John Lasseter is the busiest guy at Disney. He’s the co-founder of Pixar, the history-making computer animation studio, chief creative officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios; and the principal creative advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering, and in demand at film festivals and charity events. Always at the forefront of what can be accomplished within animation, Lasseter is excited for Walt Disney Animation Studio’s upcoming release, The Princess and The Frog, which marks the return of the musical fairytale with a Princess at the center. In this interview we cover everything from the movie to his love of Hawaiian print shirts (a man after my own heart).
Q: John, how did The Princess and The Frog come about?
Ed Catmull and I, the day I returned to the Walt Disney Animation Studios, said that we wanted to bring back John Musker and Ron Clements. So, once we brought them back, I empowered them to come up with their own project. I mentioned to them one idea that I had, just a nugget of an idea at Pixar. I love the story of “The Frog Prince,” and I love New Orleans. And I thought that it would be a great place to set a story like that…and that’s all I mentioned to them. We always ask for the directors to come back to us with not just one idea, but three ideas…and they came back with nine ideas. These guys were so prolific, they’re fantastic. And one of them was The Princess and The Frog—they had this wonderful twist on the story, where the main character, Tiana, kisses the frog, but she’s not a real princess, she gets turned into a frog as well. That was their clever twist on it. They wanted it to be a musical, set in New Orleans, and they wanted Randy Newman to write the music which, of course, I loved, because I’ve worked with Randy Newman on all of the movies that I’ve directed. Randy grew up in both New Orleans and Los Angeles. He would go every summer to New Orleans, so he knows the city and its music. It’s like he was born with it. It’s in his DNA, and so I think he was a phenomenal choice for it.
Q: Why the return to fairy tale animation now?
I’ve always loved animation it’s the reason why I do what I do for a living – the films of Walt Disney. This art form is so spectacular and beautiful. And I never quite understood the feeling amongst animation studios that audiences today only wanted to see computer animation. It’s never about the medium that a film is made in, it’s about the story. It’s about how good the movie is. And so one of the first things that I did when I came back to the Walt Disney Animation Studios was to ask John Musker and Ron Clements to come back to the studio and just empowered them to say, “Come up with a movie that you really want to tell.” And The Princess and The Frog was born. In glorious Disney fairy tale animation. It’s just spectacular.
Q: How is The Princess and The Frog a continuation of this incredibly rich legacy that is Disney Animation?
You know, what’s exciting about The Princess and The Frog, is that it’s the return to the sincere fairy tale. It’s a return to the musical, which hasn’t been done in quite a while. You know, it’s so classically Disney in every way, yet it’s brand new, it’s something you’ve never seen before. And that’s what’s so exciting about this. When you sit and watch The Princess and The Frog, I mean, I helped make the movie, but I sit there and I watch it and I think, “I forgot how much I love this!” It’s all those things combined, the animation, the sincere fairy tale, the musical, the great characters, the talking animals, the princess, the prince, all these things combined, it’s so classically Disney yet it’s so completely original.
Q: Tell me a little bit more about the story of The Princess and The Frog
The story of The Princess and The Frog is about a fantastic character named Tiana. She is such a strong character. She’s a waitress, but she wants to own her own restaurant. It was her father’s dream that she’s carried on, and she works double, triple shifts to raise money to buy this old sugar mill that she thought would make a great great restaurant right in New Orleans. And on the verge of getting her restaurant, someone buys it out from under her and her entire dream is just pulled out from under her.
So at this moment, she does what she said she would never do, she wishes on the evening star, which is what her best friend Charlotte always does, because Charlotte only wants to marry a prince—Tiana is more practical—but she finally does wish upon an evening star. And then, she looks down and sees a frog and thinks, “Oh great, a practical joker,” you know. And she’s at a masquerade ball and she’s dressed as a princess. She looks down and she says, “I take it you want a kiss now,” and the frog answers, [IN A FRENCH ACCENT] “Kissing would be nice, yes?”
And it freaks her out because this frog is talking, and she finds out this is a frog that claims he’s actually a prince. So he cons her into kissing her. But instead of the frog turning into a prince, she actually turns into a frog, because she’s not a real princess, it was a costume party. So now here’s a prince, and here’s Tiana as a frog, and they have to travel the Bayou to turn this spell around, they have to find this voodoo fairy godmother named Mama Odie to reverse the spell that Dr. Facilier, the evil voodoo practitioner, has put on the prince, and now, Tiana.
