It’s very exciting to be in the city that witnessed the birth of film! […] I feel like a Lumière brother of animation!
John Lasseter came to Lyon to attend the Lumière Film Festival. Having opened the festival on Monday, October 12th, the director of Toy Story has been honoured at the birthplace of cinema on several occasions. The movies made by the studio with the hopping desk lamp were given pride of place during the entire festival in order to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its first feature film and almost 30th anniversary. John Lasseter presented his first film, Toy Story, at the Lumière Institute and incidentally unveiled the plaque that bears his name on the Filmmakers’ Wall. He also attended the screening of Cars on Tuesday, October 13th.
But the major event was obviously the masterclass he hosted on Tuesday, early on in the afternoon at the Comédie Odéon coffeehouse theater. You can now read our account here!
Welcomed by Thierry Frémaux (Director of the Institut Lumière), John Lasseter was applauded several minutes by an audience who was stirred at seeing this major film figure arrive, he who has been nicknamed the Walt Disney of the 21st century.
During a discussion with Fabrice Leclerc (a journalist who works for France Info), the director of Toy Story, wearing a Hawaiian shirt dedicated to his first feature film, spoke open-heartedly
His love for animation
I love cartoons. Ever since I was a kid.
His mother, an artist, always encouraged him to draw. During their weekly trip to church, he used to take his crayons along and draw, without ever listening to the preacher’s sermon. He never stopped. And even when his peers were growing up and that their interest for cartoons diminished, he continued to run home after school to watch Bugs Bunny. During his first year of high school, he read Bob Thomas’ Art of Animation, which described how Walt Disney directed his films; it then dawned on him for the first time that a living could be made out of animation!
You got paid to make cartoons?! That’s what I want to do!
He was fortunate enough to have a mother who encouraged him down that path. He started sending letters to the Disney animation studios, telling them how much he would love to work there someday. They then invited him, as a student, to come and tour the studios. They kept his name on a list, and when they started looking for students to set up CalArts’ first graduating class, they encouraged him to apply.
Life lessons at CalArts
He studied 4 years at this college which is dedicated, among things, to animation. His professors were former Disney animators who had come out of retirement to teach. Their tales relating to Walt Disney’s working methods with each of them left a lasting impression on him. There were nice stories and unpleasant stories. His classmates were Tim Burton, Brad Bird, John Muskeer.
It was between 1975 and 1979, and the American film industry was undergoing a major change, thanks to men such as Francis Coppola, Martin Scorcese, George Lucas, Steven Spielberg… And Lasseter thought they could do the same as they did, but with animation.
Having graduated, he went to work for the Disney animation studios.
Beginnings at Disney
The genuine problem with Disney’s masterminds at the time (not the animators, who were fabulous according to Lasseter), was that they considered that animated movies should only be aimed at children. Lasseter and his friends obviously thought the opposite. Just like Walt Disney, who did not intend to make movies that solely appealed to children.
When Lasseter arrived at Disney, he had the firm belief that animated movies should be aimed at a wider audience. But the people heading the studios, who had secured such positions after many years, were afraid of these animation geniuses. And this period also witnessed the advent of computer assistance, and the potential it offered the animation industry was discovered.
This is what Walt Disney was waiting for!
He knew computers were the tool Disney animation needed to evolve with. But what he was constantly told proved disheartening: “This is not how we do things here”. It was back then he met people from Lucasfilm, who were starting to experiment with the possibilities 3D animation offered. Lasseter kept on urging the heads of studio to insert this form of animation into Disney movies. He insisted to such an extent that he got fired.
His years with Lucasfilm
Having “left” Disney, he was invited to Lucasfilm, and this was when he truly started working with computer-generated imagery, in 1983.
No software program at the time enabled you to create these movies. The team therefore had to design the programs before making the movie. What was quite unique was that it was he – who had received classical animation training – who was collaborating with these computer geniuses and came up with this brand new animation program. This was the first time a computer animated feature was not made by scientists.
Imagine all the paintings in the world made by the chemists who made the paint.
As an artist, he always saw computers as a tool, a paintbrush. But the coolest paintbrush he had even been able to use.
The origin of Toy Story
He was fascinated by the way software programs were going to improve his work, whilst taking into account the fact that a machine alone could not suffice. And it was by taking into account all the specifics behind the technical aspect that he started to reflect on what he could create. The program enabled him to design geometric shapes effortlessly, shapes that looked to have a plastic texture and shadows.
His first animated short was therefore Luxo Jr., which narrated the story of two desk lamps. This was the first animated feature to have been created by computer and designed to entertain viewers thanks to its story and characters, and not solely because it had been made with a computer.
So when they reflected on a feature-length film that could be made using this system, something obvious dawned upon them. They were able to design geometric shapes, which looked to be made out of plastic… toys! They are man-made, made out of plastic, and you find them in children’s bedrooms where most of the furniture and decoration is geometric. He knew they held a unique position because they were the first to make such a film. They were inventing the medium. And they first and foremost wanted people to be impressed by the characters and story, not by the technology.
When making a film, what matters most to John Lasseter is the emotion viewers will feel when watching. This was what Walt Disney included in his movies, and that was what made them so special. When thinking of his favorite movies, his chosen ones were those that stirred him, made him laugh or so on. And this is what he thinks of first when the time comes to work on a script. Knowing where the heart of this future movies lies is very important. Yet he does not try to make movies that convey any particular message. This heart is often depicted by the change the main character experiences over the course of the movie, whilst maintaining a form of logic so that viewers can still make sense of it. The audience needs to embark on the character’s journey in order to understand them. You therefore need to find themes the audience is familiar with (whilst adding a touch of magic): adolescence, disability, bereavement, old age.
At Pixar, it is the team’s personal experiences that inspire movies. This is what enables them to touch the audience even though the stories are completely made up.
Life in Emeryville
Pixar comedy originates from the characters themselves. The team enjoys creating unique characters and putting them into situations from which comedy arises. But they first and foremost make sure no character ever pokes fun at others, no jokes can be made at someone else’s expense.
Andrew Stanton has the habit of constantly making jokes whenever things become too sad or too serious, to make his co-workers laugh. Pete Docter is a giant kid. Joe Ranft used to turn into the characters and immediately caused John and the gang to howl with laughter. Lee Unkrich, who was an animator on Toy Story and is now an indispensable asset to the studio, has always been the serious one in the group. Andrew discovered Lee was a only child, so he became the big brother Lee never wanted to have. They spend their days laughing together and this ever-present good humor is the key ingredient to the comedy present in their movies.
It is this balance between heart and comedy that makes Pixar movies unique.
Peter Sohn was a storyboard artist at Pixar Animation Studios. He arrived at the same time as Brad Bird for The Incredibles. He had already worked with him on The Iron Giant. He had also studied at CalArts. Lasseter saw something special in Peter. He is funny but also has a lot of heart and knows how to transpose it into what he does. He never asked to become a director, but was asked to come up with ideas for shorts. He therefore came up with the storyline for Partly Cloudy, which tells the story of where storks find babies before taking them to their human and animal mothers. And it more specifically tells the story of a cloud who creates ugly, scary and dangerous babies. It was a new take on the baby myth that proved interesting.
Along with Bob Peterson, they then pondered on a script for a longer feature, and this was how The Good Dinosaur came into existence. Only the people who come up with an idea for a movie get to direct it at Pixar Animation Studios. Once an idea forms in someone’s mind, the team all work together to bring it to life.
After a little more than an hour, John Lasseter left the room to rapturous applause. A very special moment, which he seemed to have greatly enjoyed with all the fans. A great moment in the history of film, a great moment in the history of Pixar.