Born January 12, 1957, in Hollywood, CA; children: five sons. Education: California Institute of the Arts, B.F.A., 1979.
Home—Sonoma, CA. Office—Pixar Animation Studios, 1200 Park Ave., Emeryville, CA 94608.
Walt Disney Company, Burbank, CA, animator, 1979-83; Lucasfilm, San Rafael, CA, designer and animator in computer division, 1983-86; Pixar Animation Studios, Emeryville, CA, founding member, animator, executive vice president of creativity, 1986-. Executive producer of films, including Geri's Game, 1997, For the Birds, 2000, Spirited Away, 2001, Monster's Inc., 2001, Mike's New Car, 2002, Exploring the Reef, 2003, Finding Nemo, 2003, Boundin', 2003, and The Incredibles, 2004.
Student Academy Award for Animation, California Institute of the Arts, 1979, for Lady and the Lamp, and 1980, for Nitemare; Academy Award nomination, 1986, for Luxo Jr.; Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film, 1988, for Tin Toy; Academy Award for Special Achievement, 1995, for Toy Story; Award for Outstanding Contribution to Cinematic Imagery, Art Directors Guild, 2004; honorary degree, American Film Institute.
(With Steve Daly) Toy Story: The Art and Making of the Animated Film, Disney Editions (New York, NY), 1995.
(And director) Luxo Jr., Pixar Animation, 1986.
(And director) Red's Dream, Pixar Animation, 1987.
(And director) Tin Toy, Pixar Animation, 1988.
(And director) Knickknack, Pixar Animation, 1989.
(And director) Toy Story, Pixar Animation, 1995.
(And director) A Bug's Life, Pixar Animation, 1998.
(And director) Toy Story 2, Pixar Animation, 1999.
(And director) Cars, Pixar Animation, 2006.
"A computer is like a pencil," animator John Lasseter once noted. "It is really an amazing pencil. [But] computers don't create animation anymore than a pencil would create a drawing." Lasseter has been, since the early 1980s, one of the most influential developers of computer animation. A two-time Academy Award winner, Lasseter is the director, writer, and creator of such immensely popular animated films as Toy Story, A Bug's Life, and Toy Story 2.
One of the founding members of Pixar Animation Studios, Lasseter and his creative team perfected three-dimensional computer animation technology, and with Toy Story in 1995 released the first full-length feature film created wholly by computer. Yet Lasseter is much more than a nerd with a vision. His animated movies have real story and bite; he presents characters with true emotions. Writing in Time magazine, Richard Corliss called Toy Story "the year's most inventive comedy."
Many of Lasseter's Pixar creations have been done in collaboration with Walt Disney Productions, and indeed Lasseter has been called something of a latter day Disney himself. "He truly gets it," said his colleague and co-director, Andrew Stanton of Lasseter's sensibilities. "He has both the kid's perspective and the filmmaker's perspective. The childlike charm and the maturity, that's John," Stanton told Cathy Booth in a Time interview.
Hooked on Cartoons
Born in Hollywood, California, in 1957, Lasseter was raised in nearby Whittier and was an early fan of cartoons. As he told Jonathan Ross for the Guardian Online, "Back in the day when I was a little guy there was no home video, or 24-hour cable channels of animation. Animation was on Saturday morning and after school—basically that was it. So when Bugs Bunny came on, I was in front of the TV. I just adored it." Lasseter was lucky in that his mother was a long-time high school art teacher who encouraged her son's passion for animation.
In high school he read a book on animation that opened his eyes. He recalled his reaction for Ross: "Wait a minute, people do this for a living?" Lasseter had long been considered the class artist at school, but at that point he decided animation was what he wanted to do for a living. He began writing to the Walt Disney studios, as they had produced the animated films he most loved. His efforts paid off when one of his letters brought a reply inviting him for a tour of the Disney facilities.
