Heart and Humor: John Lasseter at the Lyon Film Festival

Lyon John Lassteter

This week, John Lasseter has been in Lyon, France for the Lumière Film Festival, which celebrated Pixar’s films as a part of its 2015 program.  Lasseter was honored at the event with a plaque on their Wall of Filmmakers; he introduced a 20th anniversary screening of Toy Story on October 12th; and he led a masterclass and also introduced a showing of Cars on October 13th.  As always, when I hear that someone from Pixar – especially John Lasseter – is going to be making public appearances, I search high and low for coverage and recaps; even more so now, since I’m always looking for any new information about Toy Story 4.  The international events are the trickiest, and although I haven’t had a lot of success finding videos of the full presentations on You Tube (more may pop up in time), I did discover this fantastic interview…

“At Pixar, we look for – number one – where’s the heart going to come from, of the movie?  The heart comes from the growth of the main character, what he learns.  We like characters that are flawed.  We don’t like perfect characters, because they’re kind of boring.  You want flawed characters, because they have a place to go, and a place to grow.  We also love really funny characters, characters that you can put in situations that become really great.  We also love the setting of the film to be something that you haven’t seen before, or a place you would like to be in for an hour and a half to two hours.”

I also managed to track down a link to the Periscope broadcast of the entire masterclass, from DisneyFR on Twitter.  Aided by an interpreter for the predominantly French-speaking audience, Lasseter began his lecture with a discussion of how he got into animation, specifically computer animation, and how that led to the creation of Toy Story. He then went on to discuss more general filmmaking methods; and while no specific story examples were given – and there was sadly (for me) no mention of Toy Story 4 at all – there is still plenty of insight to be gained from what he did share.  And since Periscope videos are only viewable for 24 hours, I stayed up late and watched the roughly two-hour program several times, transcribing the statements that I felt were most relevant to Pixar’s current creative process.  You’re welcome.

John Lasster Masterclass
I’m not sure what’s up with the angry Woody cutout, but he was sitting there scowling the entire time.

“When we make our films, the most important thing for me is the emotion, the heart, the pathos that the audience will feel.  Those are the elements that Walt Disney always had in his films, that really made the films meaningful to the audience.  When I think of my favorite movies that I enjoy, it’s the ones that have made me feel something.  So as we approach every one of our films, that’s the first thing we think about, is where is the heart of the movie going to come from?  We don’t set out to make a message movie – a kind of lesson to the audience – that’s not our point.  The point is to find the heart of the film.”

There’s no doubt about it, heart is at the core of all of Pixar’s movies.  Lasseter went on to elaborate on that fundamental principle:

“A lot of that comes from the change the main character has through the arc of the film.  The main character has to change, and how he changes is where this heart comes from.  But there also has to be a logic to the story, to the world, to this character change.  It has to make sense to the audience, and to ourselves.  Because we always try to take everyone in the audience – take you on the journey with the main character, so you understand why the the character is feeling certain things.  We try to make a connection with the audience, so therefore we try to find subject matters that everyone is familiar with, on one level, but then show it to them in a way that you’ve never seen before.”

I couldn’t help but think of Woody, and the different emotional journeys he’s experienced in each of the three Toy Story films.  What will be his lesson to learn, his change to be made, in the fourth movie?  I’ll refrain from offering my own guesses of what it might be, at least for now.  Obviously, the love story element is one that is universally understood, but dealing with that from a toy’s perspective – where a couple has been separated, as far as we know, against their own wishes – will definitely be unique.

Pixar’s use of humor and character was also touched upon:

“I feel that the humor comes from the characters themselves.  We like to create unique personalities and put them into situations that you know humor will come from.”

This humor comes from who the filmmakers are, as well, both individually and collaboratively:

“I believe if you create a great working environment, and you’re having fun while you’re making the films, it finds its way into the movies.”

And it’s when you bring them both together that Pixar’s films become truly great:

“It’s that balance of heart and humor that is so important in our films.”

Another segment of the masterclass that caught my attention was his detailed description of the methodology of a movie’s development.  While I’ve heard similar explanations before, in other articles and books I’ve read about Pixar, hearing it from Lasseter himself was particularly interesting to me, especially since I’ve been wondering how far Toy Story 4 could have gotten in the production pipeline before encountering complications.  So, once a director has come up with their own original idea for a film, here’s the sequence of steps the studio follows to help them transform it into a feature-length movie, in Lasseter’s own words:

  • We start by just taking the story and working on the outline of the story,  just what happens when and why, developing the characters and the world as we develop the outline.
  • We then bring in a screenwriter to work with us.  Once we have an outline that we all like, we then start filling it in and create a treatment (a longer document).
  • We will do many versions of this treatment.  Then we’ll have the screenwriter create a first draft of the total screenplay, the script.
  • During this time, we have a production designer and art director start thinking up ideas of what the character design and the world – the design of the world – will look like.
  • After we have a script that we like, we then start storyboarding the whole film.  Then we will take and create a version of the movie using the storyboard drawings, which we call a story reel.  This is where the story of our films really gets created, in these storyboards.
  • Every 12 weeks, we will take a look at a new version of the movie; and we will get together, give notes on it, and they will rework it.  And we’ll do this many times over, before we start production.

The editing process is where they can really discern if there’s a flaw in the story:

“So often, you don’t realize the story isn’t working.  You think the script is great, and then you watch the story reels, and you’re like, this isn’t working at all, and you will work and rework it until – I don’t let anything go into production until it’s working great.”

I think it’s fair to speculate that – since the voice actors had reported that they were to start recording soon – something just wasn’t working in the Toy Story 4 story reels, and wasn’t improving quickly enough to proceed with the original schedule.  And Pete Docter’s recent interview suggests that the script is still being written.  I respect that they want to get the story right, first and foremost, even if that means a delay.  With John Lasseter in the director’s chair again, I know he wants the film to be absolutely perfect.

“I love to direct films, and come up with the ideas myself.  I think it makes me a better chief creative officer, by directing, because I get to work with the individual artists themselves.”

I can’t wait to see what those ideas are that he’s coming up with, for Woody and the gang – even if we do have to wait another year for them to get everything polished.  One thing’s for sure, you know there will be plenty of humor and heart.

Images © DisneyFR.

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