John Lasseter: the best animation visionary since Disney

A key moment in animator John Lasseter's career was being fired by Disney. 20-odd years and 22 Oscars later, the co-founder of Pixar is back at the Magic Kingdom. But now he's in charge.

Many parents will have blessed the name of John Lasseter this week, says The Sunday Times. "The sorcerer-in-chief of Disney and Pixar can be counted on to keep their children spellbound through some of the longueurs of the school half-term." His latest animation triumph, Up, hasn't disappointed. As appealing to adults as to children, it is the tenth in an extraordinary roll of blockbusters for Lasseter, starting with his 1995 debut Toy Story the first ever computer-animated feature film.

Most producers would be fortunate to achieve half that strike-rate, says Variety. "A perfect 10-for-10 winning streak [is] a feat unheard of in Hollywood, where a 1-in-10 hit ratio keeps most companies in business." But the chubby 52-year-old Los Angelino takes it all in his stride. The key to his success, he claims, is "failure".

Unlike more rigidly-run studios, Pixar has always been a hotbed of experimentation a place where "it's safe to fail". You learn from the cock-ups and move on, says Lasseter. It means you "keep pushing, keep experimenting, keep trying". At some point in their development, he has described all his movies including Finding Nemo and Wall-E as "the biggest piece of garbage we've ever worked on". Yet by the time the process is over, they're hailed by critics as the work of a genius.

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Lasseter's key career moment was being fired by Disney in 1983. Having been obsessed with cartoons since childhood ("I've got Disney blood running through my veins"), he thought he'd achieved his life's ambition when he won a scholarship onto the studio's animation course and later secured a job. The reality was "crushing disappointment", says The Sunday Times. Long passed its glory days, the "calcifying" firm's bosses distrusted Lasseter's revolutionary ideas. He was eventually informed that "computer animation was not the future" and sacked.

That opened new doors. Lasseter got a job working for Star Wars creator George Lucas's high-tech film unit. When that was acquired by Apple founder Steve Jobs in 1986, he became a co-founder of the newly named Pixar. Twenty years (and 22 Oscars) later, he had the satisfaction of seeing Pixar acquired by a desperate Disney for $7.4bn. Lasseter was back in the Magic Kingdom, but this time in charge. "Even in his films, endings don't come much happier than that."

"There's a lot going on in Pixar's moral universe; when it gets dark, it's very, very dark," a New York critic once noted. Lasseter's childhood, by contrast, seems to be suffused with a warm glow. Even his birth was apparently somewhat miraculous. His parents a Chevrolet parts manager and an art teacher were expecting a daughter. She arrived on schedule, as did a hidden twin.

These days, Lasseter lives in style in a mansion he built with his wife Nancy in northern California, says The Daily Telegraph. He retains the air of a boy in a sweet shop and has never lost his love of toys. A chief delight is having his own train on the estate, which he insists on driving himself. And the world's most successful film producer just can't sit still. "Come on, there's time for one more train ride. All aboard!"

Lasseter's mantra: "make it great"

Up the story of a grumpy old salesman who floats his house off to South America on a cloud of helium balloons was seen by many as Pixar and Lasseter's riskiest project yet, says The Daily Telegraph. It is the first film he's made in 3D. But it's been received with wild applause. Lasseter is now seen as the creative genius who has ushered in "a new golden age of animation, comparable with that remarkable period in the late Thirties and early Forties when Walt Disney was transforming the movie industry." It's no coincidence that a single studio with a visionary boss has led the way, says the Birmingham Post. Lasseter is the first "proper film-maker to run Disney since Walt himself".

However, notes Variety, Lasseter has derived equal inspiration from the man who gave him his main break: Steve Jobs. It was the Apple founder's idea to create "a community of collaborative film-makers". The only advice Lasseter remembers receiving from Jobs when he pitched the idea for an early film was "John, make it great." That, he says, has remained "the mantra I've been living with ever since".

The current 900-strong Pixar studio is certainly run along the kinds of creative lines typical of Apple, notes The Daily Telegraph. Employees are encouraged "to play video games, have neck massages at their desks and swim in the pool". But not all Jobs' schemes have been adopted. He once suggested having just one toilet at Pixar, so workers would be forced to meet and talk to each other in the queue. Fortunately for them, Lasseter persuaded him against the plan.