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A lover of traditional hand-drawn animation since his adolescence, animation director and Pixar executive John Lasseter made his mark in the field as a pioneering director of computer-generated animation with "Tin Toy" (1988) and "Toy Story" (1995), both of which became the first short film and feature film to win Academy Awards, respectively. Having been a successful animation director with Walt Disney Studios, Lasseter branched out on his own to join Pixar Studios and helped turn the fledgling animation studio into a monster success that churned out hit after hit with "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life" (1998), "Monsters, Inc." (2001) and "Finding Nemo" (2003). Having directed many of Pixar's hits, Lasseter had a direct hand in the company's extraordinary success, while also steering its financial health as both an executive producer and high-ranking executive. He returned to the Disney fold when the conglomerate bought Pixar in 2006 and made Lasseter the chief creative officer of the animation studio, where Lasseter oversaw other big hits like "Ratatouille" (2007), "Wall-E" (2008) and "Up" (2009). By the time he served as the executive producer on "Tangled" (2010) and "Toy Story 3" (2010), both of which...
A lover of traditional hand-drawn animation since his adolescence, animation director and Pixar executive John Lasseter made his mark in the field as a pioneering director of computer-generated animation with "Tin Toy" (1988) and "Toy Story" (1995), both of which became the first short film and feature film to win Academy Awards, respectively. Having been a successful animation director with Walt Disney Studios, Lasseter branched out on his own to join Pixar Studios and helped turn the fledgling animation studio into a monster success that churned out hit after hit with "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life" (1998), "Monsters, Inc." (2001) and "Finding Nemo" (2003). Having directed many of Pixar's hits, Lasseter had a direct hand in the company's extraordinary success, while also steering its financial health as both an executive producer and high-ranking executive. He returned to the Disney fold when the conglomerate bought Pixar in 2006 and made Lasseter the chief creative officer of the animation studio, where Lasseter oversaw other big hits like "Ratatouille" (2007), "Wall-E" (2008) and "Up" (2009). By the time he served as the executive producer on "Tangled" (2010) and "Toy Story 3" (2010), both of which were widely hailed by critics, Lasseter was assured of his place as one of animation's most successful pioneers.
John Lasseter was born in Hollywood on Jan. 12, 1957. While still in high school, he declared his passion for the lively medium in a letter to Disney Studio. They wrote back and told him to get an art education - learn the basics of figure drawing, design, color - and they would teach him animation. By the time Lasseter was ready for college, Disney wrote again, telling him about their new Character Animation Program at the California Institute of the Arts. He became the second student to be accepted in the very first class, with notable classmates that included Tim Burton, Brad Bird and John Musker. Meanwhile, Lasseter apprenticed at the studio during summers breaks, working as a ride operator at Disneyland. The two films he made at Cal Arts - "Lady and the Lamp" and "Nitemare" - both won Student Academy Awards. Lasseter accepted a job in Disney's feature animation department upon graduating from college. During his five year stint at the studio, Lasseter worked on various projects including the feature "The Fox and the Hound" (1981) and the celebrated short "Mickey's Christmas Carol" (1984).
Lasseter was awakened to the possibilities of computer animation by viewing Disney's live-action feature "Tron" (1982). He and fellow animator Glen Keane made a 30 second experimental test film based on Maurice Sendak's book "Where the Wild Things Are" in which they explored the mixing of hand-drawn animated characters with computer generated environments and camera movements. Lasseter's interest in the new technology grew when he visited the computer animation division of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic. He left Disney in 1984 planning to spend a month at Lucasfilm. One month evolved into six. Lasseter did some memorable work including a celebrated sequence in the feature "Young Sherlock Holmes" (1985) in which a stained glass knight comes to life and attacks a clergyman. When Steven Jobs purchased the computer animation department - rechristened Pixar - Lasseter was aboard as a director. He also produced, scripted and did modeling for a number of groundbreaking shorts and commercials. One memorable creation was Luxor Jr., which afforded him the opportunity to bring believable characterizations to a pair of desk lamps.
