Variety's Creative Leadership Award: John Lasseter

Visit Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., and you’ll see employees riding scooters. But on any given day, those scooter riders could just as easily be visitors — like the guys commissioned by Disney marketers to make “Upular,” the YouTube sensation of remixed images from “Up.”

“Pixar flew us out to their studio because they wanted us to get a feel for their atmosphere,” recalls Bryant Randall, partner of “Upular” VJ Nick “Pogo” Bertke. “It all happened because John Lasseter went to bat for us.”

Lasseter and Pixar co-founder Ed Catmull have been inviting all kinds of talent to their studio since its inception 25 years ago. Along with countless unknowns, Quentin Tarantino, Kathryn Bigelow and Stan Lee have taken to Pixar’s stage to show their work and answer questions. Employees have heard Lily Tomlin answering questions in the hilarious voices of her characters and watched “Sesame Street” puppeteer Kevin Clash in action.

“We have a couple of speakers every week,” says Elyse Klaidman, who oversees guest programming for Pixar, where she’s worked for 15 years. “John and Ed have always instilled a desire to be inspired, to have open minds and to continuously learn and grow. If our people see a film and hear a speaker together, they talk about it — and talk leads to more ideas.”

Animators of all stripes have been popular guests, because as Klaidman notes, “We’re not only interested in CG.” The guest list has included Japanese hand-drawn animation legend Hayao Miyazaki, Aardman stop-motion master Nick Park and indie one-man-show Bill Plympton, whose irreverent adult films like “I Married a Strange Person” couldn’t be more different than Pixar’s.

Plympton, a two-time Oscar nominee who visits yearly, loves the responses he gets from Pixar audiences. “They’re mystified that one person can make an animated feature and do all the drawings themselves,” he remarks. “They also want to know how I’m able to make money doing low-budget shorts. I think they’re really independent filmmakers at heart.”

Irish director Tomm Moore had a similar reaction when he and producer Paul Young presented an early screening of their Oscar-nominated hand-drawn feature “The Secret of Kells.” The pair garnered laughs and sympathy when they described the cobbled-together ‘Franken-funding’ that was needed to make the relatively low-budget “Kells,” but Moore sensed the Pixar team was intrigued by what he calls “the auteur culture in Europe.”

“I was shocked,” he admits. “So many people I met at Pixar thought I was living the dream, and I thought they were living the dream!”

Moore is convinced that the Pixar screening of “Kells” started the buzz that led to the film’s U.S. release and subsequent Oscar nod. But his fondest memory was climbing into a secret room alongside animator Adam Burke’s office, which is decked out like a ’50s-era lounge.

“We had a few drinks,” Moore recalls, “and they asked us to sign the wall that famous animators had already signed. It was like being welcomed into a secret club!”

Variety’s Creative Leadership Award: John Lasseter
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