Lasseter Shines at UCLA’s Dumbo Screening

CG animation pioneer and Oscar-winning director John Lasseter proved to be a huge hit at UCLA Film & TV Archive’s ‘The Movie That Inspired Me’ event Monday night at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood, Calif. The Chief Creative Officer of Disney Animation and Pixar was interviewed by the Archive’s Honorary Chairman and series curator Curtis Hanson (L.A. Confidential) after a screening of a pristine copy of Disney’s 1941 classic Dumbo, Tex Avery’s 1949 short Bad Luck Blackie and Chuck Jones’ 1952 Bugs, Daffy and Elmer Fudd outing Rabbit Seasoning.

Lasseter, the beloved director of Toy Story I and II, Bug’s Life and Cars, talked about how Ben Sharpteen’s Dumbo remains one of his favorite movies of all time because it’s funny, emotional and the most cartoony of Disney’s animated features. ‘It’s the only Disney movie that the lead character doesn’t talk, but it’s also one of the most poignant.’ When asked about his favorite moments in the film, he praised the roustabout scene for its design qualities and the ‘Baby Mine’ mother-and-son sequence for its emotional power. ‘It’s an amazing scene especially once you’ve had a child, yourself.’ He also talked about the film’s final flight climax. ‘That scene gets you every time. It’s a great lesson on how to keep the audience on the edge of their seats. Everything is done so exquisitely on this film. Ken O’Conner’s layouts are so sophisticated.’

Hanson, in turn, pointed out the parallel between Lasseter’s career and how Dumbo managed to prove triumphant over his antagonists at the end of the movie. ‘You worked for Disney, then you were fired by Disney and now you run Disney Animation.”

When asked about how he picks his subjects, Lasseter pointed out that often he begins with a concept, knowing in advance what computers can and can’t do. ‘I have always chosen the subject for the medium.” For example, the plastic toys for Toy Story seemed like a perfect fit for the early days of CG animation. “Walt always tried to bring dimensionality to his animation’and he would have loved what technology has been able to do for that aspect of animation. Steve Jobs once said that at Apple, we create great technological tools, but they become obsolete after five years. However, these CG animated films last forever if we craft them right.”

As he has stressed many times in the past, Lasseter championed the art of storytelling and the importance of staying focused on your dreams, even when the worse happens. When asked about the trend in using movie stars to do the voices in animated features, he pointed out that they always try to find actors that can take the characters and make it their own. He reminded the audience that when Pixar first tapped Tom Hanks to do Cowboy Woody’s voice in Toy Story, he was a great character actor, not a two-time Academy Award-winning superstar. He also said that Hanks told him that he believes he will mostly likely live on as Woody long after his other live-action roles are forgotten.

Lasseter also told the audience that his take on animation owes a lot to his brother who used to design and make costumes. ‘He said that you can combine classic patterns with wild fabrics or vice versa, and you can create something that everyone can relate to.’ Inspired by his theory, Lasseter has always tried to combine classic film grammar with cutting-edge technology to make his successful movies.

‘The foundation of your movies is emotion and heart, and we want to thank you for that,’ concluded Hanson. As he told the L.A. Times last week, ‘We are in the golden age of animation because you have these great creative talents at Pixar who are taking advantage of all the technical advances, but at the same time, they relentlessly pursue classic movie storytelling’meaning well-thought-out entertaining stories, great characters, heart and a lot of emotion. It’s ironic that these are the very virtues so often missing from live-action movies today.’

To find out more about UCLA’s ‘The Movie That Inspired Me’ events, visit www.cinema.ucla.edu.