Exclusive: John Lasseter Talks Bolt and More

Having worked as an animator at Disney, Lasseter began pioneering the technology that would be used to fully create animation using computers, leading to a number of short films including the Oscar-winning Tin Toy before Lasseter embarked on his first feature length CG animated movie Toy Story during the early ’90s. In 2006, just as Lasseter was putting the finishing touches on his fourth movie Cars, Disney bought Pixar Animation Studios and made Lasseter the Chief Creative Officer of both company’s animation studios, and his executive producer status was expanded to oversee all of Disney’s computer animated movies including this week’s Bolt.

Bolt is a fun adventure about the canine star of a television show who has to discover how to be a real dog after being separated from his person (a young actress named Penny, voiced by Miley Cyrus) and having to travel across country to save her. More than Disney’s previous 3D ventures Chicken Little and Meet the Robinsons, John Lasseter’s thumbprint is far more evident on it. There are certainly many elements of the most popular Disney and Pixar movies present in Bolt, so seeing Lasseter’s name in the credits as “executive producer” opens up many interesting questions.

Considering his experiences in spearheading computer animation as we now know it, Lasseter is an infinitely interesting guy. Sadly, we only had ten minutes with him, so we couldn’t really get to some of the tougher questions like the movie’s origins under another director when it was called “American Dog” nor did we get to ask about whether there might be a Paul Newman tribute of some kind in Cars 2 or whether he might actually direct again, but we did our best with the time we had to talk to Lasseter, and hopefully, the results aren’t too lightweight for diehard animation buffs out there.

ComingSoon.net: I know these projects tend to take three or four years or longer sometimes to develop. Was “Bolt” already in development when Pixar joined with Disney?

John Lasseter: Yeah, it was already in the beginning stages of development. I was so excited about the potential of this from the standpoint of the emotion that I know that we could get with the main character. Telling the story of this dog that’s the star of this action TV show and that he thinks this is all real, and then he gets separated from the show and he has to learn what it means to be a real dog, and he’s taught that by a cat. But then even deeper than that, it’s just this amazing story of loyalty and friendship that I think had such tremendous opportunity for heart, so I got very excited about it. And then in getting Chris Williams and Byron Howard, the directors on, and really having faith in those directors because they’re very funny, but they also have such huge hearts. They knew that this was so important in this film. Walt Disney always said, “For every laugh, there should be a tear.” I think this is really a hallmark of that.

CS: Where was it when you came on board though? Was it already in development or did it just have a script?

Lasseter: The premise had been developed and some storyboarding had been done on it, just at the beginning of story development, so we started crafting the story and developing it from there.

CS: Before you came on board, did Disney generally approach their movies differently than Pixar as far as developing their movie stories and characters?

Lasseter: Yeah, very very different. Pixar is a filmmaker-driven studio, meaning that the stories and the ideas really came from a director/filmmaker and what we do is we work with the filmmakers to develop their stories to be as strong and good as you can make them, to make them great movies, and we have what we call a “creative brain trust” which is all the other directors and key story people, so when I came down to the studio, Disney had always been an executive-led studio, which frankly, every other animation studio is in Hollywood. What we did was we changed that here. The executive-led studios where you have an executive that runs the studio, then there’s a head of development I should say, then there’s a whole bunch of development executives like that, and it’s in within this group where they come up with the ideas and they assign screenwriters and they write scripts and so on down and then somewhere down the line, they then assign a director to make it. It’s more films being made by committee, and I’m a filmmaker, so to me, the best way is you bet on a really, really talented director and then let them focus on making their movie and it comes from their heart and they’re really invested in it. I think this is a better way of working.

CS: You incorporated more into that movie then.

Lasseter: Yes, this was definitely animated in that model. This is the first film (at Disney) I’ve really had everything to do with from beginning to end.

CS: One thing that’s interesting is the casting of Miley and John Travolta, two big names stars and box office draws. Except for Toy Story and Cars, many of Pixar’s movies have had main characters that weren’t played by name stars, and this is different. I was wondering how you felt about getting the best of both worlds, having the name stars but not having them overpower the characters.

Lasseter: We’ve in the past, we had Tom Hanks and Tim Allen, who were stars, and Owen Wilson and so on. We’ve worked with big stars, but whether you use a big star or not, the number one thing is to develop a character that is so believable and appealing to the audience so when the lights dim, and the movie starts, the audience gets swept away by the story and they just fall in love with the characters. That’s the goal. The last thing in the world you want is people thinking about, “Oh, who did the voice?” and I think that’s why we hire the actors. So we were lucky to get John Travolta, and he is honestly such a great guy but everything he touches is so appealing, and he made this character have such depth and appeal, and Miley Cyrus as his owner, she is a real talent. She is such a talented actress, she’s the real deal, and she elevated her character Penny, just made it so great. We always record the dialogue before we do the animation.

