Interview: John Lasseter

As a child, he wanted to work for Disney.

Now he runs the place. And Pixar, too...

In a world exclusive interview, John Lasseter spoke to Total Film about George Lucas, Up , Toy Story 3 and how he's risen from a boy obsessed with silent movies to become the most powerful man in animation...

Pretty much as soon as you took over at Disney, you changed the name of the studio.
Yes, from ‘Disney Feature Animation’ back to ‘Walt Disney Animation Studios’, as it was when Walt made his films. Even the Mickey Mouse on the letterhead is from the original studio’s letterhead.

Is that to remind everyone of the heritage of the studio?

It’s the heritage but also it’s saying we’ve gotta make movies that are at this level. You know Walt Disney’s name is not only on the studio, but on every film up there and I take great responsibility in that.

Have you made a lot of changes at the studio already?
I just wanted to make this place a filmmaker-led studio. It was an executive-led studio, with movie ideas based upon marketing and, you know, toys, and all sorts of stuff.

Directors were worrying about how to address the notes from executives rather than thinking about the audience. We’ve got rid of all that now.

Arguably the first signs of change came with Bolt , which seemed to indicate some smarter decisions with character and plot.
Well, that is the beauty of our methodology. We do the storyboards and then the story reels [rough drawings synced up with a guide soundtrack] and we can work and rework, and rework the movie.

I’ll never let anything go into production that isn’t already working well in the story reel. Because no amount of great animation will save a bad story.

But presumably you can’t rework indefinitely. There are production schedules, budgets, release dates to take into account…
Yeah, but then you say, ‘What do you want it to be? On time and on budget and bad? Is that what you really want?’

It’s got to be about making the movie great, at all costs. That’s what we’ve always done at Pixar and that’s what we did here.

Next: The Early Years [page-break]

Both Disney and Pixar films tend to avoid the arch cynicism of a lot of other modern animation. Is that deliberate?
I’m just not that kind of filmmaker. I think Family Guy and The Simpsons are brilliant. I love South Park. But when you go down the cynical path, it’s hard to get the audience to really feel for the characters. And the heart, and the humour in our films comes from the characters. Which is how, I think, you make more timeless movies.

There’s a big difference between the great Chuck Jones cartoon films with Daffy Duck and Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner, the Coyote and all those and then the ones we call blackout cartoons, the World War II cartoons which are just full of gags. You watch those now and they are just so gag-based for that time that they’re totally dated.

You don’t get that any more. So, there’s a place for topical humour, but it's short-lived. Now look at Snow White, Bambi, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, Dumbo - which is my favourite. You watch them again and they are still great. We want to make films that last forever.

Around the same time, I saw The Sword In the Stone and was just blown away because all this animation stuff was in my head. My mum picked me up from the movie theatre and I said, ”I wanna work for Walt Disney Studios.”

You wrote to them didn’t you?
All through high school. They sent me a pamphlet; they invited me around for a tour. Then, as a senior, I got a letter saying that they were going to be starting a programme at CalArts [The Californian Institute of the Arts] to teach character animation, and it would taught by these great Disney artists.

I was the second person accepted to the programme. After I graduated, I was invited to the Disney Studios to work that summer.

Next: Tim Burton, Star Wars, First Job At Disney... [page-break]

Many of your colleagues at CalArts also went into the film industry.
Yeah, Tim Burton was in my class, John Musker who's done a lot of the animated features at Disney, Chris Buck who directed Tarzan, Brad Bird… we actually learned as much from each other as we even did from the teachers.

There was this amazing camaraderie, it’s really part of the core for the way we work at Pixar as well.

Was Tim Burton already a bit Goth?
Yeah, yeah he was. [Smiles] He came from Burbank and commuted to CalArts, so he didn’t have to stay in the dorm like the rest of us but we’d still get together at weekends. He was great. He would stay up all night and watch these horror films…

But the thing I remember most about Tim is his sketchbooks. He’d go to this mall, Glendale Galleria, on the weekends and just sit and sketch people. Even back then, he had such a unique drawing style, a unique vision. But also, he was so funny, and a great mimic/actor as well. I think that’s why he works so well with Johnny Depp.

