Arabella McIntyre-Brown uncorking the success of John Lasseter – Pixar’s creative genius
It was one of those once-only days, a bright November day when I was on a wine bottling line opposite John Lasseter, Oscar-winning director of Toy Story and creative head of Pixar Animation Studios, whose latest release Up hit the screens last week. We two were the label-gluers, getting coated in PVA as we readied labels for sticking on bottles.
In a chicken shed on a back road in California that day were two dozen people, a tank of red wine, bottles, corks, labels, glue, foil, and boxes. It was 1995, a year after Toy Story had hit the movie headlines, and we were all singing and dancing to the mariachi band Lasseter had brought along, as we filled, corked, labelled and boxed the previous year’s vintage.
The bottling done, the partying began, back at the Lasseter house. With a large attic knee-deep in toys, two Oscar statuettes on the mantelpiece downstairs, five kids and another on the way, washable textiles, bounceable furniture and replaceable stuff, this was a child-centred house. Figured.
At some point, Lasseter asked if I wanted to come down to the studios for a look round. After I’d pinched myself very hard, Lasseter hadn’t disappeared and the invitation was still open.
A few days later I was at Pixar – a huge industrial shed outside San Francisco – and had a visitor’s label stuck on me. A little rubber alien on the label announced ‘A stranger! From the outside!’ (If you’ve seen Toy Story you’ll get the reference.) I was due to see Lasseter at two, but had to wait as his meeting overran. He emerged eventually with Pixar’s chief exec and legendary creator of the Apple phenomenon, Steve Jobs. Lasseter introduced me as ‘…my friend Arabella’ and I shook the great man’s hand. That treat over, John took me into his tiny ego-free office and we sat either side of a desk which, like every flat surface in the room, was covered in toys. The vertical surfaces were papered with kids’ drawings. ‘Look – isn’t this the coolest thing?’ He was playing with a foot-high Darth Vader who waved a flashing light sabre and issued dark threats from his plastic helmet. Lasseter looked up at me and grinned.
‘I was at CalArts when Star Wars was released in 1977. It was one of the key moments of my life – the thrill of being in the audience was a feeling I’ll never forget. I always loved cartoons, but when I found a book about animation when I was at high school and realised that people did that for a living, I wrote to Disney and they asked me to come and see round the studios. When they started an animation school, I was the second person accepted on to the course.’
He believes completely in the power of storytelling. ‘It’s how we learn as kids; as adults, stories allow us to feel emotions we may not want to feel in normal life.’
Disney was never afraid of telling dark stories, he said: Bambi, Snow White, Dumbo – these are stories full of death, abandonment, betrayal, being lost. ‘The mutant toys that Sid the bad kid put together in Toy Story are scary creatures, but they turn out to be selfless and brave.’
Pixar isn’t about pushing out a Message, said Lasseter. ‘There may be little lessons in there, but I hate having some message pounded into my head, so I don’t do it to our audience. Our films are for kids and adults – it’s hard to make movies that work for everyone, but I want teenagers to think the films are cool too. So we make films about familiar things but in a way never seen before.’
Does he think kids are inflenced by watching films? ‘Yes, of course. Especially when DVDs let kids watch something over and over.’ One of his own kids had been watching a Bugs Bunny movie in which a baby spits at someone, and the next thing is that Lasseter junior started spitting. Not hard to work out why. So Pixar is careful about such things. ‘It’s a very powerful medium.’
This sense of responsibility to his audiences is somewhat at odds with Lasseter’s natural tendencies as an artist and an entertainer. ‘Animators are kids who haven’t grown up. They still have a wonderment about life, and they tap into it for creative inspiration. Actors too – think of Robin Williams and Tom Hanks. Playful, childlike.’
It’s not something he can turn on and off at will, he says. ‘Sometimes I’m on a roll and suddenly it’s four in the morning. Other times I can’t get started if my life depends on it.’ But being creative head of the studio means he has to deliver on time and on budget, which means managing the creative process. ‘Its very difficult.’
But he and the Pixar team keep delivering, with a long list of massive hits including Toy Story, Finding Nemo and Bolt to the new release, Up.
Lasseter wants his films to be loved by lots of people, because he loves making them. He acknowledges that commercial success is important, but that’s not what drives him or his team of creatives. His management style works. ‘I want us to have fun. I never use carrot and stick. No jumping all over people. Encouragement and utter honesty. I was given a bit of advice early on – hire people smarter than you. I get so inspired by other people’s work, and they have a sense of ownership that means I have to shoo them out of the building at six o’clock every evening.’
The final, crucial question: Lasseter’s favourite toy? ‘A truck in a sand pile; action figures. But the best toy ever, till the end of time – a big, empty cardboard box.’
First published in 2009