A QUESTION AND ANSWER WITH JOHN LASSETER
John Lasseter is chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering, along with being the executive producer of the new film BOLT. He loves what he does and so do other people--he has two Oscar statuettes on his shelf. As one of the co-founders of Pixar Animation Studios, John was on the ground floor of the (once upon a time) new medium of computer-generated animation, and he directed the first full-length film using this technology--Toy Story. He also directed A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 and Cars. Additionally, he executive-produced Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and, most recently, WALL-E.
Q: What was your impression of the idea of BOLT when it first came in?
JOHN LASSETER: When I came in, I liked the initial idea of BOLT very much--a dog who is raised on the set of a TV show, and so his sense of reality is warped. A pet thinking that the world of this show is real, and then getting separated from the show and his owner in the real world and learning what it means to be a real dog--I always thought it was a very special story. So I thought it had tremendous potential.
Q: Is there a favorite character or a favorite scene in the movie?
JOHN LASSETER: I'm a big character guy, I love great characters, and so we really worked hard on these--Bolt, Mittens and Rhino--each one is so wonderfully unique. I think Bolt has really become such a great character, and John Travolta has done an amazing job in the original voice. I know in many other countries it'll be changed. But it's really been inspirational for the character. Bolt believes the movie set he was raised on is real and later finds out that his entire life is fake. It forces him to learn what the real meaning of being a dog is. Mittens, with Susie Essman doing the voice and screenwriter Dan Fogelman, he did such a great job in bringing her character out. I think she's just become a great character. It's such an interesting idea, this streetwise alley cat in New York is the teacher of this dog to become a real dog. It was such a clever twist. And then, of course, Rhino has totally stolen the show, voiced by Mark Walton. Some of you remember Joe Ranft who was my creative partner up at Pixar. And it happened a lot with him, to where he would do the scratch voices, and we couldn't find an actor who could replace him. And so that's the same thing with Mark. They were looking and finally I said no, no one can replace that. You know, so special.
Q: BOLT is far from the fairy tales of Disney.
JOHN LASSETER: Well, it's funny--in the history of Disney, not every film he made was a fairytale. Think about it. Bambi wasn't a fairytale, Dumbo wasn't a fairytale.
Q: What is it about BOLT that makes you think it will entertain audiences?
JOHN LASSETER: The thing that appeals to me about any story, I always look for the potential of growth within the main character. And, to me, that's where the heart of the film is going to come from. That's very important. Humor is something that's like icing on a well-baked cake, in as far as you can add humor throughout the project. But the humor for me always comes from the personality of the characters, not from funny lines. But I think what's important is to go back to this core, this heart--Walt Disney always said for each laugh, there should be a tear. Because I believe that that is something the audience will remember forever, how a movie made them feel, emotionally. A purely funny movie without any heart, it's entertaining, but you quickly forget it. So going back to BOLT, the potential of this film to have this character: a dog who is raised on a movie set, and made to believe that this world is real, and that's his self-worth, and that's all he knows. And then he gets out in the world and realizes his entire life has been fake. And then, he makes the journey of what it means to be a real dog. I thought that had a lot of potential.
Q: When you returned to Disney, you said you wanted to make it a filmmaker-led studio… how does this apply to films such as BOLT?
JOHN LASSETER: Well, we came in not really knowing what we were going to find as far as artists here, because I had not been into the studio for four years. And so we came in, and the thing we soon found, was an amazing level of artistry at this studio. There are some amazing artists here, in all the departments, from story to the art department to animators and backgrounds and technical and so on. And it took a good year or so to get them to trust us and this feeling of turning it into a filmmaker-led studio. They knew that they wanted it; they were all familiar with Pixar, they have a lot of friends between the two studios, so they knew what that was. But to really understand what it could do for them, it took a good year. And BOLT is the very first production that really used that philosophy from the beginning to the end, really, where it's led by the filmmakers. It wasn't led by me as the executive. I worked with them and empowered them. Everyone is here and they've chosen to work here. Everybody loves Disney, like me. The reason why I do what I do is because of the films of Walt Disney, and that's all I've ever wanted to do. BOLT is the first movie that has really been made with all this in mind, and I'm very proud of this film. It's the type of movie that I like to make, which, I think, are classic Disney films.
