When you think of Sonoma, you probably think of green rolling hills, wineries, and vineyards stretching out as far as you can see. You might also think of historical sites, of day spas, 5 star dining, and romantic get-a-ways. Well, now there is one more reason to think of Sonoma. The Sonoma Valley Film Festival which this year marked the 10th anniversary of the festival and brought the stars out to honor one of Sonoma’s own residents. A man named John Lasseter.
The festival ran Wednesday, April the 11th through Saturday the 14th, the last day dedicated to the tribute to Mr. Lassiter. I started out at 7am under overcast skies to make the hour trip from Emeryville to Sonoma, with a brief stop off at McDonalds for a Diet Coke (getting up this early calls for some caffeine), and a couple of sausage biscuits with egg. When I arrived in Sonoma, I was greeted by…rain. As I continued to the site where the films were to be shown, I kept hearing Michael, the parrot from the Tiki Room’s voice in my head saying ‘The gods have been angered by all us celebrating’. I found a parking spot near the theater, and noticed I had some time before the first film I wanted to see, ‘The Pixar Story’ started so I decided to take a little stroll around the square in the center of Sonoma.
The old town hall for Sonoma
One of the old hotels
The old barracks
The Bear Flag Monument
The Sebastiani Theater. The first theater to show 'Toy Story'.
Mmmmmm.. Irish Pub. I know where Oogie is having dinner tonight.
The list of movies and panels that were being presented on Saturday.
When the doors opened to let people in, I discovered I was in the wrong building, and that the one I was supposed to be in was about a half mile down the street. But first I needed to get my press pass, so after a brief 15 min detour, I found myself at the Sonoma Valley Veterans building, just in time to not miss ‘The Pixar Story’.
From all the decorations that had been brought in to the lobby, I thought it was a good guess that I was at the right place.
I couldn't resist getting this one...
The Pixar Story movie is from Oscar nominated director Leslie Iwerks and gave an insider’s look into the genesis of the Pixar Studios and the stories behind the creators of one of the most successful studios in history. The film ran 90 minutes long, and at the end, everyone was shouting for more. To me, they couldn’t have asked for a better person to have directed and made this film. Ms. Iwerks did an excellent job of telling the backgrounds of Ed Catmull, John Lasseter, and Pixar. She included home movies that people took of life in the Pixar Studios (described as 200 people sharing a college dorm), as well as personal interviews with Steve Jobs, George Lucas, Roy Disney, Bob Iger, and several others.
The movie will be shown next at the Cannes Film festival, and will hopefully be available soon here in the US for the general public. Incidentally, you may recognize her last name....Leslie is the grand daughter of Ub Iwerks, one of the men who helped Walt Disney produce the early Mickey Mouse cartoons.
After the movie was over, I came outside to find that the weather was starting to clear and that Starbucks and some local wineries had opened up a tasting center.
The all you can drink wine bar.
After having more than a few glasses of a new white wine called ‘Wow’ by Imagery Wines(very tasty), I went back inside to sit down for the next movie, a showing of a collection of Pixar short. As I was rewriting some of my notes, 2 guys came in and sat next to me. I didn’t bother to really notice them as I was concentrating on what I was doing. Then one of the staff members of the event came in and introduced ‘The one person who has made all this possible and could tell us more about the shorts than anyone could.. John Lasseter’. I looked up thinking ‘Oh really?!?!?!? Mr. Lasseter is going to be introducing the shorts?’ and that’s when I noticed that the guy sitting next to me had stood up and was walking to the front of the audience.
While this was going on, another cloudburst passed through and managed to tamper with some of the electrical workings on the stage (ie. Microphone and speakers), so the sound kept cutting in and out. He started off thanking everyone for being at the festival and shared his belief why Pixar’s films and shorts have become so timeless. He explained that most studios today believe that they have to have the latest, biggest, best, tech gadget on the market to make their films. "They believe it’s all about the technology and special effects. This is not the case with Pixar. With Pixar, it’s about the stories. Our stories are timeless” said Mr. Lasseter. "This is why our films endure where others fail". After this, he introduced one of the directors and writers of the short ‘One Man Band’, Andrew Jimenez.
