John Lasseter Talks About Hand-Drawn Animation With Japanese TV Crew

Last month a Japanese TV crew traveled to Pixar where director Isao Takahata was treating the studio’s artists to a screening of his new Studio Ghibli film The Story of Princess Kaguya.

The TV show clip includes comments from screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) and John Lasseter. Considering that Lasseter has never expressed his feelings about the qualities of hand-drawn versus computer animation, I find little moments of unrehearsed dialogue such as this to be quite revealing. In the video, Lasseter says:

“Often times when you see something that is so hand-drawn, you’re always noticing the artist and the artwork, and it’s something inbetween you and getting caught up in the story. But not this film. This was amazing how you just get swept up in the story.”

It would be irresponsible to read too deeply into the comment without more context, but it’s a fascinating statement that, on the surface, would suggest that Lasseter believes removing the hand of the artist from a production increases the audience’s identification with the story. I would love to hear him expound on these views at length in the future. Lasseter, who started in hand-drawn animation before pioneering computer animation storytelling, would have an intriguing perspective on the topic.


  • Caitlin Cadieux

    Nice article. I’ve been very disappointed by the treatment of 2D animation at Disney in recent years, and I do think it could be financially viable to revive it. Still hoping this gets turned around at some point, although the traditional animation coming out of Europe and South America is really encouraging (and amazing).

  • Animation Fan

    I don’t think Lasseter was making a comment on hand drawn animation versus cgi, but speaking more towards any sort of artistic medium where style (especially something as stylized as Takahata’s film) distracts the viewer from enjoying and engaging in the story.

    • Megan

      I agree, it seems he was stating that highly stylized animation can sometimes hinder the viewer’s ability to really get ‘into’ the story, but is praising Kaguya as a good marriage between style and substance.

    • IJK

      Also adding on to what you said: Don’t take it as purely a negative. As in, it’s not just referring to comments like: “Something is too stylized for people to connect with the characters”.

      Sometimes animation can be so beautiful, it distracts the viewer with “How did they do that?” “Wow, the brushwork is gorgeous!” “I wonder how much time it took to do that” questions that go on in their head when they SHOULD be engaged in the story.

  • K

    one of the first things imparted onto me in school was that when you show someone something- an animated short or a movie- you don’t do it as a show-off piece for glory and recognition, so that the average viewer is watching your work… You contribute your sequence of shots to it hoping that the audience doesn’t see anything amiss and gets absorbed wholly into the experience, assuming not just that it was done by one singular person, but that the characters are beings themselves not compelled by anyone but themselves. If you’re doing it for glory and bum-pats, that’s going to show through as if you’re ‘trying too hard’. If you’ve done it right, they won’t know you’ve done anything at all. Maybe he’s speaking about the sad side-effect of being in this industry that sometimes forces us to look at animation in terms of how it was made first before allowing yourself to get absorbed into it… since, yknow, he’s being interviewed by other animators in an interview for other animators.

    if you’re taking what Lassiter said to mean “the human touch is distracting! We have to make it look less like something out of someone’s pencil, and more like it’s all automatically pre-generated!” like you love to do with anything pitting CG against traditional animation, that’s YOU, not him. If you’ve got an agenda, and you want to say that “traditional animation has more soul in it than CG”, please, feel free to just come out with it honestly. Thanks.

    • AmidAmidi

      I think it’s only fair to be interested in what the chief creative officer of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar thinks of both hand drawn and computer animation, especially since both divisions now emphasize a single production technique.

  • ike

    I love and work in animation, and I’ve been thrown away from seeing movies like ‘Rango’, ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ or ‘Mary and Max’ because of their style. I thought those styles could work for a short film, but not for an hour and a half movie, because one would get tired*. And I believe this is, more or less, what Lasseter meant at some point: if you are an average viewer there are some kind of products that you will not be interested in by how they look. One can clearly see how almost all the animated ‘money-makers’ end up using roughly the same stylistic patterns…

    I think he’s just talking common sense rather than bashing against styles or artists…

    * and then, when you decide to play them, you quickly forget about the style and enjoy the movie.