Opportunity also struck when he graduated from high school, for Disney artists were teaching, for the first time, an animation program at the prestigious California Institute for the Arts. Lasseter was in that first class of 1975, along with fellow students Tim Burton and Brad Bird, who have also made a name for themselves in animation. There Lasseter's studies concentrated on filmmaking, character development, and storytelling rather than on technology; computer graphics was still in its infancy at that time. Its primary application had thus far been in television commercials.
While a student, Lasseter produced two animated films, Lady and the Lamp and Nitemare, which won back-to-back Student Academy awards for animation in 1979 and 1980. Upon graduation from the animation program, he went to work for his dream company, Disney.
At the Walt Disney Company Lasseter worked as an animator on films such as The Fox and the Hound and Mickey's Christmas Carol. It was while at Disney that Lasseter saw some of the computer graphics being used in the new film Tron. Though the ensuing film was not a success because of poor plotting, the visual effects impressed Lasseter. He immediately saw the potential for getting more dimensionality into animation backgrounds using computer graphics rather than hand-drawn cells, and tried to convince the Disney people of the possibilities. But the powers at Disney were not interested in such innovations. "To them animation had become just for kids, which was sad for me," Lasseter told Ross.
Turns to Computer Graphics
In 1983 Lasseter left Disney to work in the computer division of Lucasfilm. Among other projects, he designed a character for Young Sherlock Holmes, a Steven Spielberg film from 1985. But early in his tenure at Lucasfilm he connected with Ed Catmull, a pioneer of computer graphics from the New York Institute of Technology, whom George Lucas had hired to head his computer division. A frustrated animator, Catmull teamed up with Lasseter to experiment with new tools for creating computer graphics. Up to this point Lasseter had imagined the use of computers was for backgrounds only and that the characters in animated films would continue to be drawn by hand. Catmull, however, prompted Lasseter to animate an entire short film by computer. After it was shown to a computer graphics convention, Lasseter suddenly realized that he was in a unique position to take computer animation to new levels. He not only understood the technology, but he was also a trained animator and filmmaker.
In 1986 computer mogul Steve Jobs took over the Lucasfilm computer section, renaming it Pixar Animation Studios. Lasseter stayed on and immediately began working with Catmull on another short film, Luxo Jr. This time the reaction to the film after it was shown at a computer graphics convention was about content rather than software. "And I knew at that moment that computer animation had achieved something that had never been achieved before; it was the story and the characters [that] were important in the film, not the fact that it was made with computer graphics," Lasseter recalled for Ross. Increasingly Lasseter was drawn to computer graphics because of the way such animation can play with light, something impossible to do with hand-drawn cells. "Maxfield Parish has been a driving force at Pixar," Lasseter told Ross, "because of the richness of light in his paintings. It really inspired us."
More short films followed: Red's Dream and Tin Toy in 1988, which became the first computer animated film to win an Academy award, taking an Oscar for best animated short film. This story of a baby told from the point of view of a toy was the predecessor to Toy Story. The 1989 Knickknack, another short film, was Lasseter's last stint as an animator. Since that time he has concentrated on directing, producing, writing, and overseeing creative development at Pixar.
Pixar and Lasseter went from short films to making television commercials, but basically the research on such short films was geared toward development of feature films done with computer graphics. Lasseter's prior connection with Disney studios prompted a collaborative effort which began in 1991 when the two agreed to work on an animated feature film. Lasseter and his team of animators and cowriters did not want to do the standard Disney fare—"a fairytale with a main character, a lot of side characters and eight songs," as he explained it to Ross. Instead, he wanted to do a storyline in animation that had never been done before. He opted for a "buddy picture," which in fact has become a standard Pixar story device since. Lasseter went back to his short film Tin Toy for inspiration, and came up with the tale of a hand-me-down toy which is a child's favorite until the child gets a brand new and very fetching toy for his birthday. One concession Lasseter did make to the Disney formula was the inclusion of songs. He had Randy Newman come up with three songs for the film, and Newman has continued to provide musical background for other Pixar films since then.
