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Toon Story: John Lasseter's Animated Life

Just how does one become an animation pioneer? Mike Lyons profiles the man of the hour, John Lasseter, on the eve of Pixar's Toy Story follow-up, A Bug's Life

John Lasseter. Photo courtesy of Disney.

It was late 1995 and Toy Story was the big story. The film was ruling the box-office, critics were tossing out four star reviews like confetti and animation historians were dubbing the film's director, John Lasseter, the "Walt Disney of computer animation." Lasseter knew he had done well, but wasn't sure just how well, until he and his family were returning from a vacation at Walt Disney World. "We stopped and changed planes at the Dallas-Fort Worth airport," he remembers. "Getting off the plane, my son said, `Daddy! Daddy! Look!' And there was a little boy, about four years old, with his mom, clearly waiting for his dad, he was so excited...and he was holding a Woody doll. It all came home at that point. I realized how these films really touch people." With Toy Story, we were not only introduced to the amiable pull-string cowboy doll, Woody, the supercharged Buzz Lightyear action figure, and such familiar faces as Mr. Potato Head, Slinky-Dog and green Army men, but we also got a true milestone - the first all-computer animated feature.

The Story Supreme

Best of all, Toy Story wasn't just all about the technology; it was a solid story with memorable characters, that just happened to be told with computer imagery. As one of the pioneers of the medium, as well as vice president of creative development for Pixar Animation Studio, co-producer of Toy Story with Disney, this is what John Lasseter strives for over any photo-realistic effect that computers can provide. "You cannot base a whole movie on just the imagery alone," he says. "It has to be the story and the characters."

Audiences liked these elements of Toy Story so much, that the film went on to generate over $350 million in ticket sales and also brought a Special Achievement Oscar to Lasseter. The Walt Disney studio liked Toy Story too, so much so that, last year, Disney and Pixar signed an agreement to produce jointly five movies over the next ten years. The first of these is A Bug's Life, a re-telling of "The Grasshopper and the Ants" fable for a new generation. The film hits theaters this month, as the second of this fall's computer animated "insect epics." The first was last month's Antz from chief competitor DreamWorks, SKG.

Getting An Early Start

Audiences may be just beginning to latch on to computer animation, but for Lasseter, it's like an old friend, with roots that go back to childhood. "I loved cartoons," admits Lasseter. "I would get up at the crack of dawn on Saturday, get my bowl of cereal and watch cartoons from when they started until `Bowling for Dollars' came on."

Coupled with this was the fact that Lasseter's love for artistic creation was fueled by his high-school art teacher mom. "She would bring home extra paint, paper and markers," adds Lasseter. "So, I was constantly doing little art projects."

Years later, while a high school student himself, Lasseter discovered Bob Thomas' book, The Art of Animation, which took a behind-the-scenes look at the making of Sleeping Beauty. "I realized that people make cartoons for a living. It had never dawned on me that you could do this as a career."

Lasseter began corresponding with the Disney studio and during his high- school senior year, they sent him a letter stating that they were initiating a character animation program with the California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts). Lasseter enrolled and spent four years learning the craft from Disney's masters of the medium.

A Disney Beginning

In 1982, the young artist was hired at the Disney studio as an animator. A dream job? Yes, but for Lasseter, something was missing. "I was always feeling that animation had reached a plateau with 101 Dalmatians," he says. "Somehow, I felt that the films after that, while they had wonderful moments and characters, overall, they were just the same old thing." Lasseter knew that animation needed something to help it rise to another level. Then, he heard about a film that the Disney studio was producing using the nascent technology of computer animation. It was called Tron. Lasseter was able to get an early glimpse of the film's "light cycle" sequence and says, "It absolutely blew me away! A little door in my mind opened up. I looked at it and said, `This is it! This is the future!'"

Lasseter talked the Disney studio into letting him do a thirty-second test that combined hand drawn animation with computer backgrounds. "It was exciting," says Lasseter, "but at the time, Disney was only interested in computers if it could make what they were doing cheaper and faster. I said, `Look at the advancement in the art form. Look at the beauty of it.' But, they just weren't interested."

Luxo Jr. © Pixar.

