For John Lasseter, Pixar’s boyish visionary, ‘Cars 2’ is a gearhead’s dream

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(Brett Butterstein/Disney/Pixar/MCT)
John Lasseter, chief creative officer for Disney/Pixar

EMERYVILLE, Calif. — “Honnnnnk! Honnnnnk!” John
Lasseter had explicit instructions about how the Galloping Goose, an
antique steam train character in “Cars 2,” should look and sound, and he
was delivering them with brio. It was January and the animation czar
was making the hourlong commute from his home in Sonoma County to his
Pixar office here on the outskirts of Oakland in the passenger seat of a
town car. On his lap, he balanced an iPad loaded with shots to review
while he recorded voice memos for the movie’s crew: “Like a diesel horn.
I wanna have air horns on his roof,” he told them, voicing the nasal
sound he wanted. “He is just unbelievably cute, you guys.”

In 2006, the Walt Disney Co. paid $7.4 billion for
the privilege of hearing Lasseter’s voice loud and clear when it bought
Pixar, the computer animation company he helped found. Pixar’s 11
feature films have grossed $6.5 billion worldwide and earned 40 Oscar
nominations, becoming a rare Hollywood model of consistent success
commercially and artistically. With the merger, he was made chief
creative officer of both Disney’s and Pixar’s animation studios and a
key adviser on Disney’s theme parks and its direct-to-DVD animated
films.

Lasseter’s return to the studio 22 years after he’d
left it as a frustrated young artist was regarded by animators as the
best thing to happen in their field since someone gave Walt Disney a
pencil. Since Disney’s death in 1966, no one figure had seemed to
possess the producer’s potent mix of showmanship and innovation that had
helped turn cartoons from a novelty genre into a cultural force.
Lasseter, many hoped, would fill the Walt void.

“Cars 2,” which will arrive in theaters Friday, is
the first movie Lasseter, 54, has directed since he assumed those giant
corporate and symbolic responsibilities. If the ardor of his goose-honk
is any indication, he is jubilant to be back in the director’s chair.

“I was so busy working on all those other things,”
Lasseter said last week from Pixar’s headquarters about two weeks after
wrapping “Cars 2.” “I felt a little like I was losing touch with the
artists who actually create all the films, and that’s something I
cherished.”

Lasseter directed the first all-CG feature film in
history, 1995’s “Toy Story,” as well as 1998’s “A Bug’s Life,” 1999’s
“Toy Story 2” and the original “Cars” movie in 2006. The boyish
executive has changed little, longtime Pixar colleagues say, since
taking on the key leadership role at Disney. He still wears one of his
collection of 358 Hawaiian shirts to work each day, festoons his office
with toys and bearhugs his employees.

He is based at Pixar but flies to Disney’s Burbank
lot several times a month. Thanks to an iPad app designed by a Pixar
staffer, he does much of his work while in transit, on one of a
half-dozen iPads he totes along in his bag, one each for various
departments at the two companies. “Cars 2” producer Denise Ream has
saved all of Lasseter’s messages from the production and played some of
them to illustrate the director’s communication style.

“He loves telling stories, that’s when he’s
happiest,” said Sharon Calahan, who began working at Pixar on the first
“Toy Story” feature film in 1994 and served as director of
photography-lighting on “Cars 2.” “The corporate stuff he’s incredibly
good at, but it’s not fun for him. He’s a big kid, and his playbox is
Pixar. The ‘Cars’ characters in particular are his babies.”

Automobiles are part of Lasseter’s origin story: His
father, Paul, who died in May at age 87, managed a Chevy parts
dealership in Whittier, Calif. As a teenager, Lasseter worked for his
dad as a stock boy and truck driver, hauling auto parts around Southern
California in the waning years of the muscle-car era. Today, Lasseter
collects classic cars — a favorite is his black 1952 Jaguar XK 120 — and
attends auto races at the Infineon Raceway near his home. “I have motor
oil running through my veins,” Lasseter said. “I love the car world in
great part because of my father.”

The first “Cars” movie rode on the small-town
simplicity of Radiator Springs, where country bumpkin tow-truck Mater
(voiced by Larry the Cable Guy) and his anthropomorphized automotive
friends showed swaggering star racecar Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen
Wilson) how to slow down and enjoy the scenery. “Cars 2” picks up the
pace of the original and expands its scope to an international espionage
thriller.

Lightning McQueen is competing in the first ever
World Grand Prix, bringing Mater and Co. along as his pit crew for a
race that will wind through Tokyo, Paris, London and a fictional Italian
coastal city called Porto Corsa. Mater is so Jethro Clampett-like at a
sleek pre-race party in Tokyo — misusing the electronic toilets,
confusing wasabi for ice cream — that British superspy Finn McMissile
(voiced by Michael Caine) and rookie field agent Holley Shiftwell
(voiced by Emily Mortimer) mistake him for an American operative in deep
cover.

