Though Pixar is a household name today, there was one film that changed the trajectory of the company, and of computer animation, in general. That movie, Toy Story, was written and guided by a visionary in computer animation – John Lasseter.
As the pioneering force behind Pixar’s ‘Golden Age’ of animation, John Lasseter played a pivotal role in shaping the studio’s success during this era. Lasseter came onto the scene in the early 1980s as a young animator at Disney. However, it was his tenure at Pixar, which began in 1986 when he joined the then-little-known studio, that would cement his legacy as an animation luminary. Lasseter’s passion for storytelling and his deep understanding of the art of animation set the stage for the next generation of animators and for a renaissance of the company itself.
Growing Up Lasseter
John Lasseter’s devotion to animation was ignited during his childhood, a period that sowed the seeds for his legendary career. Born on January 12, 1957, in Hollywood, California, Lasseter’s fascination with the art form began at a young age. It was in the home state of Disneyland that he discovered a burgeoning interest in drawing and storytelling through the visions of Walt Disney before him. His childhood drawings eventually morphed into fully fleshed-out comics drawn for his church, foreshadowing his future in animation.
Even though Lasseter was raised in a time before VCRs, DVDs, or streaming services, animated movies were a defining part of his life. A pivotal moment in his journey as a young animator came when Lasseter saw the Disney classic animated film, The Sword In The Stone. This movie had a profound impact on him, solidifying his dream of becoming an animator. The Sword In The Stone was a 1964 Disney re-telling of the King Arthur legend, which made the somewhat antiquated story fun and exciting to young children like Lasseter, as well as shaping the cast and turning them into relatable characters. These early influences laid the foundation for John Lasseter’s lifelong love of animation. His interests would eventually lead him to Pixar, where he played an instrumental role in shaping the landscape of modern animation.
After high school, John Lasseter went on to study at the California Institute For The Arts, receiving his Bachelor of Fine Arts in animation. Directly after graduating from college, he went on to work at Disney as an animator. He worked as an animator at Disney until the mid-1980s, when he happened to find some computer-animated videos. From there, he left to work for Lucasfilm in 1984. Eventually, the computer graphics portion of Lucasfilm went on to become Pixar.
A Creative Vision Unmatched At Pixar
Pixar started with animated shorts, which Lasseter was at the helm of. These included Tin Toy and Luxo, Jr. However, when John Lasseter put together Toy Story, it completely disrupted the animation industry, which had not seen a full-length, computer-animated feature before. His directorial debut, Toy Story, marked the beginning of a new era in animation. The film was not only a commercial success but also a critical darling, earning Lasseter an Academy Special Achievement Award for his groundbreaking work, as well as two other Oscars.
In Toy Story, Lasseter brought toys and animation to life in a way that had never been seen before. He skillfully navigated the fine line between technology and storytelling, creating memorable characters like Woody and Buzz Lightyear who resonated deeply with audiences of yesterday and today. This success paved the way for Lasseter to helm subsequent Pixar hits, including Toy Story 2, and Cars, further cementing his status as a directorial genius.
Lasseter took the success of Toy Story and ran with it. He also went on to be an instrumental part of Pixar. In 2006, he was named the CEO of Disney Animation and Pixar. During his time at both, he supervised, produced, directed, or was a part of almost every Pixar movie until the late 2010s.
Fostering Collaboration and Innovation
One of John Lasseter’s most enduring legacies is his commitment to fostering a collaborative and innovative atmosphere at Disney and Pixar. He recognized that great animation was a team effort, and he encouraged Pixar’s talented animators and artists to push the boundaries of what was possible as well as working with established storytellers to create stories unique to the world of cinema. One such continued collaborator was screenwriter Brad Bird. Notable for the Iron Giant, which was not a Disney Movie, Bird also worked with Lasseter on beloved movies like Ratatouille, which was.
Lasseter’s leadership style at Pixar was characterized by open communication and a genuine passion for the craft. He believed that the best ideas often emerged through collaboration and was known for his Brain Trust sessions, where creative minds would come together to refine and elevate the storytelling in Pixar’s films. This approach resulted in richer narratives and more emotionally resonant characters.
The collaborative spirit that Lasseter cultivated extended beyond the studio’s walls. Even after leaving Pixar, Lasseter has taken the spirit of collaboration with him to Skydance Animation. These collaborations not only expanded Pixar’s reach but also rejuvenated Disney’s animation department.
What Makes A Pixar Movie A Pixar Movie?
At the heart of Pixar’s success is John Lasseter’s unwavering vision for furthering the industry. His ability to infuse life and emotion into digital characters is visible in all his characters (who else could make an audience fall in love with cartoon cars?) Lasseter understands that great storytelling is the cornerstone of animation. This approach formed the bedrock of Pixar’s philosophy, and it paid dividends in the form of unforgettable films. Inarguably, it was what made Pixar stand apart from other animation studios. On his thirtieth anniversary with the company, John Lasseter spoke about this.
“What makes a Pixar movie a Pixar movie?” Lasseter addressed this in the interview. “First, its roots are based in the work of Walt Disney. Story is king, story is the most important thing… you want the movies to touch people… you want to make things that you just haven’t thought of before”. Disney remained a clear influence in Lasseter’s life. “I mean look, he made Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Peter Pan. Those films, they live forever. They will always live forever.”
John Lasseter’s Continuing Legacy at Skydance Animation
While John Lasseter’s time at Pixar was indeed historic, his journey in the world of animation continues. Currently serving as the Head of Animation at Skydance Animation, Lasseter is working alongside a talented team of animators and artists to create the next generation of animated classics.
At Skydance Animation, Lasseter could apply the wealth of knowledge and experience he gained during his illustrious career. His commitment to telling stories using computer animation remains as strong as ever. Lasseter’s presence at Skydance Animation is a testament to his enduring passion for the art of animation and his desire to push the boundaries of what is possible in the medium.
As John Lasseter shapes the future of Skydance Animation, potentially creating a Skydance Animation golden age, he carries with him a legacy of excellence that will undoubtedly shape the future of animation. John Lasseter’s influence on animation is nothing short of legendary, and his name will forever be synonymous with the magic of the animated world.