Actors Ryan Potter, Scott Adsit, Jamie Chung, Damon Wayans Jr, Alan Tudyk, Maya Rudolph (voices) Actors
Genre Animation, family, action, superhero Genre
Synopsis A young science genius hunt down the man responsible for threatening the city, with the help of a genial, weaponised robot Synopsis
Pixar's presiding genius explains how - with the help of an inflatable robot - he's bringing magic back to Disney
Somewhere on a computer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, there\'s a video of John Lasseter dancing to Let It Go. It was shot by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee, the directors of Frozen, during a meeting with Lasseter and the other members of Disney Animation\'s Story Trust: a group of writers and film–makers who get together to chew over problems that crop up on any of the studio\'s projects.
Everyone already knew the song would be a crucial part of their film – when Buck and Lee first heard it, they rewrote their entire plot to better accommodate its lyrics – but the directors wanted to do it justice with some dramatic, sassy choreography.
So when they asked the Story Trust how their big song–and–dance number should look, Disney\'s chief creative officer stood up and showed them. The performance was caught on video and passed on to Frozen\'s animators, who used Lasseter\'s moves as a visual reference when they brought the scene to life. So when millions of cinemagoers saw Elsa raise up a palace of ice with the merest flick of her wrist, beaming with delight at the sheer, cliché–smashing fun of it, they were watching Lasseter at work.
It\'s not stretching the truth to say that Lasseter saved Disney. When he arrived from Pixar in 2006, the studio was in the 20th year of a low ebb that had yielded Brother Bear, Home on the Range and Chicken Little – films that are barely even remembered today, let alone watched.
But the first films to be produced under Lasseter\'s stewardship were The Princess and the Frog and Tangled: two sharp, witty, painterly princess stories, as proudly forward–looking as they were indebted to the studio\'s most beloved and enduring work. Next came two films made in tandem that could have hardly been more different: the pastoral, hand–painted Winnie the Pooh and the computerised 3D video–game homage Wreck–It Ralph.
Elsa and Anna from Disney's Frozen Photo: Disney
Then, of course, came Frozen: the most successful film Disney has ever made and the first to win the best animated feature Oscar in the award\'s 13–year history. Its new film, Big Hero 6, which is released in Britain later this month, is an exhilarating mashup of Marvel Comics and Hayao Miyazaki: it\'s like nothing the studio has done before, but rooted in the storytelling traditions it helped set down the best part of a century ago.
So what happened? How did this 57–year–old lifelong Disney obsessive and father of five boys from a leafy Californian backwater effect such an astonishing turnaround?
Lasseter was one of the original animators at Pixar, the creators of Toy Story, Finding Nemo and any number of modern–classic animated films, and had become so synonymous with visionary film–making that Disney staff were racking their brains over who might bring the same creative spirit back to their venerable but ailing studio.
"All through that time we were looking at the incredible things Pixar were doing and saying, \'Who\'s going to be our John Lasseter?\'" was how the situation was described to me by Chris Williams, one of the co–directors of Big Hero 6, who arrived at Disney in the late Nineties, just before the slump. Eight years ago, at a surprise meeting called in the main hall at the studio\'s Burbank headquarters, he and his colleagues found out. It would be John Lasseter.
In person, Lasseter is bluff and bearish – equal parts Baloo and Winnie – and is invariably wearing a Hawaiian shirt, probably patterned with Disney and Pixar characters. (He has a collection of more than 1,000, and keeps around 375 favourites, one for every day of the year plus a few spares, in a walk–in wardrobe at home.) He speaks slowly and evenly, sometimes sounding like a parent reading a story to a group of children, and sometimes like a scientific genius consciously slowing down his train of thought to human speed.
Today, he\'s talking on the telephone from his office at Walt Disney Studios. I\'ve been allotted half an hour of his time, from 9am to 9.30am, but he speaks for more than twice that, eagerly chewing through each topic like it\'s a giant sandwich. Eventually, at 10.10am, while he\'s rhapsodising about the underlying concept of Zootopia, a film that won\'t be released until March 2016 (and of which, more later), his assistant has to gently remind him that there are other things to do.
Beneath the amiable exterior, though, there\'s sheathed steel, and when Lasseter decides what needs to be said and done, he says and does it. (The reverse also holds: all he\'ll tell me about Toy Story 4 is, "We\'re doing Toy Story 4, and that\'s about all I can tell you about that.")
When he took charge of Disney, one of his first actions was to reverse a decision that had been quietly made two years earlier, not often readily acknowledged by the studio even now, to shut down its entire hand–drawn animation division.
"The previous regime had decided that their audience didn\'t want to look at hand–drawn art anymore, they wanted computer animation," he says. "They didn\'t care about the artists, the history, the art form."
But Lasseter did. As a child, he\'d pored over an enormous hardback Disney book, The Art of Animation, and dreamt of following in the footsteps of the "Nine Old Men": the animators who had worked with Walt Disney during the studio\'s early days.