Though Lasseter had left Disney, he retained the studio's creative emphases on storytelling and character. He was one of the four writers of the original story about a personality clash between toys that come to life when unattended by their human master. "Toy Story" marked Lasseter's return to Disney: it was the first in a three picture deal between Pixar and the venerable studio. Computer-generated imagery proved particularly appropriate for animating the inanimate foreground objects in "Toy Story." The new technology allowed the filmmakers to recreate the textures and three-dimensional quality of actual toys while bestowing them with human traits through expert character animation. Voice performances by an outstanding cast (including Tom Hanks, Tim Allen and Don Rickles) buttressed the illusion which enthralled many reviewers, resulting in over $190 million in domestic box office - though most of the profits went to Disney as producer and distributor for the film. Lasseter earned an Honorary Oscar in 1995 "for the development and inspired application of techniques that have made possible the first feature-length computer-animated film." Meanwhile, Jobs negotiated a better deal for Pixar - what worked out to be a 50/50 split - while the new animation studio geared up for what became an unprecedented string of hits.
Lasseter went about creating Pixar's next big movie, "A Bug's Life" (1998), a modern take on Aesop's fable, "The Ant and the Grasshopper," about a inept worker ant (voiced by David Foley) who runs afoul with his colony after ruining their hard-earned food supply. Meanwhile, a group of nasty grasshoppers headed by a devious leader (voiced by Kevin Spacey) force the ostracized ant to replenish the food supply before they return or else. As usual, Lasseter relied on computer generated technology to create his animated characters and world, though this time he also made the film in widescreen Cinemascope - only the fourth animated feature to ever have been shot in the format. Because "A Bug's Life" existed exclusively in the outside world - as opposed to the closed-in world of "Toy Story" - Lasseter knew that it was going to be a challenge recreating the organic shapes of nature as opposed to the easier geometric shapes of indoors. It took four years and 200 people to make the film, but Lasseter's efforts paid off. "A Bug's Life" took in over $160 million in box office receipts and earned several award nominations, including the 1998 Best Animated Film award from the Los Angeles Critics Association.
Though a grown adult in charge of a fast-growing studio that was on the verge of supplanting mainstay Disney as the industry's go-to for animated features, Lasseter had always encouraged a carefree, almost childlike atmosphere in the workplace - his penchant for jeans, sneakers and Hawaiian shirts on the job were the clearest indications of his playful nature. While he has encouraged employees to play ping-pong or take a dip in the pool during working hours, Lasseter himself has littered his office with collector toys. It was during a visit by his children - who, much to his dismay, ransacked his collection - that he came up with the idea for "Toy Story 2" (1999). About a collector who kidnaps Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) when their owner, Andy (John Morris), g s away to summer camp, "Toy Story 2" was originally slated by distributor Disney for a straight-to-video release, typical treatment for the studio's lesser sequels. Lasseter, however, felt that "Toy Story 2" deserved a theatrical release. After rounding up the original cast at a substantial increase from their original salaries, as well as developing a clever story, Lasseter managed to break the Disney mold and get his sequel into theaters. The result was a film many considered better than the first - a rare feat in Hollywood - and more box office dollars to boot. "Toy Story 2" also earned a 1999 Golden Globe Award for Best Film - Musical or Comedy.
For Pixar's next few films, Lasseter relinquished the director's reigns to settle into the role of executive producer. "Monsters, Inc." (2001), Pixar's next release, was directed by animator Pete Docter, though Lasseter maintained creative control. Once again, Lasseter and his team took special care to craft a good story before concerning themselves with the animation (the development process can over two years on some projects.) The fish-out-of-water story - taken from the common childhood fantasy that monsters hide in closets and lurk in dark corners - about a large, blue-haired behemoth named James P. "Sully" Sullivan and his green, one-eyed assistant Mike Wazowski captured audiences of divergent ages - typical for a Pixar film thanks to engaging storylines and sophisticated jokes. Lasseter's next producing effort, "Finding Nemo" (2003), became Pixar's most profitable feature to date. About a young clown fish with one fin smaller than the other who's caught by humans and placed inside a fish tank while his paranoid dad swims the entire ocean to find him, "Finding Nemo" became a cultural phenomenon as well as a superb artistic achievement. After taking in close to $340 million at the box office, the film earned an Academy Award for Best Animated Film.
