Lasseter's first job was with The Walt Disney Company, where he became an animator. Next, he joined Lucasfilm, where he worked on the then-groundbreaking use of CGI animation. After the Graphics Group of the Computer Division of Lucasfilm was sold to Steve Jobs and became Pixar in 1986, Lasseter oversaw all of Pixar's films and associated projects as executive producer and he directed Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, and Cars 2.
He has won two Academy Awards, for Animated Short Film (for Tin Toy), as well as a Special Achievement Award (for Toy Story).
Lasseter was born in Hollywood, California. His mother, Jewell Mae (née Risley), was an art teacher at Bell Gardens High School, and his father, Paul Eual Lasseter, was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership. Lasseter grew up in Whittier, California. His mother's profession contributed to his growing preoccupation 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. While in high school, he read The Art of Animation by Bob Thomas. The book covered the history of Disney animation and the making of a book about Sleeping Beauty, which made Lasseter realize he wanted to do animation himself. When he saw Disney's 1963 film The Sword in the Stone, he finally made the decision that he should become an animator.
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" team of veteran animators – Eric Larson, Frank Thomas, and Ollie Johnston – his classmates included Brad Bird, John Musker, Henry Selick, and Tim Burton. During his time there, he produced two animated shorts; Lady and the Lamp (1979) and Nitemare (1980), which both won the student Academy Award for Animation.
First years at Disney
On graduation, Lasseter joined The Walt Disney Company, and was promoted quickly up the ranks to a Jungle Cruise skipper at Disneyland in Anaheim. Lasseter later obtained a job as an animator at Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1979, 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 lost momentum and was criticized for often repeating itself without adding any new ideas or innovations.
In 1980 or 1981, he coincidentally came across some video tapes from one of the then new computer-graphics conferences, who showed some of the very beginnings of computer animation, primarily 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 films 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 M. 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. 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.
Lasseter and his colleagues unknowingly stepped on some of their direct superiors' toes by circumventing them in their enthusiasm to get the project into motion. During a pitch meeting for the film to two of them, animation administrator Ed Hansen, and head of Disney studios, Ron W. Miller, the project was cancelled, due to lack of perceived cost benefits for the mix of traditional and computer animation.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 with Catmull and his colleagues on a project that resulted in their first computer animated short: The Adventures of André and Wally B. Because Catmull was not allowed to hire animators, he was given the title "Interface Designer"; "Nobody knew what that was but they didn't question it in budget meetings". The short turned out to be more revolutionary than Lasseter first 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.
Due to George Lucas's financially crippling divorce, he was forced to sell off Lucasfilm Computer Graphics. It 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, Cars, and Cars 2.
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 Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Cars (2006), 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.
Lasseter received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in Hollywood, California on November 1, 2011. It is located at 6834 Hollywood Boulevard.
Lasseter was also the recipient of the Austin Film Festival's 2011 Extraordinary Contribution to Filmmaking Award.
Back at Disney
Disney purchased Pixar in April 2006, and Lasseter was named chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt 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 Robert 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 animated through traditional animation, computer animation 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. The gentle forest spirit Totoro from Miyazaki's My Neighbor Totoro makes an appearance as a plush toy in Toy Story 3.
Lasseter drew the most widely known versions of the BSD Daemon, a cartoon mascot for the BSD Unix operating system. He 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 and again in June 2010, 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.
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 14 to 33. The family has a Dachshund named Frank and a cat named Moocher.
The Lasseters own Lasseter Family Winery, located in Glen Ellen, CA.
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 tarnish their dreams.
Feature Film Filmography
Animated Shorts Filmography