Interview: John Lasseter

Earlier this week, I have th great oppurtunity to talk to Academy Award-winning animator and chief creative officer at Pixar and Disney Animation Studios, John Lasseter. While the phone call was primarily about Disney’s new release Bolt, we went off topic a couple of times and talked about IMAX, 3D and Blu-ray.

/Film: Hi, John.

John Lasseter: Hi, Peter. How are you?

/Film: Good. I just want to first say I’m a huge fan. As you can tell, SlashFilm has followed all the Pixar productions closely and we just love everything you’ve done.

John Lasseter: Oh thank you so much. Yeah, thanks so much for you guy’s support, too.

/Film: The project “Bolt” didn’t first start off as “Bolt”. It’s started off as a film called “American Dog” with Chris Sanders directing.

John Lasseter: Right.

american dog

/Film: Can you talk a little bit about that and how that evolved into what it is?

John Lasseter: Sure, yeah. You know when the merger of Disney and Pixar happened and Bob Iger and Steve Jobs asked me to be the Chief Creative Officer at Disney, as well as Pixar, you know I came in and there was a handful of movies that had been kind of started down here. “American Dog” was one of them. And I always thought that the premise of that had a lot of potential for heart, you know the character that it is a dog that stars in this kind of action TV show. And he thinks he has these real powers, and so he gets separated from the TV show and learns that he, in fact, doesn’t have any powers and he’s just a regular dog. But he has no idea about how to be a regular dog, and so he’s taught how to be a regular dog by a cat. But it’s a deeper story about this friendship, and loyalty and unconditional love that dogs have for their owners. And I think that I had put great possibilities. It’s one of those difficult situations where we’ve done this a couple times before with “Toy Story 2″ and with “Ratatouille”, where the potential of film, it’s just we were having kind of creative differences with reaching that potential, and so we brought on Chris Williams and Byron Howard, two young guys here to direct it, because they’re so funny, but they also have a tremendous amount of heart in them. And it’s always a difficult situation, because I love Chris Sanders. He’s a great guy and brilliant talent, and it’s always sort of difficult, but it’s the right thing to do for the movie.

/Film: Oh definitely. What do you think the biggest change was in the direction that you took “Bolt” from what Sanders was doing to what it is today?

John Lasseter: Well I think part of it was focusing on the believability of this dog, and we could set it up so the audience can understand how this dog could believe that this is all real. And so there’s a little focus on kind of making the animals in the film feel a little bit more like real animals. We studied tremendously dogs and cats and the way they move and the way they look, also, in finding that truism kind of in the way that they move. And I think a great example of that is the pigeons.

/Film: Oh yeah.

John Lasseter: Yeah, the pigeons and the way that they move. Everyone looks at it and goes, “Oh yeah, that’s the way a pigeon moves.” But then they realize that the pigeons take on a personality of the city that they live in, you know, I think was so clever and so unique. And so that’s kind of an example of sort of the way of the focus that Chris and Byron started bringing to “Bolt”.

/Film: Definitely. The voice of Rhino is a Disney animator, Mark Walton.

John Lasseter: Yes.

/Film: This seems a little bit odd for Disney, but it’s something that happened all the time at Pixar.

John Lasseter: Well you know what it is, is that in the early stages, well during the whole production, we focused number one on the story, right. And the way that we develop the story of these films is we use storyboard drawings, and then we create a version of the movie using the storyboard drawings called the story reel. And in this story reel, we put temporary voices– we call it scratch voices– on it with temporary music and sound effect and so on, so you can sit back and you watch the movie before you start production and you work, and rework, and rework, and rework the story reel to make it great. And then at a certain point, you start narrowing in on the type of character that the characters are developing, and that’s when you start thinking of casting. And so as the Rhino character began to be developed as this super nerdy, geeky fan boy of “Bolt”, who sits and watches TV all the time and believes it all is real, they got this story artist named Mark Walton to do the scratch voice, because frankly, he is a super nerdy, geeky fan boy of movies and animation. He’s just the biggest nerd, you know, and he’s so funny, you know, in that way. And so as he started doing it in these story reels, this character just started leaping off the screen, and it made all in hysterics, you know, it was so funny. And so then comes time for casting and we start looking at other actors, how they could do it, and we kept looking at this going there’s no one that could come close to how good Mark Walton is, and so that’s when we gave him the part. So it’s going to be tonight, it’s a world premier, Hollywood Boulevard, red carpet. There’s going to be John Travolta, who did an amazing job as “Bolt”, Miley Cyrus, who’s unbelievable, you know, to work with and she’s great as “Penny”. There’s Susie Essman from Curb Your Enthusiasm did Mittens, and Mark Walton walking down that red carpet. And that’s what’s so great. I mean yeah, you’re right. We have done that before with “Ratatouille” and with even “In a Bug’s Life” with Joe Ranft doing Heimlich and stuff like that. And you know what it is with us, it’s less about how big of a star our voices are, and more about how great of an actor they are, and how they’re really making a character come to life, because you want when the lights dim, you want to take the audience away, and you want them to be swept away in the story and fall in love with these characters. And the character needs to be totally believable as the character up on the screen, you know. And that’s the number one thing for us, and that’s what John Travolta did so amazing with the voice of the main character, Bolt. And then, of course, with Miley, you know, Miley Cyrus as his owner, Penny, she’s just fantastic that way.

