John Lasseter on the Future of Animation

“No one goes to Milt Kahl – or Marc Davis or Ollie Johnston or Frank Thomas – ‘Wow’ what pencil did you use?” That’s my favorite quote from last Monday’s Marc Davis Lecture, The Development of the Digital Animator, moderated by Tom Sito. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has posted online the ten most significant moments from the event. Panelists included Lasseter, Bill Kroyer, Tim Johnson and Phil Tippett. You can watch all ten segments here: on Oscar’s You Tube channel.

(Thanks, Ed Himmel)


  • http://bestanimatedshort.blogspot.com ajnrules

    I believe that 1988 was the most significant year in the history of the Best Animated Short Film category at the Oscars, as it marked a major crossroad in the way that computer animation is viewed by the industry as a whole. It’s fascinating that the directors of both of the computer animated nominees were present at the panel and to hear what they have to say about the future of animation. I just wish I could see the entire thing.

  • SKent.

    It’s a great quote, but it’s not exactly true. Luck at the cult around blackwing pencils. I remember those used to get some crazy bids on ebay when they went extinct. People would speak in awe of them, and then they’d tell you that’s what Glen Keane uses.

    I also remember seeing some interview with Ollie Johnston(I think it was) where he’d kept a load of Fred Moore’s old pencil stubs. He reckoned there must be some kind of magic in there.

    Of course it’s true that a pencil is still just a humble pencil, but there can be something about finding the ‘right’ pencil. Sometimes it can be just the ‘magic feather’ you need to make the leap.

    • mee

      I googled… and liked this answer:


      http://theartofglenkeane.blogspot.com/2006/07/rapunzel.html

      I stated this in another comment box as well..He uses or used a Blaisdell Layout pencil..very thick and very smooth..I have one and have noticed that they work really well on Disney paper(from chromacolour)but not so good on WB animation paper..either way you find one?..hold on to it for dear life..Magic pencil indeed.

      J.

      • Tim Hodge

        I have an old copy of Step By Step magazine, in which there is an article about the production of “Oliver & Co.” In it, they mention that the Blaisdell is Glen’s favorite, and that they had recently gone out of production… AND that Disney had bought all the remaining stock they could get their hands on for Glen.

        Someone who worked with him told me he used the last one on Pocahontas.

    • pez

      “A pencil is still just a humble pencil, but there can be something about finding the ‘right’ pencil. Sometimes it can be just the ‘magic feather’ you need to make the leap. ”

      That might be the quote of the year

  • Adam

    I’ve told people something similar from time to time: no one cares what brand of film stock or what kind of camera Citizen Kane was filmed on. Apple enthusiasts tend to get upset when I say things like that.
    Tools are nice and fun to talk about among artists, but really it’s the end product and the minds behind it that matter.

  • http://www.onanimation.com Daniel

    Wow, that’s a good point. I wonder what kind of microphone he’s using?

  • andrew Murry

    Is he drunk?

  • http://coldhardflash.com Aaron

    But the pencil does have some real drawbacks. Especially the latest versions – real glitchy and crashes alot. I detailed it all here a couple years ago…
    http://coldhardflash.com/2007/10/product-review-pencil-pro-studio.html

    • http://www.animationinsider.net Cody

      If the ‘Pencil’ keeps breaking…you just switch to a different ‘Pencil’.

  • Peter J Casey

    I was there! I sat front row (about 15 feet from him).

    I feel bad for Phill Tippet. He looked like he was getting more and more aggravated as the night went on cause he really still loves stop motion.

    When the Pannel was done, and most of the entire crowd rushed to the stage to speak to John, Phill took off down the isle like a bat out of hell.

    I called out to him “Phill wait! How’s Mad God?!”

    Phill stopped turn around and said “Wait right there I’ll be back.”

    Never came back :-(

    • Chris Sobieniak

      I feel sorry for him too.

    • Steve

      Maybe he had to pee.

