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Book critic Maureen Corrigan

Book critic Maureen Corrigan reviews A is for American, the new book by historian Jill Lepore.

05:26

Other segments from the episode on February 27, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 27, 2002: Interview with John Lasseter; Review of Jill Lepore's new book, "A Is for American."

Transcript

DATE February 27, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: John Lasseter discusses the film "Monsters, Inc.,"
computer animated films and the process of computer animation
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

The movie "Monsters, Inc." is nominated for four Academy Awards, including
best animated feature film. Some critics included the film on their year-end
10 best lists. My guest, John Lasseter, is the executive producer of
"Monsters, Inc." He also directed the animated films "Toy Story," "Toy Story
2" and "A Bug's Life." These are films which not only made great strides in
computer animation techniques; they were very popular among children and
adults. Lasseter received a special achievement Oscar for "Toy Story." In
1988, his short film "Tin Toy" became the first computer-animated film to win
an Oscar. Lasseter is a founding member of the Pixar Animation Studio, and is
now executive vice president.

Let's start with a scene from "Monsters, Inc.," a comedy about monsters who
get their power by scaring children and making them scream. The two lead
animated monsters are voiced by Billy Crystal and John Goodman. In this
scene, they sit down to watch a new commercial that they're featured in.

(Soundbite from "Monsters, Inc.")

Mr. BILLY CRYSTAL: (As cartoon character) Look! Our new commercial's on.
Ah!

Unidentified Man #1: The future is bright at Monsters, Incorporated.

Mr. CRYSTAL: I'm in this one. I'm in this one.

Unidentified Man #1: We're part of your life. We power your car. We warm
your home. We light your city.

Unidentified Child: I'm Monsters, Incorporated.

Mr. JOHN GOODMAN: (As cartoon character) Hey, look! Betty.

Unidentified Man #1: Carefully matching every child to their ideal monster...

(Soundbite of bang and child screaming)

Unidentified Man #1: ...to produce superior screams, refined into clean,
dependable energy. Every time you turn something on, Monsters, Incorporated
is there.

Unidentified Man #2: I'm Monsters, Incorporated.

Unidentified Man #1: We know the challenge. The window of innocence is
shrinking.

(Soundbite of siren)

Unidentified Man #1: Human kids are harder to scare. Of course, MI is
prepared for the future, with the top scarers...

(Soundbite of child screaming)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Woo-hoo, ha, ha, ha!

Unidentified Man #1: ...the best refineries and research into new energy
techniques.

(Soundbite of person screaming, child screaming)

Mr. CRYSTAL: OK, here I come.

Unidentified Man #3: We're working for a better tomorrow today.

Group: We're Monsters, Incorporated.

Unidentified Man #1: Where am I? Monsters, Incorporated. We scare because
we care.

Mr. CRYSTAL: I can't believe it.

Mr. GOODMAN: Oh, Mike.

Mr. CRYSTAL: I was on TV! Ha! Did you see me? I'm a natural.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. CRYSTAL: Hello? I know! Hey, wasn't I great? Did the whole family see
it?

It's your mom.

What can I say? The camera loves me.

GROSS: John Lasseter, welcome back to FRESH AIR.

Mr. JOHN LASSETER (Pixar): Oh, thank you very much. I'm glad to be here.

GROSS: Let's talk about the making of "Monsters, Inc." Where did the story
originate, the idea of monsters needing to acquire the screams of children,
otherwise they have no power?

Mr. LASSETER: Pete Docter, the director, he was the supervising animator on
"Toy Story" when I was directing it, and one of the things we all loved about
"Toy Story" was we tapped into something that was really familiar to all of us
as kids, that--you know, this feeling that when you leave a room, you kind of
look back and you wonder if your toys come alive when you're not around.
Well, we thought wouldn't it be great to have something else like that, that
was just a known fact as a child, and he came up with the idea that, you know,
there are monsters in our closets or under our beds, you know, waiting to
scare us when the parents leave and turn out the light. I mean, that's a
known fact across the world.