So in the most glorious raised middle–finger to the old guard imaginable, he rehired John Musker and Ron Clements, the co–directors of The Little Mermaid and Aladdin, and asked them to pitch a brand–new, hand–drawn Disney princess story.
"They thought the world had grown too cynical for traditional fairy tales, but I was sitting at Pixar thinking, \'No! Hollywood\'s grown too cynical for them! The rest of the world loves them!\'"
Working with Musker and Clements allowed him to revive the old Disney recipe, albeit with a Lasseterian twist.
"You\'ve got to tell them for today\'s audiences," he says. "You can\'t have a female main character sitting around for a guy to come save her. There\'s not one woman I know – my mum, my wife – who is waiting around for a guy to save them."
Tiana from The Princess and the Frog was Disney's first African-American heroine Photo: Disney
The result was Tiana, Disney\'s first African–American princess, who wanted to start her own restaurant in New Orleans – a dream that, perhaps significantly, her father had lacked the wherewithal to realise.
"The technique was what Disney had been using for years, but the story had to have a little something extra," he says. The same formula applied to Tangled, the film formerly known as Rapunzel, and a project his predecessors had junked the week before Lasseter had arrived.
"This was a challenging story that involves child abduction and a poor girl being raised in one room for her whole life," he says. "But her decision not to wait for someone to save her was what ended up driving the story. We switched Rapunzel from a damsel into an aspirational character."
The change suited her. Tangled made £400million worldwide, and was Disney\'s first film to top the American box office in 16 years. Frozen, which followed, developed the idea even further: here was a princess story in which the day–saving act of love had to be bestowed, not received, and by one sister on another.
"The idea of the ending where Anna sacrifices herself for Elsa was something that came up early on," Andrew Millstein, the studio\'s head, tells me. "And John just said, \'That\'s our ending.\' It was a beautiful twist, and for months and months, Jen and Chris and their team had to figure out how to get their film to earn that ending."
These days, the respect Lasseter commands at Disney borders on the cult–like, but it was far from ever thus. This is actually his third spell working with the studio. His strained earlier dealings with it, during what he flatly describes as "the dark years", run almost exactly in line with Gandhi\'s account of standing up to an oppressive regime. First they ignored him, then they laughed at him, then they fought him, then he won.
He first arrived at Disney in 1979 as one of a number of notable graduates of a character animation course taught by some of the Nine Old Men. (His classmates included Tim Burton, Pixar\'s Brad Bird and Henry Selick, the director of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Coraline.) The CalArts course was supposed to supply the rush of new blood that had been lacking in the years after Walt\'s death in 1966, but Lasseter found the studio heads weren\'t interested in his ideas.
"Looking back, I was very lucky, because I now realise these great animators, who had helped invent the art form, were handing the torch on to us," says Lasseter.
"But the studio\'s creative leadership were kind of the second tier animators at the end of Walt\'s time, and they were threatened by us. They had lived for a long time in the shadows of these great Disney animators, and finally it was their chance to shine and then all of these young whippersnappers started coming in."
At the time, there were revolutions taking place in American cinema: George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were inventing the blockbuster, while Francis Ford Coppola and Martin Scorsese were using the studio business model to push the art form to bolder, more ambitious heights.
For Lasseter, this meant computer graphics, which he had become obsessed with in the late Seventies, and which he was convinced the Disney of old would have embraced. "I really felt like CG was what Walt had been waiting for," he says. But his employers were less enamoured.
"They were honestly just kind of not really open to it at all," he says. "And they were in control, and they wanted us to do what we were told. They were following in the footsteps of what came before, but they weren\'t really talented, and were just trying to maintain control."
In 1982, Lasseter pitched a fully computer animated film, based on a children\'s book called The Brave Little Toaster, to Ron W Miller, Walt Disney\'s son–in–law and the studio\'s then–president. The meeting was a disaster, and within an hour he was summoned to the office of Ed Hansen, the animation administrator, and fired on the spot.
But Lasseter found kindred spirits at Lucasfilm, and spent four years working for the studio\'s computer graphics division where, in 1985, he created the stained–glass knight in Young Sherlock Holmes: one of the first digitally created characters to appear in a live–action film.
In 1986, Pixar spun off from Lucasfilm and embarked on its further experiments with computer animation, funded by Apple cofounder Steve Jobs. But things were getting better at Disney too: Musker and Clements, who had been two more of Lasseter\'s classmates on the CalArts programme, had stuck the course and in 1989 made The Little Mermaid, which spurred the studio\'s second golden age: a burst of what Lasseter calls "big, Broadway, breakout–into–song musicals" that peaked in 1994 with The Lion King.
