John Lassater has had a toontastic career. He is the oil in Pixar’s engine. Without him, there would have been no Toy Story (for which he received a Special Achievement Oscar), Monsters Inc. or Cars. And the world would be a less pleasant place to be. Pixar's latest film, Ratatouille, is out this month and so it is a perfect time for Disney’s Chief Creative Officer to reflect a life less ordinary. This is the first funded entirely by Pixar money and you had to change directors after four years. Was that hard?
Every movie has been that way. This is our eighth film and every on has had a crisis. Toy Story 2 and Ratatouille both needed to be changed because we felt that the potential was not being realised. Brad Bird's interpretation of the story was amazing. Here the stories come from the director. I am most proud of the fact the stories are 100 per cent original. Do you have focus groups?
Disney used to do a lot more, audiences could see the storyboards and the rough animation and the final animation all kind of connected. But with computer animation it is more difficult to look at the early versions. It’s nice to watch the audience. They are 100 per cent honest and wee will do small changes to reinforce things. I bring early versions of the movie home for my wife and sons. They went crazy for Ratatouille. That was a very, very good sign. I knew that we were on to something. What are your thoughts on animation today?
I love it and I’m excited about how many studios and production companies are doing animated features. I would much rather work in a healthy industry than be the only player in a bad industry. One of the things that I have had difficulty with is studios deciding not to do hand-drawn animation because they felt that audiences did not want to watch hand-drawn animation and hand-drawn animation became the scapegoat for bad story telling. But now at Disney we are going back to hand-drawn animation. During a famous lunch you guys at Pixar came up with the ideas for A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and the forthcoming film, Wally. That must have been one of the most productive lunches in Hollywood history?
We thought that we had better come up with some other ideas because it was looking like we would get the chance to make another movie after Toy Story. So we went to lunch: myself, Joe Raft (who was sadly killed in a car accident), Andrew Stanton and Pete Doctor. Three quarters of the way through Toy Story, Andrew started to develop the next one, which was A Bug’s Life. Then Pete Doctor started working a little bit on a science fiction one (Wally) and a monster one (Monsters Inc.) and we went with the monster one. What is your role as Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios?
To bring the Walt Disney Animation Studios back up to making great motion pictures. Our films are director driven. they come from the heart and soul of the director?and we will surround that director with all the other creative elements to make a creative collective. It’s a trusting environment because you know that every person in that room is giving you a note to help make your movie the best that it can be. Andrew Stanton described the original group that made Toy Story as being like The Beatles. Something magical happens when we are all together. The sum is greater than its parts. Now everyone is doing their own films but instead of the band breaking up to do solo albums, the band is still together but everyone gets the chance to be lead singer.
The two studios will always remain separate. Pixar is up in Northern California and Disney Animation Studios are in Burbank. We are bringin back hand-drawn animation. I never understood why they stopped. The hand-drawn animation that is in production is The Princess And The Frog and it should be out in December 2009. So Disney Animation Studios will be doing computer animation and hand-drawn animation and Pixar will be doing computer. More than any other company in the world, Disney has the opportunity, when they make a film, to keep those characters in the film alive for generations. So I view very strongly that my job is to create the engine that is going to pull the big train. It is what the whole studio has been set up around. Why didn’t people always appreciate animation?
Animation can entertain audiences of all ages. When I was at college with Brad Bird Star Wars came out. It definitely re-inforced what I wanted to: to entertain audiences. I was so excited I was shaking. Walt Disney always made films for everybody, not just for kids. It was not until television that animation was looked at as just for kids. In the late 1970s the studios felt they were creating movies just for kids but the guys who created the art form never thought about it that way. The first resurgence of animation was with films like Roger Rabbit and Little Mermaid and they entertained audiences for all ages. At Pixar we make movies for ourselves, the kind of movies that we like to watch. I am proud that Ratatouille, like most of our films, is Rated G, which is for general audiences. People love these movies. Steve Jobs said that in a few years his computers would be obsolete but if Pixar do it right their movies will last forever. What movie from 1937 is watched as much as Snow White?