And then we can try to answer the question why. Why do the monsters come in
and scare us? And they said, `We need something where the monsters get
something kind of tangible from the human world, you know, to make it--give
them the reason why they go into the kid's room.' And we thought, well--you
know I have five sons, and I know that kids are complete unstable sources of
energy. We thought, `Well, what if they go in there and they scare the kids,
when they scream, they actually capture this scream and refine it into a
clean, efficient fuel?'

And so therefore, Monsters, Incorporated is like an energy company in the
monster world, and once we had that, we created this entire world--and it's
very dense. I mean, there's a lot of ideas in there that never made it to the
film, but it kind of gives the believability to the world. For instance,
they're all members of the Screamsters Union(ph) and...

GROSS: Right.

Mr. LASSETER: ...they have, you know, breaks and, you know, eat doughnuts
like everybody else, but their doughnuts are ones that we wouldn't want to
touch. And...

GROSS: Well, one of the things I like about your movies is that they have
social satire in them, and in this instance, in Monsters, Incorporated,
there's this big monster corporation that has, you know, its own branding
and...

Mr. LASSETER: Right.

GROSS: ...TV commercials...

Mr. LASSETER: Right.

GROSS: ...and all the stuff that we expect from, you know, corporations, a
hierarchy. Do you like having the chance to get in social satire in a kids'
film?

Mr. LASSETER: Yeah. Oh, absolutely. Because it's part of the thing that
adults get and actually are entertained by that are over the kids' heads. I
mean, the kids are just enjoying the characters and the adventure and the
slapstick and all that and where the adults are kind of getting, you know,
sort of these comparisons to our world. Like in "Toy Story," for instance,
one of the big things was to make the personalities of the toys be adults and
not to be, well, childlike personalities. And so when Andy left the room and
the toys came alive, that was like a workplace. Being a toy and being played
with was like their job, and so they had staff meetings. They had plastic
corrosion awareness meetings. They had, you know, all these concerns and
worries that actually are much more, you know, relate to us as adults than
kids, you know.

And in the same way with "Monsters, Inc.," we looked at this corporate world
and we studied, for instance, the graphic design that happens within big
corporations and how they have--you know, everything is done exactly--we
figured that with capturing scream from kids, that their boom time actually
was in the '50s, during the baby boom era. There were so many kids all over
the place that they just were making money hands over fist. And that's when
they expanded tremendously, and so when you look at the architecture in the
movie of "Monsters, Inc.," it has a very '60s look to it, late '50s, early
'60s. We studied the architecture of like Brasilia, you know, and all these
places where it's just this nutty architecture from the '60s that are really
cool, and so we modeled it after that, because thinking that's when they were
expanding tremendously.

The graphic design had very much of a feeling of Paul Rand, you know, the
great graphic designer who designed a lot of elements, you know, in
corporations back then, the UPS logo, the CBS logo, on and on and on. And all
those things brought together, and so it made for a believable world. If
there was a world beyond a closet door full of monsters, yeah, that's what it
would be like.

GROSS: Let's talk about creating the monsters. I mean, you can't do research
exactly on what monsters look like. Although we all know monsters. We all
know Godzilla.

Mr. LASSETER: Right.

GROSS: You know, we all have a lot of monsters in common. So what's the
process like? I'm sure there were several animators and designers who were
working on the monsters. Maybe you could just let us in a little on the
design process.

Mr. LASSETER: What we did is in creating the world of "Monsters, Inc.," the
monsters in this world, we wanted to find kind of a, you might stay, a style
of monster that could be unique to "Monsters, Inc." So we did a lot of
research and looked at, you know, the history of monsters in cinema and TV and
so on, and even in children's books. And we saw that there was a certain
style that, say, the Muppets had, a certain style that Maurice Sendak has in
"Where the Wild Things Are," th...

GROSS: Yeah. I think the John Goodman monster is very "Where the Wild Things
Are."

Mr. LASSETER: And then, of course, there's the Ray Harryhausen creatures
that--and, in fact, Ray Harryhausen visited the studio and we talked quite a
bit about that, and he actually said one thing that really was...

GROSS: Let me just stop you and say that Ray Harryhausen is the king of
stop-time animation.

Mr. LASSETER: Yeah, stop-motion.

GROSS: Stop-motion, thank you.

