pivotal to both, that is no coincidence: His groundbreaking work has never ignored its debt to the past.
There are few men as inventive as Lasseter and even fewer whose creativity pays such respect to tradition. It is for this reason that The Hollywood Reporter has named him Innovator of the Year.
"He's been an extraordinary force in innovating and renewing excitement about the animated feature in this country," says film historian Charles Solomon. And, he says, he did so "at a time when it was falling into the doldrums."
I would never guess animation was in the doldrums as I drive up to the Pixar campus in Emeryville, Calif. It's a short drive from the hard streets of Oakland, but feels a world apart -- like an Ivy League campus, with its own sports facilities and heated pool.
Lasseter's L-shaped office brims with scripts, family pictures and a multitude of toys.
"John views the world through an unpolluted lens," says Tim Allen, the voice of Buzz Lightyear in the "Toy Story" films. "He has a way of simplifying things."
Certainly, on the surface, that's the way he comes off. Sitting in his office, he has a rumpled but boyish quality and a wide-open face. He's wearing one of the many Hawaiian shirts that have become his uniform.