  • http://animationinventory.blogspot.com/ teodor

    Now They ask- which software you use.
    Even pixar movies looks ugly compared to recent rendering.
    today movies will look ugly for 6 month later.

    this can not happen and will not happen for pencils of Milt Kahl, Ollie Johnston or a Frank Thomas

  • tim elliot

    I remember hearing Eric Goldberg tell that joke few years ago, but he said something like, “what brand of pegbar did you use?”

  • Mike

    I love phil, and i worked for him for a while, he hates cg, and he doesnt know anything about it nor does he really care to learn, he has not been thetrue head of tippett studios for years and is just a mascot at this point. Even when he takes vfx sup credits there is always a co-vfx sup who really does the work. Craig hayes was the real genius of tippett studios and he is no longer there. There was nothing more depressing to me then witnessing how bitter my hero and childhood hero had become. I am not insulting the guy, he is the reason i do what i do but I feel tippett should have followed the path of guys like henry selick because truly he does not love what he does. And its very apparent in all his interviews and even more so to those he works with.

  • Dirk3640

    “No one goes to Milt Kahl – or Marc Davis or Ollie Johnston or a Frank Thomas – ‘Wow’ what pencil did you use”

    I gotta DISAGREE big time with John on this. My brother and I are both cartoonists, and we LOVE having looong conversations on what kind of pencil to use, what kind of paper, pens, etc. We LOVE going to the art store and spending an hour analyzing the various pencils, erasers, etc. When I find a pencil or tool I really like, I buy a TON of them, cuz they may not be there next time. We also love trying different types of software and finding the ones that work best for us. Cuz different softwares draw differently, just like pencils. Flash “draws” different than Toon Boom, etc. Photoshop “draws” different than Sketchbook. It’s all personal taste.

    • http://olivier-vuil.com Olivier Vuil

      I agree with Lasseter because that’s not the first thing we think when we see another one’s work.
      I think he wanted to compare with the fact that a lot of people easily think that some great CG work are done only because of the software, not the skills.

      A software is a tool, just like the pencil. It’s just that some software allow to do some automatic stuff but when you want to create something unique, you figure quickly that you have to do anything by yourself and that the software’s abilities are here to help you to make it.
      Just like drawing with a great pencil.

      But ! As I started to be a pencil and stationery fan recently, I think more about “what pencil did (s)he use” when I see a drawing ^^

  • http://paperless-animation.blogspot.com David Nethery

    Of course , JL makes the obvious point that for the viewer enjoying the end product the “tool” used to produce the product is of no importance. And even for the artist who makes the work the tools are of secondary importance , the main thing is what does the end product look like on screen, is it entertaining, is it well animated. But anyone who has been around animation for a while knows that the artists DO have their particular favorite pencils. A good animator can use almost any decent pencil to do animation, but certain brands of pencils are preferred by certain artists.

    And Dirk3640 is right that even with digital tools like a Cintiq the particular software one uses does have a different “feel” . I know that my favorite animation app , TVPaint has it’s own look and feel vs. ToonBoom or Flash . One is not necessarily “better” than the other and all can be used to make great animation . But each has it’s advocates and they’ll go on long and loud about why they prefer one over the other.

    And it’s the same in other fields : certain photographers got to have their Nikon , others love their Canon . Cinematographers have preferred certain movie cameras and lenses over others. But all that should be invisible to the person viewing the movie, photograph, drawing, whatever.

  • Bud

    And John Lasseter owns Ollie Johnston’s favorite pencil, given to him by Ollie before he passed away. He’s no dummy. Great talk.

    • mee

      Yes, but can he tell us what KIND it is?

  • http://www.youtube.com/distrakt DISTRAKT

    FANTASTIC!!!

  • matt

    I agree with David.

    Lasseter has been saying the pencil thing for years and the quote about a computer not creating computer animation any more than a pencil creates hand drawn animation may be clearer, to those here who don’t understand without insider reservations what he’s getting at and what the frustration is. The pedantry is ironic considering the subject.

    The stuff about Glenn Keane’s blackwing pencil show how even people in the industry can miss the POINT. The tools are never as important as the person wielding them. Why is this so hard for some of you guys to understand? The quote IS true when you consider that he’s usually talking to everyone in general, and that this was an AMPAS event. Not a tiny room of skilled artists who animate. What percentage of the audience do you think were hands on artists? Not many. His point still stands. Yep, the magic feather is an illusion and superstition. Same with the Moore stubs and doesn’t Brad Bird or someone have a story about Kahl’s pencil shavings or something? Come on, we all know that stuff is said with a wink.

