An Evening with John Lasseter
Monday 18th July 2011 is the day that will always be one of the most inspiring and amazing days for me. No it wasn’t because I saw the final ever Harry Potter (which was an epic finale indeed). Reason being, the Apple store on Regent St. fed a small, intimate Q&A discussion led by Empire‘s news editor Chris Hewitt with the creative leader of Pixar and cheif creative officer for Walt Disney and Pixar Animated Studios, the legend… John Lasseter. In other words, he created Toy Story and the rest of those awesome Pixar related characters. His reason for being there was to actually talk about the sequel to their 2006 hit Cars.
Cars 2, released on Friday in the UK, takes a different approach compared to the first. Lasseter mentioned that it’s really a spy movie. Usually in a spy movie there’s the spy and then the spy car, whereas with Cars 2, he’s merged the two together. Calling the first very “Americano“, the great thing about Pixar is that they “only do a sequel when there’s a great story… we strive to make the best stories“. As you know I’m not a fan of sequels if there’s no need and Pixar are taking the right approach. The only Pixar film that had sequels was Toy Story, and you can see the base of the film is the story surrounding it. This is the same with Cars 2 and the upcoming Monster’s inc prequel.
After a little introduction and what to expect from Cars 2, we began to learn a little more indepth of what his role entails at Pixar Studios. Lasseter get’s his hands on really everything, from the developmental stages, to crafting of the story and characters and so on. He really get’s stuck into every department. They always say if you want something done right, do it yourself. Sometimes not everyone can see and understand your vision. Although we were at the Apple store, without promoting too much, Lasseter had to give us a little taste of what his work life was like, especially around the time of Cars. Jokingly, he sent a little fact our way that Cars would probably not have been made if it wasn’t for the iPad. Humour was certainly one if his strong points, “I got an iPad on the first day because I know people“. Using his hour journey from work to home, he used this time to get work done on the iPad, resulting in things getting done. According to his math, 1 hours work on the iPad was equvilant to 3 hours of work at Pixar. That’s pretty impressive.
Getting into the company a little deeper, technology wise, it was very interesting to learn that they actually started out as a technology company in 1986 for the 1st 9 years. Then came along their first in 1995 Toy Story. Because technology at the time was obviously not as amazing as it is today, computer animations looked “plastic” so they emphasised and focused more on the toys rather than the humans. If you take a look at Toy Story, you’ll noticed that humans were barely onscreen. There were mostly flashes of thier hands, legs and so on. The point Lasseter made was that it wasn’t “the technology that interests people, it’s the story” and with Toy Story being the first, they wanted to try something different to the usual Disney flicks. No love stories, no musicals and so on. What Pixar tapped into was that the “heart of the film is the foundation of the story”.
A very interesting question came up asking about who he thought were their biggest competition. Straight away all the different animation companies would start to run through your mind. The first was Dreamworks that crossed my mind, but Lasseter gave a very dignified answer, “our competition is what’s in the cinema at that time“. So it doesn’t have to be another animation, I think because Pixar is more than an animation company (there’s more depth to it) it’s perfectly legit. “Animation is pure art, when you look at the screen, nothing’s for free“.
After Chris Hewitt finished his question roll, it was time for the audience to ask a few questions, although the event was running a little over time (It’s John Lasseter… time doesn’t exist!). A very important question came up asking about the challenges Pixar have had to face. “We’re always challenging ourselves“, this prompted Lasseter to mention their other new upcoming film, Brave which is their first period film. Technical challenges and it’s complexity will always be around, especially when changing the gig up a bit. It’s also their first fairytale and first female lead, dubbing her as the “kick ass princess” in computer animation. Human characters will always be a very challenging subject. With Brave there’s examples of what are the most challenging parts including the hair, the clothing and the muscle.
One of the highlights for the evening was when the Toy Story 4 question came floating in. His response was silent at first as we all locked in and anticipated his answer, then he simply replied, “I really love Cars 2, you should go and see it” which of course sent sparks flying everywhere, with a sweep of laughter from the audience. Sticking on the subject of Toy Story one of my favourite questions asked if they had anticipated the emotion in the last scene of Toy Story 3. “Oh yeah!” Another sweep of laughter occurred as he described his emotional state when he read the treatment, “oh yeah it tore me up“. The first 10 minutes of UP was also another super emotional scene, describing that it “ripped us up too“, “we like to be moved… if it’s moving us, it’ll move the audience” This goes back to the story being the foundation of the film. It’s that important.
“Computer animation is an art form grown out of a science” The culture of Pixar is basically trying new things. They aim high, with smart characters and smart stories and the great thing was that Lasseter constantly distanced himself and the company away from Hollywood in both contexts of it’s location and is production. “Quality is the best business plan“. Describing the importance of Pixar to lightning in a bottle, their aim is to produce timeless classics. Comparing to the Hollywood cliches, there isn’t a film in Hollywood made in the 1930’s that is still watched continuosly today like Snow White, and there isn’t a film made in 1995 that is watched in the same way like Toy Story because these are timeless classics that will last forever.
Moving onto Easter Eggs, Lasseter explained that these were really inside jokes which started off with their favourite films, example, the giant globe in Toy Story was from Raiders of the lost Ark but then this evolved to them using their own films, demonstrating previous films and the next one to be released. The example he used was the Jessie Doll in Monster’s inc and then the white and orange fish, signifying Finding Nemo. Also with Ratatouille there’s a scene with a dog barking and the shadow appears, which turns out to be Doug from UP. The only Easter egg that is in every single Pixar film was to my surprise, Pizza Planet. I honestly thought it was the little ball with the star, but there you go.
My favourite quote from the evening was “we don’t like to make things real… but to make them believable” and with the merchandise a “a character means something to the person holding it” I love this because Toy Story is where my heart lies. When I try to explain my emotional attachment to it, no one ever gets it, but listening to John Lasseter talk about Pixar and Toy Story the way I try to, was very heart warming and made me realise that in fact, I’m not crazy, I just totally understand John Lasseter! So there you have it! Whatever they’re doing over there, I understand.
Lastly, the question I wanted to ask came up so although my arm went un-noticed, I got my fill. What are their inspirations for the stories they tell? “Inspiration’s from life it self“. Cars came about from his childhood memories of himself and his dad taking motor trips around the country and his dad worked with cars. UP was inspired by the maker’s Grandparents. “The stories come from people’s hearts” so there isn’t really any pitching involved. Also research is the key to their success. Whatever the film is about, they would go to all lengths to make sure it was perfect. With Cars they went racing, Finding Nemo they went scuba diving, Brave they took a trip to Scotland and so on. Car magazines named Cars the best automobile film in history because they got the facts right. There is just so much more to animation than just the technology.
Calling himself a “big kid“, I could see the enjoyment and the childlike humour he contained from the moment he walked in with a Cars shirt. I believe he brought the child out of all of us. “Yes I do have the coolest job ever, but it’s hard work“. The amount of fun he has, he doesn’t see it as a job, don’t we all wish we could say that!
With no plans to go live action and the fact that it takes 4 years to create their master piece, John Lasseter provided us with entertainment, information, an insight to Pixar and a humorous, epic cliffhanger to Toy Story 4, I can honsetly say it was an amazing experience and left me pumped all the way home. Now let’s get ready for Cars 2… Ka-chow!