Joe Ranft, one of the key creators of Pixar's hit animated features and the voice of Heimlich the Bavarian caterpillar in "A Bug's Life" (1998), was killed in an automobile accident Tuesday afternoon. He was 45.
A spokeswoman for the Mendocino County sheriff-coroner's office confirmed that Ranft was killed when the car in which he was a passenger veered off the road while traveling north on Highway 1, plunging 130 feet over the side of the road and into the ocean.
Also killed was the driver, Elegba Earl, 32, of Los Angeles. Another passenger, Eric Frierson, 39, also of Los Angeles, was hospitalized with moderate injuries at Mendocino Coast District Hospital in Fort Bragg, according to the sheriff-coroner's office.
Ranft was widely respected as one of the top story artists in the animation industry. He was one of seven writers nominated for an Academy Award for best original screenplay for 1995's "Toy Story."
But Ranft spent most of his time drawing storyboards for animated films.
"I don't know if people really understand what I do," he said in a 1998 interview with The Times. "When I say that I do story for animation, they say, 'Oh, you're a writer!' If I tell them I'm kind of a writer, but I draw, they get this puzzled look. But when I say, 'I'm the voice of Heimlich,' the lightbulb goes on and they say, 'Oh, great!' "
Telling stories in one form or another was Ranft's lifelong passion. Born in Pasadena, he grew up in Whittier, where his early interests included movies, drawing, performing in school plays and doing sleight-of-hand magic.
"I liked evoking a response from an audience through the illusion of magic," he said. "Animation is the ultimate illusion, the illusion of life: These characters don't really exist; we create the illusion of a character."
Ranft entered the character animation program at California Institute of the Arts in the fall of 1978. As a student, he was inspired by Bill Peet's storyboards from the 1946 Disney feature "Song of the South."
"His pastel drawings were so alive, they just knocked me over. Even though they were just still drawings, they screamed to be animated," Ranft recalled. "I knew that's what I wanted to try to accomplish."
Ranft left CalArts for the Walt Disney Studio in 1980, where he quickly established a reputation as an exceptional story artist.
"Joe was the undisputed storyboard master at Pixar: His boards were just inspiring," said "Monsters, Inc." director Pete Docter. "On 'Toy Story,' his boards for the 'army man' sequence, which went into film pretty much unchanged, became the model we aspired to on the film."
Docter added: "On 'Monsters,' he was a great mentor: constructive and supportive and always a pleasure to be around. Joe was really a major part of Pixar's soul. He was one of the key players who made all the films what they are."
At Disney, Ranft worked on "Oliver & Company" (1988), "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" (1988), "Beauty and the Beast" (1991), "The Lion King" (1994) and "Fantasia/2000." He oversaw the story on "The Rescuers Down Under" (1990) and was co-writer and supervising animator on "The Brave Little Toaster" (1987).
More recently, he served as executive producer on "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride," due this fall.
While at Disney, Ranft became friends with John Lasseter, who later became a top executive at Pixar Animation Studios.
Their paths had diverged when Lasseter went to Pixar to direct a series of innovative computer-animated shorts while Ranft did story work at Skellington Productions on Tim Burton's "The Nightmare Before Christmas" (1993) and "James and the Giant Peach" (1996), which were distributed by Disney. But the two stayed in touch.
"John and I had a pact that when he directed his first feature, I was going to work on it," Ranft told The Times.
Ranft moved to Pixar to serve as story supervisor on Lasseter's "Toy Story," the first computer-animated feature. His understanding of story structure and his talent for creating emotionally complex characters that audiences cared about won him a place in the core group of artists at Pixar, colleagues said.
In addition to working on the story of "A Bug's Life," Ranft got the role as Heimlich's voice after Lasseter noticed that his wife, Nancy, laughed harder at Ranft's temporary dialogue during production than she did at the actor hired to voice the caterpillar.
Ranft served as story supervisor on "Toy Story 2" (1999) and provided the voice for Wheezy the Penguin, the asthmatic character who makes Woody realize he could end up forgotten on a shelf. Ranft was credited with additional story material for "Monsters, Inc." (2001) and oversaw the story on Lasseter's "Cars," which is slated for release next year.
"Joe had a great passion for telling stories, and he told them better than anyone," Lasseter said Wednesday. "He was funny, poignant, original, and he had an infallible sense for how to structure a story."
Unlike many story artists, Ranft never expressed an interest in directing.
"I've had people say, 'Oh, you're just going to keep story-boarding,' " he said with a characteristic laugh, "My answer is, 'Yes, it's what I've always wanted to do, and I want to get better at it.' "
A longtime resident of Marin County, Ranft is survived by his wife, Sue, and their children, Jordan and Sophia. A memorial service will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at Mill Valley Community Center, 180 Camino Alto, Mill Valley.