Didn’t Tim work at Disney at the same time as you?
Yeah. Tim was working on Vincent . Have you seen it? It’s kind of his autobiography, about a kid who wants to be like Vincent Price. Then he developed The Nightmare Before Christmas .

I was doing some things for Where The Wild Things Are and developing Brave Little Toaster – a feature film to do with computer animation techniques, so it was a very interesting time. But of course, both of us, you know, basically ended up being fired from the studio…

I looked around and saw such a great cross-section of kids and adults and teenagers, college students... And I remember thinking: ‘Animation can do this.’

Did you not feel animation was doing that anymore?
Well, this is my own little take on things... Walt Disney made films for himself. The kind of film he liked to watch was for kids as well as adults. You know, Snow White was a number one film at the box office for weeks.

And when Chuck Jones was at Warner Bros, the Warner Cartoons were released in front of live-action films. Again, they basically made the films for themselves and they were really funny and witty.

It wasn’t until television came along that animation started to be shown on Saturday morning or after school and became aimed mainly at kids. The entire mindset changed.

After the retirement of the old animators, the people left in charge were there through attrition rather than talent. And their attitude was that animation was for kids.

That must have been discouraging to the new wave of animators.

A lot of my friends, after Star Wars , abandoned animation and went into special FX, live action special FX. Because they were so blown away by Stars Wars . It inspired an entire generation of Hollywood filmmakers.

It inspired me too, but I had already chosen animation, and I believed that animation could be entertaining on that level. That it could be that big.

Next: Disappointment At Disney, Tron... [page-break]

You mentioned that your first experience of working at Disney was less inspiring. ..
When I got there I found it was led by people who felt threatened by young talent. I kept suggesting stuff but I remember being told by one of them, ‘Look we don’t want to hear your ideas, just do what you’re told. There are plenty of guys who’d be happy to take your place.’

In two sentences some guy made me not care about the studio; he made me not care about the project I was working on. And I thought to myself, ‘One day if ever I’m in charge I’m never going to say to a young person what that guy just said to me’. But it didn’t stop me, I just kept trying to push and make things better.

I was blown away; not so much by what I was seeing but the potential I saw in it. I wanted to apply it to traditional animation but the head of the animation department said, ‘No we can’t do that’.

So you went around him?

Yeah I went around him to a young executive who saw the potential of it and he let us do this test. There was a development thing going on with Maurice Sendak [author of Where The Wild Things Are]. And so we did the boy character from Where The Wild Things Are.

We just did a little piece where he chases his dog down the stairs. We worked with MAGI [early innovators of computer-generated animation who worked on Tron ] and I became good friends with a guy there, Chris Wedge.

The guy who directed Ice Age?

Yeah, he was kind of the creative leader at Blue Sky Studios in New York, and he’s remained one of my best friends all those years, in fact he introduced me to Nancy [Lasseter’s wife of 20 years].

Anyway, we produced this 30-second test and it was so ahead of its time! So then I wanted to have a story ready so we could show the test and say, 'Here, let’s make a feature like this, with this story’.

And he walked out. Within five minutes I get a call: ‘Your project is incomplete and your employment with the Disney Animation Studios is now terminated.’

You must have been devastated.
Oh yeah. I was so depressed, I couldn’t even tell anyone what had happened to me. I was just… it was terrible.

Next: George Lucas, Tron 2 [page-break]

So how did you end up at Lucasfilm?
I went to a computer graphics conference in Long Beach where Ed Catmull was one of the speakers. He asked me how Brave Little Toaster was going and I said it was shelved.

Then Ed asked if I wanted to "do a little freelance" at Lucasfilm – although he couldn’t be seen to be hiring an animator as that wasn’t really what they did.

So he called me an ‘Interface Designer’. Nobody knew what that was but they didn’t question it in budget meetings!