  • Mister Twister

    So, coming from the New God of Animation himself, “2D stands in your way of enjoying the story”.

    Bravo, John! You just made the quote of the year.

  • http://the-animatorium.blogspot.com/ Natalie Belton

    I’m really hoping this film will hit our shores some day.

  • Alex G.

    Classic Lasseter….

    You can see what he thinks of hand drawn by his actions upon taking over. His failure to uphold his promise about releasing a non-CG animated film every 5 years attests to that much.

    You know what gets caught up between me and enjoying a story? Distracting photo-realistic textures on every god-damned nook and cranny of a character, and lazy lowest common denominator writing.

    Go on Amid. Get the context on this one. I want to hear it!

    • Strong Enough

      well its really hard too when Winnie the pooh and princess and the frog flop really hard

      • Alan

        Princess and the Frog was a terrible animated feature. I have no idea how it was produced, but it looked rotoscoped to hell and back. It fell so far down the uncanny valley I couldn’t even finish watching it. And I’ve tried watching it twice so far. So I’m not surprised it was a flop, it will surely not stand the test of time either. It was a bit like watching Holli from Cool World and reminded me of just how bad Pocahontas was.

        • Strong Enough

          Princess & the frog >>> Frozen and Tangled

      • Joe

        Both were great, but the problem was those films were released when higher named movies were on the horizon

        Princess and the Frog was released 2-3 weeks before Avatar

        and

        Winnie the Pooh was released on the SAME DAY as the last HARRY POTTER MOVIE!

        Which one do you think will make the most money?

        • Strong Enough

          yeah but that isn’t John’s fault. the fact is he made those 2d animated movies and no one showed up. don’t blame him

        • Mark

          Unfortunately that’s not first time Disney did that. Treasure Planet came out against the second Potter movie and flopped. I don’t think TP was a bad movie, wasn’t the greatest but it did spell the beginning of the end of 2D at Disney. The excuse I remember at the time was that people were growing tired of 2D not the fact the Potter was the biggest thing on the planet for kids.

      • jonhanson

        Princess and the Frog made $267,045,765 worldwide on a $105,000 budget. That doesn’t include advertising, but it also doesn’t include the boatloads of merchandising.

        Not saying it’s what Disney was looking for but it’s not that bad of a start for an animation department that was essentially restarting. And Winnie the Pooh was basically doomed to fail since it was put up against Harry Potter.

        People forget the Oliver and Company and The Great Mouse Detective weren’t great successes but Disney had faith and kept investing in their films while keeping their budgets relatively in control. That’s because there’s no formula for a box office success, you’ve got to be willing to weather some ups and downs. But Disney went all in on a bit of a long shot and lost faith prematurely.

        • Strong Enough

          “Not saying it’s what Disney was looking for”

          Bam. Boom. thats where i stopped

          • jonhanson

            Glad you could avoid thinking any more than necessary.

        • semo2010

          You forgot three decimal zeros on your budget figure ;)

    • Anonymous

      I think you are forgetting that John doesn’t control Disney’s bank account. If you are looking for someone to blame look no further than CEO Bob Iger, CFO Jat Rasulo, and the Board of Directors. They stopped John from fully killing direct to video releases and played a role in stopping the production of hand drawn features.

  • Thoughts on John L’s interview

    I’m pretty sure John Lasseter was talking about how extremely stylized visuals can sometimes take centre-stage over the story…and given that Kaguya-Hime has a unique, very hand-crafted look, the visuals could have dominated the story, rather than support it. This problem can happen in CGI animation as well. (think about how 3D can be used as a gimmick) Although I’m sure some people may be suspicious about his comment in light of recent events at the Disney Studio, I would still say that some people are reading too much into this statement. It was just a comment about the temptation to make visuals control the story, rather than the other way around.

