Meeting John Lasseter 1997

by Jim Korkis, contributing writer

“[Moana, Pixar’s next animated feature after The Good Dinosaur, is] pretty spectacular. I guess most people think of fairy tales as European fairy tales. We’re trying to reach out and find origins of legends all over the world,” said John Lasseter at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival premiere of Disney•Pixar’s Inside Out, indicating that both upcoming Disney and Pixar animated films would aggressively be more diverse.

Lasseter is an enthusiastic, sincere, creative and nice guy and has always been looking to push the envelope in animation. I know this for a fact because I got a chance to meet and talk with him before he became the John Lasseter.

I doubt he will remember me from the Disney Institute where I was working as an animation instructor in 1996-1999. He was very kind, patient and funny answering my questions.

Lasseter, who is known for wearing loud, colorful shirts, opened his presentation at the Disney Institute Cinema by asking if the audience in the back row could "hear" his shirt (parodying the old presenter's opening line "Am I loud enough? Can those of you in the back hear me?"). Today, you can buy one of those similar shirts in his fashion line.

Fortunately, I still have my notes from Lasseter's very pleasant conversation with those of us who worked in the animation department at the Disney Institute, as well as my notes from his presentation. So, for those of you who did not attend, I am going to include some of those comments in today's installment.

Many young hopeful computer animators, who were in the audience for the presentation at the time, were puzzled when they scanned the guidelines for the Computer Generated Imagery (CGI) Training Program at Walt Disney Feature Animation and discovered that they had to participate in the same three-phase program as the trainees in the Traditional Animation Program, including life drawing classes and improvisational acting workshops.

The information packet sent to applicants interested in an entry level position in Disney's CGI program included the following paragraph:

"Keep in mind, the computer is not a substitute for any of the core skills mentioned here. Like a pencil, a brush or mountain of clay, the computer is a tool the artist will use to create his/her work. Creating art or animation on the computer requires that the mind control the form of the end product.

“Woodworkers say, 'It is a poor craftsman who blames his tools'. Likewise, flawed design or concept is not saved simply by having been created on the computer. The goal for the student using the computer is to translate examples of his/her skill in art or animation into the digital medium."

Even professional computer animators who have been successful in their career echo these sentiments.

As early as 1991, computer animators, like Craig Good who was working at Pixar, said "Think of the computer as a pencil. A big expensive pencil that uses electricity. Sometimes it takes several people to operate the pencil. The important point is that until it's picked up by the hand of an artist, it's as inert and useless as a pencil laying on a desk. Computer animation isn't done by computers any more than clay animation is done by clay."

Computer animation began in the 1960s with films like John Whitney's Catalog (1961) which made use of an analog computer. As computer animation evolved, it became a major tool for special effects from rotating logos in television commercials to imaginary landscapes in theatrical movies.

Most computer animators who I know when they review students’ samples hate seeing "flying metal," which is a phrase they use to describe a reel where objects are manipulated and moved but not animated.

Animation is the illusion of life and makes use of the basic concepts from "slow in/slow out" to "stretch and squash" to "anticipation" to countless others that a good animator should understand.

John Lasseter used his training as a traditional animator to bring stories to life with Disney and Pixar.

In my opinion, it was the genius of Lasseter and his training as a traditional animator that has literally transformed the world of computer animation into more than just a bag of technological tricks.

Just like Walt Disney before him, Lasseter knew that the audience's amazement at new technology was fleeting, but it's affection for characters and personality animation is what has made even poorly animated films so memorable and cherished.

As Lasseter told me, “it is not technology that is important but how you use that technology to tell timeless stories.”

Lasseter attended California Institute of the Arts and studied with teachers like T. Hee, a legendary Disney storyman, and Jack Hannah, the director responsible for many of the classic Donald Duck shorts among other credits. He was steeped in the Disney principles of creating traditional animation which were the strong foundation for his revolutionary work later in computer animation.

Every time I interviewed Hannah, he spoke proudly of having been one of Lasseter's instructors. He really felt that John "got it" when it came to understanding animation and felt that someday he would made a mark for himself.

Lasseter won a student Academy Award for his film, Nitemare (1980), which chronicled the adventure of a little boy who discovers the truth behind the shadows and sounds that lurk in a little boy's bedroom when the light is turned off. It is wonderfully paced, with a great sense of humor and a hilarious final visual punch line.