But George Lucas was more interested in developing new software that could be used for his films rather than computer animation per se?
Well, I really like George and I think he is one of the great visionaries of film. You have to understand: he was spending his own money. He felt that film-making technology hadn’t changed that much at all since DW Griffith made Birth Of A Nation in 1915. He was developing non-linear film editing, digital sound editing, digital optical printing...

This was what had drawn Ed there, and then Ed brought with him animation, developing computer animation, because that’s what Ed was really into and always wanted to do. He couldn’t draw but he was very good at math so he ended up in computer science and found himself at the very beginning of the era where computers made movies.

S o yo u wer e like a little ban d of revolutionaries.
Well, we were a very small group, led by Ed with a visionary - George Lucas - funding it. It was remarkable. I’m the very first traditionally trained animator in the world who worked with computer animation. And I just blossomed!

After my experience at the Disney Studio of just being squelched, Ed had gathered together the world's greatest young minds in computer animation. I asked him, ‘How did you get all these amazing people?’ And he said, ‘Oh, it’s easy, I just try to hire people who are smarter than myself.’

Good answer…
Yeah, I was laughing when he said it but I kept thinking about it.

Having seen the original Tron being developed, it must be interesting to see the new version coming together.

Yeah. I think Tron the movie wasn’t as captivating as the promise of it. But, given how far computers and computer games have gone, the possibilities are really, really awesome.

If they could marry it to an engaging story...
Yeah, well that’s always the goal of great movies, no matter what you're doing.

Next: The Adventures Of Andre And Wally B, The Science Of Animation... [page-break]

Given the impact Star Wars had on you, how was working for George Lucas?
Well George came by occasionally, to see what was going on, but I never talked much with him directly.

When I first got up there, they had just finished the first Indiana Jones film and I went to a few parties for that which was really fun. It was magical being there: they hired great people and let them do what they were good at.

Was there a different vibe, being based in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles?
Very different. San Francisco was not an industry town; in LA, being an animator at that time was about the lowest rung of the ladder. The girls were not impressed! We were just a bunch of geeks.

But in San Francisco, at Lucasfilm, we were unusual. More importantly, my creativity was just exploding because of working with this new technology.

But you were a lone animator in a world of programmers.

Yeah, the computer animation world at that time was primarily in university research labs. It was mostly TV commercials and mostly quite awful.

Everything was made of stone and glass and very reflective and all that, because most of the stuff being done was by people who’d created the software. I thought to myself, ‘You know what? I can make an object move around and give it personality and emotion through pure movement.’

I thought our powers were complementary, that I wasn’t gonna learn what they can do. I’d just sit next to them and co-operate! That became, I think, the single things that set Lucasfilm and Pixar apart: the idea of making tools for filmmakers to use.

Because there’s no software solution for entertainment; it comes from people, from the artists who uses it. So from the very, very beginning I really viewed the computer as just a tool for artists to use.

I remember one guy, who worked with a computer graphics company, coming up to me after a screening to ask what software I used to get the humour in!

It really brought home to me how much it was seen as science at the time. No one realised that there were these animation principles that had been developed for like 50 years and I became something of an evangelist, speaking at animation festivals and at computer animation conferences on how computers are just tools you can use to entertain an audience.

Next: The Birth Of Pixar... [page-break]

When did Pixar come about?
Well, George Lucas didn’t really want to have a computer company – which was what this was turning into – within his filmmaking studio. Because it takes a lot of financial investment.

Steve Jobs had just left Apple computers, so he purchased our group and we called it Pixar. Pixar was the name that he had come up with for our first computer: ‘Pixar Image Computer’, and Pixar is sort of a combination of the words 'pixel' and 'art'.

But didn’t Jobs buy the company more for the technology than the animation?
He loved the potential of the animation, and the people, but initially I think yes it was pure software and computer hardware that he was interested in. Pixar had two lives: for the first 10 years it was more of a technology company.