Mr. Jimenez took a few minutes to tell about himself and about his decision to get into films ( he was inspired by seeing the opening scene of Star Wars), and described the process behind doing one of Pixar's shorts. He also shared some personal commentary about doing One Man Band and the frustration they had with getting just the right music for it. ‘We wanted the music to start of sort of lazy, like the guy has been king of the roost for so long, he doesn’t feel he has to prove himself anymore’ said Jimenez. “Then comes the new guy who’s better and faster, and that causes the first guy to step up his performance, which causes the new guy to step up even more, and so on and so on. The problem though was finding just the right music to go with this’. He then showed a few film clips of a violinist from the Los Angeles Symphony trying to play at the level and speed that Mr. Jimenez and Pixar needed him to play at. It took him 8 tries to make it. After sharing this with us, Mr. Jimenez introduced the shorts that included:
Andre and Wally B. (This was Lasseter’s first film he did when he was hired on at Lucas)
Mater and the Ghostlights
After the shorts, Mr. Jimenez then described us about a process called ‘animatic’ in which the film has been animated, but its still in a black and white, 2D form. As an example, he showed us ‘The 100 Mile Dash’, the scene in The Incredibles where Dash is running from the villains on Syndrome’s island. It was interesting to watch as Dash’s mask kept appearing and disappearing from scene to scene, and hear the obvious Star Wars noises that were being used.
The presentation then concluded by Mr. Jimenez introducing ‘One Man Band’, and ‘Lifted’.
After this I had a little over an hour before the next film started, so I went out to get some pictures of downtown Sonoma and grab some lunch.
The Mission's Gardens
As you can see, Sonoma is a pretty historic town.
Don't let the name on this place fool you. They do have some killer cheese, but they also make a great deli sandwich and offer the freshest of fruit from the Somoma valley.
Next on my agenda was a panel discussion called ‘Trust the Process – a conversation with Pixar story artists’.
As I took my seat in the gymnasium turned theater, I took careful note of who was sitting around me this time. As it turned out, I got lucky as the person who was seated in front of me was none other than John Lasseter.
I was fortunate enough to talk to him for a bit before the panel started, and I have to say that I have never met a nicer, more personable man. He asked me about the ‘Pixar Story’ film at the start of the day and what my thoughts were on it. He said that he was planning on seeing it, but he had to introduce ‘Toy Story’ at another theater and got sucked into it (nice to see I’m not the only one who gets sucked into that movie). He also said that with Pixar’s movies, they are never finished, they just release them. Even today while he was watching ‘Toy Story’, he kept finding himself going ‘humm.. maybe this would have worked better if we had done…’, ‘Maybe if we added… ‘, and ‘why did we put that part in?’. Another thing that I noticed is that he never at anytime said ‘I’. He always said ‘we’ when he was talking about the films. It was very clear that with everything that has happened, he feels that everyone deserves credit for Pixar’s achievements, not just him. After a few minutes of conversation, he excused himself and introduced the panel.
The panel consisted of 4 members of Pixar’s Story Art department.
Mark Andrews (Johnny Quest, Iron Giant, Spiderman, and The Incredibles)
Ronnie DeCarmen (Batman animated series, and Finding Nemo)
Jason Katz (Toy Story, Bugs Life, Toy Story II, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Toy Story III (Which he let slip has been completed, but didn’t say if it was the production phase or story phase)
And Jim Capobianco (Hunchback of Notre Dame, Lion King, Fantasia 2000, Bugs Life)
This was an interesting panel as all of the artists kept chanting ‘trust the process’. This confused me at first, but they quickly explained. When a director has an idea or something that they want to put into the film, they go to the story artist team and tell them about it. They story artists then take that idea and try to quickly draw the scene out so the director and everyone can see how it is going to look and work. The process is that the first few drawings that are done almost always end up in the shredder, and even then your scene may be cut months down the road because a better scene was introduced. Such a thing happened to Ronnie DeCarmen who did a scene for ‘Finding Nemo’ which everyone loved, but was dropped 3 months later because another scene was introduced that made his scene too confusing. “But this is what has to happen” Said Mark Andrews, sitting facing me in a full regimental Scottish kilt. “If we are to deliver the level of films that Pixar is known for, we have to keep trying to do better even if we feel what we’ve made is perfect. We can never get it right the first time. We have to get all the sucky ideas out first, then the creative juices will flow”
The other process that they spoke about, is called ‘the Pixar way’, which sums up the steps Pixar takes when making a film. The steps are Script, Story Boards, Story Reels and Editorials, and finally production.
For Scripts, they spoke about how when a story is presented to them, they are not given a script to work from. Usually the director or someone will come in with a page or 2 at a time and tell them to draw it out. The story sketchers then take the script or idea which the director has given them, create the scene and the sequence in their heads, draw it out, then put the drawings up on a story board.
In the storyboard process, 2 – 21 storyboards are assembled to show the flow of the action. The number of pictures on a storyboard may vary, but it is usual to see about 100 drawings on a board. Once the pictures are on the board, the story artists review what they have drawn, and usually say ‘that’s terrible’, take everything down, and start again. Once they have a storyboard that they like, it gets sent on to the director to see what he thinks for the story reel process.
The story reel process is when the story artists sell their ideas to the director. The director will listen to their pitch and then give his input on it. To show us just what happens in one of these meetings, they showed a clip of Pixar story artist Joe Ranft giving the pitch for the scene in Monsters Inc where Mike is telling Sully to put Boo back, then having to make up the musical number because everyone is watching him.
