At last week’s “Coco” premiere at the El Capitan in Hollywood, John Lasseter had a look of sadness in his eyes. The usual gregarious charm didn’t come as easily. Maybe he was tired: he’d been running both Pixar and Disney Animation as chief creative officer for the last 11 years.
That was the explanation when Lasseter first stepped down as director of “Toy Story 4” earlier this year. Then came Tuesday’s shocking revelation of alleged unwanted advances, forcing the animation mogul — who was known for his warm hugs — to take a six-month leave of absence from the studios, apologizing for “missteps” in a memo to his Disney/Pixar staff.
Lasseter, by far the most powerful and influential figure in contemporary animation, joins a growing list of big-name players in Hollywood, the media, and politics accused of sexual misconduct (including Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, and Charlie Rose). This follows a storied career of accomplishments and influence that have legitimately brooked comparisons to his idol, Walt Disney.
As the tarnished mogul seeks to repair whatever damage he has caused and find his way again, here’s a look at how he became such a powerful asset to Disney — to the point where, no matter what happens now, he may be irreplaceable.
As co-founder of Pixar with Ed Catmull, Lasseter was a crucial early pioneer in CG animation, directing the first digital feature “Toy Story” in 1995. (Disney released Pixar’s output before new CEO Bob Iger made the move to acquire Pixar in 2006.) After following up with “A Bug’s Life” in 1998 and “Toy Story 2” in 1999, Lasseter and Pixar ushered in the prosperous and prestigious animation industry that we enjoy today.
At Pixar, while mentoring a host of directors, beginning with Pete Docter (“Monsters, Inc.,” “Up,” “Inside Out”) and Andrew Stanton (“Finding Nemo,” “WALL·E,” “Finding Dory”), Lasseter instituted a collegial, director-centric atmosphere. Inspired by his alma mater, CalArts, The vaunted Pixar Braintrust has been devoted to compelling characterization and visually stimulating world building. In fact, Lasseter’s most popular mantras have been: “Story, Story, Story,” and “Truth in Materials.”
In effect, Lasseter updated and revitalized the Disney ethos of storytelling that simultaneously looks forward and back with emotion and humor, never looking down on its audience. But with CG, Lasseter was able to experiment with a more life-like and dynamic technique. And as the tech improved and holy grails were conquered (cloth, hair, skin, water, fire, and other natural elements), the character animation became more believable, and the environments more photoreal. “Coco” and “Zootopia” are the latest examples of singular performance and stylization at Pixar and Disney that serve their stories brilliantly.
Ironically, after starting as an animator at Disney in the early ’80s but getting fired for being too forward-thinking, Lasseter got a second chance with the studio. In 2006, with Catmull as president, Lasseter resurrected Disney once again as an animation powerhouse. Indeed, between Pixar and Disney, the two studios have won 11 out of the 16 Oscars for Best Animated Feature since the category was launched in 2001 (thanks in large part to Lasseter’s influence).
The turning point at Disney, though, was “Tangled” (2010), a troubled project that began as “Rapunzel” from animator-turned director Glen Keane. It was a dark and unwieldy fairy tale update, blending photoreal and painterly animation styles. But Lasseter never gave up and found a way of tweaking “Tangled” as a fresh and funny fairy tale/rom com under the direction of Nathan Greno and Byron Howard (“Zootopia”).
Lasseter learned an important lesson that liberated the studio: Leverage the Disney legacy but modernize it in new and unexpected ways. “Wreck-It Ralph” (2012), “Frozen ” (2013), “Big Hero 6” (2014), “Zootopia” (2016), and “Moana” (2016) followed in succession with remarkable results. They displayed tactile CG imagery and captivating performances propelled by a hand-drawn DNA. At the same time, they embraced stories about diversity and empowerment.
But Pixar has needed Lasseter’s leadership as well, and dividing his time between the two studios has been a challenge. The last 11 years has seen a rise in sequels to feed the Disney pipeline and has been taxing on resources as the studio developed a new generation of directors and animators. When you’re the best, the pressure to stay on top is fierce and fear of failure can be paralyzing.
Lasseter’s challenge was to strike a creative balance between originals and sequels and getting the right fit when it comes to directors. He’s been willing to throw directors off movies that weren’t working, favoring a team approach. After he took writer-director Brenda Chapman off “Brave” in favor of Mark Andrews, the final film won the Oscar, but he suffered criticism of his unwillingness to include women at the helm.
But for every disappointment (“Cars 2,” “The Good Dinosaur”), there has been a revelation (“Toy Story 3,” “Inside Out”). No doubt Pixar will continue to thrive with great leadership from Catmull, Docter, Stanton, and the rest of the Braintrust.
Lasseter likes to tell the story about asking Disney legend Frank Thomas how to succeed with CG animation. He replied: “When you can tell a story with empathy.” That was the eureka moment for Lasseter. And he’s been instilling empathy at Pixar and Disney ever since, taking joy in his work and in his collaboration with animators, directors, and other staff.
Unfortunately, reports of his behavior with other Disney/Pixar staffers have left his future with the company up in the air. That said, the art of animation will always be in debt to him, and it’s hard to imagine what the company will look like without his oversight.