Along the way they meet this fantastic alligator named Louis, who’s a jazz trumpet-playing alligator, and he’s hilarious, he’s fantastic. And they also meet a firefly, a Cajun firefly named Ray. And these two become close friends with Tiana and Prince Naveen. And it turns into this fantastic journey for them to become human again. And along the way, they might fall in love. I don’t want to give away the ending. And I’m not gonna say anymore than that.
Q: Could you talk about the filmmakers?
It was really exciting to get John Musker and Ron Clements to come back to the Studio. I went to College with John Musker, so we’ve known each other for a long, long time. I think they are Disney. When you think about the movies they made, especially THE LITTLE MERMAID and ALADDIN, I mean, those are two of the great Disney animated films. And I think that it was so exciting to get them to come back to the Disney Studios.
In the end, when they came back, we just wanted them back at the Studio, because they belong at the Disney Studios. So when they came back, I said, I want you to do a movie that you really want to do, something from your heart. And so we had talked about a bunch of ideas and there was just a nugget of an idea that I have had up at Pixar, which is to do a retelling of “The Frog Prince” set in New Orleans, and that’s all I had.
And so I just mentioned that to them and they took it and created the most original and fresh twist to the story, and they came up with The Princess and The Frog. And they wanted it set in New Orleans and they wanted it to be a Musical. So it was so exciting. I think John Musker and Ron Clements are just phenomenal in their leadership, their storytelling, their creativity, their knowledge of animation, their knowledge of filmmaking, it’s just fantastic.
Q: Tell us about Tiana –
I’m so proud of Tiana. Tiana is such a strong character. She is the newest Disney Princess, but unlike the other Disney Princesses, she’s not waiting around for a Prince to come. She starts out not even a Princess. She’s a waitress that wants her own restaurant. It’s a dream her father had and she works so hard for this, and what she learns through this adventure is that life is a balance of things, of hard work, but also love. You can’t live without love and she just grows tremendously as a character through this movie. And she’s so beautiful, the way she’s designed and the way she’s drawn. I’m so proud of this character.
Q: And Prince Naveen?
Every fairy tale needs to have a Prince and we have a fantastic Prince. Prince Naveen, from the mythical country of Maldonia, and he is terrific. He’s so fun. He’s sort of this playboy, a rich kid character, but he has been turned into a frog by the evil Dr. Facilier. But through being a frog, he learns a lot from Tiana. He learns a lot about responsibility and he falls truly in love for the first time in his life. And he’s just such a funny character.
Q: Talk about the two sides of magic.
One of the things I love about putting the film in New Orleans is the magic. And we have both sides — the dark and the light — side of magic in New Orleans. And so we have Dr. Facilier, the bad guy and he is, I tell you, he is one of the best Disney villains that’s ever been done. He’s so charismatic, charming. He has a musical number and it just stops the show, it’s so beautifully animated. Then we have the sort of Fairy Godmother, you might say. Mama Odie, and she is just so funny and so charming. And she lives in the deepest, darkest part of the bayou in this shrimp boat that’s stuck up into this tree. And she has her seeing-eye snake, Ju Ju with her. She’s really funny, she steals the show.
Q: And the two characters they meet in the bayou?
After Tiana and Prince Naveen are turned into frogs, they travel the bayou looking for Mama Odie to turn them back into humans. On the way, they meet two characters who are just phenomenal. One is an alligator – that is a jazz playing alligator—he plays a trumpet, his name is Louis. And he is so sweet, so funny, and he wants to be human, too, so he could play jazz with all the big bands. He’s kind of a scaredy cat, but that’s what so charming about him. He’s so funny.
And they also meet a Cajun firefly named Ray, and he’s got so much heart—he’s lovesick, he’s so madly in love with the love of his life. The main characters learn a lot about true love from Ray—he’s really just so funny and so sweet.
Q: You returned in 2006 and now it’s 2009. It took you only three years to make this beautiful film?
Q: Is it a risk to bring back a classic animated movie?
