Entertainment behind the scenes
John Lasseter gives old-school animation a hand at Disney expo
John Lasseter, the Walt Disney Co’s chief creative officer, walked onto the stage at the company’s D23 Expo in Anaheim, California, on Sunday wearing a suit jacket over a Hawaiian shirt, and the crowd greeted him with the cheers and shouts usually reserved for a conquering rock god. At one point, a fan held up a flashing red Buzz Lightyear toy the way someone might hoist a cigarette lighter at a concert.
With an adoring audience of more than 3,000 Disney fans before him, Lasseter spent much of the presentation talking about Disney’s new push to reclaim its former glory in hand-drawn animation, an artform the studio abandoned after 2004′s box office failure “Home on the Range.” Lasseter is known for pioneering computer-generated imagery (CGI) on animated movies like “Toy Story” at Pixar Animation Studios, but he went to great lengths to promote Disney’s upcoming projects in that other style of filmmaking, which paradoxically Pixar helped to make less popular through the success of its CGI movies before Disney acquired the studio in 2006.
Lasseter described Disney’s upcoming hand-drawn movie “The Princess and the Frog,” set for a Dec. 11 release, and he offered more details on the new “Winnie the Pooh” movie that Disney announced earlier this week, as a hand-drawn film set for release in spring 2011.
“Honestly, this is the most blessed production I’ve ever worked on,” Lasseter told the crowd about “Winnie the Pooh.”
Aside from its box office potential, “Winnie the Pooh” could also fuel a merchandising line of fuzzy animal characters that has been one of Disney’s highest sellers.
Lasseter said Burny Mattinson, an animator who worked under the late Walt Disney and was involved in two 1960s “Winnie the Pooh” movies, will contribute to the latest “Winnie the Pooh” film. And he said the latest project will try to match the look of those 1960s films, such as by using watercolors the way the original animators did.
The fact that Disney has upped its investment in hand-drawn animation even before seeing how well “The Princess and the Frog” performs at the box office this year shows the studio is committed to the artform. Lasseter told the D23 crowd that when he joined Disney after Pixar was bought by the company, he said on his first day under his new bosses that he wanted to bring back hand-drawn animation.
Later, at a news conference, Lasseter said hand-drawn animation is “gorgeous.”
“I never quite understood why the studios thought people wouldn’t want to watch it,” he said. “What audiences didn’t want was bad movies.”
He also said that certain stories, like “The Princess and the Frog” with its strong element of fantasy, work better as hand-drawn animation than a movie like the 1995 “Toy Story,” which amazed audiences with the realistic detail that computers were able to impart to common household objects, like plastic toys.
But even as Disney increases its commitment to hand-drawn movies with “The Princess and the Frog” and “Winnie the Pooh,” the studio still plans to make most of its upcoming animated movies with CGI, and at his D23 presentation, Lasseter showed clips of those projects, to cheers from the crowd. The projects include “Cars 2,” which is set for a summer 2011 release and which Lasseter said will feature the original cast of cars motoring around Europe, with its ubiquitous scooters and its rules of the road so different from those the characters are used to back in the United States.
Lasseter said that the movie will take iconic European structures such as the Eiffel Tower and graft design elements from cars onto them.
While audiences have shown they like CGI in movies like Disney/Pixar’s “Up,” which made more than $415 million this year at worldwide box offices, Disney’s return to hand-drawn style is still unproven. If “The Princess and the Frog” is a hit this year, expect much more than just “Winnie the Pooh” to come out using Disney’s old style of filmmaking.