CS: That’s consistent between the two studios.

Lasseter: Absolutely, yes, yes, that’s always been that way, and that way the animators get such great inspiration from the performances given by the actors so they have a huge impact on the character development. It’s so great working with them because they’re so talented and we have Susie Essman, who does Mittens, and our very own Disney story artist Mark Walton doing the voice of Rhino.

CS: Yeah, he kind of stole the movie and it’s funny that you can have these big stars that people know but then you have an animator who can create a character that everyone will love just as much.

Lasseter: That’s the goal, whether it’s John Travolta or Mark Walton, when the lights dim, you just want the character to come off the screen and become really lovable and believable. It’s been very exciting to be able to work with someone like John Travolta, but also Mark Walton. He was so good when we do the story reels, the early version of the movie using the stills and storyboard drawings, we always put scratch voices, temporary voices, in and it’s typically, just people around the studio do the voices, and then what happens is they make these characters come alive. When we had the Rhino character start being developed in the story reels of “Bolt,” Mark Walton’s voice was so funny because he’s kind of this super-geeky nerdy fanboy of Bolt, and it kind of is exactly what Mark is, he’s kind of a super-geeky, nerdy fan of movies and cartoons and stuff.

CS: Funny you should mention “Coming off the screen” because the 3D is a big thing and this is Disney’s third time using it, and I know Pixar is going to be doing their upcoming movies and redoing “Toy Story” and “Toy Story 2,” but “Up” is going to be the first one released in 3D?

Lasseter: Yes. We’ve been big proponents of 3D for a long time. Pixar and I made a short called “Knick Knack” in 1989 that was in 3D, but there were no theaters in the world that could show 3D, so we were kind of way ahead of the curve. I even took wedding pictures of my wedding in 3D. I’ve been a big proponent of 3D for such a long time, it’s finally great to have these theaters popping up around the world, so at Disney, this is the third animated film we’ve done in 3D. We were the first to do the animated films in 3D, but this is also the first one we’ve really created the film from the very beginning in 3D. Oftentimes, it’s more of an afterthought. The film was made and then the 3D version is created. This is really created from the very beginning in 3D.

CS: As far as the original “Toy Story” movies, are you going to go back to the original computer files?

Lasseter: Yeah, those we’re going back and making those in 3D. It looks fantastic, they really look great. Now, we’re not changing the movie at all. It’s exactly “Toy Story” but we’re making another eye-view of it and it’s looking great in 3D.

CS: I was curious about that since you’ve made so many CG movies since that first one and technology has changed, I wondered if going back to that makes you want to change things that you might not have been able to do 13 years ago?

Lasseter: It’s called digital archeology, resurrecting the operating system and all the files and everything like that. That film was made from 1991 to ’95, so to resurrect all that and bring it back up to speed so it can render on the modern computers, it has been a real technical challenge by our team. They’ve been able to do it, and it looks fantastic. It looks identical to “Toy Story” and yet, it’s in 3D and it looks great. “Up” is being made from the very beginning, it’s a 3D film.

CS: Will there be a 3D trailer of “Up” with “Bolt” by any chance?

Lasseter: Yes, and it looks awesome.

CS: You’ve obviously moved up to more of an administrative role at Disney and Pixar but I know there’s going to be a “Cars 2”, so how are they developing the sequels to the movies you originally directed? How did you decide who was going to take over for these babies of yours?

Lasseter: We worked very closely with them, and it’s people who worked on the film or people at the studio that I think will be great directors, and it’s a very exciting opportunity. We’re doing “Cars 2,” which comes out in ’11 and I think it’s really great. I worked very closely with these teams on this and “Toy Story 3” which is being directed by Lee Unkrich, who was a co-director on “Toy Story 2” and then “Cars 2” is Brad Lewis, who is the very talented producer of “Ratatouille” who has been trained as a director, so he’s doing a great job.

CS: I guess you’re getting to the point where Pixar might actually have two movies a year, too?

Lasseter: It’ll never be that much. It’s going to be… One year it’ll be two movies, then the next year, it’ll be one, so three movies in two years.

Bolt opens nationwide in conventional and Digital 3D theaters on Friday, November 21.