The Man Behind the (Computer) Mouse


John Lasseter’s love of animation started early--early in the morning.

The director of Disney’s “Toy Story” recalls that on weekday mornings, his parents had a heck of a time rousing him to go to school.

Saturdays were a different story. “I was up at the crack of dawn with a bowl of cereal in front of the television watching cartoons,” Lasseter recalls with a chuckle.

At 39, he’s still that kid: Lasseter gleefully mentions that one of the best things about the four years it took to make “Toy Story” was spending his lunch hours buying toys on the company expense account for “research.”

Now that creation is keeping other people’s kids in front of the TV. The video of the hit film was released Oct. 29 and quickly became the country’s top-selling and top-renting video.


Also just out is the CD-ROM “Disney’s Activity Center, Toy Story,” a follow-up to the top-selling “Disney’s Animated Storybook, Toy Story,” which came out in April.

Lasseter directed the movie and co-wrote the screenplay, which was based on his own story. He is also vice president for creative development at Pixar, the studio that made history with “Toy Story,” the first computer-animated feature film.

“Toy Story” was released by Walt Disney Pictures, and the film is the first in Pixar’s three-picture deal with the animation giant. It was 1995’s highest-grossing film, with more than $184 million.

Lasseter works miles from Hollywood, at Pixar’s studio in Point Richmond. That keeps him close to the computer animation, but he is no techie. “I’ve been known to use a computer,” he says. “I mean, I check my e-mail when I have time.”

Lasseter made a conscious decision not to learn the technical side of computer animation. “Our tools are computers, but they don’t create anything for us,” Lasseter says. “It’s the very talented people using the computers who do the creating.

“One of the things that is so exciting about working in this medium is the pioneering side of it,” Lasseter says. “Always striving to do something that hasn’t been done before. What I’m interested in doing is taking this technology that can produce realistic images and make a world and characters that the audience knows does not exist.”

Pixar is working on its second feature for Disney, “Bugs,” which is due in theaters for Thanksgiving 1998.

“It’s going to be very much in the same vein as ‘Toy Story,’ as far as the irreverent humor and the heart,” says Lasseter, who will also be directing it. “It’s going to be a big adventure; it’s not going to be creepy icky.”

Lasseter says very little more about the film including what it’s about, except that the cast is going to be impressive. The third Pixar project for Disney is still in early development.

The marriage of technology and art started in 1986, when Apple Computer whiz Steve Jobs, then 31, purchased the computer graphics division of Lucasfilm Ltd. He turned it into Pixar with Lasseter, president Edwin Catmull, producer Ralph Guggenheim, supervising technical director William Reeves and a team of graphics experts.

“I shared their dreams of someday doing a computer-animated feature film,” Jobs says. “And now we’ve exceeded our goals.” Still, the company isn’t satisfied. “We want to be as good as Disney,” he says.

Lasseter says Pixar’s technology continues to evolve. “Ten years from now, computers are going to be so much more powerful and have so much more memory that visually you will see imagery being much more complex. In that time frame, ‘Toy Story’ is going to seem simple in comparison but, I hope, audiences will look back and still be captivated by it. ‘Snow White’ is over 60 years old, and kids are still discovering it.”

Lasseter already has two Academy Awards to show for his work at Pixar. In 1988 he shared one with Reeves for the short “Tin Toy,” the first 3-D computer-animated film to win an Oscar. This year he was awarded a Special Achievement Academy Award for “Toy Story.”

The impish humor that Lasseter brings to his films carries over to the awards. Although they are displayed on the mantelpiece at his Sonoma home, one is clad in a green off-the-shoulder evening gown and the other wears a tuxedo that sports glittery green lapels.

“They look naked without their clothes,” Lasseter says. “An Oscar looks fabulous in a gown.”

Lasseter has come a long way since the early ‘80s, when he was an animator at Disney, where he worked on such projects as “The Fox and the Hound” and “Mickey’s Christmas Carol.”

Lasseter grew up in Whittier, where his artistic bent was nurtured by both parents, especially by his art teacher mother. While still in high school, Lasseter sent a few drawings to Disney and, the next thing he knew, he was invited to visit the studio for a tour and some career guidance. After attending the California Institute of the Arts in Valencia and winning two student Academy Awards, Lasseter was snapped up by Disney when he graduated in 1979.

But the creatively driven Lasseter wasn’t terribly challenged or invigorated at Disney until 1982, when he saw something that changed the way he looked at the future of animation.

“Two friends of mine were working on ‘Tron,’ and they showed me some of the early dailies,” he says. “It was the first computer animation I’d seen and it got me so excited. My mind just started racing because I had been feeling that Disney animation had reached a certain plateau, technically and artistically. It hadn’t changed since the early ‘60s. I was always thinking: Where was it going to grow? So when I saw the computer animation--it was truly three-dimensional--I said this is it!”

Lasseter and another animator created a 30-second test to show Disney the potential of computer animation, but the studio passed. That lack of interest combined with changes going on with Disney management led Lasseter to George Lucas’ Lucasfilm.

Despite the awards and accolades, he says his proudest moment happened at the Dallas-Fort Worth Airport when he saw a young boy lovingly clutching a Woody doll while waiting for his dad to get off a plane.

“For the rest of my life, I’ll remember that image, the look on his face. It showed me that what we strive for so hard at Pixar and my short films, that the most important thing is not the technology, but it’s the characters and the story,” he says. “Stories and characters outlive technology.”