Released in 1995, Toy Story was an immediate critical and box office success. Newsweek's David Ansen called this tale of an old pull-string cowboy, Woody, and his competition with the new space-age toy on the block, Buzz Lightyear, "an eye-opener." Ansen went on to praise the film as "a winning animated feature that has something for everyone…. A tight and funny story. Three new Randy Newman songs in his best lyrical, sardonic mode. And a cast of voices, led by superbly expressive performances from [Tom] Hanks and [Tim] Allen." Ansen also noted that the film "pops off the screen with a vibrancy that's totally unlike traditional handpainted animation." Time's Corliss was equally enthusiastic: "Like a Bosch painting or a Mad comic book, Toy Story creates a world bustling with strange creatures … and furtive, furry humor." Corliss concluded that, "when a genius like Lasseter sits at his computer, the machine becomes just a more supple paintbrush." And Owen Gleiberman, writing in Entertainment Weekly declared, "I can hardly imagine having more fun at the movies than I did at Toy Story, … the miraculous new Disney feature that's the first full-length animated film to be produced entirely on computer." For Gleiberman, as for others, the movie was not just about technology. He dubbed it a "hellzapoppin fairy tale" and a "magically witty and humane entertainment." Such critical reception was only the prelude to the movie's success. Box-office revenues together with video and licensing fees brought in about $1 billion for Pixar and Disney, and the movie earned an Academy Award nomination for best original screenplay, a first for an animated feature, and gave Lasseter his second Oscar, this time for special achievement.
Lasseter reprised his directing and writing achievements in A Bug's Life, the tale of Flik, "a smart little ant who saves his colony and woos the queen-to-be," as People writer Tom Gliatto described this animated feature film. Gliatto went on to note that, visually, A Bug's Life "is perfect, a fully realized, richly colored world seen from the level of a blade of grass."
It was this approximation of organic reality that made production of the movie and its computer animation so difficult and time-consuming for Lasseter and his crew. Production took ten times the computing power of Toy Story, much of it used to insure that light during different parts of the day was captured correctly, or to provide for the 320 facial controls of its main character, Flik, as compared to the 135 used for characters in Toy Story.
The film's story is a blend of The Magnificent Seven and the Aesop's fable "The Ant and the Grasshopper," in that the "hapless, helpless Flik," as Corie Brown Giles described the ant hero in Newsweek, recruits what he thinks are warrior bugs to tackle the ruthless marauding grasshoppers who demand offerings from the peaceful ants. But these warriors turn out to be "dysfunctional circus performers," according to Giles, and then Flik must face the grasshopper leader, Hopper, on his own and thereby win the heart of Princess Atta.
Giles found A Bug's Life "great fun," as well as the "giddiest, most inventive family movie of the year." Giles also went on to call the film "funny and silly and tender, full of fun scares and endless sight gags." Variety reviewer Todd McCarthy was similarly impressed, noting that the film "bursts upon the screen with beautiful verdant hues." However, McCarthy also felt that the movie is "a bit too busy at times and excessively noisy," a complaint echoed by Gleiberman, who compared A Bug's Life to "a fireworks show that's too big and bursting to take in." Gleiberman concluded that this animated feature is "imagination overkill." Nation reviewer Stuart Klawans was more positive in his evaluation of the film however, noting that "far from being a soul-less exercise in technogreed, A Bug's Life jigs along cheerily, celebrating not only Flik's ingenuity but also such un-Disneylike virtues as eccentricity, urban disorder and the revolt of workers against alienated labor." Once again, Lasseter's animated feature proved a box office hit, taking in over $45 million in its opening weekend.
With Toy Story 2 Lasseter had planned a direct-to-video product, but instead he had yet another feature film hit on his hands. McCarthy noted in Variety that this sequel has "fresh characters, broadened scope, boisterous humor and, most of all, a gratifying emotional depth." Here Woody the pull-string cowboy ends up in a yard sale when one of his toy arms get broken. Sold, he is ultimately rescued by his old competitor and now friend, Buzz Lightyear, and the band of other toys. McCarthy went on to note that Toy Story 2 "is entirely of piece with its predecessor, distinguished by the same endearing character design and reality-nudging peripheral details." McCarthy further noted, "But the new offering is even more densely packed with rollicking humor than the first." Similar praise came from Newsweek's Ansen, who noted that "sequels, by definition, are shamelessly commercial enterprises, but when the level of invention is this high you can only be grateful to John Lasseter and his gifted company for giving it their creative all."