Although you were actually involved with a feature film that first year: Young Sherlock Holmes .
Yes, the Barry Levinson film [exec-produced by Steven Spielberg]. We worked with ILM on the knight coming out of the stained glass window.

It was only six shots but we worked on it for about nine months. It was the very first FX where the computer was used to make something that was meant to be real.

It was a lot of long nights and all-nighters but the sequence was so successful, it really started the explosion of using computers in the FX world. The film itself was okay but I realised I didn’t want to stay with ILM, I wanted to be a storyteller with Pixar.

Which led to Luxo Jr. which had a huge impact.
Absolutely. It got a standing ovation at SIGGRAPH [influential computer graphics convention) but the thing that was pivotal is that straight afterwards this pioneer in computer science came up to me and said, 'Can I ask you a question?’

I thought he was gonna ask me about the software or the soft shadowing algorithm or something like that. But he goes, ‘Was the big lamp the mother or the father?’

At that moment I realised that we’d achieved something, for the very first time in computer animation history, the story and the characters were the thing that was entertaining the audience.

You were still a few years away from being able to do a feature film, though.
Yeah, we didn’t have the technology yet. It wasn’t until 1988 that RenderMan [software interface that describes three-dimensional scenes and turns them into photorealistic digital images] got used for the first time.

It’s pretty amazing to think it’s 20 years old and we’re still using it. It’s become the standard for the industry – although just now we have a long research project that we’ve developed called E-System that’ll be online for future films. It’s taken years to develop but it’s really amazing.

Next: 3D, Knick Knack, Toy Story... [page-break]

You also experimented with 3D early on.
Yeah we did Knick Knack in '89. I’ve always loved 3D. Now it’s like one of those things that come full circle. There’s a lot of 3D theatres, a lot of 3D films in development. But it’s something we’ve been experimenting with for years. In fact, my wife and I... our wedding pictures are in 3D.

And every time I completed one of my short films, I would get a call from the folks down at Disney wanting to hire me back. And I was making so little money but I was having so much fun.

And the Pixar we now know was starting to take shape…
Yeah, after Knick Knack , we decided to take a couple of years to do television commercials to build up the income and hire some more animators.

We did hundreds of those. I directed a whole bunch myself. And then I was able to hire another animator, finally, and the first animator I hired was Andrew Stanton [ Finding Nemo, Wall-E ]. Then I hired Pete Doctor [ Monsters Inc , Up ], so…

You got some pretty good people!
What’s interesting is, Andrew, I think, had tried to get into Disney and they rejected him four times, so, I brought him in and we became best friends and just had so much fun.

It was so exciting for me to get some more animator energy into the place. There were pranks, all-nighters, laser tag wars…

And work…
Yeah yeah, we were working hard, working late, but having a blast, I mean we just laughed so hard and we had so much fun.

We started building the culture at Pixar - animators working with technical artists in a real, fun, collaboration.

How did Toy Story come about?
Steve Jobs was talking to Disney – saying that we were interested in doing an animated feature for them. In the beginning, though, they said no.

It was Tim Burton who opened that door for us, really. He was trying to get The Nightmare before Christmas back from Disney. But then they said, ‘Why don’t you just do it for us?’ and that kind of gave them the idea that, okay, they could have the Disney animated films - which were kind of the crown jewels of all animated films - being done by other people.

So they finally came back to us, came to Steve, and said, 'We’re interested in talking to you.'

Did you already have the idea for Toy Story fairly fleshed out?
We actually made a list of what we wanted our movie not to be. We didn’t want it to be a musical; we didn’t want it to have like a good guy and a bad guy, and you know, sidekicks and all that stuff. Because that was all Disney's thing.

So we started to look at different kinds of film genres and we landed upon the buddy picture. We loved The Odd Couple and The Defiant Ones , and Midnight Run .

And we thought that could be really big because we were developing the toy idea, so we hit upon this buddy picture concept of an old toy that’s a child’s favourite, and a child’s birthday gift – a new, real flashy, modern toy that becomes the new favourite, and how the old toy deals with that. So that became the essence of Toy Story .