    Keane is what makes those drawings great. If you think it’s really his pencil, go do something else because you’re headed for endless disappointment. It also works the other way with the old saying “a bad tradesman blames his tools”.

    Lasseter has also related in the past a similar anecdote about back when they did Luxo Jr. and the techy-type guys came up all flustered saying OMG what software did you use or what equations or mathematical formulae or whatever to get the realistic movement and he said “I just keyframed it” – or words to that effect (I’m obviously paraphrasing). That’s not to diminish Pixar people’s technical brilliance at all.

    The computer doesn’t do anything unless you tell it. They’re not sentient yet, and no, there is STILL no magic “instant dinosaur” button. Even the physics and procedural stuff has to be written first by very clever PEOPLE. So yes, it’s unfair that the general opinion is that computers “do” the work and didn’t likewise think the pencils did in the Disney greats’ time.

    I won’t really comment indepth on the astoundingly transparent/myopic Apple enthusiast snark because I’d probably get banned. Classy mate, so classy. And hypocritical considering what it implies about yourself. And wow, that so many others agree is pretty disappointing. I hate it when someone sort of has the same opinion but the worst reasoning.

    • mee

      “Lasseter has also related in the past a similar anecdote…”

      I just saw it — it showed up on a google of “Ollie Johnston pencil” (wanted to know what KIND?) — youtube “Imagine – From Pencils To Pixels (2003)”

      Host: At Lucasfilm, Lasseter made Andre and Wally B, the first character animation ever done on a computer. It created a sensation.

      John Lasseter: It showed at this big computer graphics conference. It was a big hit. Afterwards this one guy comes up from another company and said, “John, it’s amazing.” And I said, “Thank you.” He said, “What software did you use?” I said, “Oh, we just used a, you know, a keyframe animation system. It’s not much different than what other people have.” He says, “No no no no no! It was so FUNNY. What software did you use?”

      Yes.

      To your point about Keane being what makes the pencil great, and a bad craftsman blaming things on his tools… Yes. Keane left Disney. Why? I don’t know but I’m still shocked. Wondering were his talents being well used? Thinking of this passage from Michael Barrier’s interview of David Hand, who rose to be a director under Walt Disney in the ’30s-40s:


      http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/Hand/interview_david_hand.htm

      …there was a tremendous creative contribution from these very fine artists. Without them, Walt didn’t have a tool to work with.

      But I must say he kept his tools sharp, and more credit to him. I wouldn’t have been anything, and all these key men that you know about wouldn’t have been anything in an animation studio without Walt. Walt fought the front office…

      From a distance I’m guessing that’s where the frustration on this board may be coming from — seeing great tools and amazing artists being neglected/wasted by someone who should know better — ? I’m not there, I don’t know. But that’s where my angst comes from, as a fan.

  • Hey now

    …and this is why no one knows who animated any scene in any CG feature. It’s all f**king souless.

    • Glen

      No one cares. It’s not, nor has it ever been, about the”animator.”. It’s not about any single artist, of which animators are but one small part. It’s about the film.

      • Hey now

        Actually, no. People do care. In the same way audiences appreciate particular actors in live-action films. Serious students of animation do care. Which you are obviously not.

      • Gorgilla

        Yes, people like to follow their favorite actor. If a part in a live action film was played by several different actors over the course of the story it might be a bit distracting.

        Ideally the audience should not be aware of the hand-off from one animator to another.

      • Hey now

        If it didn’t matter or wasn’t noticeable, no one would be name-checking Milt Kahl or Frank Thomas in the first place.

