End of an Era: Inside Pixar on the Eve of John Lasseter’s Departure

With Pete Docter announced as his successor, Pixar insiders describe the mood

pixar end of era
John Lasseter, left, and Pete Docter at the Cannes Film Festival in 2015 (Getty/Pixar)

John Lasseter will leave Pixar Animation Studios in December, ending a 30-year tenure as the leading creative force behind one of the most critical and commercially successful film studios in the world.

He will exit a company he led from its earliest days as a spinoff from Lucasfilm, and one that has won 19 Academy Awards during his tenure.

“An era is over, you know?” one employee told TheWrap.

Last November, Lasseter took a six-month leave of absence from the company, acknowledging inappropriate hugging and “missteps” after some former Pixar employees accused him of unwelcome touching and presiding over a fraternity-like culture.

The circumstances of his departure have left mixed feelings on the insular, impeccably manicured Pixar campus in Emeryville, across the bay from San Francisco.

On Tuesday, Disney ended months of speculation over the future of Pixar and of Disney Animation Studios, which he also headed, by announcing that that two animation directors, Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee, would succeed Lasseter as the chief creative officers of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, respectively.

Although the announcement of Docter as Lasseter’s replacement has eased some of the uncertainty inside Pixar, it nonetheless represents a monumental change for the company.

“I don’t know if I’m ready for this,” Docter told TheWrap on Tuesday night. When asked if it was bittersweet to come into the position as Lasseter was leaving, he said, “I don’t think anybody would have wished for this, but we’ll make the best of it.”

In the entertainment industry and beyond, Lasseter is often seen as synonymous with Pixar. He revolutionized computer animation with the release of “Toy Story” in 1995 and is credited with turning Pixar into an Oscar magnet with several billion-dollar franchises such as “Cars,” “The Incredibles,” and “Finding Nemo.”

In interviews with TheWrap, several individuals close to Pixar said on condition of anonymity that Lasseter’s departure has created a significant amount of upheaval and confusion within Pixar.

“There’s a great deal of inner turmoil over the fact that things happened the way they did,” one individual with longstanding ties to the company told TheWrap, adding that the amount of power Lasseter had at Pixar and Disney led to resentment among some at both companies.  (He reported only to Disney CEO Bob Iger, something Docter and Lee will not do.)

“All I can tell you is it’s a political move, no link with #MeToo,” one person told TheWrap. “It’s the perfect excuse to fire a great leader.”

In a statement announcing Lasseter’s departure on June 8, Iger did not address the reasons behind the exit. Instead, he emphasized Lasseter’s achievements, crediting him with “reinventing the animation business, taking breathtaking risks and telling original, high-quality stories that will last forever.”

“Jennifer Lee and Pete Docter are two of the most gifted filmmakers and storytellers I’ve ever had the pleasure to work with,” Walt Disney Studios Chairman Alan Horn said in his statement on Tuesday.

Docter joined Pixar as an animator on “Toy Story” and quickly rose through the ranks to direct “Monsters Inc,” “Up,” and “Inside Out.” He is a member of Pixar’s vaunted Brain Trust, and, at 49, is well-poised to shepherd the next generation of Pixar’s leadership. Lee, 46, drew attention for her work as a writer on “Wreck-It Ralph” and later served as a writer and director for the Oscar-winning 2013 hit “Frozen,” the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Within Pixar, Docter is well-liked. “Pete is the best,” said a producer who has made several films with the company. “We’re going to be fine.”

Still, questions remain.

“Jennifer and Pete both have a lot of heart,” said one person with close Pixar ties. “They’re lovely people, and they’re not going to change the direction of the company. But what does the overall company lose with John gone? At some point, every Pixar movie isn’t very good, and John was always the one who made it better.

“And the sad thing for all of us is the question, ‘Is Pete going to be able to keep making movies now?’ He’s made three of Pixar’s best movies, and he was working on another one – is that going to be given to somebody else?”

Docter told TheWrap that he plans to complete the film he’s currently working on. Then he added, with a grin, “At least, they haven’t told me otherwise.”

Steve Pond contributed to this report.