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John Lasseter talks about BOLT

Walt Disney Animation Studios latest film, BOLT, is now out on DVD. If you haven’t yet seen it, now is the time to catch this film that has as much heart as any Disney film and is technically amazing as well. BOLT is the first film that Pixar Studios chief John Lasseter and new Creative Executive for Animation at the Walt Disney Company was able to really mold.

Here’s a great interview with Lasseter on how Bolt came about. (Btw, I love his answer about his favorite Disney animated feature):

Question: What is the history of Bolt?

John Lasseter: Bolt was already in existence, but it was by the name of American Dog. We restarted the story and I brought on Chris Williams and Byron Howard, two amazing young talents, to direct it. I was by their side through every step of the production of this and it’s remarkable that the studio rallied around these two directors, great leaders, and they made this film in a record amount of time.

Question: What were the changes between American Dog and Bolt?

John Lasseter: What really is left is the basic concept that a dog has been raised on the set of a TV show and believes it is real. Chris Sanders [director of American Dog and Lilo and Stitch] is a good friend of mine and he’s a brilliant film maker, but he had a vision that was a little more out there than we felt the film should be.

So it was one of those rare times when you have to make a change of director. We’ve had to do it with Toy Story Two, with Ratatouille and now with Bolt. Anyway, I brought in Chris Williamson and Byron Howard and they restarted the film to the story that you now see. It’s completely different.

Question: There is a lot going on within the story of Bolt, isn’t there?

John Lasseter: There are so many layers to this movie. I think people have this expectation that it’s a kind of cute movie with talking animals and then the action stuff surprises them at the beginning and then they kind of get into it. When Rhino shows up his level of humor is something you haven’t seen before. And the scene that I love is when Mittens is teaching Bolt to be a dog. When they come out of it, there’s a certain feeling you have; like a level of emotion and connection that they have.

I think that it’s, the emotion of this film that is really surprising audiences, but it’s something that we strive so much for in all the films. The hardest thing to get is true emotion. I always believe you need to earn that with the audience. You can’t just tell them ok, be sad now. Humor, you can add. Even to the last minute you can be adding little bits of humor. But the true earned emotion is something that you really have to craft and it’s a trial and error with our story reels.

In animation what we do is so expensive to produce that we only have one chance to do every shot. So what we do is really use the storyboard process in creating a version of the movie using the storyboard drawings. We call it the story reel and this we will work and rework and rework and rework many, many times until we get it working just right. I’m the guy who green lights the movies and green lights even the individual sequences to go into production and I will never let a sequence go into production unless it’s working fantastically in story reel because then it gets a thousand times better when you animate it.

But I believe strongly that no amount of good animation will save a bad story. That’s why we’ll devote ourselves to reworking the story until it’s just right. And that’s what we did with Bolt and working many of the sequences 20 or 30 times over until we got it just right before we let it go into production. I was adamant that they were not allowed to put something into production until we knew it was working really great.

Question: It’s the attention to detail in these films that is so important isn’t it?

John Lasseter: I tell all the directors I work with that they have every chance to make a movie right. It takes four years to make one of these films and there are no excuses after the movie’s done. It’s going to be that way forever. Steve Jobs, who’s been my best friend and partner for 20 years at Pixar, always said…no matter how amazing the computers they make at Apple are, the lifespan of that computer is three to five years and then it’s out of date because technology and people are moving on. But if you make these animated films right, they have the potential to last forever…Just try to think of another film from 1938 that is watched as much today as Snow White is or even go to 1995 and Toy Story.

There’s longevity to animation and that’s what I talked to my directors about and that’s why we really sweat every single detail. We have five sons and like every family they get addicted to some movie or cartoon and they watch it again and again and again. My wife said…John please don’t make your movie for the first time someone sees it, make it for the one hundredth time a parent has to suffer through it. So we put a lot of detail into our films, a lot of layers, and a lot of things.

What is so important in all the films we make is the heart….the emotion. And that emotion has to be earned, you can’t tell the audience to feel it. In Bolt there is a scene where Bolt finally makes it back and runs towards Penny and the last thing you expect is that another dog goes to her. When we were developing the story we kept saying that was the key moment in the film – the gut punch that the audience has got to feel. So every single thing from the beginning of the film is leading to that moment. It is all crafted for a reason. This is what happens in the development of our films we find these moments and work backwards from that.

Question: How was animator Mark Walton cast as the English language voice of Rhino?

John Lasseter: Mark Walton is a Disney story artist. When we create a film, often we’re creating the story and the characters even before we know who is going to do the voice. Once we cast an actor like John Travolta doing the voice, and we start working with him, he really adds a tremendous amount and makes the character that much better. Actors really do have a lot to do with how good these characters are. But early on, we’ll be doing the story reel and using scratch voices. These scratch voices are done by people at the studio.

What’s interesting is that animators are actors with pencils or with a keyboard and many of them are very good actors. Chris and Byron were good friends with Mark Walton, who is exactly like Rhino. He is the nerdiest geek on the planet, and he goes to San Diego Comicon every year. He loves comic books, he’s just a classic nerd. So they were using him to do this voice, and it was hilarious. But you always say that’s a scratch voice and then you start looking for actors. Occasionally, you just can’t find anybody that can do as good a job as that scratch voice. And Rhino just steals the show. He’s so funny and Mark Walton was a great actor.

Now the funny story is that Mark is quite emotional so they wanted to have fun telling him he got the part. So Chris and Byron brought him into the recording studio at Disney to do more lines. And so written in this little dialogue that he was doing was the line that said that he got the part of Rhino, and there was a pause, and then he just started screaming, because he realized what it meant. And so it was very exciting.

Question: Is there anything now at this point in animation that you just can’t do?

John Lasseter: Humans are still really hard. I always say that the closer you get to reality, the harder it is to make it look convincing to the audience. That’s why we tend to make things that are a little bit more caricature. I think that it’s getting to the point with technology, that the limitation’s really in the mind of the film makers, in what they can do, and it’s kind of exciting that way

Question: What’s your favorite Disney movie?

John Lasseter: My favorite Disney movie? That’s a very easy Question. I think the best movie ever made was Dumbo. Dumbo’s my favorite movie. Dumbo is like a perfect movie. It’s just over 60 minutes long, as a story, it’s really tight, and it’s incredibly emotional, especially for parents. There’s a scene where Timothy the Mouse takes Dumbo to see his mother, and there’s a song called Baby Mine going over it, and the Mother is considered a mad elephant and she’s locked away. And they can’t see each other, all they can do is touch trunks, and it’s so emotional. I also like it because Dumbo’s the most cartoony of all the Disney films.

Also it’s pretty remarkable because the main character doesn’t talk. There’s a lot of attention paid to WALL-E for the first 20 minutes being without dialogue but Dumbo never spoke one word through the whole film. When he needed dialogue, that’s when Timothy the Mouse came into the movie, which was part way through the film. I think my number two favorite is probably Bambi. Bambi is an amazing film and when you watch it today, it’s just as beautiful. It’s timeless. It’s just as beautiful today as it was back then.

Question: Which is your favorite you made, and why?

John Lasseter: I have five sons, and it’s like you ask me which is the favorite son of mine. But I’ve got to say that I’m very fond of Toy Story 2. I love Toy Story, Buzz and Woody as well. Toy Story 2 though we’re very proud of because it’s a sequel that’s as good or better than the original.

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