      • mee

        I think he’s saying Sprezzatura? That’s why I Liked it.


        http://www.hometheaterforum.com/t/304339/htf-blu-ray-review-beauty-and-the-beast-diamond-edition-combo-pack/60

        So what you’ve just seen is kind of an unveiling of all that goes underneath it. There’s a term I learned that describes this. And it’s called (spretzitera). A term coined in the 1500s by someone describing the work of Raphael, how – and it means art that hides its art. And that’s what animation is. It’s this amazing art form. But soon as it’s in color, you’re not looking at drawings anymore. You’re looking at a living breathing character. And the animator disappears. You as an artist, it’s an art form where you really hide. You’re not out front at all.

        I think to the artist it’s all about the art itself, the creation, and if you saw the artist instead of the art then he’s failed. Which seems kind of chicken and egg, ask each who’s the most important, chicken says egg, egg says chicken, and me looking at them says both, neither, I don’t know, God loves chickens and eggs and things that go round, pass the praise please. (And if you asked God, would he be happier if you said God or creation? I never thought of that before!) And the best animators of all pass their praise on to those who were part of the collaboration. No I in team. I just saw this letter on ebay (230714147390):


        March 5, 1983

        Dear Mike:

        Thank you for your complementary
        comments about my work. I certainly
        enjoyed all my years at Disney’s and
        loved animating. Of course, the great
        thing was all the talented people that
        I had a chance to work with. We had a
        great team there, and I owe any success
        I had to all those people.

        Glen was very stimulating to work
        with and I look for great things from
        him. He gets very exciting and entertaining
        work on the screen and I think communicates
        better with the audience than most of
        the young guys.

        Thanks again for your nice letter
        and best wishes to you.

        Ollie Johnston

        (I was googling “Ollie Johnston pencil” — the joy of looking.)

    • CG_Animator

      “…and this is why no one knows who animated any scene in any CG feature. ”

      Says who? I’ve heard CG animators say multiple times that they can pick out their co-worker’s scenes just by looking at them.

      I know CG is eeevvvviiiilll and everything, but just because you can’t pick out individual scenes, doesn’t mean others can’t ;-)

      Just like in hand-drawn, if you are familiar with the animator’s work and the nuances they usually put into their animation, you can spot it.

  • http://she-thing.blogspot.com Caty

    I don’t know… Bruce Timm uses some crappy printer paper and he does beauties with it. I think it all comes to something relative.

    Even so-

    Photoshop: Gives you certain comforts that makes you have the chance to suck and make millions o’ mistakes.

    Pencil: If you blew it at the third stroke, you blew it and you have to start all over again. Pencil puts you in a “You have to be awesome otherwise I’ll kill your paper” situation. Computer puts you in… nothing. Everything’s perfect.

    Also, we’re talking about a “tool” that contains brush, pencil, chalk, paper all at the same time.

    The pencil is a TOOL. The program is a PROGRAM that if you don’t know how to use it you become lazy.

  • Frank Ziegler

    He tries to make the point that the future of animation is in the hands of the artists depending on what tools they use. The part he’s leaving out is that Disney will not let the artists choose their own tools. In fact Lasseter himself is the one saying NO to the pencil.

    • mee

      And yet…

      At the Iron Giant panel at the LA Animation Festival this year, Brad Bird went out of his way to tell the audience that it’s thanks to Ed Catmull and John Lasseter that CalArts kept their hand-drawn animation program going:


      http://www.therotoscopers.com/episodes/2012/3/31/episode-6-los-angeles-animation-festival-laaf-brad-bird-crew.html

      TOM SITO: So, I want to thank all our panelists. I want to thank Brad –

      BRAD BIRD: Let me – I got to have one –

      TOM SITO: Oh sure. Go on ahead.

      [37:43] BRAD BIRD: I’m sorry. This is just a weird story and you should know about it, because it’s –

      [laughter]

      – this is – I’ll be very short. They wanted to, several years ago they wanted to shut down hand-drawn animation at CalArts and the industry was telling them, “Why are you, have hand-drawn animation? You know, it’s dead, it’s done with, it’s over.” And they were going to close it down at CalArts. They were going to have the animation program but it was all going to be CG. And Ed Catmull, bless his heart, came down there and said, “Are you crazy?” He said, “Hand-drawn animation is the foundation of all animation, and you know people can learn the box,” which is what they call the computer, “but you know the skills that you learn from doing hand-drawn can be applied in any direction.” And it was ironic, because the only reason they listened to him was because he was a computer guy.