    If it was an attack on hand-drawn animation, that would be a pretty dumb thing to say, considering this interview was for a Japanese audience. Japan still predominately produces hand-drawn animation, using CGI as a support. I think Lasseter has more PR savvy than blast an entire animation medium like that.

    • AmidAmidi

      If he was talking more generally about extremely stylized visuals, then he would have said something like, “Often times when you see A PIECE OF ANIMATION THAT IS SO EXTREMELY STYLIZED…” except his comments were aimed squarely at hand-drawn. He said, “Often times when you see something that is so hand-drawn…”

      • guest

        Amid, I think you called it:

        “…it’s a fascinating statement that, on the surface, would suggest that
        Lasseter believes removing the hand of the artist from a production
        increases the audience’s identification with the story.”

        Except I wonder if the confusion isn’t in the framing — whether Lasseter is talking about hand-drawn vs CG, or whether it’s about the studio (him) as film author versus the artists, doesn’t matter if it’s hand-drawn or CG. That thing that Brad Bird talked about here (http://www.michaelbarrier.com/Interviews/Bird/Bird_Interview.htm ) — too long to quote it all, search Disney.

        Shorter quote, but then again the second sentence seems like sleight of hand to me and I go huh, but then again Bird would know and I don’t:

        “But I think that notion, that it’s a system that creates an animated
        film, and not a person, has been kind of bound up in how people
        perceive animation. The John Lasseters and the Miyazakis of the
        world are in the minority. For the most part, we have films that
        are directed by two or three guys, and which one is the author?”

  • Hankenshift

    the VAST majority of the world, if presented the choice of aesthetics over strong, emotional storytelling will pick strong emotional storytelling. Why wouldn’t one use every tool in one’s artistic arsenal to put this idea across? And why would one want anything, no matter how well intentioned or beautiful, to get in the way of putting an idea across if it’s not emotionally right? Mr. Lasseter is 100% correct. And his endless curiosity about many forms of storytelling and animation only underlines his support of the animation community.

    • Ninja_Toes

      Ok, but if “emotional storytelling” is your only requirement then why animate the film at all? isn’t it much easier and neater to just use flesh and blood actors and real locations to tell your story? There has to be a further, deeper reason for choosing this technique to craft your film.
      You can’t divorce the “visuals” from the merits of a film anymore than you can the story, or the music, or any other creative element. Strong storytelling is undeniably important, and you can’t have a good film without it, but it isn’t any more “valid” than the aesthetic style of an animation.

  • Strong Enough

    why is Michael Arndt there? So he really is on the Pixar Brain trust? no way

    • Haruna

      Needs to be because he was fired from Star Wars

      • Strong Enough

        lol. he has other major gigs.

  • Lew

    Lasseter has a very strange way of explaining and phrasing things. Something’s either hand drawn or it’s not, saying something is “so hand drawn” is bizarre. I’ve noticed more and more recently that he’s very convoluted when he talks.

    • guest

      And I was trying to think of how many examples where you actually see the artists’ pencil/brushwork onscreen in 2D–not so many, especially in big studio films, though one big one came to mind: when Disney showed an entire work-in-progress version of Beauty and the Beast–including pencil reel and storyboard material–at the 1991 New York Film Festival. They got a standing ovation, it was one of those amazing you-were-lucky-to-be-there moments, and the work-in-progress version has been included with home VHS and DVD releases ever since. Remembered in the Behind the Scenes bonus disc feature: http://youtu.be/aM3UtALjMTg?t=39m41s

  • Haruna

    .This may fly in Japan…for the Japanese…but in america we don’t do that.

    • http://pickledperfection.blogspot.com/ Andrea K Haid

      In America you don’t do what? I’m unclear on what you’re trying to say here.

  • Ben

    “It would be irresponsible to read too deeply into the comment without more context….”

