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Friday, March 17, 2000

Once upon a time, there was a toy named Casper . . .

Judging from this smiling demeanor and his slow, measured way of delivering what was obviously a prepared anecdote, Pixar head honcho and director John Lasseter has obviously been a big figure on the elementary school lecture circuit. Holding an old, much-cuddled toy that resembled a dirty gray Teletubbie without the TV, director Lasseter seemed less a technophile CG-animation wizard and more a patient, caring father telling a bedtime story, an approach that went down well when he addressed a room full of reporters and fans at the Imperial Hotel.

On the old toy he brought with him:

"There's an exhibit going on of some old toys, favorite toys of Japanese celebrities, toys they had as a child. So I had to bring my favorite toy from when I was a little boy. My Casper the Friendly Ghost doll. He can talk (pulls string -- "grrgghrrrll" noise emits) -- but now only I can understand what he says. Believe it or not he was white, at one time.

"When we were developing the first 'Toy Story,' we patterned Woody after Casper: They both have soft bodies, plastic heads and they have pull-strings, and that's how they talk. And also, Casper actually got his arm ripped when I was a kid, and these are actually my stitches on here where I sewed him together. And those who've seen the new 'Toy Story' know that Woody gets his arm ripped, and Andy sews him back together, rather badly.

"So this is a great illustration of how we at Pixar make these movies based on our own lives, our own experiences. We reach down into our hearts, and try to make these as stories and characters as true as we can, even though it's a world that's completely made up."

On deciding to make the sequel:

"The original idea came from an experience I had with my own sons. I have quite a few collectible toys in my office; I have five sons, four of them are young, and they love to come to daddy's work to play with daddy's toys. Now don't get me wrong, I love my sons, but when they come into my office, and start playing with my collection of toys, I get very very nervous. So I stopped one day, and started laughing at myself, and said, 'John, what did you learn from the first "Toy Story?" Toys are put on this earth to be played with by a child.'

"And if toys were alive, what they'd want is to be played with by a child, more than anything else in the world. But when a toy is old or valuable, it is now meant to be set on a shelf, to be collected, to be looked at, and never to be touched and played with by a child. What kind of life is that for a toy? So I thought to myself, 'What if Woody was actually a valuable collectible? What if Woody gets stolen by a toy collector?'

"One of the most tragic things that happens to a toy is to be outgrown by the child that loves it. And this is something we wanted to deal with, that gives the film its emotional core. Woody starts worrying that he will be outgrown; it's the equivalent of us getting obsessed with the fact that someday we will die. He learns this wonderful lesson, that is to not worry about the future that you can't control, to pay attention to the beauty and wonders of today."

On further sequels:

"There are no plans yet for a 'Toy Story 3.' And there are no plans for 'A Bug's Life 2.' Our next film we're making at Pixar is called 'Monsters, Inc.,' and it's a fantastic story of a world very much like our own, but inhabited only by monsters. And the only place this world of monsters connects with our world is through the closet doors of children's bedrooms. It'll be released sometime in 2001."

On his favorite scene:

"My favorite scene in the movie -- other than all of them -- is probably the scene when Jessie, the cowgirl, tells Woody about her past. Because it's so emotional. And she's a very important character in the film.

"One of the first things we set out to do when creating the sequel was to have a strong female character that was really likable and had a great personality. The first movie, granted, was made by a bunch of guys about the toys they played with as kids. So there wasn't much of a female presence in it. But my wife said, 'Don't come home until you develop a strong female character.'

On his goals:

"Animation is really an art form that lives forever if it's done right. My children still watch 'Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,' and it's over 60 years old now. And I know that their children will still watch it too. And this understanding is what drives us at Pixar to make these films, to make the story and the characters very strong, because the story and the characters will outlive the technology which made these films."

On digital vs. film:

"There is a new technology that I'm extremely excited about and that is Digital Cinema Projection. When I had the opportunity to see a demonstration of this technology about a year ago, my face was just like a cartoon -- my jaw hit the floor when I saw it. It was fantastic. It's absolutely perfect for our medium. Because one of the hardest things for us to do at Pixar is to take our digital images, which look phenomenal on our expensive, color-correct monitors, and transfer them to 35 mm film.

"I'll be honest with you, in all of our movies, it's always been good enough, but it's never been perfect. But with this digital projection, you can see the movie projected on a theater screen exactly the way we see it on the monitors at Pixar.

"As a director, I want every single person in the world to see the movie as best it can possibly be seen. And you all know what film prints look like after they've been screened for two months, with all the scratches and the hair and out-of-focus and all that stuff. It never happens with digital -- it looks perfect on opening day, and three months later too."

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