      [laughter]

      But, you know, Ed Catmull is, you know, largely responsible, and John Lasseter, for keeping hand-drawn animation alive at CalArts.

    • matt

      I think that’s garbage Frank – Michael Eisner and Jeffery Katzenberg were the two guys who declared 2d animation dead and were in the position to make it a self fulfilling prophecy. Even though we were still getting glorious stuff from Miyazaki for example.

      Lasseter and Catmull made sure it would stay at Disney. If you’ve ever heard Lasseter talk you’d know he loves traditional 2d/drawn animation. The idea that he’s against ‘the pencil’ is complete bunk. In fact one of Pixar’s earliest achievements was to facilitate the traditional process and bring the classic coloured line back with the CAPS system they sold to Disney, thereby preserving the hand-drawn line without the drawbacks of the xerox technique and prompting Disney to return to a coloured inking approach, even if it was digital. They were still helping bring back something Disney themselves had abandoned for financial reasons.

      All I hear these days is “digital thinking” – on or off, yes or no. If I like this I have to hate that. And ironically the worst culprits are the oldschool zealots (and yes I’m in that age group). You don’t need to prove your love of classic 2d by crapping all over cg. It’s infantile and myopic.

      The idea that stuff like Wall-E, Up or Toy Story has no soul and the artists (YES, artists) “don’t care” is ludicrous and naive in the extreme to the point where you can probably ignore anyone who says it.

      Like ‘Hey Now’. Wow. All of it eh? All of it. There you go folks, the textbook definition of painting in broad strokes.

      Lasseter loves 2d AND 3d/cg animation. What’s so hard to understand about that?

      • Frank Ziegler

        If John loves 2D as much as he says he does then why doesn’t he greenlight more films for 2D? Actions speak louder than words. He’s head of Disney animation for cryin’ out loud.

      • matt

        What, more than the NONE there were going to be, ever again? He IS!

        Sure he’s not rushing them out the door (no doubt precisely because of the Eisner/Katzenberg regime) and he’s getting a rep for scrapping/re-jigging as many there as at Pixar, but I’d rather have one every few years or however long it is and have it good than none at all. I don’t think anything will please you on this one unless it’s more 2d than 3d/cg. He doesn’t greenlight that many at all, 2d OR 3d. They were going to have a Pixar movie every 6 months to a year at one stage ages ago and the yearly thing is only happening now… and does he actually have carte blanche to greenlight a stack of movies? He shut down Circle 7 – if all he wanted was to get product out he wouldn’t have done it, and I’m grateful for that. Because though it took years longer, TS3 was fantastic.

  • oodelally

    Have any of you seen The Sweatbox? The artists can make the most glorious rendition of a scene and if the big guys says no, it is scrapped. John Lasseter has in his hands the future of animation and he knows it, It’s not with the artists. It is why you are seeing princess movies from pixar instead of the King of animated princesses, Disney. This whole talk about it’s just a tool is all moot. Good artists know that medium you use will affect the emotion you get from a piece of work. Just think would Toy story have been any better if it was traditionally animated? I say it would be worse. Cg is the perfect “tool” for that story. a decision made by the big guys, not the artists.

  • Steve Gattuso

    As a computer tech, it’s _my_ job to keep up on things like what programs and hardware are necessary to perform the tasks at hand. Performing that job takes a full-time effort in keeping up with the latest trends while still being able to work with legacy technology from the past. It’s also our job to work with the artists to help them use with those tools available to get their own tasks done without having to deal with obscure wackiness like “ERROR: Library BG%^8795XX.dll is missing.” Now I would probably ask what tech was used in a particular work, but the proper people to ask would be their techs and not their artists. (We’ll go of in a corner somewhere and have long discussions on programming languages and graphics cards and how much we want to drown Mark Zuckerberg…)

    Being an artist and animator is already enough work for a single person. It does not and should not require also having to get a degree in computer science. The computer and the programs you use are simply another pencil. And we’re your pencil sharpeners. ;3

  • Pedro Nakama

    John looks very tired in this clip.