Real-life toy story: the 54-year-old boy behind Pixar

John Lasseter is the man whose animations changed the face of film. As his latest work premieres, he talks to Guy Adams

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In a state-of-the-art building across the bay from San Francisco, engineers are putting the finishing touches to a custom-built desk which will soon grace the office of John Lasseter. Long, wide, and overlaid with thick glass, it contains hundreds of small compartments designed to house its owner's extensive collection of metal toy cars.

The desk is just one of many swanky touches, from log fires and rooftop lounges to games rooms and a speakeasy-style employee bar, which Lasseter's architects have added to the multimillion-dollar complex. When it opens later this year, the building will roughly double the working space available to Pixar, the wildly successful film studio he co-founded almost three decades ago.

Its design speaks directly to the childlike glee with which Lasseter approaches a life devoted to serious fun. His films, beginning with Toy Story in 1995, have revolutionised the movie business, popularising computer generated animation, winning awards by the bucketload and introducing a generation of children to Buzz Lightyear, Nemo and Lightning McQueen, the talking car from Cars and the studio's 12th film, Cars 2, which opens in the UK this week.

His conquest of the industry was completed five years ago, when Pixar was bought by Disney for $7.4bn. The deal made Lasseter extremely wealthy, and saw him elevated to the position of chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios. Since then, he's been one of the most powerful men in Hollywood. But you wouldn't know it to look at him: at 54, he remains famously bonhomous, and is almost never seen without a Hawaiian shirt. We meet twice: first briefly at a press day on Pixar's campus, and then several weeks later at Skywalker Ranch, George Lucas's production facility in Marin County, north of San Francisco, where he is sound-editing Cars 2. It will be Lasseter's first outing as a director since 2006, when the Disney takeover took place. So, I ask, how are things back at the coalface?

"Really, a joy," comes the reply. "Directing is my first love. I love being chief creative officer, because I get to work with all these talented film-makers. But the thing about being a director is that you get to work with actual artists. And what's interesting was how many new ones had come along at Pixar. Half the crew were new to me. And that's exciting because I'm a collaborative film-maker. I like to put things in people's hands and see what they come up with."

In the case of Cars 2, what they came up with is a Bond-and-Bourne-esque spy caper which co-stars Sir Michael Caine as a British secret agent, and lurches through Tokyo, Paris and Italy before reaching a blockbuster climax on the streets of London. Its style is quite different to Cars, a more ponderous tale about the death of small town America. But Lasseter insists it nonetheless bears his deeply personal imprint.

"It's a film about stuff I love: cars, travel, Japan. And that's reflective of how we always try to do things at Pixar. Pixar is a film-maker-led studio [so] we make the kind of movies we want to watch. I'm a big kid. I mean, look, I wear Hawaiian shirts all the time. You have seen what my office is like. In this business, I have discovered that I don't have to grow up. And ever since the start, I've liked to put that into movies."

Under Lasseter, Pixar has released 11 films, every one a stunning critical and commercial hit. They are children's titles which adults adore; stories full of heart, with grown-up themes. Often, they defy protocol. Pixar's recent films have included Wall-E, a love story about a robot which contained barely a word of dialogue, and Up, which had as its protagonist an elderly man. Each won an Oscar.

In the fickle world of Hollywood, Lasseter's past 15 years at Pixar represent the greatest run of form since Walt Disney first sharpened his pencil. Last year's Toy Story 3 grossed more than $1bn at the box office. But success breeds greater pressure than failure. "At Pixar we have this joke that the weight is passed from one director to another," he explains. "At the moment, it's on my shoulders."

So far, the reception for Cars 2 has been mixed. Without necessarily panning it, America's critics pegged it as surprisingly formulaic, without any of the emotional slam-dunks which define a Pixar classic. While it looks beautiful, a major plot point involving alternative fuel fails to sing, they say. "Maybe the company was tired of turning out one masterpiece after another and decided to coast for a while," was how AO Scott of The New York Times put it.

On the review aggregation website Rotten Tomatoes, where Pixar films usually score upwards of 90 per cent, Cars 2 is managing only 35. Amateur reviewers on IMDB give it about six out of 10. Some wonder if Pixar's post-Disney release schedule (it ramped up production to a film a year) may be starting to compromise quality and destroy the magic.

The box office hasn't cared. In its opening weekend in the US, the film made $66m, putting it on track to achieve overall global returns around $600m (no bad shakes when Pixar films cost $200m to make). And Disney's 300 items of Cars-themed merchandise are flying off the shelves: Wall Street analysts expect them to generate sales of roughly $10bn.