"Everyone else was doing their final project with lots of dialog, so I took it as a challenge to do one without any dialog at all," Lasseter remembered when I talked with him in Florida, "I was embarrassed that it was just done in pencil and not in a more finished form, but T. Hee told me it was not about finished animation or whether it was in color or not but it was about the strength of the story. That's a lesson I remember when I am working with computer animation."

Lasseter showed the short at the Disney Institute screening and it has since been included as an extra in the Pixar Short Films Volume 2 DVD collection. You can clearly see how it might have helped inspire the Pixar animated feature Monsters Inc. (2001), perhaps my favorite Pixar feature film.

Eventually, Lasseter joined the Disney Studios as a traditional animator and worked on such projects as Mickey’s Christmas Carol (1983). It was during this time that he and Glen Keane saw the Disney film Tron (1982) and both of them got excited about the possibilities of computer animation.

They worked together on a 30-second sample from Maurice Sendak's children’s book Where The Wild Things Are. Lasseter showed the short clip of this experiment at the screening, as well.

Lasseter worked on the computer-generated backgrounds while Keane did the character animation of the boy and the dog. They hoped to demonstrate to the Disney Studios not only the possibilities of using computers to aid in the telling of stories in animated features but also to suggest they could complete the Sendak project as a short.

Lasseter designed a set of the bedroom, hallway and staircase where Max, the mischievous title character, chases his dog. Keane laid out a path of action for them, noting their positions in each frame. This information was encoded into a computer by the artists and technicians at MAGI-Est (Mathematical Applications Group Inc.).

Commenting on the experimental combination of hand-drawn and computer animation for the test footage for Where the Wild Things Are in an L.A. Times article (April 3, 1983), Lasseter said, “I think this technique is a real breakthrough. For the first time, we can really get a three-dimensional quality in a cartoon. Throughout the history of the studio, Disney developed animation to its present state in an attempt to create three-dimensional characters that the audience could easily relate to. Now we can finally do it."

“The color produced by this technique is also different — and new," he said. "The computer-generated image prints onto the film with light, rather than with light reflected off pigments, so there’s a brilliance to the results, even in the dark area. It’s like the difference between a stained-glass window and painting. One may not be superior to the other, but they are different, and that difference can be very exciting."

“This technique is like being handed a new pencil, a new tool," Lasseter said. "You have to think your animation out much more clearly than if you were drawing it on paper. You have to see it very clearly in your mind before you begin. But we’ve only scratched the surface of what we can do his way. In five years those tests will seem so primitive. They’ll look like Steamboat Willie [1928] does today.”

Lasseter was even able to convince his boss, Tom Wilhite, to take an option on a book titled The Brave Little Toaster as a possible feature. When Wilhite left the studio and Disney was uninterested in the project, he took the option with him and made the feature film.

Lasseter admitted to me that it never occurred to him to use computers to create the characters, but felt that it was an excellent project for computer-generated backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the Disney Studios determined that at that time computer animation was just too expensive to pursue aggressively.

Intrigued by the possibilities of computers, Lasseter left Disney and joined Pixar after his boss laid him off when The Brave Little Toaster project was not greenlit. His first film was Andre and Wally B. (1984), a simple tale of a man annoyed by a bee. Lasseter was told to build characters based on geometric shapes and to have the film ready for SIGGRAPH, the computer convention, as a sample of what Pixar could do.

"When it premiered at SIGGRAPH, I was totally unprepared for the response," Lasseter claimed. "People loved the film, but they kept asking me what software I was using and what programs I used and quite frankly, I was simply not well versed in all of that.

“They kept saying, 'It is so funny. What did you use?' and I realized they were so consumed with programs that it had not occurred to them that the character personality and humor really came from traditional animation foundations."

Every year after that, John's main responsibility was preparing a special film for SIGGRAPH. Luxo Jr. (1986), the story of a parent lamp and its child playing with a ball, was based on a lamp he had on his own desk.

When Lasseter talks about the film, he doesn't talk about the technology, even though the film represents a breakthrough in the use of shadowing. Lasseter talks about handling the lamp and realizing that the base was so heavy that the character would have to prepare for a leap before leaping, and that the baby lamp is not a miniature but a baby because "the rods grow longer before they grow out but the bulb is exactly the same size in each lamp because that doesn't grow; you get that at a hardware store."

“After the Luxo Jr. short was first shown, Jim Blinn, who’s one of the pioneers in this [computer animation] field, came running up to me and said, ‘John, I have to ask you a question.’ And I thought, ‘I don’t know anything about these algorithms. I know he’s going to ask me about the shadow algorithms or something like that.’ And he asked me, ‘John, was the parent lamp a mother or a father?'" he said. “That question keeps coming up. I always envisioned it as a father, but it’s based greatly on my mother. To me, if it was a mother lamp, she would never let the baby jump on that ball. But the dad is like, ‘Go ahead, jump on it, fall off and break your bulb. You’ll learn a lesson.’”