Mr. LASSETER: Yeah. You know, with this tremendous, you know, influence that
he's had on creatures and monsters, he said one thing that was really
important to us, and that was that the monsters in his film are only monsters
when they're provoked. He said they're just regular creatures. In fact, he
doesn't even like to use the word `monsters.' He uses the word `creatures.'
And they're just living their regular life, and then it's always the outsider,
the human that comes in and sort of provokes them, and then they become
monstrous. And it was a very interesting insight.

And so what we did is we looked at all these existing sort of monster worlds
and monster designs that have been out there, and we tried to find something
that was unique. One of the things that we did is knowing our medium of
computer animation and how it can produce things that almost look real, really
photorealistic, we started looking at the animal world and looking at textures
and elements. And we pulled from like Mike Wazowski, the lime green one-eyed
guy that Billy Crystal does the great voice for, his skin is very much like a
Brazilian tree frog. It has this kind of reptilian skin. We studied that.
Sulley, you know, is completely covered with fur, and the fur is inspired from
yak fur. It has a certain kind of matting quality that it has. And the horns
are like a ram's horns, and we actually got these elements in and really
studied them and created textures that looked like this.

But we said, `You know, what we want to do is then we don't want to make it
look just like a real animal,' because we started actually coloring Sulley
more kind of an orange and a natural look to him. And they just looked like
animals. And so what we did is thought about, well, they come into kids'
rooms and scare kids, and kids sit there and draw these magnificent images of
what monsters look like. And so we said, `Well, why don't we have these
realistic textures, but then have them colored like what a kid's imagination,
what their monsters would look like?' And so that's when Sulley became this
turquoise blue with purple polka-dots, and Mike became lime green. And in all
of the monsters that actually go in and scare the kids are these incredible
bright colors. You know, the monsters in "Monsters, Inc." that just are the
support monsters for the scarers, they're much kind of duller colors. You
know, it's really the bright colored monsters that are the ones that go in and
scare the kids.

But it's this combination of kind of research and then thinking through, you
know, the world and the process of like, OK, these monsters come in and scare
kids, you know, and it's a kids' point of view, you know, is what they see
with the monsters. That's where this kind of unique world of our monsters
came into being.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Lasseter, and he's the
executive producer of "Monsters, Inc.," which is nominated for four Academy
Awards. He directed "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life," and he's a
vice president at Pixar Animation Studios. Let's take a short break here and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: My guest is John Lasseter, and he's the executive producer of
"Monsters, Inc.," which is nominated for four Academy Awards. He directed
"Toy Story," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life."

How do you match actors' voices to the monsters? I mean, like Billy Crystal
and John Goodman, these are famous names. You know what they sound like. I
don't know whether you feel you need the need to audition them first or not.
But can you talk a little bit about the process of matching up this imaginary
monster with a real actor's voice?

Mr. LASSETER: At Pixar, when we're developing the story and developing the
character, we are always thinking about a particular actor. Sometimes they're
actually older actors that have passed away, but it's the type of character
that we're looking for. Then when it comes down to the voice, casting the
voice, we'll make a list of actors we think that could fit that particular
type of character. And to try it out, we will find a performance in a movie
or a TV show that they've done, we'll take just the audio of this and put it
against drawings or images of the character, just still images, and it's
amazing how you can sit back and you can look at this, and some actors, you
know, they're brilliant actors, but you realize a lot of it has to do with the
way they look and their facial expressions and their movement and so on that
adds to their brilliance in acting. And when their voice is there just by
itself, it's kind of flat.

And we then take other actors and we'll put up there and they just jump off
the screen, and they're great. And we tend to go for an actor not by how big
of a star they are, but by how great of an actor they are, too. We never ask
an actor to put on a voice. We want them to be natural, because part of our
thing is we want the characters to be just completely natural and real, you
know, even though they're a toy, a bug or a monster, you know. And then what
we'll do is always look for people that have great ad-lib ability. Trying to
find spontaneity in this laborious process of making an animated film frame by
frame by frame is something that we always are striving for.