Next: Creative Clash With Disney, Toy Story Goes Stellar... [page-break]

Did you get any sense that Disney were sceptical about you coming in and making a computer animation?
They were definitely sceptical about whether or not our kind of animation could really entertain an audience. There was a very strong feeling, even with our short films, that they had a cold, plastic kind of look to them.

But that’s why toys being the main characters was a perfect choice, because it lends itself to our medium, and where we were in the development of our medium.

The humans in Toy Story really became very secondary because we always knew that they would look a little clunky.

And one of the key things that Katzenberg said was, ‘Make it edgy, make it edgy, make it edgy’... He kept saying that.

What, more wisecracks, more cynicism?
Yeah. They always had a feeling that no one – well, no adult – was gonna want to come and sit and watch a movie about kids playing with toys. So, we followed their notes…

But then we had a screening and the movie was horrible! The characters, especially Woody, were just repellent! Woody was just awful, awful, awful! And I was embarrassed because it wasn't the movie we set out to make.

Disney actually wanted to shut the production down and lay people off. We went back and said, ‘Let us do one more cut, give us acouple more weeks. Let us see what we can do ourselves.’

That must have been a pretty hairy time. ..
It was awful. I thought, ‘Oh, man I can’t do this!’ My stomach was just in a knot. So we came up and it was Joe Ranft, Pete Docter and myself, and we just said, ‘Screw it, let’s just do what we wanna do!’

We decided to make it the movie we wanted to make. So we remade kind of the beginning of the film. And then we cut it at Lucasfilm - on a digital editing system, which was also unusual and not liked by the executives.

Because of that, we were able to turn it around really fast. And so two weeks later we showed them the beginning, and they were blown away! I mean they wouldn’t say it to us right away but later I heard from other people that they were stunned at how fast the turnaround was.

And so they said, ‘Okay, that’s great – this is the movie we want to make too’.

Did the notes stop coming?
[Laughs] No! But from that point on we changed at Pixar. We said, we’re 600 miles away. We’ll check the notes that make the story better and ignore the rest.

And then Katzenberg ended up leaving Disney about a year and a half before Toy Story came out [to form Dreamworks]. So, really, he was kind of there for us at the beginning, but then we finished it without him which was… you know, we kind of focused on making the movie we wanted to make.

And it turned out quite well…
Yeah, not bad [smiles]. We had a number one movie, a huge hit across the world... but one of the things we were most proud about is that it was the first animated film in history to get an 'Original Screenplay' Oscar nomination.

Next: Buzz Mania, Antz vs A Bug's Life... [page-break]

At the height of Toy Story 's success, everyone wanted a Buzz Lightyear toy.
It’s funny, Disney didn’t even think about toys until very late. It was January of the year of the film’s release [it came out in November] that they first approached toy companies – who usually need about 18 months, minimum.

So, both Mattel and Hasbro passed. We ended up working with a small company called Thinkway Toys, a toy maker there called Albert Chan. He came in and I talked him into doing a full 12-inch high Buzz Lightyear.

Initially, he didn’t want to do it because he said there was no market for it. But I said, ‘The kids are gonna want to have what’s on the screen’, because one of the toys I used to love to play with when I was a kid was GI Joe.

So my model of GI Joe was about 12 inches high... which is why I made him make Buzz Lightyear that high. Albert said, ‘Okay I trust you. We’ll do it…’

But then, most of the big retailers passed on selling it. Albert only sold about 60,000 Buzz Lightyears in all of North America. But by this stage he had faith, so he invested his own money and made another quarter of a million. He’s been making them ever since.

Any idea how many he’s sold?
Yeah, we’re still good friends. I asked him recently. He said, ‘I think I’m over 26 million now.’

You followed up Toy Story with another big success, A Bug’s Life . But how annoying was it when Jeffrey Katzenberg’s Dreamworks came out first with the similar – at least at first glance – Antz ?
Yeah, er… [torturously long pause] It’s something I don’t really want to talk about.

