John Lasseter: To infinity and beyond

Disney's head of animation has overseen a sequence of films that has redefined the genre – and defined the digital age.

If you want to impress a small child this weekend, ask if he or she knows why Buzz Lightyear wears an outfit of purple and lime green.

That you even know a piece of trivia about Toy Story 3, a newly opened film half the nation's kids are clamouring to see, will give you instant kudos. And sharing it will provide an opportunity to tell a yarn which, like many a heart-warming tale, proves that not every little boy has to grow up.

Buzz owes his markings to the fact that lime green is the favourite colour of a man called John Lasseter. Purple is the favourite colour of John's wife, Nancy. John, who makes cartoons for a living, created Buzz's spacesuit almost 20 years ago. On the night he first sketched it, when he owed Nancy an apology for staying too late at the office, its colour scheme was his way of saying sorry.

That's the story, at least. And after three films, in which Buzz has made almost $1.5bn at the box office, and generated tens of billions more in merchandise, it is cemented in the annals of Hollywood history. So too is John Lasseter, a Peter Pan figure whose uniquely ingenious films have shaped the imaginations of a generation.

Today, Lasseter is the larger-than-life 53-year-old head of Disney animation, best known for wearing Hawaiian shirts, being obsessed with toys, and having turned a small technology company called Pixar, which Disney now owns, into perhaps the most successful and the most influential film studio to have arrived on the scene in more than half a century. In the 15 years since Lasseter made Toy Story, the world's first computer-animated film, he has overseen 11 movies at Pixar, each one a massive hit. The company has won 24 Oscars, and been nominated roughly twice as many times. The mantelpiece of Lasseter's home near San Francisco groans under the weight of half a dozen Oscars.

In the fickle world of Hollywood, this represents the greatest run of form since Walt Disney popularised hand-drawn animation during the industry's golden era. Lasseter, who never fails to remind interviewers of the big man's influence on his career ("I do what I do because of Walt"), has used computer animation to repackage a visual art form for the 21st century.

His back catalogue defies categorisation. It contains children's titles, which adults adore; films that are joyful, but laced with grown-up darkness. Many Lasseter movies also break established protocol. Wall-E, an Oscar-winning love story about a robot, contains barely a word of dialogue. Last year's Up used an elderly man as its protagonist. US film-goers struggled even to pronounce the title of Ratatouille. Now we have Toy Story 3. While this year's other big summer movies have largely flopped, it is casually surpassing expectations, making $348m in the US. The New York Times's critic, along with many others, sprinkled the word "genius" through his write-up. In this newspaper's review, Pixar was described as "the saviour of family entertainment".

All of which won't have surprised Lasseter a bit. A self-confident man, who applies the logic of an infant to the complex problems of film-making and is prone, when discussing work, to making statements of the obvious sound groundbreaking ("if you think something's stupid, it probably is" or "I try to make pictures I would want to see"), he sees no reason why a movie under his control should be less than brilliant.

To understand what makes him tick, go to Pixar's headquarters, a glass and brick complex in Oakland, California, where fresh-faced staff play air hockey and ping pong, or go around on roller skates and scooters, and drink subsidised chai lattes because, in the words of guides, they're just "creative people". Lasseter built it in his own image, creating a place which people like him – clever, enthusiastic and obsessed with toys – would never want to leave. Each Pixar film takes four years to complete, during which it is constantly refined and re-refined. Lasseter obsesses over technical details: in Finding Nemo, Pixar rendered water quite beautifully. In Monsters, Inc, it did the same thing with fur. Up's helium balloons took one man a year to perfect. He believes in making state-of-the-art technology sing. Even his wedding photos were shot in 3D.

Lasseter's creative process is uniquely collegiate. Like any medium in which hundreds of employees toil on tiny portions of an overall product, animation can feel disjointed. Its creators develop tunnel vision. Lasseter therefore forces them to endure constant peer review. A "brain trust" of roughly a dozen top staffers meets every few months to review every work in progress.

This isn't necessarily a happy process. "Is John Lasseter always Mr Nice Guy? Of course not," says David A Price, who wrote The Pixar Touch, a history of the firm. "Plenty of directors have been fired when he didn't think they were delivering. Jan Pinkava created Ratatouille, but was moved aside for Brad Bird. Lasseter himself took over from Ash Brannon on Toy Story 2. However nice he looks, he's always got the needs of the studio firmly in mind."

The hard work and occasional upheavals create a very identifiable "type" of hit movie. In his office, Lasseter keeps a picture of Dumbo, his favourite classic Disney film, and perhaps the soppiest. His films revolve around emotion. Toy Story 3, in which Andy, the owner of Buzz Lightyear, is leaving home for university, touches on familiar Lasseterian themes: growing up, separation and the transience of human existence.

He's been working at this art for as long as he's been alive. John Alan Lasseter spent his childhood, in Whittier, California, rising before dawn to watch classic Disney films, and sketching furiously on notepaper supplied by his art teacher mother. After school, he won a scholarship to the animation course at the California Institute of the Arts, and later a graduate job at Disney.

His big break, famously, came soon afterwards. After seeing an early example of CG animation on the Disney film Tron, Lasseter became convinced that it represented the studio's future. With fine disregard for protocol, which dictated that new Disney staffers should keep their heads down for years, he pitched a CG film project at his bosses. They promptly fired him. As a result, in 1984, Lasseter found work at a technology offshoot of George Lucas's business empire devoted to making computers and software in the CG field. His role was to make short films which could showcase the creative potential of the company's equipment. One of the first was about a desk lamp called Luxo, which is now Pixar's mascot.

In its first decade, the firm (which became Pixar after being sold to Steve Jobs) made critically acclaimed but commercially unviable short films and sold very few computers. It burned through $50m of investor's cash. But after the short film Tin Toy, about a child's toy which comes to life, won an Oscar in 1988, Jobs decided to turn it into a feature film studio. Toy Story, its first production, made $350m and became 1995's biggest hit.

The rest is history. When Disney bought Pixar in 2006, they paid $7.4bn, making Lasseter a wealthy (and powerful) man. Since then he's divided his time between Pixar HQ in Oakland and Disney's in Burbank, Los Angeles, where he is attempting to reinvigorate the old studio's fortunes.

So far at Disney, which is arguably now his main endeavour, he's had mixed success. A 3D animation, Bolt, faltered at the box office. So did The Princess and the Frog, a hand-drawn cartoon critics loved but audiences hummed about. Much now rides on Tangled, next summer's Disney reworking of the Rapunzel story. Critics have even quietly carped that Pixar, though still their darling, has too many sequels on its slate, and must guard against complacency. But Lasseter, who recently signed on to co-direct Cars 2 at his old firm, will most likely let his films do the talking. Can he continue Pixar's run of success for ever? Who knows. He'll certainly have fun trying.

A life in brief

Born: 12 January 1957, Hollywood, California.

Family: Son of Jewell Mae, an art teacher, and Paul Eual Lasseter, a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership. His mother's profession contributed to his growing preoccupation with animation.

Career: Worked as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation. Then moved to Pixar, where he directed Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 and Cars.

He says: "We make the kind of movies we want to see. We love to laugh, but I also believe what Walt Disney said: 'For every laugh there should be a tear.' I love movies that make me cry, because they're tapping into a real emotion in me, and I always think afterwards: how did they do that?"

They say: "I remember John Lasseter putting his arm around me and saying, 'Come on, let's do Toy Story 3 right now while it's all fresh', but all I wanted to do was go have a vacation: I couldn't believe he wanted to make another movie right away." Lee Unkrich, director of Toy Story 3

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