In short, when Lasseter talks about the film, he talks the same way a traditional hand drawn animator would analyze and describe his work.

Luxo Jr. was followed by Tin Toy (1988) and Knick Knack (1989) and soon Lasseter was receiving Academy Awards for these computer-animated shorts, and he was still getting asked questions about programs and software rather than how he used them as effective tools in the telling of stories.

It was time to expand further and Lasseter started developing a feature-length animated film in partnership with his old company, Disney. It was John's original intent to use the toy from Tin Toy as the centerpiece for this groundbreaking film.

Eventually, the characters of Woody and Buzz, loosely based on Lasseter's childhood toys, took over, although even they went through a rapid evolution:

"We wanted to appeal to kids and adults and teenagers and Disney was very worried that because it was toys and we were calling it Toy Story [1993] that it would just have kid appeal. How we got adult appeal was by making the toys be adults with adult concerns. Notice that they have a 'staff meeting' which is a very adult thing.

“And Mr. Spell had done a presentation on plastic corrosion. And you hear Mr. Spell and you realize how boring it must have been. And another thing, plastic does NOT corrode! We just put all these layers in the film so it appealed to several groups.

"We definitely did not want to make it a typical Disney film with songs and the boy gets the girl. We wanted it to be a buddy film where two different people who may not even like each other are tossed together where they have to work together towards a common goal but, by the end, the goal is no longer important. It is only important that you are together."

Traditionally, animation has 24 frames for each second. In animation using a computer, it can escalate to 30 exposures for each second. On Toy Story with the equipment available at the time, it sometimes took 60 hours to render just one frame.

"And sometimes we would go in after 60 hours and the things weren't completely rendered because the computer was set up that at 60 hours it would shut down because there was obviously an error and it was running a continuous loop that needed to be stopped," Lasseter said. "So we had to change the computer."

There were 10 story artists on the original Toy Story, but almost 25 worked on the sequel. One of the storymen was Floyd Norman, a good friend, talented artist and storyman who had also found himself temporarily unwelcome at Disney.

"John is very similar to Walt," noted Norman when I talked with him. "He really 'gets it.' They asked me to come over which was very flattering, but I told them I really didn't know much about computers. But you know what? I didn't need to know about computers. You storyboard for a computer feature the same way you storyboard for a traditional feature. You ask the same questions about telling the story or if the gag is funny or if this action will help reveal the character."

"We have made a really big mistake when we do these films," Lasseter admitted. "Disney artists take these trips to China and Paris and all these exotic places for research and we devise films like Toy Story that take place in a bedroom in Anytown, America or in the dirt like A Bug’s Life [1998]. However, I must admit that I did get to go to TOYS R US with the corporate credit card to buy all these toys for research. 'Yeah, I think we need one of those and one of those.…'"

Lasseter felt, at the time, that there were probably two strong career tracks for those people interested in a career in computer animation. One emphasizes the computer, but from the standpoint of modeling and design primarily. The other is that traditional grounding in the basic principles and philosophy of animation.

"When I was doing hand-drawn animation, I often got frustrated and wrapped up with the individual drawing," Lasseter said. "I soon discovered that working with computers that some of that tedium is eliminated and I can concentrate more on the movement and animation and how it helps the story."

Lasseter's final word of advice for future computer animators emphasizes the importance of the same skills the great animation storytellers have used for the last century: "Using a computer to move an object around does not make me an animator any more than my buying a typewriter would make me a writer capable of authoring Gone With The Wind."

John has been described as the "Walt Disney of the Digital Age," and that is closer to the truth than many suspect. He certainly has the same boyish sense of wonder as Walt Disney did and certainly the same strong sense of story.

It doesn't bother me that he doesn't remember meeting me, because he continues to inspire and entertain and I would much prefer him using a brain cell to continue doing that than use it to remember an encounter with me.

One of the funniest things he told me was “You know, Jim, there are only two types of computers: prototypes and obsolete.”



  1. By danyoung

    Excellent article about a pretty great man. One small correction - you mentioned James Whitney's Catalogue. From what I've read, it was James' brother, John, who was the animation guy that made Catalog (and that appears to be the correct spelling). James was a filmmaker, but not an animator.

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