“The story reel is the blueprint for the film” says Jason Katz. “ A typical film for us takes 4 years to make. Out of that time 2 and a half is spent doing the story reel. Of drawing the scene, redrawing the scene, removing the scene, and moving scenes around. We are always refining the story. After all that is done it goes to production for a year and a half”.
After this, they opened the floor to questions, and the very first question asked was, “How can I get a job doing what you do?” Mark Andrews replied to this question by saying, “You have to be a quick-draw artist and you have to love drawing every second of the day. You also have to have great storytelling skills; you have to be able to make your drawings show ‘feelings, mood, emotion, and humor’, and be willing to watch the same films over and over and over”. Jim Capobianco also included “ You must understand basic 2D design. It is required if you want to do any kind of drawing or animation work at Pixar.” After listening to them talk about this, I thought they purposely left out ‘Any hope of a social life, and you won’t be needing your soul anymore either’.
After the panel was over, I heard that the red carpet affair had been canceled because of the weather, but be back at the theater at 6:15 for the tribute, so I headed down to 7-11 for a slurpee and some beef jerky, and then on to a place in Sonoma that my grandparents used to take me to when I was very young. Train Town.
The trains are all 1/4 scale, and a trip on one takes about 20 minutes.
Looks like the steam engine is down for repairs..
A view of the grounds at Train Town
I got back just in time to get a few more glasses of wine, and to catch the honored guests of the evening showing up. At a little after 6:15, they let everyone in. It was a sea of people dressed in outfits that costs hundred of dollars, while I was in blue jeans, sneakers, and a Nightmare Before Christmas jeans jacket. Hey the Boogie Man knows class. .
While I was outside 'sampling' some more wine, I managed to catch a few people trying to quietly sneak into the theater.
The tribute started a little late, but it was worth it. The lights dimmed and John Ratzenberger came out as the master of ceremonies. He didn’t really say much (but did verify that he will be in Ratatouille) , and made a comment about the techies running the show, calling them a bunch of high schoolers because they were having problems with the lights and the projector. This drew a bunch of ugly comments and noises from the audience. Finally the lights dimmed and we were presented with home made video made in the 1980’s by John Lasseter (with a lot more hair), where he was walking around the streets of San Rafael asking people if they had heard of Pixar. Most people avoided him, some spoke to him and said ‘no’, and one guy wearing a SDSU shirt got Pixar confused with Link in the Zelda series. Then they showed a newer version, where they interviewed people in Sonoma and Disneyland and asked them if they knew who John Lasseter was. Everyone said ‘Yes. He’s the guy who did Toy Story’, or ‘He’s the guy at Pixar’, and a few people (who were from Sonoma) said ‘Isn’t he running for public office?’ It’s funny what can happen in 20 years. After the film was over, John Ratzenberger came back up and introduced the first speaker, Glen Keane.
Glen Keane (who is currently working on Rapunzel) spoke about his first meeting with John Lasseter in 1975, and described him as a ball of energy that was more knowledgeable and familiar with Disney animation than most of the people working at Disney at that time. He remembered how John Lasseter went off to Cal Arts and seeing the 2 films that he produced while he was there (Lady and the Lamp, and Nightmares. Both of which won academy awards for best student film) and thinking ‘This guy is more Disney than Disney is’. He then went on to describe the rapture that John felt when he came in one day after seeing a new movie named ‘Tron’, and talking about how computer animation is the way of the future, and of the dark day when the Disney execs set John up to fail by telling him to make ‘The Brave Little Toaster’ using computer animation, and then promptly firing him after the presented the idea to the execs. “Disney needs John” said Glen Keane. “Before John came back, the studio was lifeless, we had lost our spark. But now that he is back, you can walk through the studio and see the passion in everyone again”.
The next speaker up was Tony Shalhoub, who gave a short and forgettable tribute in which he tried to joke about John Lasseter and himself trying to come up with a name for the movie ‘Cars’. Fortunately the 5 minutes passed by fast and Andrew Stanton (The director for the next Pixar movie, Wall-E) came up.