So, pretty annoying?
Yes… [another uncomfortably long pause] it was teeth-gnashingly annoying. Let’s leave it at that…

Next: Toy Story 2, Finding Nemo, Taking A Break... [page-break]

Next up was Toy Story 2. But wasn’t Disney’s initial plan to release it straight to DVD?
There was a business model for Disney, following Aladdin, of straight-to-DVD sequels but I always felt that if it was done right, Toy Story 2 should be a theatrical release.

I still think it stands as one of our absolute best movies. I think the depth of it surprised people - that it wasn’t just another ‘fun’ sequel, that there was some soul to the story, particularly with Woody’s storyline.

Most sequels are just part of the same old story being told again, which actually makes the original less interesting. And we always looked at The Empire Strikes Back and Godfather Part II , which are two sequels we held up as our model, because both expanded on the original. And that’s what we wanted to do.

To date, all the Pixar films have done well at the box office but none more so than Finding Nemo . What do you think was the key to its success?
Well for one thing it was truly universal. One of the things I learned after Toy Story and travelling around the globe doing publicity, and seeing the movies in different languages in front of different audiences around the world, is that we don’t make these movies just for the US.

We’ve seen our international box office grow as a percentage of our total box office through the years. Some of the movies, like Cars and Toy Story are kind of more American in imagery, but I think Nemo was very, very charming and appealed to women and girls as much as it appealed to men and boys.

So there was something there for everybody. And it was unusual, you know? No one had seen anything like that. And the underwater subject matter was perfect for our medium.

After a pretty intense run, you finally managed to take a break before Cars ...
Yeah, that was back in the summer of 2000. I had pretty much worked straight since 1991 on Pixar’s first three movies. My wife said, ‘Be careful, one day you’re gonna wake up and your boys will be going off to college. You will have missed it.’

So I took the summer off, bought a motor home and we travelled the US, you know, just sort of getting lost and being together. I still think about it now, nine years later. And our boys still talk about it.

It was the highlight of my life because we were so close together. My boys had their mom and their dad to themselves 24/7 for two months. And you know, it was so much fun! We got so close as a family. It’s funny how you always long to kinda slip away and do that again.

With work being so fulfilling, it must be easy to let things slip at home.
I’d say that’s one of the hardest things of my job right now, to be honest, getting a balance. The demands on my time – with Disney and Pixar – are unbelievable. And I have a wonderful, talented, strong wife – she runs the family business, a winery, and a fantastic family...

But they do grow up so fast... When I was dropping my son off at college, as I was driving away all I could picture was the little blond-haired boy who loved this one slide in our garden – he wouldn’t do anything else.

The simplicity, and the joy of that... I’ll never forget. As I drove away from leaving him at college it felt like it had been only yesterday. I feel like I haven’t changed, you know. So as a father of five boys, I truly recommend that you enjoy the little things in life.

That’s really what the message of Up is - that the adventure of life is not particularly big, it’s the wonderful, everyday, simple things that make your life so special.

Next: Up, Toy Story 3, Cars 2. [page-break]

You seem really happy with Up .
It's fantastic; the story is really strong – as you saw with the story reel. And seeing it in animation… you know, we have a lot of great directors at Pixar but Pete Docter is one of the best directors in animation.

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen one of our films take such a leap from the storyboard to the finished product as Up . The animation is so appealing. Pete kind of wanted to make a classic Disney-style film so it has a little bit more of a cartoony quality to the character design and the world and stuff. It’s wonderful.

What stage are you at with Toy Story 3 ? The teaser trailer is wonderful...
Well, we’re in production. It’s pretty well mapped out – just a few minor tweaks – and now we’re basically making it.

Different sequences are in layout, different sequences are in animation, and we’re just beginning the final lighting. So we’re really in good shape with it. The story is amazing, it’s like, 'Wow!' We’re really excited about it.

