Pixar co-founder John Lasseter thanked lots of people when he received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame Tuesday, from his wife to the directors, actors and composers who helped make Pixar the most successful and acclaimed animation studio of its era.
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But only once did Lasseter's voice break, and only once did he struggle to find words as he held back tears. That came when he ended his speech by paying tribute to the late Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from ILM in 1986 and watched as it morphed from a tiny tech company to a creative powerhouse.
"There is one last person I want to share this with, and that is my partner Steve Jobs," said a choked-up Lasseter. "… Without him, Pixar would not exist."
At their first meeting in 1987, recalled Lasseter, the CalArts grad — who'd won student Academy Awards for short films in 1979 and 1980 — pitched the idea of a short that would demonstrate the capabilities of the computer-animation software that was the young company's specialty.
"I had this crazy idea that toys are alive when you're not around," said Lasseter, who outlined the concept that led to the Oscar-winning short "Tin Toy" and, later, to the three "Toy Story" movies.
"I pitched the whole story to Steve," he said. "And after it was all over, the only thing Steve Jobs ever asked of me was, 'John, make it great.''
Two dozen years later, Pixar is known not for its technical innovations, but as the most creative and successful studio of its day, with Oscars for three shorts and eight features, including "Up," "The Incredibles" and "Finding Nemo."
Curiously, while Lasseter won Academy Awards as a student, and was given a Special Achievement Oscar for "Toy Story," the last Pixar release not to win the Best Animated Feature prize was the one he directed, "Cars." And Lasseter's 2011 sequel, "Cars 2," is far from the prohibitive favorite that Lee Unkrich's "Toy Story 3," Pete Docter' s "Up" and Andrew Stanton's "Wall-E" were.
Lasseter's ceremony took place in front of the El Capitan theater and came, fittingly, on the day that animated-feature entry forms were due at the Academy.
At a lunch following the ceremony — a private open-air event catered by Lasseter's friend, Food Network chef Guy Fieri — the consensus among category-watchers was that at least 16 films will qualify this year, leading to only the third slate of five nominees in the category's 10-year history. (Fewer than 16 eligible films means four nominees — or in previous years, three.)
The caveat: There are enough entries for five nominees if the Academy's Short Films and Feature Animation Branch rules that three features made using the motion-capture technique — "The Adventures of Tintin," "Mars Needs Moms" and "Happy Feet Two" — qualify as animated.
Lasseter's film "Cars 2" is certainly in the running for the top Oscar, though it's expected to have a tough fight in an unsettled year for animation. Among its rivals: DreamWorks' "Puss in Boots," Steven Spielberg's "Tintin" and Gore Verbinski's "Rango."
At the star ceremony, of course, nobody was working out Lasseter's Oscar chances. Instead, the man of the hour was lauded by a group that included Owen Wilson, Randy Newman, Don Rickles and the man who has been in more Pixar films than anybody else, John Ratzenberger.
The reason he's been in all 12 Pixar features, insisted Ratzenberger, dates back to a kindergarten trip Lasseter took to a state fair at which Ratzenberger was making a living as a tap dancer. With a straight face, the actor best known for "Cheers" said that he saved the young Lasseter from being crushed by a toppling funnel-cake machine.
"He looked up at me and said, 'Mister, someday I'm gonna pay you back,'" claimed Ratzenberger.