The Tokyo party sequence was inspired by an
experience Lasseter had in Italy while researching the “Cars” sequel
with his co-director, Brad Lewis. The filmmakers were following Red
Bull’s Formula 1 racing team, observing their pit crew, noting the
design of their cars, and, one night, attending a glamorous party the
team threw. Lasseter donned his own take on formal wear — a blazer over
one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts — and strode into the event at a
modern art museum in Milan.

“It was unbelievable how beautiful the people were,”
he said. “Models. Everybody dressed in Armani. I just felt totally out
of place. This beautiful museum, the lighting, the music, the glitz, I
felt like a little animation geek.”

The bathroom scene came from Lasseter’s travels with
his wife and five sons. “I love Japan. I love the collision of the
modern and ancient worlds coming together in that place,” Lasseter said.
“It’s so high-tech and cool. But everybody who has been to Tokyo will
have had the experience of sitting on a Japanese toilet for the first
time and being brave enough to push one of those buttons. They’re all in
Japanese and then it’s just like, yeow! We took our five boys and we
squirted water all over that bathroom.”

The Pixar team “car-ified” the film’s international
settings — Paris’ Notre Dame cathedral is adorned with “cargoyles” and
London’s “Big Bentley” is built out of sparkplug towers and hood
ornaments from the British luxury car. An early story called for the
race to travel through eight countries, but the scope was pared to save
time and money. Pixar won’t say what the budget for “Cars 2” was, but
its settings are so rich in detail that the film required three times as
much computer processing power to complete as the company’s previous
film, “Toy Story 3.”

More than $10-billion worth of toys and goods
connected with the first “Cars” have been sold, and with the sequel the
franchise is poised to become the licensing industry’s largest
merchandise program ever. More than 300 new “Cars”-related products are
arriving in stores — everything from die-cast Finn McMissiles to
Mater-shaped cake pans. A lavish, 12-acre Cars Land attraction is
scheduled to open at Disney’s California Adventure park in summer 2012,
and a direct-to-DVD spinoff called “Planes” is due in 2013.

The massive product push has raised questions about
whether Pixar’s creative culture has been co-opted by the commercialism
of its corporate parent. But according to Ed Catmull, president of
Disney and Pixar animation studios, it is Pixar’s biggest kid who is
obsessing over the merchandise.

“John wants to tell a story that has an impact on
culture,” Catmull said. “He’s trying to create a world. When children
want to play with the characters from the world, he takes a lot of pride
in that. For him, this isn’t about the money, ’cause he doesn’t get
that money. It’s about the fact that he’s made this world, and he sees
little kids there, and they’re wearing shoes made like cars. And when
they hold these toys they’re their personal projections. He loves that.”

Lasseter’s Disney roots run deep — he studied in the
first character animation class in 1975 at the Walt Disney-founded
California Institute of the Arts and spent summers working at Disneyland
as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise attraction. Though he landed his
dream job as an animator at the studio straight out of college, it
proved disappointing — Disney animation was in a creative funk in the
late 1970s and early ’80s, and Lasseter’s eagerness was considered a
character flaw by some senior animators.

Lasseter left Disney in 1984 and found a more
comfortable home at a special-effects group Catmull was running for
George Lucas in Northern California. At that company, which would
eventually become Pixar under new owner Steve Jobs, Lasseter directed
short films that were made essentially to demonstrate technology. Two of
them — “Luxo Jr.” in 1986 and “Tiny Toy” in 1988 — were nominated for
Oscars. In 1995 Disney distributed “Toy Story,” Pixar’s first
feature-length film. By the time of the 2006 merger, Pixar’s
computer-driven style of animation was the dominant format in the genre,
and Lasseter, in his new roles at the companies, was the unofficial
guardian of the art form.

Lasseter’s stewardship has worked out well for both
studios — last year Pixar’s “Toy Story 3” became the highest-grossing
animated film of all time, and Disney Animation’s “Tangled” was both a
critical and commercial hit. And at $38 a share, Disney stock is trading
about $13 higher than it was the year the company acquired Pixar.

“No one ever thought he was gonna be a director
again,” producer Ream said of Lasseter. “He’s a big deal. He’s a
pioneer. And people here (at Pixar) are thinking, ‘I can’t believe I’m
showing my shots to John Lasseter.'”

After “Cars 2,” Lasseter said he will be busy
overseeing — but not directing — the forthcoming Pixar films “Brave,” a
Scotland-set adventure tale about a little-girl archer, and “Monsters
University,” a prequel to 2001’s “Monsters Inc.,” plus the Disney
Animation comedy “Wreck-It Ralph” as well as others in development.
He’ll be putting the finishing touches on Cars Land and a Toy Story
amusement park in Hong Kong. “I will direct again, but it’ll take a few
years for me to get going,” he said.

The character of Mater, Lasseter acknowledged, is a
proxy for himself in “Cars 2” — earnest, well intentioned, but sometimes
out of his element.

“‘Cars 2’ is about a character learning to be
himself,” Lasseter said. “There’s times in our lives where people always
say, ‘Well, you’ve gotta act differently. You should always be
yourself.’ That’s the emotional core of the story. Mater is Mater no
matter where he is. Mater is not the one who should be changing. We
should be changing to accept him.”

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(c) 2011, Los Angeles Times.

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