We’re doing Toy Story and Toy Story 2 in 3D as well and they look fantastic. Of course on those two, we’re retro-fitting the 3D. But after Toy Story 3 , they’ll all be made in 3D from the beginning, but they’ll look great in both 2D and 3D.

But it's always about the characters, not the 3D. It’s the same way I felt about computer animation; it’s not about how you do it, it’s what you do.

What can you tell us about Cars 2 ?

I’m working very, very closely with Brad Willis who was our producer, on Ratatouille , but he was a director before that so I’m working with him.

And so we’ve got a great story where the Cars characters are on this big circuit tour that takes them all round the world.

So a lot of international colour...
Yeah, it’s different races in different countries. When I was travelling around the world doing interviews for Cars I just had the characters on the brain. I kept looking out thinking, ‘What would Mater do in this situation, you know?’

I could imagine him driving around on the wrong side of the road in the UK, going around in big, giant travelling circles in Paris, on the autobahn in Germany, dealing with the motor scooters in Italy, trying to figure out road signs in Japan...

Next: The New Walt Disney? [page-break]

You’re often described as the most important figure in animation since Walt Disney, or even 'the new Walt Disney'. How does that makes you feel?
Er... I just... I don’t really think like that. ‘The new Walt Disney’? It’s hard enough being the old me!

I try and stay focused on what is important; the stories, the characters and the audience. Our role is to entertain people, and I hope, to make people laugh.

I want kids to grow old remembering our films fondly so when they have kids, they’re gonna want to bring them along to our movies. It was that way with Walt Disney's Films. That's what you aim for.

After so much success, and with your responsibilities continuing to grow, is it easy to maintain your drive?
It is, because there are always new challenges to meet to make great movies, and it’s fun and I adore the people I work with – they’re like best friends. We’re so lucky to be able to control our own destiny.

Ed and I both say, the test is to make both studios a big success - to make movies that are really, really fun and entertaining. And emotional.

And of course you want them to do well at the box office. You wanna make sure they are profitable so you can carry on doing what you want to do and make sure everyone is creatively inspired and fairly compensated. We don’t want people leaving our studios...

We’ve talked a lot about animation. What live action films influenced you growing up?
Oh, loads! Let me sort of go in chronological order… first I’d say Buster Keaton – I just devoured all of his films because his sense of comic timing was amazing.

He’s the closest a human being has ever come to a cartoon character. And I was just amazed at his sense of character and timing, the humour. It's all just so… sophisticated, even when you watch it today.

The silent films of Laurel and Hardy are remarkable as well. Then I’d say Frank Capra. He balances humour, character and heart. I tear up every time I watch those films. Preston Sturges is another great. Sullivan’s Travels is one of my absolute favourite films. It affected me so deeply.

How so?

I already knew what I wanted to do in life was to be an animator. And it was at CalArts I saw Sullivan’s Travels ...

There’s that scene when they’re in prison and the prisoners are invited to this church, where they show cartoons [Disney’s Playful Pluto], and even in the depth of misery, everybody just starts laughing. And laughing hysterically, because it’s a great cartoon where Pluto gets stuck in a flypaper.

Then of course the main character, the film director, comes back and instead of doing ‘serious’ drama, he decides to keep doing comedy because that’s what the world needs. I just came away from that film thinking there’s this amazing art form that we have, you know. It just reinforced my feelings of what I wanted to do.

And then I discovered a couple of Hawaiian shirt manufacturers with a whole line and I really liked their work. But I didn’t wear them exclusively at first. I started wearing them to do interviews and then my wife, bless her heart, said, ‘You should match the subject matter of your shirts to what you’re doing that day! If you can.’

So in our new home, we have a large closet and I have my shirts filed under subject matter.

Subject matter?
Yeah, so that I know where my tropical-themed shirts are, my automotive-themed shirts are, all my movie-related shirts…

I always say that it’s the little kid in me, you know? Animators tend to be kids who’ve never grown up. A Hawaiian shirt is like a toy that you can wear. And I do love toys…

A version of this interview appears in the new issue of Total Film Magazine. Click here for a preview and to subscribe...