Animation, for me, it’s a wonderful art form. I never understood why the studios wanted to stop making animation, you know? Maybe they felt that the audiences around the world only wanted to watch computer animation. I didn’t understand that, because I don’t think ever in the history of cinema did the medium of a film make that film entertaining or not. What I’ve always felt is, what audiences like to watch are really good movies. And my partner at Pixar, Andrew Stanton, said this—and I thought it was true—that it seemed like 2D animation became the scapegoat for bad storytelling. What I don’t want to watch are bad movies. I believe that if there’s a studio in the world that should be doing the highest quality classic animation, it’s the studio that started it all, the Walt Disney Animation Studios. This is a gorgeous art form. Now, there are subject matters that lend themselves to classic animation, and subject matters that lend themselves to computer animation. And at Pixar, we’ve always prided ourselves on choosing the right subject matter for computer animation at that place and time, because computer animation is constantly growing in what we can do. And that’s why back in 1991, when we started Toy Story, everything that was produced by computer animation looked like plastic, so why not make the main characters plastic, you know, toys? It’s perfect, right? And so it’s that kind of knowledge. Knowledge of what the computer can and can’t do. And the same goes for classic animation. To be honest, look at Snow White, newly out on HD and Blu-Ray DVD. Honestly, look at the dwarfs, like Dopey, at how brilliant those dwarfs are, with the squash and stretch. Even today, that would be really, really hard to do in computer animation. There is some things you can and can’t do. And I think when you watch, for instance, the character Louis in The Princess and The Frog, the way he’s animated, that would be very hard to do in computer animation. Plus, I think the painted backgrounds are absolutely stunningly beautiful. There’s something really special about this medium. I don’t believe audiences have grown past it. I think what audiences love is to be entertained—thoroughly, deeply entertained, and that’s what I’ve always set out to do. And I think there’s something really special about a sincere fairy tale, and something special about a musical, and we haven’t seen that in a while. I think it’s really great, so I’m excited.
Q: How difficult was it to put a crew together?
That’s a good question. When we decided to come back, some of the animators had been retrained and others had left the studio. So we brought back a lot of them that had left the studio. Also, Peter Del Vecho the producer, and his production crew were fantastic. We challenged them, don’t just do it the way that you have always done it at the studio. Ed Catmull is president of Pixar and Disney Animation. He is fantastic for constantly rethinking the way you do everything. He challenges everybody—just because you’ve done it that way before doesn’t mean it’s the best way. You may learn from something. And he always encourages people to try something. If it doesn’t work, you know what, there’s no finger-pointing. Learn from what doesn’t work. And so Peter Del Vecho and his group were fantastic. They rethought every aspect of the production process, and it was really exciting. For instance, there was one thing I had recommended to them that they should try, and that is there is a stage that we have put into our filmmaking process over time. And that is a stage that we call the layout stage. Now Disney’s always done layout, which is after you’ve figured out the story, you have to then decide how that story is going to be staged, and you work out where the animation’s going to go, and that layout is then given to the animators. And what we’ve started doing is taking and cutting a version of the sequence that we’re doing in just the layout form, so we can actually look at the filmmaking, look at the camera work, look at the timing, look at all that stuff—we can sit back, dim the lights in the screening room, hit play and watch just the layout version. And you want to make sure that we direct the audience’s eye exactly where we want them to look at every single scene, and if the cutting works. And in classic animation, they would always lay out the scene, do all the work, and then just hand out the animation, and not look at it cut together until after the animation’s done, and then they would do all sorts of corrections afterwards. That was just the way they always did it. And I said no, why don’t you try this way? And I challenged Rasoul Azadani, the head layout guy, to try this. And so he tried it. And after the first sequence he says, I’m converted, this is fantastic. And so they had far fewer corrections at the end of the production because of this layout stage. And it’s something that we brought over from Pixar, the way that we did it. So as with this kind of thing, we challenged them all the time. But also I learned a tremendous amount. We also believe very strongly in animation dailies, where all the animators get together in the screening room and show everybody’s work, no matter what stage it is up there, and everybody has the opportunity to make comments or suggestions. They didn’t used to do that. It used to be more of a one-on-one thing, but I said that there’s something about building a team, getting all the animators together, and they did that as well, on The Princess and The Frog, and it worked fantastically. So we rethought every aspect of the production process.
Q: How committed is Disney to doing another classic, animated movie? How many are in the pipeline?
Well, we’ve announced Winnie the Pooh, which we’re very excited about. It’s animation done very much like the original Winnie the Pooh and the Honey Tree, and Winnie the Pooh and the Blustery Day. Those are the two that Walt Disney and the Nine Old Men made, and that’s what we’re patterning our Winnie the Pooh after and that’s all we’ve announced so far.
