King of Pixar keen to maintain excellence

  • @guyadams

In a state-of-the-art building just outside San Francisco, engineers are finishing off a custom-built desk for John Lasseter. It contains hundreds of compartments designed to house its owner's collection of toy cars.

It's just one of many touches added to the new multimillion-dollar home of Pixar, the film studio Lasseter 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 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 (£4.5bn). 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 bonhomous and is almost never seen without a Hawaiian shirt.

Cars 2 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," he says. "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. Its style is quite different than that of Cars, a more ponderous tale about the death of smalltown America. But Lasseter insists it 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."

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.

But success breeds greater pressure than failure. Lasseter says: "At Pixar we have this joke that the weight is passed from one director to another. At the moment, it's on my shoulders."