Nobody can tell a story like John Lasseter, the former chief creative officer at Disney Animation and Pixar, now head of the animation division at Skydance Media. Having proved his luck with the August release of Luck, Lasseter is continuing to pursue films with a caring touch in his new creative home.
If you ask around in the business and try to find out what it is about John Lasseter that makes his films so successful, it’s that he cares.
For the 2022 release of Luck, for example, Lasseter encouraged director Peggy Holmes to seek out some unusual consultants. The lead character in the animated feature is a star-crossed but indomitable young woman named Sam. Lasseter encouraged Holmes to find the emotional core of Sam’s story by interviewing young people who had been in foster care in Ventura County.
Holmes told the Hollywood Reporter, “We spent days with young people who shared the stories of their lives with us. We were so incredibly moved by their never-give-up attitude, their positivity, and their generous spirits. These are young people whose lives have been filled with bad luck. We wanted our character Sam to honor their bravery.”
This kind of field research was nothing new for Lasseter. He is the same producer who encouraged his directors to travel to the South Pacific for Moana and to Scotland for Brave. He curated the experiences of his associates to build insights for animated features that can authentically touch the heart, his trademark at Pixar, which he has carried over to Skydance.
But it was Lasseter’s passion for excellence that got him the job at Skydance.
Insistence on Excellence
Pixar was a creation driven by the legendary late Steve Jobs.
One of the Apple co-founder’s friends was Oracle founder Larry Ellison, who got his son David a front-row seat to watch 70 cuts of Toy Story before the movie reached theaters when he was just 12 years old. David Ellison saw even more of the making of Finding Nemo, which hit the movie houses eight years later. So, it was only natural that Skydance would call on John Lasseter’s animation expertise when the younger Ellison became the company’s CEO.
When Lasseter came on board, Skydance had already sunk millions into the development of Luck. Lasseter committed to keeping the budget under $150 million (a typical Disney animated feature costs around $200 million), and to making changes that came as a surprise to many in the industry.
Lasseter was recruited for critical roles in the management of the animation division. He replaced director Alessandro Carloni with Peggy Holmes. He recruited celebrities for the voice talent for his studio debut, including Jane Fonda and Whoopi Goldberg.
Lasseter’s next move was to recruit for executive roles for the simple reason that this was the surest road to excellence for the film. “I knew it would be challenging because we had to kind of take it back down to the beginning and rebuild it and do it in a pretty short amount of time,” explained Lasseter. “Peggy is a crazy-great story mind, and Peggy has a gigantic heart, and when we were reconceiving Luck, I knew she was exactly the right person to do it.”
So, where does John Lasseter go from here?
Skydance’s next animated film, Spellbound, will be a musical. The film stars Princess Ellian, who is voiced by Rachel Zegler, and her royal parents, the Queen and King, voiced by Nicole Kidman and Javier Bardem. Lauren Hynek and Elizabeth Martin have joined the project as writers.
Also in the works is a feature film to be called Ray Gunn. Skydance Animation’s credibility only benefits from other artistic endeavors by the studio, such as the short film Blush, described in the Hollywood press as “a sophisticated allegory about Filipino American filmmaker Joe Mateo’s loss of his wife to cancer.”
Ellison and Lasseter intend for Skydance Animation to release two films per year, with the theatrical strategy to be determined for each film. The company is also creating a consumer products division and building a 5.8-acre campus in Santa Monica that will be completed in 2023.