Why Disney Fired John Lasseter – And How He Came Back to Heal the Studio

The Pixar co-founder, given the boot by Disney almost 30 years ago, returned to put the studio on the verge of its first animated-feature Oscar

OscarWrap_0218_Down_WireA version of this story appeared in OscarWrap: Down to the Wire.

Two of John Lasseter‘s four Academy Awards may be Student Oscars from his days at CalArts, but the 57-year-old Hollywood native has dominated his field and the Academy’s animation categories for the last 20 years. The company he co-founded, Pixar, had an unprecedented run that brought it seven of the 11 Best Animated Feature Oscars that have been handed out, while for the past eight years he has also served as the chief creative officer at Walt Disney Animation Studios, which put Lasseter in charge after its parent company bought Pixar.

Disney’s recent string of hits includes “Tangled,” “Wreck-It Ralph” and “Frozen,” the last of which is the odds-on favorite to win the storied 90-year-old animation studio its first Oscar for feature animation. (To be fair, Walt Disney did win a special Oscar for “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” back in 1938.) Lasseter also serves on the AMPAS Board of Governors from the Short Films and Feature Animation Branch.

Also read: How a Modern-Day Animator Brought Mickey Mouse Back to Life in ‘Get a Horse!’

At the recent celebration of Walt Disney Animation Studios’ 90th anniversary, you talked about going to all the Disney artists and challenging them to do better. But you’re the guy who sits in Disney’s chair, so the challenge must really fall on you.
Yeah. Well, when Bob Iger asked me to come back to Walt Disney Animation Studios, which was almost exactly eight years ago, I was very excited. Walt Disney and the films he made is really why I’ve chosen my life’s work. And there’s a very particular, unique entertainment that Walt created, that nobody’s been able to reproduce. It was great stories that are very emotional, combined with really funny and memorable and appealing characters, and movies that are really beautiful, like works of art, with incredible music.

So when I came back eight years ago, that was always in my head. And I went to all the artists, the directors, all the animators, all of whom were there for exactly the same reason that I was, and I looked each of them in the eye and said, “Walt Disney’s name is on the front of our films, and we have to make films that are worthy of that name. Aim higher than you possibly think you can go.”

What were your priorities?
I think the prevailing sense was that audiences around the world had grown too cynical for these kind of movies — these musical fairytale movies. And I felt like, what is at the center of every Magic Kingdom? A castle. You can still tell these stories, but you have to tell them for today’s audiences. Mainly, you’ve got to have strong female characters that can be aspirational for women today — mothers, their daughters, teenagers, everybody.

So we came back with “The Princess and the Frog,” where it wasn’t about finding a man, it was about following her mother’s dream of having a restaurant in New Orleans. Rapunzel in “Tangled” wanted to get out of the tower to follow her destiny. Merida in “Brave” was about, “I want to choose my own future, I don’t want tradition to choose it for me.” And now with “Frozen,” which, my entire career, it’s one of the films I’m proudest of, it’s not a story about these princesses finding love. The core of the story is about family love.

You know, Ed and I always felt that what would heal this studio more than anything else was to have a really big hit. So when “Tangled” hit, and then “Wreck-It Ralph” and now “Frozen,” it just made everybody feel so phenomenal.

Also read: Buying Pixar Didn’t Kill Disney Animation — It Saved It

lasseter_frozenIt’s interesting that you mentioned “Brave,” a Pixar film, in the midst of talking about Disney films. Is the line blurring between what could be a Disney film and what could be Pixar?
No. No, I don’t believe that. It’s two different studios and two different groups of artists. But I’ll be honest with you: “Brave” got started when Disney announced that they weren’t going to be dong any more fairy tales. This was before Disney had bought Pixar, and we said, “Well, the audience still wants these.” So there is a little connection there.

Have you brought other elements of the Pixar sensibility to Disney?
One thing that Ed Catmull and I brought from Pixar is the philosophy of making it a filmmaker-driven studio, not an executive-driven studio. An executive-driven studio is where you have layers of development executives who give the director mandatory notes. And when I came in to Disney, the term I heard from filmmakers was that they felt like they’d lost their compass. They spent most of their time trying to address mandatory notes, and a lot of them were contradictory, instead of focusing on what’s going to make the movie best.

Back in the second heyday of the Disney Animation Studio, when “The Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” and “Aladdin” and “The Lion King” were made, they kind of fell into a rut. Those films were great, but they felt like every film had to be that way.

And so we instituted what we have developed at Pixar, which is a filmmaker-driven studio. Each movie is screened internally roughly every three months, and then we get together and give notes. And none of these notes, including mine, are mandatory. It’s just a group of peers around the table, and the director knows that everybody is helping them make the movie the best it can be.

Also read: John Lasseter, Disney Legends Celebrate 90 Years – and Campaign for ‘Frozen’

When you were first came to Disney out of CalArts in the late ’70s, was it an executive-driven studio?
Well, it was interesting, because it was being led by the group of second-tier animators during Walt’s time. They became in charge through attrition, as all the great Disney animators, what they called Disney’s “Nine Old Men,” retired. And just after they came in, they started this training program to bring young people in — but as all this young talent started coming in, these guys felt threatened.

And you have to understand how on fire we were coming out of CalArts. “Star Wars” came out in May of 1977, and then “Close Encounters of the Third Kind,” “Raging Bull”… It was so exciting to us, especially “Star Wars.” I sat in the Chinese theater on opening weekend after standing in line for six hours, and the way the film entertained people was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. I walked out of that theater saying, “I want to entertain people to this level, but do it with animation.” And that’s what we all felt.

And these guys were really threatened by us. They kept us under their thumb, and eventually most of us left. Brad Bird left, Tim Burton left, I eventually got fired because I felt so strongly about computer animation and I wouldn’t take no for an answer. But I had made connections with Ed Catmull up at LucasFilm, so Ed hired me up there. And then we formed Pixar, and in 1986 Steve Jobs bought us from George Lucas.

The run that Pixar had beginning with “Toy Story” is pretty remarkable, and almost unprecedented.
Can I change your word from had to has? We’re still going strong. “Monsters University” did $750 million worldwide and was really well reviewed, and it’s one of the best films of the year.

But two of the last three Pixar movies haven’t been nominated for Best Animated Feature. Does that bother you?
Yeah, it does. We don’t make our films to win awards, but we do spend a lot of time and work hard on those movies. and it does hurt, you know? We feel that they are easily in the top five films of the year.

But the other side of it, which is also great, is that not too long ago there was no one making animated feature films but Disney. And now, you have studios all over the world creating great animated feature films, so many that the Academy decided there should be a special award for this in 2001.

I really feel great about that. I would much rather be a player in a very, very active industry.

Also read: How Animators Brought 5 Oscar Contenders to Life

“Frozen” could well be the first Disney film to win the animated-feature Oscar. Obviously, the company would have won lots of them if the category had existed in the past — but is it going to mean something special if “Frozen” gets the award?
Yes. Yes. Very much so. As I said, we don’t make our films for winning awards, but the Academy Award is your peers in the film industry, and it would be very meaningful for the Walt Disney Animation Studios.

You know, Steve Jobs said a very interesting thing to me as I was working long days on “Toy Story,” the very first movie at Pixar. We had dinner together, and he said, “You know, John, when I make a computer for Apple, it has a lifespan of three years. In five years, it’s literally a doorstop. But if you do your job right, what you’re creating can last forever.”

When you think about “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” or “Pinocchio” or “Dumbo” or “Cinderella” or “Peter Pan” … I mean, go back to 1938, what other movie is watched year in and year out as much as Snow White? These films truly do last.