John Lasseter (left) and Joe Ranft
You probably don’t know the name Joe Ranft. If you do, you’re likely not as familiar with him as you are with John Lasseter, Disney/Pixar head honcho and director of Pixar’s first three films as well as their latest, Cars 2, which hits theaters this weekend.
I’m sure other Pixar greats such as Andrew Stanton (WALL•E), Pete Doctor (Up), Lee Unkrich (Finding Nemo) and Brad Bird (Ratatouille) are also more familiar to you than Ranft. Even Steve Jobs, who bought Pixar from George Lucas back in 1986 and then kept the lights on when things looked bleak in the late eighties and early nineties is likely to perk your ears sooner. And as Jobs kept Pixar open for business, it was Lasseter’s unflagging belief in the future of computer animation combined with his talent and drive that brought the studio to where it is today.
Lasseter directed Toy Story, A Bug’s Life and Toy Story 2, and put together the incredible staff that made those early films blockbusters and helped Pixar change the landscape of animation permanently. If anyone is the godfather of computer animation it’s John Lasseter. But to bring us back on topic, for those that don’t know… who is Joe Ranft?
Joe Ranft was John Lasseter’s main collaborator from 1991 to 2005. He was the ying to Lasseter’s yang. He was also the studio’s Head of Story during that period as well as the voice of some of Pixar’s favorite characters. These characters include Lenny the Binoculars from Toy Story, Heimlich from A Bug’s Life and Jacques from Finding Nemo. Outside of Lasseter and Jobs, Joe may have been as important to building the Pixar brand as anyone.
Ranft was a major talent in the animation world even before he arrived at Pixar. He worked on everything from Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Beauty and the Beast all the way through The Lion King (Joe received a story credit on both Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), and all before his thirtieth birthday.
Around that time Lasseter asked Ranft to join his staff at Pixar. Joe was flattered by the offer but he had other ideas at the time. He wanted to write children’s books. So he retired from Hollywood and moved to Seattle with his wife Su.
But no one was buying Joe’s children’s book ideas, so when his pals Henry Selick and Tim Burton called and asked him to come down to San Francisco and help on a little film called Nightmare Before Christmas he decided to say yes. (That’s him with storyboards from the film to the right.) While he was in the Bay Area, Lasseter took the opportunity once more to ask Ranft to join the staff at Pixar. This time Joe said yes. That was when the two men joined forces to create a series of films based on strong stories and wonderful characters.
Joe was instrumental in selecting the members of the story department as well as teaching them how to create compelling narratives. It was Joe who first suggested Andrew Stanton as a director after John offered him the chance to helm his own film. Joe was worried that directing would take too much time away from his family and he had two small children at home.
I know all of this because Joe was a pal of mine. We were at The Groundlings together back in the ’80s and we ended up sharing a house in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles. He was one of the funniest people I’ve ever met and one of the best friends anyone could ever want.
Ranft died in a car accident in August of 2005. The same day Elvis died. It was a sad day for all of us. His wife and kids, his family, friends and the entire staff at Pixar. He was 45 at the time and had just finished the principal work on Cars, which he co-directed with Lasseter.
Cars 2 is the first time Lasseter has directed a film without Ranft at his side. I asked him how difficult it was for him. Here is what he had to say:
“It was rough. It’s been rough ever since [Joe’s passing] to be honest. Joe was such an important part of my life. You know, like my best friend. My right hand man, my true wingman. And you know it’s just so sad that, um, to lose him. And you know it’s interesting, right after we lost him, then Disney bought Pixar and we kind of merged with Disney. And all my time at Disney I keep going Joe would just love this. Because he loved helping people. He loved teaching people. He was such a great support. For everybody. You know, and I just go oh, man. So, I think of him every day.”
“My background. You know, my computer is, you know the opening is a great picture of him; my oldest son Jack was really little. He loved Joe. He was putting tiny little fingers behind Joe’s head, you know Joe was posing next to Heimlich, you know the Heimlich ride. You know I thought of Joe all through this. Because, you know Joe is Mater. He’s all over Cars 2.”
I mentioned one of the key visual characteristics of Mater, the tow truck voiced by Larry The Cable Guy in the Cars films. “Mater’s teeth are modeled on those fake teeth Joe used to wear, right?” I said, referring to a set of fake teeth Ranft used to wear as props when checking into hotels or going out to dinner at fancy restaurants.
Lasseter nodded. “Yeah, I gave him those. We had a lot of fun, Joe and I.”
It was starting to get a little heavy in the room so I decided to ask about the story department that the two men had built at Pixar. Story is a religion at Pixar. The bedrock of everything they do.
“Well, story is the most important thing. Period. In our films. And getting the story department solid and bringing in experienced people, really they’re the ones who roll up their sleeves and keep hammering away. At the story and it’s a long hard journey. Of reworking and reworking and reworking. It’s a collaborative effort and Joe was a big part of building that.”
John looked up and a big smile came over his face.
“There you go. Look at that.” He said pointing out the window.
I turned and saw a blimp headed right at us.
“What does it say?”
“Goodyear?” I said after looking at the first word I could read.
“No it doesn’t.” John stood up and pointed at the dirigible, as it got closer. “Look closer. Can you read it?”
I saw the image more clearly. “Lightyear!”
John clapped heartily. “The Lightyear blimp! Awesome.”
Lasseter sat back down. “Sorry for the interruption.”
“It’s okay.” What else could I say?
I remember when Pixar was located in one of those corrugated metal buildings in Pt. Richmond. I know that when John wanted to make The Brave Little Toaster as a computer animated film back in the ’80s, he got the rug pulled out from under him at the last minute. He didn’t even get to work on the film when it was eventually made as a hand drawn feature. Now a blimp cruises past the hotel window with the name of one of Pixar’s most famous characters flashing across its spine. Did he think all of this was possible back then?
“I don’t have a crystal ball,” he said. “I just really, you know, I always wanted to make great movies and really entertain people. I loved computer animation. And it was really fun to work at Pixar because it was developing. It was really, really fun to be able to um, to have those, just to be inventing new things. Being this group that was inventing computer animation and doing the first feature film. But the whole time, just focused on what I knew was the most important thing. Was the most important thing, which was the story and the characters. And that’s something I learned from Clark Thomas and Ollie Johnson, Chuck Jones and all my teachers and mentors at Disney. So often people get seduced by technology and they lose sight of the fact that technology never entertains an audience.”
It all comes back to story with Lasseter. Story, story, story. It’s the Pixar mantra. It was Joe Ranft’s mantra. I’ve never understood why the other studios in Hollywood don’t follow the Pixar lead and when I asked Lasseter about it he seemed equally befuddled.
He repeated the question and paused before finally responding, or not responding depending on your interpretation. “That’s a good question,” he said. “I don’t know.”
Neither do I.
Cars 2 will be out this Friday. It will be weird to watch the film knowing Joe’s name will not be in the credits. I’m not sure it really matters, though. According to Lasseter, our mutual pal is still in almost every frame of the movie.
FYI: If you want to know more about Joe Ranft there is a terrific book that came out last year called Two Guys Named Joe: Master Animation Storytellers Joe Grant and Joe Ranft. It’s a little Disney-fied in places but it’s still very good. I’ve added a video tribute below.