John Lasseter king of Toon town

By Russell Baillie

The coffee table in the Melbourne hotel suite is covered with cars. Cars cars - little plastic miniatures of the dozen or so talking vehicles from the seventh 3D computer animated feature by Pixar. It's the fourth to be directed by company frontman and executive vice president John Lasseter whose 1995 first feature Toy Story changed cartoon movies forever.

Before Lasseter sits down to talk about Cars, 20 years of Pixar and his path from lowly Disney animator to someone now exerting a creative and managerial influence on the House of Mouse, it's tempting to swipe one of the tiny models as a souvenir.

But then the thought occurs - maybe this isn't just cute decoration to remind visiting media what we're really here to talk about. That maybe it's Lasseter's conceptual homework for the inevitable Cars 2.

And that should you pocket one, in four years' time - the usual time for a Pixar production - thousands of kids are going to be wondering whatever happened to their favourite purple coupe from the first flick?

Sitting down to talk, the cartoon character Lasseter most resembles would be the ordinary American dad from Family Guy or King of the Hill. He's wearing a high-volume Hawaiian shirt decorated with those Cars cars. He chuckles when TimeOut 'fesses up to the temptation. No he hasn't really thought about a sequel yet.

He's got Toy Story 3 on the go and he's had enough to do getting Cars and its many non-English language dubs ready for this week's international release date.

Then there's been the US$7.4 billion ($11.6 billion) Pixar Disney buy-out/merger which some might see as the bigger but older and moribund company swallowing up the brighter, smarter competition.

But Lasseter says Pixar will stay Pixar.

"The deal struck between the two studios was based on the notion that Pixar will stay Pixar exactly the way it is, and that it's protected. It won't get swallowed up by Disney. We are going to continue doing things exactly the way we have always done them."

Lasseter has a new role as chief creative officer for animation at both companies and a creative adviser for Walt Disney Imagineering - the company which designs the theme parks.

Well, this Walt of the wired age already knows something about rollercoaster rides. Though Pixar's has been a uphill acceleration of box office bonanzas and Oscars all the way since Toy Story in 1995 was followed by A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

It's the 20th anniversary of Pixar this year which dates from the 1986 release of its first short Luxo Jr - about the Anglepoise lamp which has since become the company's trademark. That was also the year of the purchase by Apple's Steve Jobs (now Pixar CEO and chairman) from George Lucas of the fledgling computer animation division where animator Lasseter and computer graphics guru Dr Ed Catmull (now Pixar President) first started their pioneering work.

Lasseter smiles at his memories of his time at the Lucas empire in the 80s having earlier worked as a traditional animator at Disney who he felt were slow to embrace the first wave of computer animation.

"We were the tiny little animation group in the corner - in the hallway actually - doing short films and animation research."

Looking back, it may have seemed that Pixar had a masterplan to conquer the cartoon world and render old hand-drawn 2D animation obsolete. Some competing studios shut down their animation divisions after a series of stiffs blamed on audiences only wanting the new-fangled 3D 'toons.

But, as is understandable for somone who trained as a student under the original Disney animators, Lasseter is touchy about the Pixar effect on the old ways.

"It's not something we could have predicted. But the decision of studios to get out of hand-drawn animation because they claim audiences don't want to watch [it] any more is ludicrous. Andrew Stanton, the guy who made Finding Nemo coined a phrase '2D became the scapegoat for bad storytelling'."

The San Francisco-based Pixar did however come up with its own masterplan during A Bug's Life (1998). It was clear each film needed a four-year production cycle, even with the movies being done on self-developed cutting-edge software and huge computers by up to 200 artists.

So it was going to be necessary that more than one project with more than one director was on the go at any one time to make it a viable business.

"It was 'Okay Pixar needs to be more than a studio where John Lasseter directs movies. It needs to be able to do more than produce a movie every three or four years.' You have to line things up like planes on a runway.

"We have never ever said let's try to figure out a way to make movies faster - the bulk of that time is really figuring the story out and we recognise that. And I think the success of Pixar is because of that."

It's a line that Lasseter comes back to repeatedly - yes they are the pioneers of using computers to make cartoons come to 3D life. But the computer is just a big fancy pencil really and without good stories and characters, Pixar films wouldn't be what they are.

"We are using brand new tools and we've invented [most of them], and we're pushing or developing these tools with every movie.

"But what we do with these new tools is age-old storytelling. It's age-old film-making. It's using classic film grammar that was developed by D.W. Griffith, using the animation principles that were developed by the great Disney animators over 50 years ago. It's using these things to tell stories to move people."

Yeah, but it sure can look way cool too. Just see the chrome and metal flake paint jobs on the Cars cast.

And for Lasseter, this time it's personal in a couple of different ways. Cars' cross-country journey - complete with rich desert vistas - was sparked in part by a trans-American campervan trip he took with his wife and four boys (he now has five) a few years back. Lasseter's wife had warned him his workload was in danger of making him miss out on his sons' childhoods.

Also, while his art teacher mother encouraged his early enthusiasm for drawing and animation, his dad ran the parts department at a Chevrolet dealership. Lasseter worked there on weekends during the era of the American muscle car. He has a collection of 10 classic and rare cars himself.

"The initial idea of Cars was, let's do cars being alive. The second thing was, let's create a world where there are no humans, but other than that we didn't know anything else."

Lasseter and his Pixar team watched a pile of documentaries and found inspiration in the world of racing and in the 1950s development of the US interstate system which killed many of the old highway towns - much of Cars takes place in one called Radiator Springs. The interstates also, says Lasseter, caused the "true homogenisation of America" with the parallel advent of things such as the chain restaurant.

In the film the brash young racing car Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) gets stuck in Route 66 hamlet Radiator Springs and picks up a few life - and driving - lessons from the locals which includes the local "Doc" (voiced by acting and motorsport legend Paul Newman).

Lasseter sees no irony that a Pixar film could be saying there might be more soul in the old slow ways. "It's not saying the new way is bad and the old way is good. It's basically talking about a life in balance."

The only time that Lasseter's underlying uber-geek emerges is when it comes to talking about Newman's participation as a Hudson Hornet. Like cool or what?

"Very cool. I was so surprised he said yes.Because it is Paul Newman."

Lasseter says the fast-driving veteran actor didn't just come in and do his lines - he helped tweak the script's racespeak - which Lasseter had been keen to get as right as possible - to make it more exact.

"Even though this is a cartoon and the cars are alive I wanted this to be accurate. So Paul was very helpful that way and his voice was wonderful. He just loved being a Hudson Hornet because it's such a special car in the history of racing and the history of cars."

And for Lasseter, who turns 50 next year, after toys and bugs he has effectively put off growing up for another movie.

"I joke that I never had to grow up but part of me thinks I hope I never have to because I just love this stuff. And I've learned to trust my childish instincts that way."

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