Lasseter's next project as executive producer, "The Incredibles" (2004), about a family of former masked crime fighters brought out of retirement to fight a jilted fan turned to evil, was directed by former Cal Institute classmate Brad Bird. Once again, Lasseter had a bona fide hit on his hands, complete with the usual merchandising tie-ins that elevated profits for the studio. "The Incredibles" also earned numerous critical kudos, as well as several awards, including the Academy Award for Best Animated Film - the second for Lasseter as producer. Meanwhile, Disney went through a long and often ugly public battle with longtime CEO Michael Eisner, who finally left the Mouse House in October 2005. Incoming CEO Robert Iger - more pragmatic and well-liked than his predecessor - immediately went to work hammering out a merger deal with Pixar. Lasseter had spent the previous years in frustrating negotiations with Eisner; discussions in private meetings that were leaked to the public while he was forced to wait months for a counter-proposal. But with Iger, negotiations went much smoother and Lasseter received a deal that assured total creative control - a more important criterion than money. Meanwhile, Lasseter went back to directing with "Cars" (2006), about a race car named Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) whose drive for success lands him in a sleepy Route 66 town populated by offbeat characters who help him realize there are more important things to life than trophies and fame.
Lasseter stepped back from directing following the merger with Pixar to serve as the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios, where he served primarily as the executive producer of another string of commercial and critical hits. His first feature under his new auspices was "Ratatouille" (2007), an almost universally praised hit about a rat named Remy (Patton Oswalt) who dreams of becoming a gourmet chef at a five-star restaurant. After grossing over $600 million worldwide, "Ratatouille" took home the Academy Award for Best Animated Feature. Following the direct-to-DVD "Tinker Bell" (2008) and the well-received "Bolt" (2008), Lasseter brought "WALL-E" (2008) to the big screen, which told the tale of a lonely scavenger robot (Ben Burtt) who finds new purpose in life after meeting a sleek robot named Eve (Elissa Knight). The film was praised by nearly all critics while becoming another huge box office hit. Lasseter arguably had his greatest success as the executive producer of "Up" (2009), which followed a curmudgeonly balloon salesman (Ed Asner) who realizes his dream of flying his house away to South America, only to discover a stowaway in the form of an overly optimistic Wilderness Explorer (Jordan Naqai). Once again, Lasseter took away Oscar gold with another statue for Best Animated Feature.
Following the lesser success of "The Princess and the Frog" (2009), Lasseter and company made "Tangled" (2010), a contemporary retelling of the German fairy tale Rapunzel that, with its budget of over $260 million, became the most expensive animated feature ever made. But again, the film became both a critical and commercial success that was overshadowed by the continuing tales of Woody (Tom Hanks) and Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen) in "Toy Story 3" (2010). While most franchises typically die with the second sequel, "Toy Story 3" was widely considered to be the best in the series, thanks to its unique ability to stir strong emotions in audiences through animated characters. With nearly all critics heaping praise and a box office total topping $1 billion worldwide, "Toy Story 3" received five Academy Award nominations, including for Best Animated Feature and for Best Picture. It would take home the Best Animated Film Oscar.
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Lasseter received consecutive gold medals in 1979 and 1980 at the Student Academy Awards.
"We're storytellers who happen to use computers. Story and characters come first and that is what drives everything we do. You can dazzle an audience with brand new technology but in the end people walk away from a movie remembering the characters." --Lasseter quoted in publicity material for "Toy Story"
"John knows how to create warm and appealing characters through this medium of computer animation better than anyone else in the universe and the work you see really comes from his heart and spirit, as much as it comes out of a computer box." --Thomas Schumacher, executive vice president of Walt Disney Feature Animation (from press kit for "Toy Story")
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