If you enjoy the works of John Lasseter
If you enjoy the works of John Lasseter, you may also want to check out the following animated films:
The Lion King, featuring the voices of James Earl Jones and Nathan Lane, 1994.
Shrek, featuring the voices of Mike Myers and Eddie Murphy, 2001.
Aladdin, featuring the voices of Scott Weinger and Robin Williams, 2004.
Lasseter has also acted as executive producer on other Pixar hits, including Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, and the 2004 sensation The Incredibles, written and directed by his old school friend, Brad Bird. Lasseter returned to directing chores with the 2006 feature film Cars, the story of Lightning McQueen, a cocky stock car that gets waylaid on its way to a race.
Lasseter remains a steadfast believer in the use of computers for animation graphics, but acknowledges there are areas where hand-drawn animation works better, as in the classic Disney characters such as the seven dwarfs. "The seven dwarfs are so flexible and fluid, and the computer can't do that believably," he wrote in an article for Forbes magazine. But for Lasseter personally, the computer opened up new horizons. "I was never a great draftsman. I always got caught up in the single drawing and would become frustrated. The computer freed me to be a much better animator. I was allowed to think in an entirely different way."
Biographical and Critical Sources
Booklist, November 1, 1995, Mike Tribby, review of Toy Story: The Art and Making of the Animated Film, p. 448.
Business Week, November 23, 1998, p. 154.
Daily News (Los Angeles, CA), February 14, 2002, p. U7; May 30, 2003, Glenn Whipp, "Swimming against the Tide: Pixar Crew Encourages Limitless Creativity and Interaction at Enormous Bay Area Building," p. U6.
Entertainment Weekly, November 24, 1995, Owen Gleiberman, review of Toy Story, p. 74; December 15, 1995, Daneet Steffens, review of Toy Story: The Art and Making of the Animated Film, p. 66; November 27, 1998, Owen Gleiberman, review of A Bug's Life, p. 53.
Film Journal International, May, 2003, Kevin Lally, "Catching Nemo," p. 10.
Forbes, December 1, 1997, John Lasseter, "Buzz Lightyear Gets Dirty," p. 130.
Nation, December 21, 1998, Stuart Klawans, review of A Bug's Life, p. 34.
Newsweek, November 27, 1995, David Ansen, review of Toy Story, p. 89; November 16, 1998, Corie Brown Giles, "This Bug's for You," review of A Bug's Life, p. 78; November 29, 1999, David Ansen, review of Toy Story 2, p. 94.
People, November 27, 1995, Tom Gliatto, review of Toy Story, p. 19; November 30, 1998, Tom Gliatto, review of A Bug's Life, p. 33.
Rolling Stone, December 30, 1999-January 6, 2000, p. 105.
Time, November 27, 1995, Richard Corliss, review of Toy Story, p. 96; December 14, 1998, Cathy Booth, "The Wizard of Pixar," p 100; November 29, 1999, Richard Schickel, review of Toy Story 2, p. 86; October 25, 2004, Richard Corliss, "All Too Superhuman," p. 78.
Times (London, England), November 8, 2003, Charles Gant, "Talk of the Toon: Pixar," p. 58.
Variety, November 16, 1998, Todd McCarthy, review of A Bug's Life, p. 33; November 22, 1999, Todd McCarthy, review of Toy Story 2, p. 83.
Wall Street Journal, March 19, 1998, p. R17.
Washington Post, November 22, 1995, p. B1; November 2, 2001, p. WW36.
Guardian Online, http://www.guardian.co.uk/ (November 19, 2001), Jonathan Ross, "John Lasseter."
Internet Movie Database, http://www.imdb.com/ (April 14, 2005), "John Lasseter."
Pixar, http://www.pixar.com/ (April 14, 2005), "John A. Lasseter."