By CHARLES SOLOMON
Published: January 25, 2006
Pixar Creative Chief to Seek to Restore the Disney Magic
LOS ANGELES, Jan. 24 - If Wall Street has been fascinated by the pas de deux featuring Robert A. Iger of the Walt Disney Company and Steven P. Jobs of Pixar Animation Studios, animators have been transfixed by someone else caught up in the dance: Pixar's creative leader, John A. Lasseter, who will now face the challenge of reviving Disney's weakened animation unit without losing the magic at home.
Stephen Shugerman/Getty Images
John A. Lasseter was named chief creative officer for animation.
In announcing their planned merger Tuesday, the two companies said Mr. Lasseter would be chief creative officer of the combined animation operations, while Pixar's president, Edwin E. Catmull, would become president.
"It's energizing and great fun to have John as a part of that creative process in any camp," said Richard W. Cook, the chairman of Walt Disney Studios, in an interview from his Burbank office Tuesday. "And having Ed Catmull's calm, very smart direct leadership is going to do nothing but help make us do good things."
Of the departing president of Walt Disney Feature Animation, David J. Stainton, Mr. Cook said, "I think David will stay with the company and do some great things here. He's a creative guy with a fabulous business sense, and I know we're going to be able to find something good for him."
Given the performance of the two companies - Mr. Catmull and Mr. Lasseter have overseen six consecutive blockbusters, from "Toy Story" to "The Incredibles," while Disney has had to make do with "Chicken Little" and "Home on the Range" - it seems likely that Disney may receive a much-needed re-education.
"John Lasseter is probably the most respected single person in American animation," said Kevin Koch, president of Animation Guild Local 839, the Hollywood animators' union. "He's a creative leader without being overbearing or over-controlling."
Mr. Lasseter, 49, has been seen by animators as an innovator who honors the fundamentals. Much like the late Walt Disney, his trademarks are well-told, broadly appealing stories, technological advances, interesting characters and a quality that has been conspicuously absent from many recent American films: heart.
"For many of us at Pixar, it was the magic of Disney that influenced us to pursue our dreams of becoming animators, artists, storytellers and filmmakers," Mr. Lasseter said in a statement. In an earlier interview at Pixar, the Los Angeles-born Mr. Lasseter said his love affair with cartoons began when he saw Disney's "The Sword in the Stone" as a boy.
In person, Mr. Lasseter is an outgoing, slightly harried man who invariably appears in his trademark Hawaiian shirts and jeans, and speaks with contagious enthusiasm. He was the second student chosen for the nascent character animation program at California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and spent four years studying with veteran Disney artists. His animated films "Lady and the Lamp" and "Nitemare" won Student Academy Awards.
After graduating in 1979, Mr. Lasseter spent five years at Disney, working on "The Fox and the Hound" and "Mickey's Christmas Carol." After seeing the pioneering "Tron," he and a fellow animator, Glen Keane, made a 30-second test on based Maurice Sendak's "Where the Wild Things Are" that suggested how traditional hand-drawn animation could be combined with computerized camera movements and environments.
In 1983, Mr. Catmull, who then worked at Lucasfilm, invited Mr. Lasseter to visit the company's computer graphics unit. In 1984, Mr. Lasseter left Disney for Lucasfilm, and "a one-month project ended up a permanent position," he said in a 1999 interview.
At Lucasfilm, Mr. Lasseter directed his first computer-generated short, "The Adventures of André and Wally B." (1984). But it was the Oscar-nominated "Luxo Jr." (1986) that demonstrated the potential of computer animation as a storytelling device. A 90-second tale about a rambunctious little lamp and its slightly weary parent, "Luxo" was the first computer animated film in which the characters appeared to think.
A series of shorts that culminated in the Oscar-winning "Tin Toy" (1988) served as a ramp-up to "Toy Story" (1995), much the way Walt Disney used the "Silly Symphonies" to prepare his animators for "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" (1937).
Among the questions Mr. Lasseter will join Mr. Catmull in facing at Disney - where he will also be principal creative adviser to the theme parks' Imagineering unit - is how to handle the question of sequels to the Pixar hits, a source of tension between Mr. Jobs and the former Disney chief executive, Michael D. Eisner.
Pixar had been reluctant to proceed with sequels under its previous deal with Disney, but Disney had the right to make sequels if Pixar declined. Disney went so far as to set up a studio to work on those sequels - an operation called "Pixaren't" in animation circles. Some had speculated that the unit would be shut down if Disney and Pixar made peace.
Mr. Cook said that "it's probably a little premature to say what's going to happen there. We'll wait until Ed and John have a chance to come down and see what's going on. Clearly anything that John wanted to do, we would want to do with him."
A broader question concerns management style, and whether Mr. Lasseter will bring some of the freewheeling spirit of Emeryville, Calif., where Pixar has its headquarters, to a culture where animators have long complained that vice presidents, creative executives and other business managers have gotten in the way of creativity since Disney's fortunes peaked with the release of "Aladdin" and "The Lion King" more than a decade ago.
Another the hotly discussed question among artists has been whether Mr. Lasseter - despite having made Pixar's fortune with a brilliant series of computer-generated hits - will bring back the traditional 2-D animation on which the Disney empire was built. Mr. Lasseter and other Pixar artists are known for their enthusiasm for the classic Disney films, and for the drawn features of the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki.
Mr. Cook commented, "I've talked about reviving 2-D with John for some time, it wouldn't surprise me at all if these a project emerged that we would want to do in 2-D."
"To a lot of animators, John is kind of a King Arthur figure who represents the classic storytelling Disney was known for when Walt was alive," said the animator Pres Romanillos, whose work includes the evil Shan Yu in "Mulan."
"In many ways, he created the C.G. age and he's the one who can bring back traditional animation. And if he does, ask him if he wants my résumé."