Andrew Stanton has known John Lasseter for 20 years, and shared some of his most memorable moments with him (Think of your best friend getting up and telling a audience a bunch of juicy blackmail stories about you, and you will have a good idea of the stuff that was talked about). He told a story about meeting John for the first time in the mid 1980’s, and being struck blind by John’s Miami Vice suit that he was wearing. He also talked about one time during a layover, John took all the blankets on the plane, and wrapped up a sleeping passenger to make him look like he was wearing a Burka, then with another towel made himself a turban, before going up to a stewardess and demanding a Mountain Dew for his sleeping wife (the blanket burkha-ed passenger). The best story he told though was one that happened right after Bugs Life came out. They had gone to New York to promote the movie, and Andrew got everyone up at 5am to go try and get on the Today show. Unfortunately they didn’t make it in time, and they were turned away. Fast-forward to a few years later, and the team has to go back to New York, but this time Andrew has to stay because he’s under a deadline. At 5 in the morning Andrew is woken by the sound of the phone going off. It turned out to be John calling him from New York letting him know that they got on the Today show and that he should turn it on. Andrew turned on the Today show and was greeted by.. himself. John had apparently made copies of Andrews face, had put them on some wooden poles, and had people waving them back and forth in the audience. Andrew then ended his story by turning to John, calling him an a-hole, but loved him anyway!
As Andrew took his seat, Cheech Marin got up to give his tribute. “I feel a little overwhelmed here. I don’t really know John that well and I have to follow 2 people who have known John for years. At least I’m ahead of Robin though”. As the laughter died down, Cheech Marin described working with John on cars. “He works very hard, and he pushes everyone to work hard by his contagious enthusiasm for what he does.” He also mentioned that while doing Cars, he never saw John wear the same Hawaiian shirt twice, and that the thing that he remembered most about John, was that his checks always cleared.
After Cheech Marin came Bonnie Hunt. Bonnie described John as “A man who cares and listens to everyone.” And shared a personal story about after seeing Finding Nemo, a little girl who was sitting ahead of her in the theater turned to her mother and said “Mommy, I’m never going to disobey you again”. Bonnie ended her tribute by saying, “Good stories are powerful, and John, you are a master story teller”.
At this point John Ratzenberger stood up and said “And now the man who was a dancing penguin in that other movie.. (there were assorted boos and groans at this time), I give you Robin Williams”, and with that Robin Williams took the stage. The first thing he said was “I’m here to pay tribute to George Miller, a butthead who has no talent but is very very lucky”. As the audience laughed, he looked around and remarked that he had just gotten out of rehab, and where does he go? An all you can drink wine fest in Sonoma. With that Robin Williams went off doing his usual stuff of zany antics and impressions of Jack Nickelson, Elmer Fudd, and many others. He described John Lasseter as ‘A man who is walking Prozac. His enthusiasm is so contagious, it is hard to be around him and not feel good.” He also made a special request to John to please consider using him in one of his films saying “I’m better now John, honest. The wicked witch of Disney is gone (a reference to Eisner). Pleeeease can I come back and work with you?” Once the laughter had died down, Robin took his seat and the man to whom they were all there to pay tribute to took the stage.
John Lasseter began talking in a very choked up voice ( I couldn’t tell if it was from the laughter or from tears) and thanked everyone for being there, and that if it wasn’t for everyone at Pixar and those who love his films, he would be no one. He also thanked Robin Williams for giving him his first Oscar for Toy Story, and hinted he might have work for him in the future. He also shared a personal story of the day he realized just how powerful his characters really were. Toy Story had just been released, and he was in Florida at Disney World with his family. On the way home, they had to land in Dallas for a layover. As he came out of the plane, there stood a little boy holding a Woody doll. As the little boy saw his father coming off the plane, he ran over to him shouting “Daddy, Daddy, this is Woody, He’s my best friend in the whole world”. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the whole theater after hearing this. Before Mr. Lasseter finished, he stopped to make a remark about his current position in charge of developing new rides for the Disney parks. “I have seen a lot of good ideas for attractions at the parks since I came on a year ago, but I approach the attractions the same way I approach the movies. The rides must have a good story.” (doesn't that sum up the difference between Disneyland and California Adventure perfectly?)
The evening winded down with a presentation of a custom made glass wine decanter that rolled to properly air the wine, and a bottle of wine made of grapes from a 120 year old vine to Mr. Lasseter. After that the crowds filtered out of the veterans hall to their cars and over to the Cline Cellars Winery for the festival gala. I took a side trip back to the Irish Pub I saw this morning for a pint of Guinness before heading over to the Winery. Apparently though a lot of people wanted to go too, because when I arrived at the Winery, the parking lot was full. I later found out that the gala event started at 7:45, during the middle of the tribute. The parking lot filled up soon after that, so I decided to head home. Incidently, there was a movie playing at this same time called 'Finding Kraftland'.
It's the story of a fanatical Disney collector, pop culture, and his relationship with his son. It sounded like it was a good movie and well worth seeing.
Despite the wet and rainy start, I had a fantastic time. I’d like to thank the staff at the film festival for doing such a great job, all the merchants, film makers, and actors that showed up, For Starbucks for the never ending Mochas, to Imagery wines for the buzz I had most of the day, but most importantly I’d like to thank John Lasseter for making the world a brighter place.