A pioneer of modern animation, notably the computer-generated animation that dominated the mid- to late '90s, John Lasseter started out doing traditional hand-drawn work. His passion for animation began in high school and, after writing an exuberant letter to Disney Studios, he started studying art and drawing on his own. Shortly after graduation, Lasseter became the second student to be accepted into Disney's new animation program at the California Institute of the Arts. In the summers, he worked as an apprentice at the Disney Studios. While in school, he created two short films, Lady and the Lamp and Nitemare, both of which won Student Academy Awards. Shortly after graduation, Lasseter was hired by the Disney feature animation department and he spent the next five years there, working on such features as The Fox and the Hound (1981) and the short Mickey's Christmas Carol (1983).
In 1982, Lasseter received his first exposure to computer animation during the production of Disney's Tron. Intrigued by the possibilities of the radical new medium, he and colleague Glen Keane made a very short film combining simple computer animation with hand-drawn characters based on Maurice Sendak's children's classic Where the Wild Things Are.
In 1984, Lasseter left Disney in order to be on the cutting edge, with the computer animation division of Lucasfilm's Industrial Light and Magic. Initially, he only planned on working there for a month, but six months later when the department was purchased by Steven Jobs, he was still there. Jobs named the new company Pixar and gave Lasseter the freedom to direct, produce, write, and create models for many projects, many of which were television commercials. In 1988, Lasseter released the first completely computer animated short, Tin Toy, and won an Oscar for Best Achievement in Animated Short Films. In the early '90s, Lasseter and three writers developed the script for the groundbreaking Toy Story (1995), the tale of rival toys vying for the attention of their little-boy owner. To make the film, Pixar teamed up with Disney, and with Lasseter at the helm, the result was an eye-popping adventure, in which the toys had almost as much dimension and detail as live-action. The film received four Oscar nominations. Lasseter was presented with a Special Achievement Academy Award for his part in bringing the first feature-length computer animated film to the screen.
This marked only the first in a series of feature-length blockbusters that turned CG animation on its head while enchanting children and adults equally. Continuing as the head of Pixar's creative department after Toy Story, Lasseter became the central creative and entrepreneurial force behind all of the studio's subsequent efforts, with his high-octane imagination driving feature after feature. His accomplishments include directing A Bug's Life (1998), Toy Story 2 (1999), and Cars (2006), which he co-wrote and co-directed with his close friend, the late animator Joe Ranft, just prior to Ranft's death in an August 2005 car crash. That film, very close to Lasseter's heart because of his life long love of automobiles, went on to capture the first-ever Golden Globe for Best Animated Feature. Lasseter also executive produced Monsters, Inc. (2001), Finding Nemo (2003), and The Incredibles (2004). In what must surely be a first, all of these films not only broke box-office records, but became the critical sensations of their respective years.
As astonishing as it is to top these stellar accomplishments, Lasseter's career, reputation, and future shot through the ionosphere in early 2006 when Disney officially acquired Pixar, and promoted Lasseter to CCO of Walt Disney Feature Animation. In fact, Disney shareholders gave him a standing ovation and proclaimed him the savior of the entire company, from its feature-length animations to its video and cable sales to its feature films.
Despite reaching heights of which many in the entertainment industry only dream, Lasseter refreshingly projects an easygoing, down-to-earth amiability in the occasional interviews that he does for NPR, PBS, and other radio and television sources -- the very same freshness, likability, and young-at-heart quality, in fact, that lie at the core of every Pixar feature. These personal qualities, above and beyond Lasseter's technical innovation and first-rate imagination, are the ones that not only account for his success, but make his meteoric rise to the top of Disney so encouraging.
Also in 2006, Cars was released. This project which Lasseter personally directed became one of the biggest smashes in Pixar's hit-laden history, though it was also took more critical blows than any other film from the studio. He continued to oversee the remarkable run of Pixar movies that came out through the end of the decade, but didn't return to the director's chair himself until the seemingly inevitable Cars 2 in 2011.