Pixar creative chief seeks to restore Disney magic

Pixar's creative leader, John A. Lasseter, now faces the challenge of reviving Disney's weakened animation unit.

If Wall Street has been fascinated by the pas de deux featuring Bob Iger of Walt Disney and Steve 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.

In announcing their planned merger Tuesday, the two companies said Lasseter would be chief creative officer of the combined animation operations, while Pixar's president, Edwin Catmull, would become president.

Listen up

CNET News.com reporters talk about the implications of the Disney-Pixar deal.
Listen now...(10MB mp3)

"It's energizing and great fun to have John as a part of that creative process in any camp," said Richard 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 Stainton, 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--Catmull and 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."

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, , 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," Lasseter said in a statement. In an earlier interview at Pixar, the Los Angeles-born Lasseter said his love affair with cartoons began when he saw Disney's "The Sword in the Stone" as a boy.

In person, 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, 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, Catmull, who then worked at Lucasfilm, invited Lasseter to visit the company's computer graphics unit. In 1984, Lasseter left Disney for Lucasfilm, and "a one-month project ended up a permanent position," he said in a 1999 interview.

At Lucasfilm, Lasseter directed his first computer-generated short, "The Adventures of Andre 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).

News.com Poll

Can Steve Jobs restore Disney's lost luster?

No
Not without more control
Without a doubt



View results

Among the questions Lasseter will join 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 Jobs and the former Disney chief executive, Michael 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.

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."

Featured Video