And part of that is in the recording of the actor. Of course, we have a
script. You know, they come in before the animation's done so they really
have nothing to look at. Generally, they're by themselves in the studio with
a mic in front of them. And we're always trying to get them to make the
scene, make the dialogue their own, make it just sound absolutely as natural
as possible. And so when you get someone who's so brilliant, like Billy
Crystal, to come in, he just gives you--it's like he's got a staff of writers
in his head. He will give you a hundred variations of everything, and we
actually got him and John Goodman together, and they were amazing because the
two characters needed to be like friends since kindergarten. And so by
getting them in there, all of a sudden, they had never met each other before,
but they came in and it went up to another level. These guys knew each other
since kindergarten in the performances, and it was really incredible.

GROSS: So when you're doing the computer-generated animation, what are the
things that the artist needs to know about the characters and how each of the
characters look from every angle in order for the computer programs to do what
they need to do?

Mr. LASSETER: In computer animation, actually, it's a little more like model
animation, where we model within the computer a three-dimensional model. It's
just a bunch of data, but it's a three-dimensional model of the character,
kind of like GI Joe or Barbie, where they have articulations in the arms,
though GI Joe has more than Barbie, but that's a different interview. You
need to tell the model where it's going to move and how, right, and so that
model is then given to the animator, along with the scene, the dialogue and so
on. And so by animation, he's actually taking and moving the position of this
existing model from frame by frame by frame. And there are so many controls
on these characters. There's hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of controls
on these characters, from the basic arm movements all the way down, you know,
to the tips of the fingers. You know, there's adjustments on even the
fingernails.

And there's tremendous animation controls in the face. It simulates the way
the muscle pulls the skin around, and so even though, you know, the characters
are, you know, toys, bugs or, in this case, monsters, we still modeled them
very much--they have like a jawline and how the jaw sort of hinges up behind
the cheeks and so on. It's not just down at the bottom of the jawline. And
all these things, it just makes it, again, more believable and more real. And
the animators are just unbelievable at making these inanimate digital models
come alive.

And we're always striving to make the character look like it's thinking.
Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston, the great Disney animators--and I was lucky
to work at Disney, and they were my mentors--they always talked about the
thinking character. Every movement of the character's body and eyes and face
need to be driven by its own thought process. And that's one of the things
that really makes these characters come alive.

GROSS: So when you talk about creating a model of the character, are you
talking about a model that goes right into the computer, or are you talking
about a three-dimensional model that is maybe photographed and put into the
computer?

Mr. LASSETER: We start with drawings and figure out sort of what we want it
to look like, and we actually create drawings with a final design that are
very much like a blueprint. We actually have sculptors in Pixar who create
clay sculptures of the characters. And generally, the faces--we'll create a
very big sculpture of the face, and the clay is molded and then cast into a
hard clay so a grid line is drawn on it. This is then--and we have a
three-dimensional digitizer. If you can imagine like a mouse on a computer,
but only one that knows how far up off the table it is as well, and that is
used in the digitizing of the face to get this three-dimensional shape, the
skin, you might say, of a character's face. We also use computer modeling
systems that actually take--and the modelers can actually create digital
surfaces within the computer that connect, you know, all the parts of the
body.

GROSS: Are there any visual qualities that you really love about, say, the
old Warner Bros. "Looney Tunes" from the days of cel animation that you can't
capture in the animation that you're doing, the computerized animation?

Mr. LASSETER: It's interesting. In the press, there's a lot of talk about
how 3-D computer animation is going to replace hand-drawn animation, and I
don't believe in that, because there are things that you can do in hand-drawn
animation that you still can't do in 3-D computer animation. Case in point, I
think in "Snow White," if you look at the seven dwarfs, in the incredible
animation of like Dopey, where it's just so fluid and so soft and bouncy and
elastic, you know, there's something so pure about that that you can see in
hand-drawn animation that it just doesn't look quite the same if you do that
in 3-D computer animation.

