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TOY STORY 2: The Career of John Lasseter
The Pixar Producer on Bringing Toys To Life.
By Mike Lyons
November 26, 1999
It's fitting that John Lasseter is the creator of both TOY STORY 1 and 2. After all, it's not everyone who treats toys with such Holy Grail protectiveness. 'My office is just wall-to-wall shelves of all different types of toys,' says Lasseter. 'I have five sons and the younger ones love visiting daddy's work. They walk into my office with these huge eyes and they just want to play with everything. I have one-of-a-kind prototypes that were given to me by the toy manufacturers, old tin toys and toys that I had when I was a kid that are kind of fragile. As any collector knows, you just don't want kids playing with those. So, I always have a low shelf of 'decoys' that they can play with.'
Lasseter puts equal care into his films as well and it's the audiences who reap the rewards. He is, after all, creator-director of the landmark, TOY STORY, 1995's first all-computer animated feature, and co-director of last year's holiday hit, A BUG'S LIFE. Deserving of the title, 'Walt Disney for the computer generation,' Lasseter now serves as creative vice president at Pixar, the pioneering computer animation studio, which has co-produced all of their features with Disney.
Now, TOY STORY 2, which opened on November 24th, seems destined join previous Disney-Pixar blockbusters. With the film, Lasseter has found a new way to merge his love of toys with the medium that has brought him acclaim. 'He buys two of everything,' says TOY STORY 2 producer, Helene Plotkin, of Lasseter's toy-mania. 'One sits on a shelf in its original packaging, and the other is for play.'
This, essentially, became the plot for the sequel, as Woody is kidnapped by obsessive toy collector, Al McWhiggan, and placed on a shelf with other precious toy collectibles. Buzz Lightyear and Woody's other plaything pals, such as Mr. Potato Head and Slinky Dog, venture out into the real world to rescue the pull-string cowboy.
'Toys are manufactured to be played with by a child,' notes Lasseter. 'In the first movie, we developed that as the core of their being, that's what they want to do more than anything else in the world. So, when it came to being collected, I thought, 'Wow, imagine being put behind glass and just being looked at.' It was funny to look at collecting from the point of view of the object that's being collected.'
Lasseter was introduced to the arts at a young age. His mother, a high-school art teacher, would bring home materials and give young John projects to work on. During high school, Lasseter began corresponding with the Disney studio and during his senior year, they sent him a letter stating that they were initiating a character animation program with the California Institute of the Arts. Lasseter enrolled and spent four years learning the craft from Disney's masters of the medium.
In 1982, the young artist was hired at the Disney studio as an animator. A dream job? Yes, but for Lasseter, something was missing. He knew that animation needed something to rise to another level. Then, he heard about a film called TRON that the Disney studio was producing using the then-nascent technology of computer animation. Lasseter was able to get an early glimpse of the film's 'light cycle' sequence and says, 'It absolutely blew me away! A little door in my mind opened up. I looked at it and said, 'This is it! This is the future!''
Lasseter talked the Disney studio into letting him do a thirty-second test that combined hand drawn animation with computer backgrounds. The studio showed a curious interest but little else. Lasseter still had an incredible thirst for this burgeoning medium, which led him to Lucasfilm, where Edwin Catmull (now Pixar's vice president and chief technology officer) was starting up a computer division. In 1986, Steve Jobs (co-founder and chairman of Apple Computer, Inc.) purchased the computer division of Lucasfilm and incorporated it as an independent company, under the name Pixar, where he now serves as chairman and chief executive officer.
Over the next decade, the Pixar studio, located in Point Richmond, California would lead the computer animation industry both technically and aesthetically. Lasseter would direct the studio's first short film, 1986's LUXO, JR, about a desk lamp and its precocious son. Two years later, another of the studio's shorts, TIN TOY, also directed by Lasseter, would tell the tale of a destructive baby and a nervous wind-up toy. The short subject would make history as the first computer animated film ever to win an Academy
TIN TOY would also lay the ground work for TOY STORY and its sequel, which was originally slated to be a 'direct-to-video' project, until the film's story won over Disney executives, who slotted the film for a theatrical release. Lasseter was originally on the film as executive producer only, before jumping on board as co-director, earlier this year, sharing credit with Lee Unkrich and Ash Brannon.
'The [Toy Story] characters have turned out to be the perfect combinations of personalities,' adds Lasseter. 'Mr. Potato Head is the guy who always questions authority; Hamm, the piggy bank, is the know-it-all; Rex [the dinosaur doll] is the child in all of us, and Slinky Dog is utterly loyal. It's fun to work all of these characters together. For us, these characters are more like family members or fellow employees, than our creations.'
Lasseter, who seems to have had animation coursing through his veins since birth, finds being a large wheel in the ongoing animation juggernaut, is its own reward. 'What I really enjoy is seeing the animation being done at all the studios. It's really fun to see the different visions of all the filmmakers. It's also nice to stretch the boundaries of what animation can do. We have a style that's different from Disney, or DreamWorks, or Warner Brother or Fox. I just think it's all really exciting.'
Equally exciting, for Lasseter, is the fact that his Toy Story toys now belong to the world. In fact, he relishes a story that Tom Hanks (the voice of Woody) once shared with him. 'He told me that he was walking through a shopping mall,' remembers Lasseter. 'There was a little girl with a Woody doll. He walked up to her, took it out of her hands, and he had a pen, so he signed it and gave it back to her. She looked up at him like, 'How dare you!' The mother looked at it and took the toy away. Sadly, it was probably put on a shelf.'