Q: How involved are you in the day-to-day animation? And with BOLT?
JOHN LASSETER: Four times a year, every two months to every two-and-a-half months, we hold meetings with the whole studio. And everybody asks questions and we give them updates. We're very honest with them on that. But then, on BOLT, I pretty much met with them two days a week--maybe not the full two days, but two days a week, I would be checking with them. Every step of the way, I would be there. First, I'd be meeting with the story department. Then, I'd come in when the story boards were going to reels--I'd go down and sit in editorial and work with the editors. The whole time I'm giving notes, because I feel it's one of my jobs to mentor the directors. I feel like I have two jobs. I'm the chief creative officer, to make sure the movies are the best they can be. But since this is a filmmaker-led studio, I mentor the filmmakers, to help them be good leaders as well, because that's an important part of being a director--to have a creative vision, but also be a great leader of your creative staff.
Q: Have you done any audience testing on BOLT?
JOHN LASSETER: All through my career, my wife Nancy and my five sons have been my best test audience. I take early versions of the movie home and I show it to them, and I just watch them react. And trust me, little kids, especially at home, if the movie is not holding him, they're gone, right. And my wife just talks through movies, asking me all sorts of questions. And I write all this stuff down and listen to them afterwards. I don't know if you have kids, but I always listen to my kids driving home from a movie theater. And if they're chatting and laughing and repeating lines, and talking about that, I know it really hit them. If they're sitting quiet or they're texting or they're off, it's not going to be something they're going to want to see again. And when I showed them an early version of BOLT, the thing that I was noticing is how many of Rhino's lines they kept repeating. Rhino just landed, with those hilarious lines of his, which is great. So I use them, extensively. And then after a certain point, I stop, because I wanted to wait and see - when we're developing the story, I like to show it to them a couple of times. And then I kind of stop, because I want to wait for them, to take them to the world premiere. Because I love them to see it all finished. So they haven't seen this film all finished, but I keep telling them, "Just wait until you see this film!"
Q: How big a challenge was it making BOLT in this new environment?
I think that every movie we have ever made has been our biggest challenge, because if you look at the history of Pixar--and with BOLT--it's really unlike anything we've made before, and that's what I love to do. I love to challenge people and the artists. If everybody keeps doing the same thing again and again and again, pretty soon it becomes a job. And that's not what it's about for me. You want to challenge the artists. You want to keep them on their toes. Pixar is a studio of pioneers. I mean Pixar invented much of computer animation. Talk about Toy Story--that's the first computer-animated feature film. Before that it was just flying logos. That was a challenge as well. But then every single step of the way, we've had the huge challenges. And I think for us down here on BOLT, it was a gigantic challenge, because I think Disney Animation had become a certain thing to the audiences around the world. We wanted to take it back up to this higher level. And so that was a big challenge, to say, "Okay, guys, I'm not going to stop until we're making a great motion picture here."
Q: What do you think makes a great motion picture?
JOHN LASSETER: I believe you need to do three things really well to make a successful movie--especially an animated film. You have to tell a compelling story that keeps people on the edge of their seat. They can't wait to see what happens next. You have to populate that story with appealing characters that are very memorable. And appealing is the key word there, even the bad guys should be appealing. And then you put that story and those characters in a believable world, not realistic, but believable, for the movie and the story that you're telling. Those are very important--those three things work closely together.
