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Wednesday, May 17, 2006

`Pixar's magic man': Fortune on John Lasseter

Brent Schlender of Fortune has a great piece in Fortune about John Lasseter that covers his career, his role in making Pixar successful, and his new job as head of Walt Disney Feature Animation. In one passage, Lasseter talks about Disney's early dalliance with computer animation:

    ...[I]n 1980 or 1981, I saw some video of the very beginnings of computer animation, and it was like a revelation. I wasn't really looking for them but just came across some tapes from one of these new computer-graphics conferences. When I saw this stuff I thought, Wow, this is cool. Even though it was just spheres floating around and stuff like that.

    Around that time Disney made a deal to do a live-action movie called "Tron," with some computerized special effects. I didn't work on it, but some friends did, and I saw the very first dailies, and what I saw - the potential I saw - blew me away. Walt Disney had always tried to get more dimension in his animation and when I saw these tapes, I thought, This is it! This is what Walt was waiting for! But when I looked around, nobody at the studio at the time was even halfway interested in it.

    Tron was made by a different part of the studio, unrelated to animation. This young live-action executive named Tom Willhite picked me out of the group because I kept talking to him about how we could use this new technology in animation. So he let me and a colleague put together a 30-second test, combining hand-drawn, two-dimensional Disney-style character animation with three-dimensional computer-generated backgrounds.

    I was so excited about the test, and I wanted to find a story that we could apply this technique to in a full-blown movie. A friend of mine had told me about a 40-page novella called "The Brave Little Toaster," by Thomas Disch. I've always loved animating inanimate objects, and this story had a lot of that. Tom Willhite liked the idea, too, and got us the rights to the story so we could pitch it to the animation studio along with our test clip.

    When it came time to show the idea, I remember the head of the studio had only one question: "How much is this going to cost?" We said about the same as a regular animated feature. He replied, "I'm only interested in computer animation if it saves money or saves time." We found out later that others had poked holes in my idea before I had even pitched it.

The project was killed and, in 1983, Lasseter was fired ... though he'd return to the company more than two decades later, when Disney acquired Pixar to reinvigorate its animation division.


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