Sun, Feb 15, 2009 - Page 14 News List

SUNDAY PROFILE: John Lasseter, the man behind the marvel

A pioneer in computer animation, the Pixar co-founder is still pushing technological boundaries — this time in 3D

By Stuart O’Connor  /  THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

VIEW THIS PAGE You may not recognize his face, but you’d certainly recognize John Lasseter’s work: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Cars, Ratatouille and Wall-E, to name just some of his writing, directing and producing output.

Lasseter was a co-founder of Pixar Animation Studios, and a pioneer of computer animation. In fact, Pixar pretty much invented computer-animated movies — developing from scratch the process that almost every Hollywood studio now uses. It refined its craft with a series of award-winning short films throughout the 1980s, and broke into features with Toy Story in 1995 — the first full-length computer-animated movie.

“It began way back when I first started, in 1983, working with the Lucasfilm computer division, which became Pixar,” Lasseter says. “There inevitably comes a time when they say: ‘Hey, we have this new computer and it’s 10 times faster than the ones you’re using.’ So everybody logically thinks: ‘OK, that means you can do what you’re doing, only 10 times faster.’

“[But actually] what happens is that it takes the same amount of time, but it becomes 10 times more complex. We have more computer power than you can imagine now, and still our movies take the same amount of time to create.”

Each feature is a four-year process, and the animators have to lock down the technology about two years before completion. “That’s when you have to say: ‘We don’t know how to do this, or the movie really requires us to do this,’” he says. “In Cars, it was the reflections on the cars and windows; in Monsters Inc, it was the fur; and there’s the underwater stuff in [Finding] Nemo. There was a tremendous amount of complexity in Wall-E.

“But what we’ve always done, since the very beginning, is we have studied what is that unique limitation of the way things look, and we’ve modeled that into the computer.

“That’s why Pixar films have always had this movie feeling about them. For instance, we invented motion blur for computer animation. This was on the first short I created in 1984, The Adventures of Andre and Wally B. It looked so real, even to myself. But it’s not real because our eyes don’t see motion blur. It’s a limitation of the [film camera’s] lens.

“This understanding of the limitations of how films are actually made, and then modeling that within the computer, is classic Pixar. In live action, you get that for free, but we had to create it.”

Pixar’s visual creativity has developed over the years, from the simple geometric shapes used in early shorts such as Luxo Jr (the lamp that became Pixar’s mascot) and the Oscar-winning Tin Toy, to the more advanced character renderings in Toy Story, Monsters Inc and Ratatouille.

Yet, as computers become more powerful, and Hollywood relies more on CGI special effects, does the technology ever get in the way of telling the story? Lasseter thinks that sometimes, it does — but for others, not for Pixar.

“One of the things from the beginning that we recognized is that these are just tools,” he says. “That the technology never entertains an audience by itself. And for us, since we invented much of computer animation, we have a pretty good sense of what our tools can do.

“Like Toy Story — we couldn’t do humans very well, so we kept them in the background, you just see feet and hands and stuff like that. But we could do plastic well, so making a film where the main characters were made of plastic was perfect.”

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