I have found that many people think that Cars is a movie about talking cars. Or Finding Nemo, it's a movie about fish--BOLT, about a dog. Okay, so those are the characters and some of the setting. But it's the personalities and stories that need to transcend exactly what they are, whether it's a human, a dog, a car, a fish, whatever. You need to touch people. And I always say that you need to make a connection with the audience--I call it the foundation--with your audience, which is show them something that they're familiar with on one level, but then show it to them in a way that they've never seen before.
My brother was a brilliant designer--he's an interior designer and architect--but when he was going to design school, he had a fashion design class. And while he was doing, he was sewing, making these amazing clothes. And he had this philosophy: that you can take a wild fabric, and you can make a really classic pattern with it. Or you take a classic fabric and then you can do a wild pattern with it. But if you take a wild fabric and a wild pattern, there isn't anything for anybody to relate to. That hit me very deeply, and when I started working with computer animation, it was a wild fabric with a wild pattern. No one could relate to it. Because it was so wacky, so arty and computer-y. And I just took it and I started making classic cartoons with it. And even though it was with this new technology, everybody could relate to it at that point. And so that's what you strive to do, because you want to make them appealing. Like with Cars, I love cars. And I wanted to get all the details right for the people who love and know cars. But then, for the people who don't, it's the characters in the story. And the same with the dogs.
I've gotten it into these BOLT filmmakers that you've got to do tons of research to make sure the details are right. Even down to the RV park where they find Rhino. I said, "Go to an RV lot and look at them, talk to salesmen, take some pictures, and come back." Because those who know RVs will know that they didn't do their research. You've got to make sure everything is accurate. It doesn't take much time, especially with the internet--we use the internet a lot for research. But that's my philosophy.
JOHN LASSETER (Executive Producer of BOLT) is chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and principal creative advisor, Walt Disney Imagineering. He is a two-time Academy Award-winning director and oversees all Pixar and Disney films and associated projects. John directed the groundbreaking and critically acclaimed films Toy Story, A Bug's Life and Toy Story 2. Additionally, he executive-produced Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles and WALL-E. Lasseter returned to the director's chair in 2006 with the release of Disney·Pixar film, Cars.
In 2004, John was honored by the Art Directors Guild with its prestigious "Outstanding Contribution To Cinematic Imagery" Award, and received an honorary degree from the American Film Institute.
Under his supervision, Pixar's animated feature and short films have received a multitude of critical accolades and film industry honors. He received a Special Achievement Oscar® in 1995 for his inspired leadership of the Toy Story team. His work on Toy Story also resulted in an Academy Award®-nomination for Best Original Screenplay, the first time an animated feature had been recognized in that category. Finding Nemo, released spring 2003, became the highest-grossing animated feature of all time, and won the Oscar® for Best Animated Feature Film.
As creative director of Pixar, John enjoyed the critical acclaim and box office success of The Incredibles in 2004. The film was recognized with a record-breaking 16 Annie Award nominations and several "Best of" awards by The Wall Street Journal, American Film Institute, National Board of Review and many others.
He also has written, directed and animated a number of highly renowned short films and television commercials for Pixar, including Luxo Jr. (1986 Academy Award nominee); Red's Dream (1987); Tin Toy (1988 Academy Award winner); and Knickknack (1989), which was produced as a 3D stereoscopic film. Pixar's Tin Toy became the first computer animated film to win an Oscar® when it received the 1988 Academy Award for Best Animated Short Film.
Prior to the formation of Pixar in 1986, John was a member of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm Ltd., where he designed and animated the computer-generated Stained Glass Knight character in the 1985 Steven Spielberg-produced film Young Sherlock Holmes.
John attended the inaugural year of the character animation program at California Institute of the Arts and received his BFA in film there in 1979. While attending California Institute of the Arts, the budding animation filmmaker produced two animated films, both winners of the Student Academy Award for Animation: Lady and the Lamp in 1979 and Nitemare in 1980.
John's very first award came at the age of five, when he won $15.00 from the Model Grocery Market in Whittier, California, for a crayon drawing of the Headless Horseman.
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