Q: How do you bring the audience back to classic fairy tale animation?
To me, it’s very simple. Hard work, making a great movie. I’ve always believed that. I have this saying. Quality is the best business plan. I believe so strongly in that. I’m the biggest fan of animation. You know, I love the history of animation, I know it well. One of the things we did, we got together, John Musker, Ron Clements, all of the animators, and we got together and we really talked about what style of animation that we wanted to do. And we took a look at the history of Disney animation. And if you know Disney animation, there is a style that I call Walt Disney’s personal style. You might say even it started from Steamboat Willie, the very beginning, and it just kept being developed, and Walt Disney kept pushing his artists to become better artists. And, from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Pinocchio and Fantasia onward, and it was the same kind of style that went through after World War II and into the ‘50s, and I think Lady and the Tramp, if you know that film, it was kind of the pinnacle to me of Walt Disney’s style. There’s a particular caricatured style that is so representative of the artists of the Walt Disney Studio and Walt Disney himself, and it really reached a zenith with Lady and the Tramp. After that, the next movie was Sleeping Beauty, which is stunning, but it was very stylized. Eyvind Earle took the style and took it into a much more stylized look at things, which was very popular in the ‘50s. And after that was 101 Dalmatians, which is fantastic as well, and it brought on this new graphic style in the late ‘50s, early ‘60s. And so they started to become more stylized after that. And so we all narrowed in on Lady and the Tramp as being like something we wanted, because, when you look at it, the characters are very round, right? The animators were at the height of their skill in drawing, being able to make you feel like there was a roundness, a solidity to these characters, even though they were very animated. After that, they became somewhat more stylized. Sleeping Beauty and 101 Dalmatians became much more about stylization, with sharp corners and those kinds of things. So we all looked at and said we that we wanted to emulate this beautiful, round style that really was at its best in Lady and the Tramp, even down to the painted backgrounds. And when you watch it, you don’t think about the stylization or the artistic style. You get swept away in the story, and that, to me, was the goal, that you could look at any frame in The Princess and the Frog and it’s worthy of framing and hanging on your wall, it’s that beautiful, right? But we didn’t want you to stop and think about the art at all. We want you to get swept away in the story. And the beauty of the art work matches so beautifully with the storytelling, the characters, the music and everything. In all of the films that I’ve ever made, both at Pixar and at Disney Animation, honestly, it just that there’s a heart to these films. It’s the way that Walt Disney used to make films, and it’s what I’ve always loved about his films, it’s this warmth, this heart that’s in them. Walt always said for every laugh there should be a tear, and it represents the balance of heart and humor. And the humor always comes from the characters, not just a bunch of funny lines. It’s from the characters, the personality of the characters. So all these things wrap together to make this the particular style that we wanted to get, which is so classically Disney.
Q: You’re taking a leap of faith with this film and I think it’s great.
Well, look who you’re talking to, you know? I took a leap of faith with doing computer animation with Toy Story. And you have to understand it was even worse back then with Toy Story, because everybody thought that computer animation is so cold, it’s sterile, it’s just chrome and flying logos and how is someone going to sit still for a feature-length computer animated film? And to me, it’s exactly what Walt Disney went through with Snow White. You read all the stories and the history, and it was nothing but he is crazy, Disney’s folly, he’s nuts, all that stuff, and it was the number one film of the year in 1938 when it was released. It was the number one film of the year. And as it was with Walt Disney, it’s the same thing with what I’m about—it’s about the story and the characters. It’s never the medium. It’s never the medium that entertains an audience. Let me repeat that. It’s never the medium that entertains an audience. It’s what you do with the medium. Imagine two live-action studios. One makes hit after hit after hit and the other one makes so-so films, right? And the so-so studio looks over at this hit studio and thinks I understand why our films aren’t doing well. We’re using a different camera. That’s it. We’re going to use the same camera as they are and we’re going to make hit after hit. Everyone’s going to love our movies because now we’re using the right camera. Of course, that is ridiculous, right? It’s absolutely ridiculous. You would never in your career, ever ask a live-action filmmaker, you changed cameras, are you sure you want to change? Like it’s was such a leap of faith to change cameras? Of course, it’s ridiculous, because it’s about the story and the characters. But for some reason, with animation, everybody thinks, are you sure you want to do that? It’s about entertaining audiences with great characters and great stories, you want to make people laugh, you want to make people cry, you want to have great music that is memorable. You want a movie that, as soon as it’s over, you want to watch it again, just like that. That’s what it is, whether it’s live-action, animation, hand drawn, computer, special effects, puppet animation, it doesn’t matter. That’s the goal of a filmmaker, and that’s the goal that I’ve always had. It’s simple as that. And I just happen to love animation. That’s what I want to do. It’s all I’ve ever wanted to do ever since I was a little kid, you know? And I’m so happy to be back at Disney so that I can do a film like The Princess and The Frog. This is the only studio in the world that can do a movie like this.
