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Pixar's Lasseter talks about toys, cars and much more

Joe Gross
jgross@statesman.com

It seems absurd to think about it now, but "Toy Story," the first computer-animated, full-length motion picture, one of the most popular movies of our time, was not nominated for Best Picture in 1995.

Instead, that year, "Toy Story" director, producer and co-writer John Lasseter, the co-founder of Pixar, took home an Oscar for special achievement, possibly because the academy didn't quite know what to make of the most important animated movie since "Snow White." (Lasseter won his first Oscar in 1988, for the Pixar animated short "Tin Toy.")

The rest of the story has become modern showbiz legend, the reason that the Austin Film Festival presents Lasseter with this year's award for Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking on Saturday.

Since 1995, Pixar has produced 12 staggeringly successful, critically fêted animated features, including "Finding Nemo," "Cars," "WALL-E" and "Up."

The innovations started by Pixar all but demanded the creation of the Oscar category Best Animated Feature in 2001 — a Pixar movie has picked up seven out of a possible 10 of those. The characters in "Toy Story" and its two sequels have become one-name celebrities in houses around the world: Woody, Buzz, Andy, Sid, Rex, Slinky, Hamm.

Disney purchased Pixar in 2006 for more than $7 billion. Overseeing Pixar and Disney's animated division, John Lasseter is one of the most powerful, influential men in Hollywood.

But first and foremost, Lasseter is about storytelling. And he loves talking about it, about how the technology syncs up with imagination.

Storytelling in animation is radically different from live-action filmmaking. "Animation is live-action filmmaking in reverse," Lasseter says. "Instead of going into principal photography after a script is done, we essentially edit the movie before we start production. I think part of the reason we have the track record we have is that we spend a tremendous amount of time working and reworking and reworking the story far more than live-action does."

The trick is to spot mistakes, or rather, story beats that aren't as good as they could be, as early in the process as possible.

"Any time you take story and go to the next big stage — outline to treatment, treatment to script, script to storyboard, storyboard to story reel — each time you do that, we know not everything is going to work," Lasseter says.

Andrew Stanton, director of "Finding Nemo" and WALL-E" and co-writer of seven Pixar movies, coined a phrase that has become semi-famous: "Be wrong as fast as you can."

Which actually means the opposite of doing a rush job. Like the race cars Lasseter loves, Pixar movies are precision machines, requiring four years to make. Lasseter says story development goes for a good three and a half of those years.

"The computer allows us to iterate very fast, so we can do a lot of trial and error, a lot of experimentation to see what works and what doesn't," Lasseter says. "What's neat about Pixar is that we invented much of the computer animation we use. It's an art form that grew out of a science, and in the scientific world, experimentation and failure is just part of the norm."

But it's also important to know your subject. "I believe in doing massive amounts of research for our movies, I insist on it," Lasseter says. "I want people who work on Pixar movies to really become experts (in the movie's subject matter) because you don't know where the inspiration is going to come from. Things that amaze us in the research are going to amaze the audience because we are the audience for our films."

Alan Porter, the Austin writer and Formula One fanatic who has written issues of the "Cars" comic book, has called the racing in "Cars" some of the most realistic he had ever seen on film, talking cars and all. "Lasseter actually cares about how cars operate and how they can move," Porter says.

"I am very proud of the fact that chefs watch 'Ratatouille' and notice the burns that we put on the chefs forearms, burns that all chefs have," Lasseter says. "The folks who worked on 'Finding Nemo' all got certified as scuba divers. How many times have you been watching a movie about something you know a lot about and gotten pulled out of it when they get a detail wrong?"

Of course, with live-action filmmaking, there is always the possibility of spontaneity, of happy accidents. Lasseter says that spontaneity is possible with animated features, it's just less obvious.

"I think the type of actors we cast are crucial to that aspect of it," Lasseter says. "People like Tom Hanks, Tim Allen, Bonnie Hunt, who can make their part their own and ad lib stuff. I'm always open for that because it evolves the character and every character should feel natural and the humor coming from the personality of the character. The aim is to make everything so believable that so that once the lights dim, you want the audience to be caught up in the story and almost forget that it's animated."

As much as Pixar is a team, a director-driven enterprise, it's hard to separate its success from Lasseter's vision.

" 'Toy Story,' 'Toy Story 2' and 'Cars' are my most personal movies," he says. "My dad was a parts manager at a Chevy dealership in Whittier, Calif., and I've been around cars all my life."

But Lasseter is also a big kid who never grew up, the guy who still owns a lot of his childhood toys.

"I was a little bit more like Andy," Lasseter says. "Andrew Stanton and (Pixar principal) Joe Ranft, the guys who created "Toy Story' with me, they were more like Sid and trashed their toys. As Andrew is fond of saying 'Sid is the normal one, Andy's the weird one.' "

jgross@statesman.com; 912-5925

John Lasseter accepts the Austin Film Festival award for Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking at AFF's sold-out awards luncheon 12:15 p.m. Saturday at the Austin Club. Lasseter will also speak on two panels during the conference, including "A Conversation with John Lasseter," moderated by Elvis Mitchell, 10:45 a.m. Saturday, and "The Art of Storytelling with Caroline Thompson, Hart Hanson and John Lasseter," moderated by Barry Josephson, 11:30 a.m. Sunday. Both panels are at the Stephen F. Austin Hotel Ballroom and are open to all film festival badge holders, though Lone Star badge holders may only attend Saturday panels.