John Lasseter breathed new life into family films by putting animators in front of computers. He launched an animation revolution with Toy Story in 1995 and has kept innovating and entertaining audiences around the world ever since, first as creative director of Pixar Films and now in that same capacity at the venerable Walt Disney Studio.
Woody, the old-fashioned cowboy doll, and his futuristic spaceman pal, Buzz Lightyear, became instant hits the world over when they first met on screen in Toy Story. They sprang from the imagination of John Lasseter, a boyish, round-faced man wearing wire-rimmed glasses and a flamboyant Hawaiian-style shirt. As he makes the dolls walk across a table, it's obvious he has proudly refused to outgrow playing with toys.
John Lasseter and his team at Pixar Films brought Woody, Buzz and their toy box companions to life in the first-ever completely computer-animated feature film. Toy Story won John Lasseter a special Oscar before animation had its own category, and started an unbroken string of popular family films that he had a creative hand in, including A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and this year's hit, Cars.
It is a career that 49-year-old John Lasseter says he began pursuing as a teenager, growing up in Hollywood. "My mother was a high school art teacher - she had been that for 38 years - so art was always around our house," he recalls. "Then in high school I found a book on the art of animation and got really inspired to be an animator. I loved cartoons. I used to get up at six every Saturday morning and watch cartoons until the golf matches came on. So in high school I saw this book and it dawned on me: 'Oh my goodness; people actually make money doing this! That's what I want to do.'"
And that is what he did. John Lasseter studied at California Institute of the Arts and on graduation landed his first job at theWalt Disney Company: not as an animator, though. He worked as a skipper on the Disneyland 'Jungle Cruise' ride.
He soon got the chance to pursue his dream at Disney, where the art of hand-drawn animation had flourished, but by then - in the 1980's - had fallen on hard times. Lasseter tried to convince his bosses that new computer technology could add previously unattainable depth and dimension to animated films, turning them from two-dimensional or '2D' into more realistic '3D' images. It got him fired.
Not long afterward, however, he joined up with a team of like-minded innovators to form a new company, Pixar, far from Hollywood, in the San Francisco area. There, they pushed the technology past what anyone thought possible and reached new heights of success.
Lasseter says he's often asked if computer animation is going to replace hand-drawn animation. He insists that computers can never - and should never - replace artists. "The way I view it is that this is not a new art form; this is just a new medium within the art form of animation." He compares it to photography. "If you remember in art history, when photography first came in as 'the new technology,' everybody was saying that it was going to replace painting. But now, years later, there still is painting and there still is photography; both respected art forms. No one ever thinks about the fact that one is better or going to replace the other. They're clearly different. I believe that is what it's going to be like with computers and hand-drawn animation or live action or puppet animation. It has its own unique look."
Now, in a twist that could have come from the plot of one of his movies, John Lasseter is back at Disney; but this time he's in charge. When the Disney Corporation purchased Pixar in a multi-billion dollar deal in 2006, he was named Creative Director of both animation departments; one of his first actions was to keep 2D animation from disappearing at the studio where Mickey Mouse sprang from a bottle of ink.
"To me it is about what you do with your technology [and] what you do with your medium and how you entertain your audience. It's the story and the characters," he explains, insisting, "I have always believed that, of all studios in the world, Disney, who created the art form of the animated feature film, is the place where 2D animation should be made."
In addition, John Lasseter is now principal creative advisor to the shop that designs new attractions at Disney theme parks, bringing his imagination to life in yet another art form.
At home, in Sonoma, California, he has an office stacked high with the toys he loves so much; and it's where John Lasseter has the audience he tries hardest to entertain - his five sons who always get the first look at the latest ideas from this ever-imaginative innovator.