/Film: I totally agree with you. You know I thought that the recent downfall of animation started when Dreamworks started showing the stars doing the voiceover for their animated films in the trailer and tv advertisements.

John Lasseter: Yeah, to me, at Pixar and now at Disney, it’s really never been about that. We’re always excited when we do get a great star, but it’s about how great of a character they’re creating for us.

/Film: Definitely. And “Bolt” is the best 3D movie I think I’ve ever seen.

John Lasseter: Oh you got to see it in 3D, awesome.

/Film: Yeah, I saw it at the showcase last month.

John Lasseter: Oh yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah. Yeah, I’m so proud of it because I’ve been a huge fan of 3D for a long time. In 1989, I made a short film at Pixar called “Knick Knack” and that was done in 3D. And the year before that, in ’88, when I got married, I did my wedding photos in 3D. So I’ve been a big fan of 3D for a long time. But there was no theaters back then, you know. And so now it’s seeing all the theaters start popping up. It’s been very exciting to think about how we can use 3D to help tell the stories. And so even though Disney was the first to do an animated feature film in 3D with “Chicken Little” and then with “Meet the Robinsons”, the movies were made and then at the end of production, that’s when they did the 3D version. And so we incorporated, from the very, very beginning, making “Bolt” in 3D, so that it has this whole kind of staging as really thought of in 3D in mind. It plays great with 2D, as well. But again, it’s not about whether or not it’s a 3D film. It’s about what you do with it. You know the technology never entertains an audience. It’s just the story, and the characters, and how you use the technology to help tell the story.

/Film: Tell me this. Disney is always on the cutting edge and you said the first animated film in 3D.

John Lasseter: Yes.

/Film: The “Dark Night” came out and everybody is looking at it as a game changer, because it used the full Imax screen. Is Disney or Pixar ever looking to do a film on the full Imax screen?

John Lasseter: Not that I know of right now. I mean over in the live action department, I don’t know what they have in store. But I mean as far as animation goes, we have been one of the earliest proponents of digital cinema up at Pixar with “A Bug’s Life” was released, I think the second theatrical movie after the “Star Wars” movie to be released in digital cinema. And so I’ve been a big proponent of any time we can get a new way for the audience to experience our films, but it’s also just about can we get the best version of our movie out there to the audience. And I think that 3D is going to be really exciting that way. It’s very, very immersive.

/Film: You say best version for the audience… When can we expect your Pixar films on Blu-ray?

John Lasseter: “Cars” and “Ratatouille” have been put out on Blu-ray, and of course Wall-E comes out pretty soon. That’s going to be amazing in Blu-ray.

/Film: But I meant, when are we going to get your films? The Toy Story films?

John Lasseter: Oh yeah, they’ll be there sometime. I don’t have the dates off the top of my head, but they’re definitely.

/Film: It’s in the pipeline.

John Lasseter: Yeah, they’re coming. They’re in the works. And I’m also involved here with the restoration of all the classics, which are cherished so much. And I don’t know if you got a chance to see “Sleeping Beauty” in Blu-ray.

/Film: I did. It was awesome.

John Lasseter: It is awesome. I know. I’m a huge fan of Blu-rays myself. So yeah, trust me. We’re going to get them out there. Don’t worry. And once you see Blu-ray, you can’t go back. It’s just unbelievable.

/Film: Definitely. Well John, thank you very much.

John Lasseter: Okay, take care. Thanks.

Q: Thank you.

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