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Toon Time with John Lasseter

During our recent visit to Spike and Mike’s Classic Festival of Animation 2001, we sat down with John Lasseter — executive vice president of Pixar Studios and director of the animation classics Toy Story, Toy, and A Bug’s Life — discussing the festival, Pixar, and the art of animation. How did you and Pixar become involved with Spike and Mike’s Animation Festival?

John Lasseter: When I started work with LucasArts Computer Division back in 1984, I went to the Palace of Fine Arts and saw the Festival of Animation for the first time. I loved the diverse collection of animated films the festival held. It was strange to see the hip San Francisco crowd coming to see animation and loving it. Spike and Mike’s Animation Festival demonstrated to me that there was a market for animation with teenagers and young adults, and not just families. I then submitted small animation shorts created by LucasArts first — such as The Adventures of André and Wally B. –for the festival. That was the first time I met Spike and Mike — who were in full cowboy regalia at the time — and then going forward, they included all of my short films into their festival. Over the years, we developed a strong working relationship, and every year at the festival, Spike and Mike show our [Pixar’s] upcoming project trailers during the festival. They’ve always been big supporters of Pixar’s work.

From my standpoint, the animated short film is a marketable art form and Spike and Mike’s Animation festival represents the only chance countless people have had to see those works on the big screen. I’ve always appreciated what they’ve done for the art form.

How has Spike and Mike’s evolved since the first year of your involvement in the festival?

It’s interesting because it hasn’t changed a whole lot. The festival is mainly about having a blast. Mike was always on stage giving the introductions and he was always really funny. They [Spike and Mike] would do all sorts of pranks — such as huge inflatable balloons tossed around by the audience — which actually started because of one their competitors a while back had a globe for a logo and Spike and Mike started tossing around a huge inflatable globe, and the audience loved it. They’ve even invited me to travel with them to various cities as a special guest for the festival.

One insane night in Vancouver, it was Mike Dribble’s [who passed away in 1994] birthday. Everyone coming in the theater received a New Year’s Eve-type noisemaker, hats, and balloons. The place just came unglued and it was so much fun.

Spike and Mike’s continues to show the best animation films out there every year — the Oscar winners and nominees and various international award winners.

Did your participation in the festival assist in developing your business relationship with Disney?

The reason behind Disney’s partnership with Pixar was garnered by Pixar’s ability in producing the short films and demonstrating that we could entertain an audience with a strong story and memorable characters in anywhere from a minute and a half to six minutes. Pixar’s short films convinced Disney that if the company could produce memorable characters within five minutes, then the confidence was there in creating a feature film with those abilities in story and character development.

Does Disney act only as distributor for Pixar?

No, Disney is more of a partner than a distributor. Pixar creates and produces the films but we work with Disney’s animation department in a creative sense of delivering the film to the general audiences. Disney handles all of the marketing and the distribution of the film but we work with consumer products for publishing purposes of various items from our films.

How did Pixar ramp up from five minute short films to 90 minute feature films?

We didn’t know what we didn’t know in the beginning – the company just said ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s like what Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland did: ‘Hey, let’s put on a show… my dad’s got a barn!’

We just came up with an idea and we started working on it, working on it, revising it, and just trusting our instincts. We listened to the creative opinions of Tom Schumacher, the head of Disney’s Animation department, and out of all of that came Toy Story. It was a lot of hard work for four years by refining and refining and refining the story.

Were you ever nervous about how people would react to a full CGI film like Toy Story?

I was never nervous. It has nothing to do with the CGI. It has to do with the story and the characters. The format of a film — be it black-and-white film, or color, or 3-D, or Cinemascope, or animation — has nothing to do with the audience’s reaction but what you can do with the format. The stories you tell and the characters you create are the catalytic elements of a successful film – either live-action or animation based.

All of Pixar’s feature films, A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 1 & 2, are generally family-orientate. Works produced by such companies as PDI — responsible for Antz and Shrek — have a darker tone in their storylines and are more adult-orientated productions. Does Pixar plan to continue family-orientated projects solely or will some of its future projects carry a darker adult tone?

For me, personally, I will always do G-rated films, which the world needs more of. I think that you can get the family and the teenagers and the Castro [in San Francisco] crowd and the young adults interested in your films — it’s much harder thing to do. But for us to forget the family audience — that’s our core business. I think the world needs more G-rated films. I have five sons. I love going to the movies with them. The world needs more films that adults — parents — can take their kids to see a movie, feel good about, and in turn entertain them as well. Those films are hard to find.

How does it feel to create characters like Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story and know that fifty years from now, your grandkids will be watching these films?

You have to make sure that it’s right, and that is why we labor over them so much. We are aware that we are creating something special, so we work hard at producing the most memorable experiences for the general audience. Pixar has been compared to fine furniture makers who polish the backs of drawers — even if you don’t see everything in a particular scene, you still feel that every little detail has been met.

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