But critical barbs will hurt Lasseter. Not just because of the pride he takes in his oeuvre, but also because the Cars franchise is peculiarly close to his heart. He grew up in Whittier, California, the son of a Chevrolet dealer, and has a lifelong affection for motor racing. The original Cars film was inspired by a road trip Lasseter took with his wife Nancy and sons (they have a total of five) in the 1990s. He has, if you like, got skin in the Cars game.

The fact that many pundits are ambivalent about Mater, the central character of Cars 2, may also strike a particularly personal note, since he turns out to have been loosely modelled on Lasseter – who cut his teeth in the film industry at Disney, where he started work in the late 1970s after studying animation at the California Institute of Arts.

"When I was a young animator in LA, animation was not at all where it is today, as far as being respected in the industry is concerned. It was truly the bottom rung of the coolness ladder. So when you'd meet a pretty girl, you'd say, 'oh yeah, I'm an assistant animator at Disney' and she'd go: 'oh.' So it's those kind of emotions I tapped into with Mater, the rusty tow-truck."

Lasseter famously left Disney after a few years, growing frustrated with the studio's failure to share his enthusiasm for CG animation, a craft then in its infancy. In 1984, he joined the company that was to become Pixar, which was then a technology offshoot of George Lucas's business empire devoted to making computers and software in the CG field. His job was to turn out short films which showcased the potential of the new technology. He did so well that they decided to make a feature film. That film was Toy Story, and it became 1995's biggest hit, making $350m, winning an Oscar and launching a creative empire.

The critical fate of Cars 2 means that much now rests on the 13th Pixar offering, Brave. Due out next year, and set in Scotland, the film will be the first Pixar title to have a female protagonist. That's significant, since not one of the studio's previous films has ever boasted a female director, and most (like Cars) naturally tilt towards male viewers. So, I ask, is Pixar a sort of boy's club?

"That's not who we are," comes his reply. "Each of our films has a very strong female character in it. Granted, the main characters are not female oriented, necessarily. But I would argue that our films are not made for boys. And I think you'd find that female audiences around the world love our films as much as the male ones do."

It's the first and only time in our conversations that I've seen John Lasseter flustered. In fact, in the argot of Cars, it feels a little like I've lifted his bonnet.

Life in brief

* Born in 1957 in Hollywood. Lasseter's father worked at a Chevrolet dealership and he developed a love of cars.

* He dropped out of Pepperdine University and took a course in animation at the California Institute of the Arts. He was taught by three of the "Nine Old Men" of Disney and trained alongside the director Tim Burton.

* After graduating Lasseter began his career as an animator for Walt Disney but in 1984 he joined Lucasfilm to work on CGI animation.

* When Apple's Steve Jobs bought the animation part of the company in 1986 to set up Pixar, Lasseter joined him.

* He has since overseen all the company's feature films, and directed Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Cars.

* Lasseter has twice been honoured at the Oscars, including a Special Achievement Award for Toy Story.

Pixar: a history


Star Wars creator George Lucas forms a part of Lucasfilm Ltd which aims to create fully animated films. In the coming years, the team works on a variety of technological innovations including the 'Pixar', which is used to develop graphics for Lucas's films. It is capable of constructing more complicated 3D virtual images than previously.


John Lasseter joins the company after working as an animator for Disney. He soon produces Pixar's first 3D short film, André and Wally B.


After leaving Apple, the computer pioneer Steve Jobs buys the Pixar department from Lucas for around $10m. He creates Pixar as an independent company, with 44 staff. Its short film Luxo Jr. has its world premiere.


The company continues to produce animated adverts and short films, including Tin Toy which later receives an Academy Award for Best Short Film.


Toy Story debuts on Thanksgiving weekend, becoming the world's first fully computer-generated feature film. It is a huge hit, making $362m worldwide, the highest -grossing film of the year. The company goes public, with 6.9 million shares going on sale for $22 each.


A Bug's Life is released, breaking more box-office records and becoming the most successful animated film release of 1998.


Woody and Buzz return for Toy Story 2, which becomes the first animated sequel to gross more than its original. Pixar also wins its ninth academy award.


The expanding company moves to a new base in Emeryville, California.


Finding Nemo is released, telling the story of a fish separated from his father. It wins the Oscar for Best Animated Film and grosses $70.2m in its opening weekend in the US.


The Incredibles, about a family of undercover superheroes, is released. It is a critical success, winning two Oscars and grosses $631m.


Cars is released, and is yet another hit with the critics, being nominated for two Academy Awards. Pixar is bought out by Disney in a deal that is worth $7.4bn.


Toy Story 3 is released, grossing more than $1bn and becoming the most popular animated film in history.


Cars 2 has its world premiere. It is the company's 12th feature film, released to coincide with Pixar's 25th anniversary as an independent operation.