Pixar boss vows to tap more new talent, female ‘voice’ | Inquirer Entertainment
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Pixar boss vows to tap more new talent, female ‘voice’

By: - Columnist
/ 10:11 PM June 25, 2011

LOS ANGELES—John Lasseter, the animation genius and chief creative officer at Pixar, promises more female voices and protagonists and directorial opportunities for new, emerging talents.

“In each of our movies, we’ve had very strong female characters,” said John in an interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel. “That’s been very important. I’m proud of ‘Brave’ which will have our first female protagonist in a movie. We’re very excited about that. It won’t be the last, trust me.”

“Brave,” about a courageous Scottish princess, will be released next year.


John, one of Pixar’s co-founders, declared he wants everybody in the award-winning animation studio “to draw from their experiences in their own lives and their own passions to tell these stories. Unfortunately, through each era, you look at animation and it’s a male-dominated industry. But now we’re starting to see a lot of talented female artists coming in. It’s not about gender at Pixar, it’s about talent. We get the most talented people out there.”


Strong female voice

John, who directed “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2,” is again at the helm in “Cars 2.” He brought up what is called the “Nancy Factor.” He recalled that when the first “Cars” movie was in development, his wife [Nancy] cautioned him “because I’m a car guy … I really like getting into the geeky details of all  types of cars. Nancy said, ‘Don’t make this movie for people who like cars. Make it for people who don’t care about cars.’ She was right.”

Kiel Murray was another female voice whom John cited. “Kiel is a brilliant writer who works with us in story development. She works on a lot of projects. I brought her in. She’s not into cars at all but she was really into great characters and a very strong female voice in the room.”

He added: “Brenda Chapman, who developed the beginnings of ‘Brave,’ was a strong female voice in our story room for ‘Cars.’ That’s why Sally became such a strong character in that film. In ‘Cars 2,’ Holley Shiftwell became a great character. So even though our movies have had primarily male protagonists, we’ve had strong female characters like Jessie [in ‘Toy Story’]. Eve in ‘Wall-E’ was a fantastic character.”

Among the key female talents involved in “Cars 2” are Denise Ream (producer), whom we got to meet after our interview with John, and Sharon Calahan (director of photography-lighting).

Shorts program


As for giving other Pixar artists opportunities to direct, John said: “‘Brave’ is being directed by Mark Andrews and Brenda Chapman (Brenda is off this project—a controversial development—but she will still get co-directing credit). We also have ‘Monsters University’ that is being directed by Dan Scanlon. So we have new directors coming up. We’re always looking for new talent within Pixar. We use the shorts program to help develop new talent. Like the great ‘Day & Night’ that was within ‘Toy Story 3.’ Teddy Newton did that.”

With all these projects, John and company almost overlooked Pixar’s milestone this year. Smiling, he remarked: “It’s typical of Pixar that we’re so focused on making movies, what’s in front of us and telling great stories. Someone had to use a calculator and figure out, ‘Wait a minute, this year’s our 25th anniversary!’ No one was aware of it until it was upon us because at Pixar, we rarely take a moment to look back at our accomplishments.”

No looking back

These days, John virtually has no time to look back. He also oversees all films and projects associated with Walt Disney Animation Studios, and is a key adviser on Disney’s theme parks. “It’s like five full-time jobs and then I direct a movie on top of that,” he said. “And I have five kids and an awesome wife.”

Indeed, it’s a wonder that John had time to direct “Cars 2,” in which star race car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) and his buddy, tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) go on adventures around the world, with international espionage thrown in.

The story was inspired by John’s travels where he inevitably ended up imagining country bumpkin Mater in fish-out-of-water situations. “We went to the Italian Grand Prix in Milan,” John said. “The Red Bull Formula One Team was so generous. They really opened doors for us and let us look at every aspect of the Formula One racing world. I knew Nascar (National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing) really well, but I was just learning about Formula One racing. It was really beautiful. They invited us to this big party. I got dressed in my finest which is what you’re looking at—a Hawaiian shirt, jeans and a sports coat.

“We ended up at the Museum of Modern Art in Milan, the home of Armani and all these beautiful people. I walked in and I felt like Mater. This party was so fancy. I felt totally out of place. But I was enjoying it from that standpoint. I took a lot of pictures with my phone and thought, we’ve got to put this in the movie because I felt totally out of place.”

When asked how Pixar manages to hold the attention of both adult and children moviegoers, John recounted a story. “Once, we were watching a movie,” he began. “I’m not going to say what movie it was. My son Jackson was quite young at the time. He is 13 now. I could tell the movie wasn’t holding him. He was sitting next to me and said, ‘Dad, dad, dad.’ I leaned down to him, and asked, ‘What, Jackson?’ He goes, ‘How many letters are in my name?’ I started laughing. I go, ‘Seven.’ He goes, ‘Okay, thanks.’ I thought, this movie lost this poor little boy so long ago. I walked out of the theater thinking, if ever a little boy asks his dad how many letters are in his name while watching one of my movies, I’m going to retire.”

Visual storytelling

John also stressed the importance of telling the story visually. He explained: “Chuck Jones, one of my great mentors, the great Warner Bros. cartoon director, always said that with great animation, you should be able to turn the sound off and still tell what’s going on.”

It’s a given that John loved cartoons when he was a kid. “I realized when I was 13 that people actually made cartoons for a living,” he narrated. “I told my mom that I wanted to be an animator for Disney and she said, ‘Fantastic.’ She was an art teacher and always thought that the arts was a noble profession. I realized how rare I was to have that kind of support because when I got to Cal Arts (California Institute of the Arts, founded by Walt Disney), most of my fellow students said their parents were very reluctant to send them to an arts school. They wanted them to get a ‘real job’ or to get a ‘real education.’ They didn’t believe in it.

“So the first thing I would say to young people is, I would actually turn to their parents and say, ‘If they want to do this, support them.’ I wish the public schools would stop cutting the funding for the arts.”

As if he wasn’t busy enough, John and his family have turned what began as a hobby in their lush Sonoma Valley estate into a business venture. “We were part of an amateur wine-making group for years,” he said. “We started making our own amateur wine, putting our own label on it and giving it as gifts. In 2000, we started making wines professionally so we could sell it. We’ve just built a new winery. We have about 36 acres planted in grapes.”

He said, with a chuckle, “When ‘Up’ was selected to open the Cannes Film Festival, my wife was so excited, not about the film festival, but our going to taste rosé in the Provence region. We came back with 29 bottles of wine in our suitcases. We called it research. Now, we make the most delicious rosé and other wines. It’s really fun. It’s my wife’s ‘movie’ so I’d better keep my day job in order to pay for it.”

With Pixar’s success rate, John is assured of his day job for as long as he wants.

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TAGS: animation, John Lasseter, Pixar

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