A Brief Talk with Joe Ranft

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

I have to admit that I have been extremely fortunate in my life. I was lucky to grow up in Southern California where I had the opportunity to interact with some of the people who were directly involved in making Walt Disney's dreams come true. I was lucky to be in an area that had two healthy Disney-oriented fan clubs that both held multiple conventions and that I could visit Disneyland frequently.

When I moved to Florida in late 1995, I was lucky to be hired by the Disney Company in a number of different capacities, including entertainment, animation, tours, training, and more that allowed me to get a wide perspective of the Walt Disney World Resort. I was especially lucky to be able to work at the Disney Institute as an animation instructor and to interact personally with the many wonderful guests that gave presentations from John Canemaker and John Culhane to Ward Kimball and Bill Justice—to name just a small fraction.

I fully realize that others were not as fortunate as to be in the right place at the right time. I realize that disappointment that many people feel that they weren't able to hear the great stories from some of these Disney historical figures. I feel that same disappointment today when there is a lecture at the Disney Family Museum or at a West Coast Disneyana convention and I am unable to attend.

However, being a writer, I did interviews and kept notes from most of the many meetings I had over the years with folks in Los Angeles and, later, Orlando. When I share these interviews in my columns, I am not trying to show off, but to share the stories that not everyone got to hear. I feel an obligation especially to share the stories of those who are no longer here to tell those stories themselves.

On April 23, 1999, fabled Pixar storyman Joe Ranft was out on vacation with his family to Florida. He had never been to Walt Disney World when he did a presentation for Disney Feature Animation Florida. He also dropped by the Disney Institute later that day and spent some time with the Animation Team. I was an Animation Instructor at the Disney Institute at the time and got to spend a little time with Ranft.

After all these decades, I am still a huge Disney fan and, when I meet some of these folks, I feel as shy and awkward as anyone else. Try to imagine my surprise when I introduced myself to Ranft and his face lit up and he shouted, "You write stuff!"

He was familiar with the books on animation that I had co-written with my former writing partner John Cawley, as well as my continuing columns about animation in a variety of magazines, including my long running "Animation Anecdotes" column for Animation magazine.

Ranft was gracious enough not only to autograph my copy of a book adapting the Pixar animated feature A Bug's Life, but also sketched a drawing of Hemlich the caterpillar, the character he provided the voice for in the film. Wearing a Hawaiian shirt, like John Lasseter, Ranft very graciously answered some of my questions and it was very apparent he had a childlike enthusiasm for telling stories.

Born in Pasadena, California (but raised in Whittier, California) on March 13, 1960, Joseph Henry "Joe" Ranft was an animator, storyboard artist and voice actor who worked for Disney and Pixar.

He studied character animation at California Institute of the Arts. His student film caught the attention of Disney, where he began working in 1980 for several years on a variety of television projects that never got made. He received additional training from Disney Legend Eric Larson, as well as getting some improvisational theater training from a Los Angeles improvisation group called The Groundlings. He did some story work on The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast.

Ranft had known Lasseter at California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s and ended up joining Pixar in 1992. His first work included pitching and storyboarding the Green Army Men sequence for Toy Story. He worked on story development for all the Pixar feature films, including some work on Cars.

Because of his performing background, he provided voices for some of the characters in the Pixar films: Lenny the Binoculars (Toy Story), Heimlich the Caterpillar (A Bug's Life), Wheezy the Penguin (Toy Story 2), various incidental voices (Monsters, Inc.), Jacques the Shrimp (Finding Nemo), various incidental voices (The Incredibles) and Red and a Peterbilt (Cars).

He also contributed to many other films including The Brave Little Toaster, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Monkeybone, and Tim Burton's Corpse Bride.

On August 16, 2005, Ranft was killed when his car crashed through a guard rail and plunged into the Pacific Ocean in Mendocino County, California. He died during the production of Cars, which he co-directed.

Ranft only spent an afternoon at the Disney Institute, but I was able to corner him for a quick interview in a vacant classroom. As I was recently going through my reams of notes from working at the Disney Institute, I ran across the short interview and felt that others might enjoy reading it, as well.

This interview will be appearing in some future volume of Walt's People, a terrific book series featuring interviews with Disney artists, writers, and more:

Jim Korkis: What are some hints you can share with us about storyboarding?

Joe Ranft: Storyboarding is really re-boarding. Your first idea is never good enough and you have to keep changing. In the two-and-half years we worked on A Bug's Life, we ended up with over 27,500 storyboard drawings we eventually used but tossed out tons of others.

Jim Korkis: How can you tell whether you need to toss away a storyboard drawing?