Q: So why couldn’t you have done Ray or Louis with computers?
Eric Goldberg, one of the great animators, he did the character of Louis the alligator. I’ve known Eric for a long time. He did the genie in Aladdin, and he wanted to do Louis. And there is a way that Louis moves, we call squash and stretch, with the bounciness of all his fat and the liveliness of him. And when it’s done in traditional animation, there’s a believability to a character moving around like that. If you were to do it in computer animation, it would be done totally differently, and I think having Eric animate him the way he did it, it’s so perfect. It’s the squash and stretch. It’s the weight. It’s the believability of this large character being able to move around quite like that. And the same way Dopey, you know, there is a flexibility, a squash and stretch bounciness that he’s got that I think is so perfect.
Q: John, I just want to go back to the story. Why do you think we still need fairy tales after stories about bugs and cars and robots have worked very well?
Disney, what’s at the center of every Magic Kingdom that the company has? It’s a castle, right? It’s at the core of what Walt Disney did, even though he didn’t do just fairy tales. He did a lot of other stories. But there’s something so perfect about a sincere fairy tale in animation. I don’t believe audiences have outgrown a sincere fairy tale. I think there’s a lot of heart to this. And we haven’t seen one in a long time. The last fairy tale that Disney Studios has done is 1991’s Beauty and the Beast. And I’ve always felt that you don’t want to do them every single movie, but it’s nice to do one every now and then, because it’s something so perfect for our audiences, perfect for the parks. It’s the princess brand—we don’t do it because of the products and stuff, but because it’s such an important thing for this company. And I love sincere fairy tales. There’s something really special, and it’s the thing I used to love as a kid growing up watching the Disney films.
Q: Which one was your favorite?
Well, of the fairy tales, I think I liked Cinderella, because I loved the mice. I loved the balance of it—the fairy Godmother, when Cinderella gets her gown and the pumpkin gets turned into the coach, and then the music kicks in and they’re heading to the ball. It’s great filmmaking, you know? It’s fantastic, so I really loved that one.
Q: The trend now seems to be stereoscopic, 3D films. What do you think of 3D?
Oh, I love 3D, are you kidding? We’re doing all of our computer animated films at the Disney Studio in 3D. Bolt was in 3D. You know, Disney has done two before I got here. They did two movies, Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons. At Pixar we’re doing all of our films in 3D now, which I love. I’ve always loved 3D. I have a collection of 3D cameras and I took a lot of 3D photography, mostly in the ‘80s, and even in 1988, when I got married to my wife Nancy, we took our wedding pictures in 3D, which was really cool.
Q: So in your research, did you eat a lot of jambalaya and gumbo?
Yes, we did! We sent people down to New Orleans, very much so, John Musker and Ron Clements and a bunch of artists went down, saw all of the sights, took lots of pictures, talked to people. I had been down there a bunch of times. All of the people down there are storytellers. John and Ron had a bayou tour with this fantastic Cajun guide, and he was so funny that it actually inspired the character of Ray. And this is what I always tell my filmmakers—you have to do tons of research, because you don’t know where the inspiration is going come from. The same with the food—it’s so fantastic, and you can tell it found its way into the film. The music as well. The artists got to go to Mardi Gras, and they dressed up in outfits and threw beads from up on a float, and that found its way into the story. We try to make it rich and believable for the movie.
Q: Did you have live frogs for research?
The animators definitely had some frogs and watched how they moved and hopped. And alligators, too, they saw a bunch of gators. Fireflies are pretty hard to judge, so we mostly had to make up Ray.
Q: Could you tell us a little more about the research that you’ve done in New Orleans in terms of music, specifically?