The Birth of Pixar

The studio may not have been interested, but Lasseter still had an incredible thirst for this burgeoning medium, which led him to Lucasfilm Ltd., where Edwin Catmull, now Pixar's vice president and chief technology officer, was starting up a computer division. In 1986, Steve Jobs, co-founder and chairman of Apple Computer, Inc., purchased the computer division of Lucasfilm and incorporated it as an independent company, under the name Pixar, where he now serves as chairman and chief executive officer.

Over the next decade, the Pixar studio, located in Point Richmond, California, would lead the computer animation industry both technically and aesthetically. Lasseter directed the studio's first short film, 1986's Luxo, Jr, which starred a desk lamp and its precocious child. Two years later, another of the studio's shorts, Tin Toy, also directed by Lasseter, would tell the tale of a destructive baby and a nervous wind-up toy. The short subject would make history as the first computer animated film ever to win an Academy Award. The short subject sprang from Lasseter's love for toys (he still has his entire Hot Wheels car collection from childhood), which was taken to greater heights with Toy Story.

A Bug's Life. © Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved.

A Bug's Life

Now, both Pixar and Disney hope that computer generated lightening indeed strikes twice with A Bug's Life. In the film, a misfit ant named Flik (voiced by News Radio's Dave Foley) tries to save his colony from a group of greedy grasshoppers, led by the villainous Hopper (Kevin Spacey). Flik recruits a group of insects he thinks are mercenaries, but instead turn out to be inept performers from a flea circus.

"Part of what makes a great movie is character growth," says Lasseter, who co-directs A Bug's Life with Andrew Stanton. "With Flik, he grows quite a bit, but more importantly, everyone around him, because of his influence, also grows a tremendous amount. In your own life, you don't realize all the people that you come in contact with - your friends, your loved ones - how much you affect them. It's a really apt emotional core to the film that fits with everyone's everyday lives."

Flik, star of A Bug's Life is described as

In addition to Spacey and Foley, Bug's Life also features a stellar voice cast that includes Julia Louis-Dreyfus as the ant Princess Atta, Denis Leary as Francis, a male lady bug with a "chip on his wing," Jonathan Harris (Dr. Smith from Lost in Space) as Manny, the praying mantis magician, the late Roddy McDowall as the ant Mr. Soil, and Phyllis Diller as the Queen of the ant colony.

There is another member of the cast that many outside animation circles may not recognize. Joe Ranft, a veteran Disney story man, provides the voice of Heimlich, the always-hungry caterpillar. During the early days of production on Bug's Life, Ranft provided the voice for Heimlich on the film's temporary soundtrack. Lasseter remembers, "In creating the character Heimlich, Joe, who is just a very funny person, did this hilarious, high-pitched, German, mama's boy voice. We were just cracking up."

While casting the voices, the filmmakers searched for another, "permanent" Heimlich, but none seemed to match Ranft's performance. Then, Lasseter brought a rough-cut, "story reel" home to show his wife and five sons. "Every time Joe said Heimlich's line, my wife giggled," he says. That's all it took, Lasseter told Ranft the next day that he had the part.

© Disney Enterprises, Inc./Pixar Animation Studios. All Rights Reserved.


As a follow-up to A Bug's Life, Disney and Pixar will release Toy Story 2 next year. In the sequel, Woody is stolen by an overzeleaous toy collector and Buzz and the other playthings must venture out to save their friend. Lasseter, who will serve as the film's executive producer with animators Ash Brannon and Colin Brady directing, says he had no qualms with handing his characters over to other people. "They are my `babies,' but they are also our `babies.' Everybody helps create these characters and films. They're in very capable hands."

Lasseter is now watching another "off-spring" grow up, as A Bug's Life enters theaters. "I always equate it to having a child and then raising it," he says. "At a certain point, your son or daughter graduates from high school and goes to college. You give them to the world and hope that you did okay. That's very much like these movies. When we get to the release date, we realize that the movie doesn't belong to us any more. It belongs to the world and you just hope that you did okay."

No doubt "proud parent" Lasseter will be hoping for a strong showing at the box office, a warm reception from critics and, most importantly, a child somewhere hugging a Flik doll.

Mike Lyons is a Long Island-based freelance writer, who has written over 100 articles on film and animation. His work has appeared in Cinefantastique, Animato! and The Disney Magazine.