As chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, John Lasseter oversees two of the most powerful entertainment brands on earth, and does so while striving to maintain a “non-hierarchical” creative structure. He’s mad about studio notes, requiring all Pixar filmmakers to screen works-in-progress internally every 12 weeks, and maintaining a comprehensive company app (dubbed “Notesar”) that automatically collects and collates volumes of suggestions — yet he insists that all notes, even his own, be considered non-mandatory.
“Artists always want to hold things close to their chests, by nature, and say ‘look, just give me a little more time, I can make it that much better,’ ” Lasseter acknowledges. “But the director who brings the movie in (to an internal screening) knows that everyone is there to help make it the best movie it can be. And there’s no desire to make things fit perfectly into any kind of Pixar model or Walt Disney Animation Studios model, you know? It’s more of taking each idea, and each idea is so unique, and making it the best idea for what it is, and celebrating that uniqueness.”
Lasseter’s aversion to hierarchies and zeal for open feedback can likely be traced back to his pre-Pixar days, when he was abruptly fired as a Disney animator in 1983 after his test film of a novel new technique — computer animation — offended the studio’s calcifying power base. Beginning to build Pixar with Ed Catmull shortly thereafter, Lasseter endeavored to develop a sort of safe space for filmmakers to experiment and take risks, and helped groom helmers like Andrew Stanton, Pete Docter, Brad Bird and Lee Unkrich for leadership positions in the studio’s creative brain trust.
Pixar president Catmull notes of Lasseter, “I don’t know of another time in motion picture history when a director has trained as many directors as he has.”
Of course, this willingness to risk failure is not just theoretical, as Disney discovered shortly after acquiring Pixar, when Lasseter & Co. insisted on scrapping “Toy Story 2” nine months before release and starting over. “Brave” and “Ratatouille” both saw director changes midway through. “When you release the movie, your name is going to be on it, and it’s going to be out there forever — in this state. You have every chance to make it great, so we’re going to take every chance to do that.”
That impulse perhaps applies doubly to the recently announced “Toy Story 4,” which Lasseter will direct. Lasseter’s protectiveness of the property meant that even studio presidents Catmull and Jim Morris were unaware that Pixar creatives were even discussing a third sequel until Stanton had written a polished treatment, and it’s easy to see why. As one of a tiny handful of franchises to make it through three installments without so much as a dip in quality (the three films have Rotten Tomatoes averages of 100%, 100% and 99%, respectively), the news that Pixar was returning to the characters generated a mixture of celebration and fear — fear that one more trip to the well might prove one too many.
“We have that fear too, good God!” Lasseter exclaims. “With ‘Toy Story’ one, two and three, even we look at those sometimes and go, why do we even want to attempt to do another one?”
That question gets right to the heart of a recurring criticism leveled at Pixar in recent years. Of the first 10 Pixar features, only one was a sequel. But three of their last four have been. And in addition to original upcoming projects “Inside Out” and “The Good Dinosaur,” Pixar’s slate includes not just “Toy Story 4” but also sequels “Finding Dory,” “Cars 3” and “The Incredibles 2.” Lasseter dismisses any suggestion that the studio is beginning to rest on its laurels.
“We do not do any sequel because we want to print money,” Lasseter says. “We do it because each of these films was created by a group of filmmakers, and to my mind, they are the owners of that intellectual property.
“So we look at it with the simple question: Is there another story we can tell in this world? And that desire has to come from the filmmaker group. Sometimes, the answer is an obvious yes. And sometimes it’s, ‘I love the characters and I love the world, but I don’t have an idea yet.’ And sometimes it’s just, ‘that movie is a great movie,’ and the filmmaker wants to move on and do something else. And that’s fine, too.”