John Alan Lasseter is an Academy Award-winning American animator, director and the chief creative officer at Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. He is also currently the Principal Creative Advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering.
Lasseter's father was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership, while his mother was an art teacher at Medomak Valley High School. John grew up in Whittier, California. His mother being an art teacher contributed to his growing preoccuption with animation. He often drew cartoons during church services at the Church of Christ his family attended. As a child, Lasseter would race home from school to watch Chuck Jones cartoons on television. His education began at Pepperdine University. It was the alma mater of both his parents and his siblings.
However, he heard of a new program at California Institute of the Arts and decided to leave Pepperdine to follow his dream of becoming an animator. His mother further encouraged him to take up a career in animation, and in 1975 he enrolled as the second student in a new animation course at the California Institute of the Arts. Lasseter was taught by three members of Disney's Nine Old Men – Eric Larson, Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston – his classmates included Brad Bird, John Musker, Henry Selick and Tim Burton. On May 2, 2009, Lasseter received an Honorary Doctorate degree from Pepperdine University. He gave a commencement address where he encouraged the graduating class of more than 500 students never to let anyone kill their dreams.
On graduation, Lasseter joined The Walt Disney Company, as a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland in Anaheim. Lasseter later obtained a job as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation, but felt something was missing; after 101 Dalmatians, which in his opinion was the film where Disney had reached its highest plateau, the studio had sort of died and was just repeating itself without adding any new ideas or innovations. In 1980 or 1981 he coincidently came across some video tapes from one of the then new computer-graphics conferences, who showed some of the very beginnings of computer animation, like floating spheres and such, which he experienced as a revelation.
But it wasn't until shortly after, when he was invited by his friends Jerry Rees and Bill Kroyer, while working on Mickey's Christmas Carol, to come and see the first lightcycle sequences for an upcoming film entitled Tron, featuring (then) state-of-the-art computer generated imagery, that he really saw the huge potential of this new technology in animation. Up to that time, the studio had used a multiplane camera to add depth to its animation. Lasseter realized that computers could be used to make movies with three dimensional backgrounds where traditionally animated characters could interact to add a new, visually stunning depth that had not been conceived before.
Later he and Glen Keane talked about how great it would be to make an animated feature where the background was computer animated, and then showed Keane the book The Brave Little Toaster by Thomas Disch, which he thought would be a good candidate for the film. Keane agreed, but first they decided to do a short test film to see how it worked out, and chose Where the Wild Things Are (a decision based on the fact that Disney had considered producing a feature based on the works of Maurice Sendak). Being satisfied with the result, Lasseter, Keane and Thomas L. Wilhite went on with the project, especially Lasseter who dedicated himself to it, while Keane eventually went on to work with The Great Mouse Detective.
They unknowingly stepped on some of their direct superiors' toes by circumventing them in their enthusiasm to get the project into motion. One of them, the animation administrator Ed Hansen disliked it so much that when Lasseter and Wilhite tried to sell the idea to him and Ron Miller, which they at that time were already aware of, they turned it down. A few minutes after the meeting, Lasseter was summoned by Hansen to his office, where John was told that his employment in the Walt Disney Studios had been terminated. The Brave Little Toaster would later become a 2D animated feature film directed by one of John's friends, Jerry Rees, and some of the staff of Pixar would be involved in the film alongside Lasseter.
While putting together a crew for the planned feature, he had made some contacts in the computer industry, among them Alvy Ray Smith and Ed Catmull at Lucasfilm Computer Graphics Group. After being fired, Lasseter visited a computer graphics conference at the Queen Mary in Long Beach, where he met and talked to Catmull again. Before the day was over, Lasseter had made a deal to work as an "interface designer" with Catmull and his colleagues on a project that resulted in their first computer animated short: The Adventures of André and Wally B.
became even more revolutionary than Lasseter had visualized before he joined Lucasfilm. His original idea had been to create only the backgrounds on computers, but in the final short everything was computer animated, including the characters. After this short CGI film, things would continue to grow until it became Toy Story, the first ever computer-animated feature film.
Lucasfilm Computer Graphics was acquired by Steve Jobs in 1986, and became Pixar. Lasseter oversaw all of Pixar's films and associated projects as executive producer. He also personally directed Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, and Cars.
He has won two Academy Awards, for Animated Short Film (Tin Toy), as well as a Special Achievement Award (Toy Story). Lasseter has been nominated on four other occasions - in the category of Animated Feature, for both Cars (2006) and Monsters, Inc. (2001), in the Original Screenplay category for Toy Story (1995) and in the Animated Short category for Luxo, Jr. (1986), while the short Knick Knack (1989) was selected by Terry Gilliam as one of the ten best animated films of all time.
Back at Disney
Disney purchased Pixar in April 2006, and Lasseter was named chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney animation studios. He was also named principal creative advisor at Walt Disney Imagineering, where he helps design attractions for Disney's theme parks. He reports directly to Disney President and CEO Bob Iger, bypassing Disney's studio and theme park executives. He also received green-light power on films with Roy E. Disney's consent.
In December 2006, he announced that Disney will start producing animated shorts that will be released theatrically once more. Lasseter said he sees this medium as an excellent way to train and discover new talent in the company as well as a testing ground for new techniques and ideas. The shorts will be in 2D, CGI or a combination of both.
Lasseter is a close friend and admirer of Japanese animator Hayao Miyazaki, and has been executive producer on several of Miyazaki's films for their release in the United States, also overseeing the dubbing of the films for their English language soundtrack.
Lasseter lives in Glen Ellen, California with his wife Nancy, a graduate of Carnegie Mellon University whom he met at a computer graphics conference. He has five sons, their ages ranging from 10 to 29. The family has a Dachshund named Frank and Lasseter's father, Paul, also lives on the property. The Lasseters own vineyards located in Glen Ellen, where they make and sell their own label of wine. Nancy retired to take care of their children and work on their vineyard. He is an avid NASCAR fan and loves to attend the races at Infineon Raceway in Sonoma, California.
Lasseter drew the most widely known versions of the BSD Daemon, a cartoon mascot for the BSD Unix operating system.
John Lasseter owns the "Marie E." steam locomotive, which is an H.K. Porter engine. The "Marie E." was once owned by Ollie Johnston, who was one of Walt Disney's "Nine Old Men". In May 2007, the locomotive visited, and was run by Lasseter at the Pacific Coast Railroad in Santa Margarita, CA alongside the original Santa Fe & Disneyland Railroad "Retlaw 1" coaches.
Appears in Brad Paisley's music video for "When I Get Where I'm Going".
Delivered the 2009 commencement address at Pepperdine University's Seaver College.