We went down to New Orleans. We listened to a lot of music. We studied jazz and the history of jazz and zydeco. The New Orleans Jazz Fest was a great place, because they had different stages for all the different styles of music. And the problem was we wanted to have it all, because all the music is so appealing, and I think that’s what’s so great about the music from that area, is it’s so unique. It only comes from there and it’s so appealing, jazz and zydeco and Dixieland and gospel, there’s something about it. Randy Newman was so familiar with all those styles. It’s a part of him. And, you know, it’s funny, it has seeped into the scores and the music he’s done for all the movies I’ve worked on. There’s a little bit of jazz that finds its way into Randy’s music. I knew he would be perfect to work with us. And he was fantastic, and I think that the opening song is a real anthem to New Orleans. It’s so special. And getting his friend, Dr. John, to sing the song, it’s one of the great moments in my entire career. We went to New Orleans to record that song, and sitting there with Randy Newman and Dr. John in a New Orleans recording studio with these fantastic New Orleans musicians playing this music, and going out and having a great meal, it was absolutely fantastic. And it was right around the time of the Jazz Fest, too, so we were able to see Randy Newman and Dr. John perform as well, and it was just really a magical time.
Q: Does your very first African-American heroine have anything to do with the Obama administration?
[Laughing] Do you think I have a crystal ball? Seriously, we’ve been working on this film for three years, we didn’t just start making this film last November. It was just absolute coincidence. John Musker and Ron Clements were very, very excited about having an African-American lead in this, and I was, too. We wanted to do it right, so we did our homework. We tried to tell a story with a character that would make everybody proud and happy, so it was very important for us to make this character real and believable for today’s audiences. It was just learning as much as we can. And honestly, this is not unusual. Every single film I’ve ever worked on, we do a tremendous amount of research in exactly the same way. And I view this as research, to make sure that we get the character as believable as we can for what we were trying to achieve. In the same way for Finding Nemo, all the production staff got certified as scuba divers. We worked with marine biologists. We worked with entomologists on A Bug’s Life. I got to go to toy stores during work hours and buy all the toys that I could with a company credit card for Toy Story! That was my favorite research of all. But it’s what we do, we research each one of our films.
Q: Why was having an African-American lead so important to you?
It’s what John Musker and Ron Clements wanted, and I supported them in that. With the type of story that they wanted to tell, they were very interested in doing that.
Q: With this movie set in New Orleans, did any discussion of a reference to Katrina come up?
No, there are no references to it. You know, I love the city of New Orleans. I love it, love it, love it, and my heart went out to them when that horrible disaster happened. And, it’s still very devastated down there, and so we’re proud to set this movie in New Orleans and proud to have the music. Everybody should go back and visit New Orleans. It’s just a spectacular place.
Q: There is a wonderful scene in this movie that takes place in the forest with these fireflies. And it looks like an Hayao Miyazaki movie. As we all know, you are a huge fan of Hayao Miyazaki. Is that possibly a reference or an homage?
No, we didn’t really do homages to Miyazaki, but without question, I’ll be the first to say he has been such an inspiration to me. I hope you’ve seen Hayao Miyazaki’s films, because they’re some of the greatest films ever made, not just animation. But one of the things that I’ve gotten a lot out of Miyazaki’s films is that they’re the very opposite of Hollywood. He celebrates the quiet moments in a film. You don’t see that very often. He celebrates the quiet moments. In each of his films there is a scene where it’s real peaceful, and there’s something going on, too. And it’s so nice, because he’s a master at pacing. And with that quiet moment, he’s setting you up for something coming later, the action. He is one of the best directors of action there is, and the action that either came right before it or right after it, wouldn’t have been nearly as good without that quiet moment. It’s the speed in which the films are going these days, it’s more, more, more, more, faster, faster, faster, people are getting bored, you know? And what I like about Miyazaki is he’s so brave and confident, to sit there, and he knows the audience will stay with him for this quiet moment. And I think UP is a great example of that. I think Pete Docter, he’s a big fan of Miyazaki’s films, too.
Q: You are running three companies now?
Yes, the Pixar Animation Studios, the Walt Disney Animation Studios, and Disney Toon Studios, that does the Tinker Bell movies. So those are the three animation studios that I oversee, and then they call me principle creative advisor to Walt Disney Imagineering.
Q: Is there still time for you to direct a movie, or do you feel a little bit sorry that you now have so much responsibility?
