Heir to the Disney throne
On a table in front of John Lasseter, arranged in an arc within easy vroom-vroom reach, are a set of tiny die-cast models of the characters from Cars, the animated blockbuster opening next Friday that is his latest proud creation.They're not your average executive toys. But then Lasseter is not your average executive.The filmmaker and chief creative officer for Disney-Pixar, the burly man who brought Toy Story and A Bug's Life to kids big and small, has been dubbed "the new Walt Disney" for his pioneering work with computer-generated animation.He's sitting in a viewing box high above Loew's Motor Speedway, home of NASCAR racing. He has lots to be proud of, but at the moment nothing consumes him more than the cars he had toy company Mattel make to his exact specifications.There's the 1951 blue Hudson Hornet, voiced by Paul Newman, who even as Lasseter speaks is zooming a full-sized version around the track below. There's the red stock car voiced by Owen Wilson, complete with the fake "Rust-eze" promotional sticker. There's the curvy blue Porsche 911 Carrera, voiced by Bonnie Hunt. In all, about a dozen toys cars are lined up for Lasseter, who couldn't be happier. Dressed in a red Hawaiian shirt adorned with CarsLasseter bristles when a journalist refers to them as Hot Wheels."Hot Wheels are slighter smaller," he corrects, his eyebrows rising above his wire eyeglasses. "They're 1/64 scale. These are what they call 1/55 scale. We said, `Let's make them a little bigger, so you can get the detail into the characters.' And they've done a great job in making them. The scale is accurate to the movie."Details aren't just important to Lasseter, a married father of five sons; they're the whole thing. You either get them right, or you go home without your dinner."I'm a geek," he proudly states. "I get into the details and I love them. One line said wrong in a film means the whole movie loses its credibility to me."That goes double for how a movie looks. Each computer-generated Pixar film typically takes four years to make, an eternity in Hollywood terms, but it could be said that Lasseter has been thinking about making a movie like Cars for nearly 40 of his 49 years.He remembers the day in 1968 when Hot Wheels first came to his hometown of Whittier, Calif. (he now calls Sonoma home), and he had to have them. In the worst way."I just remember the first time I went down with my allowance to this department stores and its little toy shop. And there was a big Hot Wheels display. I bought two cars. I still have 'em. I got the Camaro and the Silhouette, and the first time I dropped them down the track and saw the speed they went it was, `Awwww!' I was hooked for years. This is one of the fun things about my job, the toy side of it. I love it."It's like when Toy Story was finally done, because I brought my love of toys to that movie. And to finally have toys made of the characters, I couldn't believe it. It was so great."Everything in Lasseter's world these days is either great or "so great." He's not just excited, he's "exceptionally excited." And could you blame him?Last month, in a move that FortuneThe deal also named Lasseter as creative chief of both Disney and Pixar, essentially giving him last word on everything that squeaks, barks, meows or beeps at the Mouse House. Hence the "new Disney" tag for Lasseter, one heard often in a day spent talking to the on-screen and off-screen talent behind Cars. "John being there brings Disney back to Disney," says actress Hunt, voicing a common sentiment.Funny then, that Disney once fired him. As an eager young animator in the late 1980s, an officious boss cast him out from the kingdom after he stepped on too many corporate toes pitching a computer-drawn cartoon called The Brave Little Toaster (later a big success both theatrically and as a video rental, made after Lasseter's departure). Lasseter decamped to Lucasfilm, home of the Star Wars franchises, a good move for a kid who had lined up in 1977 for six hours to see the original Star Wars on the screen at Mann's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. He fell in with a computer animation team called the Lucasfilm Computer Division that was working on ground-breaking movie magic. An early triumph was the animated knight that pops out of a stained glass window in Young Sherlock Holmes (1987), the character hailed as the first to be entirely computer generated. characters, he grins like a kid who just discovered ice cream. He shows off the metal suitcase used to carry his cars around, which he custom designed with rubber padding, each car in its own perfect space. magazine described as "Nemo swallowing the whale," the Walt Disney company paid $7.4 billion (U.S.) to acquire Pixar Animation Studios, the computer-driven fun factory that Lasseter co-founded, which over the past 20 years has usurped Disney's cartoon crown. Pixar movies now outrank the creations of the company of Mickey, Goofy and Minnie in both critical kudos and box-office receipts.
