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John Lasseter: Stories that Live Forever

When you walk into John Lasseter’s office at The Walt Disney Animation Studio, you forget for a moment that this is where the head of a major Hollywood studio works. Lining the walls are reproductions of original sketches from early Disney-era animation and little cartoony toys clutter the shelves.

“I brought my Disneyland collection here,” he says as he points out intricately realistic models of different parts of the theme park. “I’m a big Disneyland nut.” In fact, as a student, Lasseter worked at Disneyland during summers (he was the captain of the Jungle Cruise ride). But his love for animation and the work of Walt Disney traces all the way back to childhood.

I recently had the chance to visit The Walt Disney Animation Studio just outside Los Angeles, and interview Lasseter.

Although he is an accomplished artist and businessman, Lasseter is best known as the man who has re-inspired modern animation. After brief stints at Disney and Luscasfilm early in his career, Lasseter founded Pixar, an animation studio that would pioneer a new style that used computers to create a fresh look and style. Lasseter directed an early feature at Pixar, a little film called Toy Story, that has become a modern classic and a global smash hit. He would go on to helm some of the most successful animated movies of all time, including A Bug’s Life, Cars, Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo and WALL-E as either the director or executive producer.

Lasseter currently serves as the head of Disney Animation (which now owns Pixar), and oversees all of the studio’s films, including their most recent, Bolt.

“When I came into this studio, I just loved the heritage of this place,” Lasseter said. “Why I do what I do for a living is because of the films of Walt Disney. When I figured out as a kid that people made cartoons for a living, and that’s all I ever wanted to do.”

“Heritage” is a word that he uses a lot. When you walk around his office and the animators’ area, you get a sense that you are a part of something much, much bigger. You also get that feeling of being a little kid and experiencing the magic of watching cartoons. It’s an atmosphere that Lasseter has worked hard to restore.

“I wanted to celebrate the heritage of this place, because we were kind of creating our own heritage at Pixar,” he said. “It’s great, but coming back here—this is the same studio that Walt Disney started. It’s never closed its doors. It’s the same studio! And that’s what’s amazing.”

For Lasseter, recreating the sense of awe and nostalgia internally, among the studio’s animators, started with the name of the studio itself.

“When I originally came in here, they called this place Disney Feature Animation, and I went, ‘No, no, no, no. This is The Walt Disney Animation Studio.’ That’s how everybody on the outside thinks of it, and that’s what we are. And so we officially changed the name of the division."

Even the interoffice stationary was changed to instill a deeper respect for the work of Walt Disney. Now, on the back of every piece of stationary paper, there is a reprint of an original sketch from Disney’s Animation Research Library.

“It celebrates the heritage,” he says proudly as he hands over a few pieces of the stationary (which look more like pieces of art than a place to jot down memos).Although the idea of nostalgia and heritage transcends just style, seeing the sketches of early Disney characters also reminds animators, directors and writers of something that made the early films so timeless—characters who face adversity, and in their journey to do the right thing, are changed for the better.

Lasster says that is something Bolt still manages to do. “There’s this wonderful growth and change,” he said. “And that’s the thing I always look for and strive for in all of our movies. And I think Bolt is fantastic. It’s character growth, that’s where heart comes from.”

And even though aesthetically Bolt may look different than classic Disney films— the level of CG and 3D effects are groundbreaking—the messages of loyalty, self-sacrifice and friendship recall the timeless values that have made Disney movies classic. Those values are what make John Lasseter’s movies so transcendent. Children and adults alike connect with the funny characters and eye-popping animation, but it’s the moral compass of the films that make them so memorable.

“We want these films to be at the same level of the films Walt Disney made,” Lasseter said. “I mean look, he made Snow White, Pinocchio, Fantasia, Dumbo, Bambi, Peter Pan. Those films, they live forever. They will always live forever.”

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