No, right now I’m not directing. I do direct the Cars Toons, the little short cartoons that we’re making of the Cars characters. I do get to direct those, which I’m very happy about. But I’m not directing any feature films right now because I’ve got plenty to do. I do very much. I love what I do. I’m happy as a clam. Are you kidding? Look what I get to do. I get to work with John and Ron and make these films, and Toy Story 3 is coming up, and Cars 2 and look at UP, working with Pete Docter, and Bolt was fantastic. I just love that. And wait until you see Cars Land at Disney’s California Adventure. Summer 2012, baby, you’ve got to come see Cars Land, it’s fantastic.
Q: The Disney brand appeals to the kid in all of us, where Pixar addresses the adult in us. Do you agree?
No, I don’t really think in terms of that. A studio is not its building. A studio is its people, that’s what I believe in. The only thing that we really imported from Pixar to Walt Disney Animation Studios, is that it’s a filmmaker-led studio. A filmmaker-led studio means that the ideas of the films come from the filmmakers themselves—it’s not an executive-led studio, where a bunch of development executives come up with the ideas and assign a director to it. That’s not the way we work. And that’s the only thing we imported. We also believe in peer review, meaning the directors all get together and are very honest with each director about their film, what’s working and not working. And that is the most important thing, is to the honest dialogue where people know that it doesn’t matter whose idea it is, the best idea gets used. There are no mandatory notes at either studio, not even from me. You know, it’s important for the filmmakers to listen and to open themselves up. One of the fundamental differences, besides that it’s a different set of people at both places, is the heritage. Both studios have a very strong heritage that’s also very different. Both studios’ filmmakers are proud of their studio’s heritage. Pixar, it’s a studio where we started from the ground up. It’s based upon computer animation, new technology, always pushing the edge of new technology—the fact that we’re in the San Francisco area, one foot in Silicon Valley, one foot in Hollywood, and Steve Jobs is our CEO, my partner for all these years, we’re really proud of that heritage. The Walt Disney Animation Studios, it’s the studio that Walt Disney started. Walt Disney started this studio and it has never closed its doors. It’s always continued making animated films and every artist at the Walt Disney Studios is so proud of that heritage. One asset within our studio is the Animation Research Library, the archive where we house all of the animation drawings from all the Walt Disney productions, the backgrounds and story sketches and everything, and it’s just unbelievable. But you go there, you can study and try to learn from the masters.
Q: Does it make for different sensibilities? How so?
Yes. The Princess and The Frog, you know? I think there are subtle differences. Both studios are founded upon the same thing, and that is that we love to entertain audiences of all ages. We never, ever think that we’re making something just for kids, just for adults. It truly is for all audiences. We also believe in our audience, that they’re very smart and they will be there for a really great, smart story. For instance, this fairy tale is perfect for the Disney Animation Studios. I’m not sure this movie would be made at Pixar, because the filmmakers up there have a different sensibility. But Toy Story, I’m not sure it would be made at Disney, it’s that kind of thing. There are subtle differences between the two and that’s what is fantastic about both of these studios. But I tell you, they are proud of each other, too, and they actually help each other, with advice, going back and forth. We’ve taken The Princess and The Frog numerous times up to Pixar and shown it to the filmmakers up there to get comments. We’ve taken Toy Story 3 and brought it down to Disney to get their comments, and back and forth. And so I think it’s a really healthy relationship between both studios, with tremendous respect between both of them.
Q: John, you received a Lifetime Achievement Award in Venice.
Yes, it was a great honor.
Q: And you were already wearing incredible Hawaiian shirts. Does it mean you are ready for retirement?
No. I’ve been wearing Hawaiian shirts for a long time. Hawaiian shirts are not just for retired people, let me tell you. The Hawaiian shirt to me is like a toy I can wear. I’m a big kid. I realize I don’t ever have to grow up and I cherish that. And as far as the Lifetime Achievement Award, yeah, it’s like, I’m 52 years old. I’m still young and I’ve still got a lot of films ahead of me. So, I guess I’m going to have a second lifetime, I don’t know. But I’m very, very honored by the Venice Film Festival. It was a tremendous honor. And I’ve got to tell you one of the things that I’m so honored about is that for the very first time in the history of the festival, which is the oldest film festival in the world, they gave it to a filmmaker, me, and a studio, which they’ve never done before, which is Pixar. And we had Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird, Pete Docter and Lee Unkrich, the other directors that work with me there, in Venice to accept the award with me. And I think that is a first in history, and I feel so honored, because the award was given to us and the way that we make films, which I think was really, really special.