Q&A with the legendary JOHN LASSETER

nullThe following Interview has been shared with Animation Xpress.com by Sony Pictures Releasing India on behalf of Buena Vista International

John Lasseter is a Walt Disney for the 21st Century. The director of Toy Story 1 and 2 and A Bug’s Life, and a driving force at animation powerhouse Pixar, Lasseter has been at the forefront of computer-generated animation since its earliest days. Yet he attributes Pixar’s success to remembering that audiences go to films for their stories not their special effects. “No one comes out of a film and says ‘Wow, the technology was amazing,'” Lasseter says. “Personally I like movies that make me cry, because they’re tapping into a real emotion.” Lasseter’s latest film is Cars, the saga of one Lightning McQueen, a hotshot animated stock car who’s on his way to a big race when he gets waylaid in the sleepy Californian town of Radiator Springs. The jovial Lasseter, wearing one of his trademark Hawaiian shirts, talked to us at Pixar’s headquarters in San Francisco, shortly after his appointment as chief creative officer of a newly united Pixar and Walt Disney Co.

You’ve done monsters and toys. Where did the idea for a film about cars come from?
Well, the fact that I love cars was the starting point. When I was a kid my Dad was a parts manager at a car dealership in Los Angeles, so I grew up working weekends and summers in the parts department of a Chevrolet dealership. Cars like Corvettes and Camaros were in their heyday then and all these American muscle cars would come through the place and I thought it was just amazing.

So you wanted to revisit your youth?
Not exactly [laughs]. But just after I’d finished work on Toy Story2 — it was the summer of 2000 I think — my wife and I bought a motor home and went on a two-month trip with our four boys. We had no plan other than to dip our feet in the Pacific Ocean and then head east. All our friends thought we were going to kill each, but the opposite happened: we got so close as a family. So when I came back I realized that what I wanted this movie to be about was what I had learned on that trip: that family and friends are what’s important and the journey you take in life is its own reward.

Is that what you see as the message of Cars?
First and foremost it’s just a lot of fun, very colorful and very entertaining. But yes, it’s also a very moving story and what it’s saying is that the journey you take in life is what it’s all about. It’s not about where you’re headed, it’s about paying attention to the here and now.

What about people who don’t really care about cars. Are they going to like this film?
I admit that I’m real geeky about cars, I mean I love everything about them, but my wife Nancy is not a car person and she warned me right upfront. She said, ‘You better make sure you make this film for everybody out there who’s not a car nut, like myself. People that really just want a car to get from point A to point B without breaking down.’ To be honest, I didn’t believe that these sort of people existed [laughs], but we came up with ‘the Nancy factor’, which basically meant that we made sure the movie appealed to everyone. On the other hand, for people who are into cars, we sweated all the details to make sure they were correct.

Thinking of your previous films, toys and monsters really lent themselves to becoming cartoon characters. Cars don’t seem so obvious.
You’re right, they’re tricky. I mean, when you look at a car, you immediately see the eyes are really in the headlights, but we knew that wouldn’t work for us. We decided to put the eyes in the windshield so that the entire car becomes the head of the character and it kind of moves on its four wheels like a four-legged character. This way the hood of the car becomes the nose and down by the grill and the bumper is the mouth. It just makes the car more alive and gives the animator more opportunity to use the wheels like hands and legs.

But it still has to look like a car, doesn’t it?
That was the challenge. We knew that computer animation could give us reflections in chrome and make metallic paint look really great and we knew we could have the rubber look real and the windshields look like glass. But we wanted to make sure when the cars moved it was a steel body that could not bend like rubber. The wheels could be all gushy and rubbery, because a tyre can flex when it goes over a curb, and we’re used to seeing that. But we also developed a system so that when the car goes over a bumpy road the body stays stiff but also moves with the shocks and the real dynamics. It was very complicated.

And all the cars are based on real cars, aren’t they?
Yes. I wanted to have real model cars in the movie. I didn’t just want to have a world of generic cars. To take one example, with a central character like Doc Hudson, I wanted car enthusiasts to look at and go, ‘My goodness! That’s a ’51 Hudson Hornet!’ And we got all the details right. I mean, even the color is the stock ’51 Hudson color that they painted Hornets with that year. As for the sound, our sound designer went out and found collectors and real Hudsons to record for the character of Doc.

It seems as if with every film Pixar makes, you push the envelope on computer generated animation. What were the major innovations on Cars?
At Pixar we invented much of computer animation of course and I’ve really enjoyed working at a company that is a pioneering company: it makes it so anything is possible. Not you can do anything. Computer animation is really good at certain things. Other things it has great difficulty doing. It’s understanding its limitations and choosing subject matter to fit in with what we can do. It’s also really important for us to recognize early on in the story what we don’t know how to do, and then to start going after it. In the case of Cars it’s the level of detail.

So it’s not a question of showing off some new animation tricks just for the sake of it?
We always start with the story and work out what it needs. For Monsters Inc. it was the fur of the characters. For The Incredibles [Lasseter was executive producer] it was the humans doing extraordinary things. In this film one of the things we realized we needed was real and precise detail to get the setting right. When we went out on the road to research Route 66, which is one of America’s most famous highways, what hit me right away was just how worn down some of these small towns were. You could see the faded paint peeling. There were cracks in the road where cars used to drive. Grass had stopped growing. There were layers of dust and dirt on the windows. I knew we needed to capture that detail and I knew that we’d have a hard time doing it convincingly with a computer. A computer likes things to be perfect. It is good at doing straight clean lines and geometric shapes. But when you need to bend a little – when you want dirt, detail and cracks – it adds a lot of complexity. It’s a real challenge.

There’s never a temptation to cut corners?
No, because I love to put the audience in this place where they are kind of sitting back and going, ‘I know this isn’t real, but boy it sure looks real.’ That’s why we sweat the details: we want to make this world look believable.

So finally, what car does the director of Cars drive?
I have a 1952 Jaguar XK 120 which I think is one of the most beautiful cars ever made. But probably my favorite American car is a 1957 Chevrolet Corvette.