`Everybody has a chance to make a good movie'John Lasseter
These digital geeks, who renamed their corporate subsidiary Pixar, caught the eye of Apple co-founder Steve Jobs. He bought Pixar from George Lucas, pumped money into its projects, and by 1995 history was made again with the release of Toy Story, the first feature animation made entirely by computer. It was a huge success critically and commercially, winning an Oscar for special achievement. The movie was backed and distributed by Disney, part of an on-again/off-again love affair with Pixar that continues to this day.Since then Pixar has rolled out one success after another, following Toy Story with A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), The Incredibles (2004) and now Cars. Lasseter has directed or co-directed (with the late Joe Ranft) all of the movies except for Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, but this is one corporate honcho who believes in hands-on involvement right down to the last pixel, especially when he's the credited director.He's into things like getting the rust right on a car fender or the look of a desert to mirror gritty reality. There is no such thing as a Pixar movie being just a cartoon. It was Lasseter who decided to put the eyes for the characters in Cars up on the windshield, rather than on the front grille, which is where animators usually put them. It made the cars seem more human, even while Lasseter and his fellow animators were striving to preserve the essential "car-ness" of every model. "I knew that bringing these characters to life but then making them rendered like believable cars would be something unique," Lasseter says. Unlike many of his Hollywood competitors, Lasseter never allows the visuals to overwhelm the story. He took his cue from Walt Disney, who made cartoons that could stand the test of time. Uncle Walt didn't have to make every one of the seven dwarves in Snow White have separate personalities, but he did anyway."I'm really about telling the stories so that you entertain all ages," Lasseter says."We stay away from topical humour and topical things, so that the films play well into the future. I always knew with Toy Story that the look of the film would be dated, but I wanted the story to last a long time. What movie from 1938 is watched as much as Snow White? And you could say every year that a Disney film came out, it was the most-watched film of that year. You look at something like Bambi, it's completely timeless. That thing will never age. And so that's the dream and hope of the films we make, too."Lasseter started work on Cars in 1998, right after the release of A Bug's Life. His intense research brought him here to Loew's Motor Speedway, where Cars had its world premiere May 26 before 30,000 invited NASCAR fans, because he wanted to get to know the racing business from the ground up. He enlisted the support of Richard Petty, the seven-time NASCAR Nextel Cup champion, for the voice of a race car called The King, which just happens to be Petty's racing moniker. The car is painted in the hue known as Petty Blue, one of many details that Petty find praiseworthy about Lasseter. "He just does a good job on filling in," says Petty, who is at Loew's for the premiere of Cars.Actor Newman joins the chorus of approving honks for Lasseter, explaining he took the Cars assignment at age 80 (he's now 81) because he appreciates the man's devotion to doing things the way they ought to be done. He heaps praise on Lasseter and his team:"They have an extraordinary sense of detail, both in the creative end of it and the technical end. And they don't get rushed, which I think is critical. They have the luxury of control and they have the luxury of time. And that gives them a terrific advantage, let alone the gifts they have."If there's a downside to all this devotion, it's that everyone at Pixar must sublimate any of his or her own ideas and desires to what one animator refers to as "the Church of Pixar." If Lasseter doesn't like something, whether it's the design of a grille or the length of a fin, he nixes it — although by all accounts he's the nicest naysayer you could ever ask to work for.The man is almost frighteningly on message, the message today being Cars, Cars and more Cars. He flat-out refuses to talk about future Pixar projects, such as Toy Story 3 and the French mouse tale Ratatouille, both in production. He also declines to say much about the plans he has for Disney's old hand-drawn animation division, which he has ironically salvaged even though Pixar made it redundant. Count on it to have something to do with the animations of Japan's Hayao Miyazaki (Spirited Away), a Lasseter favourite.Most maddening of all is Lasseter's reluctance to comment on how computer-generated imagery has been both a boon and bust for Hollywood. The digital path he blazed with Pixar has allowed moviemakers to create magic like never before, but many of them have resorted to spectacle for spectacle's sake, creating empty visual experiences where the story and acting are secondary to the eye candy.Does he ever feel guilty about the monster he helped create?"You keep asking that: Does it bother you, does it bother you, Does it bother you?" Lasseter says, losing his cool for a second."No, things don't bother me. I always believe that everybody has a chance to make a good movie. What others do with it is their choice; it's not my choice. I don't really care. I just would love everything to be good so that it keeps people employed. I'm just such a fan of animation."He's just such a fan, period. He's the creative boss of a dream factory, his new movie is about to open to certain success, he has Paul Newman racing in a car he helped design, and he has cool new toys — bigger than Hot Wheels — to play with.For John Lasseter, it doesn't get more "exceptionally exciting" than this.