Joe Ranft: A good storyboard panel tells just one thing and is staged to tell just that one thing. How can you check? You put it on the board and walk away from it with your back toward it and then spin around quickly and look at it and see if it clearly tells what you want it to tell. And if you feel that you are lying to yourself, you bring someone else to look at it.

Jim Korkis: What qualities make a good storyboard artist?

Joe Ranft: A good storyman has to juggle so many things like acting, staging, and composition…all in one panel!

Jim Korkis: How is it pitching a storyboard to John Lasseter?

Joe Ranft: When you pitch, you might get John's attention for maybe 20 minutes before he is reeling off suggestions like "let's make that wider," "do that from a different angle," and we are scrambling to take these quick notes on Post-It Notes and put it on the board.

Jim Korkis: So is John pretty casual at these pitches?

Joe Ranft: We have a storyboard reel with a caricature of John Lasseter wearing a purple sweatshirt instead of his Hawaiian shirt. That is the truth. For story meetings, John will wear a purple sweatshirt. And early in the morning, his hair isn't quite combed (laughs).

Jim Korkis: You seem to use John Ratzenberg a lot.

Joe Ranft: John Ratzenberg, who did the voice of P.T. Flea, is so wonderful that you can just send him a script and a tape and he could send you back a terrific performance. In the booth, after he did the lines as they were in the script, he'd say, "Let me give you it this way" and did some marvelous things. In the flea circus scene where he goes right to camera and says "in just 15 seconds" was something he added and we went back and adjusted our boards. And his line where he introduces himself was his improv and he said it came from an old radio show.

Jim Korkis: You're pretty modest but you've done some great voice work, as well, like Hemlich in A Bug's Life.

Joe Ranft: I think I got Hemlich because of John Lasseter's wife. She laughed when I did the lines but didn't when they brought in this professional actor to do them. My son, Joe, did a kid ant voice in A Bug's Life. Doing all these voices, I had to join the Screen Actors Guild.

Jim Korkis: I know you sometimes do "incidental voices" as well. Did you do any on A Bug's Life?

Joe Ranft: I did some incidental voices like the flies that say "Burn him again" and "I've only got 24 hours to live and I'm not spending it here."

Jim Korkis: Do you do those voices for your kids, as well?

Joe Ranft: I read stories to my kids and I do the funny voices and sometimes they tell me to stop doing the voices and just read the story.

Jim Korkis: Do you script the outtakes that appear at the end of the film for the voice actors?

Joe Ranft: The outtakes are done on the last day of voice recording for each actor if time permitted. They were not boarded but quick sketch suggestions were done of some of them. Some of them obviously were for adults so we purposely tried to include some slapstick bits for the kids. Those are my favorites.

Jim Korkis: I understand the story began in a different direction for A Bug's Life.

Joe Ranft: Originally, the story of A Bug's Life was supposed to be about a red ant named "Red" who ran the circus instead of P.T. Flea, but they hit a stonewall in terms of developing the story.

Jim Korkis: The final story seems similar to the classic live-action movie The Magnificent Seven.

Joe Ranft: We get asked if the film was influenced by The Magnificent Seven, and all I can say is that all the guys at Pixar are big film buffs, and I also see some elements from The Three Amigos, but that story falls apart for me when they are discovered not to be gunfighters. We solved that problem by coming up with the bird device storyline after the revelation. Of course, the original inspiration was the story of The Grasshopper and the Ants.

Jim Korkis: Anything you remember getting cut from the film after it was in production?

Joe Ranft: On the original boards, the circus bugs were doing all sorts of things offstage that eventually got cut because the scene was so long. For instance, the spider is practicing weaving the safety web within 15 seconds while Dim times her and it is a terrible mess. "Are you sure it was 15 seconds?" "Let me check." "You have to check whether it was 15 seconds?"

The praying mantis was much harsher in ignoring his wife, Gypsy. "Haven't you forgotten half your act?" she asks, extending her hand to be kissed. He replies, "You are right" and he comes back and grabs his turban to put on his head.

In the arena, when Heimlich sees the kid flies with the candy corn and offers to help them finish it, the line on the storyboard was "Get out of here, Fatso" which was cut from the film.

Jim Korkis: Joe, thanks for spending time with us today. This is great.

Joe Ranft: It's been my pleasure. Thanks.



  1. By Jeff Kober

    I remember being in that afternoon session when he visited the Disney Institute. He was thoroughly entertaining. It seemed that a hot topic that afternoon was the creation of DreamWorks and what they were up to as well. I also remember him doing his Heimlich voice. Awesome.

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