Michael Eisner, John Lasseter and Steve Jobs at the premiere of Monsters Inc Photo: MIREK TOWSKI / Rex Features
At the time, Jobs had negotiated an agreement between Pixar and Disney that would lead to Lasseter\'s first feature, Toy Story, being jointly produced by both studios. But once the deal had been struck, Lasseter found himself losing control of the film. He and his team would fly from northern California to present their work to a board of Disney executives, who gave them notes on what they saw: "Except the notes were mandatory, and we had to do what they said," remembers Lasseter.
"We were like, \'OK, they know what they\'re doing,\' but at a certain point they were taking the movie down a path that wasn\'t our original intention – they wanted it to be edgy, with cynical, unlikeable characters." After what Lasseter describes as a "disastrous" work–in–progress screening, Disney shut down production, and the Pixar team begged for two weeks to fix things – in effect, to make the film they\'d wanted to make all along. The result, which is regularly hailed as one of the greatest animated films ever made, convinced Disney that Pixar knew what it was doing and should ideally be left to it.
"I made a rule that there would be no mandatory notes at Pixar and no hierarchy to the notes," says Lasseter. "We basically set ourselves up in opposition to the way Disney used to work."
When Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 and Lasseter became the animation studio\'s chief creative officer (Steve Jobs, who oversaw the merger, made Lasseter\'s appointment a deal–breaker), he was able to bring what he\'d learnt back to the unhappy regime he\'d learnt it from.
In his memoir, Creativity, Inc, Ed Catmull, one of Pixar\'s founders and now the president of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios, describes the sense of creeping dismay he and Lasseter felt as they walked around Disney\'s corridors in their first week. The employees were spread out over four floors, with little natural light at the bottom and a "gated community" of executives at the top.
"There were so many layers – you had the head of the studio, the head of animation, the head of development, then development executives – you had to please, and none of those people grew up wanting to create animation. It was just a job to them – something they either fell into or a stepping stone on their Hollywood career."
Catmull immediately moved his and Lasseter\'s offices to the middle of the second floor, set up a coffee and snack bar outside, and pledged to keep their blinds up and doors open. The old executive suite became discussion rooms where the newly inaugurated Story Trust of artists and writers, based on Pixar\'s own Brain Trust, could knock around ideas, and where Lasseter would perform that Frozen dance routine six years later.
In addition, two of the pillars of Lasseter\'s regime at Pixar were introduced at once. The first was the production of animated short films to be screened before every feature, where new talent could be nurtured and radical ideas tested.
Pictured in concept art, the high-tech city of San Fransokyo from Big Hero 6 Photo: Disney
The second was hands–on research, and lots of it. In Pixar\'s early days, this was as basic as Lasseter spending hours tinkering with his desk lamp to make the movements of the animated versions in his 1986 short, Luxo Jr, as plausible as possible. But as the films\' worlds became more complex, so the research became more intricate and the trips to carry it out farther–flung.
To prepare for the Japanese–inflected Big Hero 6, Lasseter sent Disney\'s animators to Tokyo, where they scoured the city\'s skyscraper districts and temples for inspiration. The face of Baymax, the film\'s lovable inflatable robot, ended up being based on a copper bell the directors found at a Shinto shrine. However far–fetched a story might become, Lasseter insists it should be anchored in reality.
For Zootopia, this meant director Byron Howard and his crew going on safari in Africa, consulting animal experts and binge–watching David Attenborough documentaries. The film is set in a city built by animals, and while Howard was partly inspired by his love of Disney\'s 1973 adaptation of Robin Hood, with foxes, bears and badgers, Lasseter didn\'t want the film to repeat what he described as the studio\'s "animals wearing human clothes in a human world" aesthetic.
Following his research, Howard felt the story pulling in a completely different direction: one "steeped in the nature of how mammals live on earth," says Lasseter, that\'s "fascinating and completely fresh".
Then there\'s Moana, the next Musker–Clements production, an old–fashioned, princess–led musical set in the South Pacific. Preparation for the film entailed a two–week trip to Tahiti, immersing themselves in French Polynesian storytelling, sailing the traditional fishing grounds, and experiencing the music and culture first–hand.
What\'s most intriguing about Moana, though, is its animation style, which is computer–generated but with an almost hand–painted look. If Lasseter\'s time at Pixar marked the start of an intermediary phase in which digital and traditional animation had their own distinct aesthetics, perhaps his reign at Disney will lead to the once mutually suspicious forms uniting.
"The way this computer animation is created is much more like handdrawn animation than ever before, and in motion it has that unique feel that hand–drawn Disney animation should," he says. "But it\'s technically considered a CG film. We are merging worlds."
His turn of phrase reminds me of a line in Creativity, Inc, when Catmull recalls what Lasseter told him in the early days of Pixar: "It\'s like we found a way to grow life on a planet that had never supported it before." Almost 30 years later, the terraforming goes on, from frozen spires to South Sea paradises and further. We\'ve already seen infinity: now here\'s what\'s beyond.
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