    [99% of the commentators on this post immediately read too deeply into the comment without more context]

    • d. harry

      Ben, you might be surprised at the amount of people here who know more than you think and give clues through their posts. (I’m NOT one of them though!)

  • ShouldBeWorkin’

    I think Mr. L was talking in the sense of not only stylized but very organic(?) media. I sense a man who does love drawn animation but stuck between his heart and shareholders.
    Drawn animation needs a daring film requiring as much attention as they give to “happy meal” movies. Frog was 20 years too late (would’ve been a great late 80s /early 90s film) and Winnie The Pooh has been strip-mined to death to distinguish it as something new.

    Would someone tell me what is keeping Pixar so unique in light of the success of Frozen. Is it only now that Disney does musicals and Pixar doesn’t. From a business standpoint why not merge?

  • http://tresportfolio.tumblr.com/ Tres Swygert

    Just reading the statement alone makes me feel puzzled and wondering where he stands on hand drawn animation in general. What examples does he have to help him explain his point?

    Instead, we have a statement that is too vague, confusing, and could be a bashing to the most respected format that is animation. He should take time to address this and give a more weighted statement where people understand him better.

  • Steven Bowser

    It’s hard for me to imagine the beauty of a peice of art distracting me from it. I’m such a nerd for this kind of stuff that I welcome innovation and stylization. Has anyone out there ever seen an animated film that was too stylized to the point of distraction?
    I think as long as the style supports and agrees with the subject matter then it’s okay. If it just looks weird for the sake of it then there’s no point in it at all. So a film like Akira shouldn’t be cartoonized, but a film like Ernest and Celestine should. It makes sense that way.

  • guest

    “Where you stand depends on where you sit.”

  • CG Animator

    As usual, people are reading way too much into an innocent comment… all John is saying is that the film’s STYLE should not take away from it’s SUBSTANCE. It’s not a slight against hand-drawn animation and it’s dumb and paranoid to think it is.

    Honestly, I admire people like John L. and Brad Bird because their philosophy is that the *medium doesn’t matter*. A good film is a good film whether it’s live action, animation, hand-drawn, CG, paper cutouts, sand animation, puppets, etc. Story is the cake. Animation is the frosting.

    A lot of people now-a-days are waaaay too obsessed with the medium rather then making a good movie and it’s driving me up the wall.

    I keep seeing stupid comments on Facebook and such like: “Frozen would have been a BETTER movie if it was hand-drawn”. BULL.CRAP. It would have been the same exact movie… just animated on paper instead of with an eeeevvvviiilll computer.

    HOW you make a movie doesn’t matter. That’s why we have storyboards and don’t just jump in animating right away… if the movie sucks in rough storyboard, form, it’s going to suck no matter how great the animation is.

    The animation industry here in the states is only going to move forward if people start focusing on making good movies instead of “saving hand-drawn animation” and lamenting about the “good old days”.

    To sum it all up: STORY first. MEDIUM second. Now stop complaining and go make a damn movie.

    • Matt Norcross

      EXACTLY!!!! I don’t care if Frozen was done in hand-drawn animation or computer animation, it was still a good movie. Although I wish Disney would still do more hand-drawn movies nowadays (although according to Lasseter they’re still doing hand-drawn animated shorts for theatres), we’re gonna have to accept the fact that Disney has finally got it right when it comes to their CG work, and you can thank Pixar for giving them their mojo back. Iger was a smart man indeed. ;)

      • guest

        What about Paperman? Whole point was to put hand-drawn life into CG, it wins the Oscar, and then next thing you know John Kahrs is gone.

        • Matt Norcross

          That was a personal decision on John’s part. If you ask me, he probably decided to leave because the program Paperman was animated on, Meander, was still having problems when it comes to color. I can see that too.

    • mtman318

      “Story is the cake. Animation is the frosting.”

      Yep, and most people don’t like eating the same kind of frosting every single time.

  • siskavard

    Sorry Amid, I’m stupid. I was asking what the name of the film they’re watching is and you have it clearly typed out there.