One of my dear friends is Glen Keane, who's a brilliant animator at Disney,
and if you look at the work he did on the main character in "Tarzan," he is
such an incredible draftsman that, you know, that comes out of his pencil, you
know, and his drawings, this 2-D drawing. It's incredible. This kind of
animation, it wouldn't be the same in 3-D computer animation. And I think
also, in the recent Disney film "Mulan," the style of that film is based upon
Chinese painting, and it has a very wonderful two-dimensional quality to it,
and I think you take that and you do it in 3-D, somehow, you would lose a lot.
I think one of the things that we pride ourselves in is trying to match the
subject matter to the medium that we use. When we were developing "Toy
Story," the look of computer animation back then, everything tended to look
like it was plastic, and so naturally, you know, having the main characters be
made of plastic was a perfect thing. It was a great match. The humans were
much, much harder to do. We stylized them, and we kind of kept them in the
background, because it was a toy story, but they were very difficult to do.

GROSS: John Lasseter is the executive producer of "Monsters, Inc." He
directed "Toy Story 2," "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life." He'll be back in the
second half of the show. I'm Terry Gross. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man #4: (Singing) You've got a friend in me, you've got a friend
in me. When the road looks rough ahead and you're miles and miles from your
nice warm bed, you just remember what your ol' pal said...

GROSS: Coming up...

Unidentified Man: (Singing) ...for you've got a friend in me. Yeah, you've
got a friend in me. You've got a friend in me, you've got a friend in me.
You've got troubles and I've got them, too...

GROSS: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

(Announcements)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Lasseter. He's
the executive producer of "Monsters, Inc.," which is nominated for four
Academy Awards, including best animated feature film. He won a special
achievement Oscar for "Toy Story," which he directed. He also directed the
sequel, "Toy Story 2," and "A Bug's Life." All these films were produced at
the Pixar Animation Studio, where Lasseter is now executive vice president.

As you mentioned before, it's an internationally known fact that monsters lurk
in the closets and corners of children's bedrooms. And for "Monsters, Inc."
the animators had to decide what some of those monsters looked like. When you
were a kid and you knew that there were monsters in your closets, did you know
what they looked like? I mean, being an animator and being somebody who has
this vivid visual imagination, did you know what they looked like and what
color they were? Did you draw them?

Mr. LASSETER: Well, I actually did--when I was a student at CalArts, I did a
student film. It was called "Nightmare," and it was about a kid who, when the
lights go out, all of his bedroom furniture changes into monsters. And I
think that comes from my own memories. I always would stare--the lights would
go out--your eyes are used to the light--and there's that moment when the
lights go out that everything seems pitch black and your eyes slowly get used
to the light. And that's when, to me, I saw things change. Like I swear
there was a monster laying on the floor, and I would stare at it and stare at
it and stare at it. And I swear it moved. I'd turn on the light and it was
actually just a pile of dirty clothes, right? But, no, that was a monster,
you know. And so in my mind, it was always the monsters were kind of like
changing, you know.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. LASSETER: The things that you were familiar with actually became monsters
when the lights went out the more you stared at 'em.

GROSS: I know exactly that moment that you mean. It still affects me
sometimes, actually, especially if you wear glasses and you've taken your
glasses off when you go to sleep. You turn the lights off and everything is
so imaginary-looking anyways because you're not seeing well enough to see
reality.

Mr. LASSETER: Yeah, right. I always--I still--you know, when I walk into a
dark room, I reach around to the light switch and turn it on before I go in.
I don't know what it is, it just--you know, I want to give that chance for the
monsters all to get back to their regular positions before I come in.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is John Lasseter. He's the
executive producer of "Monsters, Inc." And he directed "Toy Story," "Toy
Story 2" and "A Bug's Life." He's a vice president at Pixar Animation
Studios.

Let's talk about your first feature, "Toy Story." And in this film, you
imagine what life is like for the toys in a boy's bedroom when the boy leaves
the room. And you go through all the big fears that a toy might have: being
replaced, being sold at a yard sale.

Mr. LASSETER: Right.

GROSS: And most of these toys are old-fashioned toys, like a cowboy doll, a
dinosaur, toy soldiers, a little Bo Peep doll. And let me play a scene from
very early in the movie where Woody, the cowboy doll, which is voiced by Tom
Hanks, is holding a meeting of the toys to prepare for the fact that Andy, the
boy who owns these toys, is going to be moving to a new house.

(Soundbite from "Toy Story")

(Soundbite of Woody blowing into a microphone)

Mr. TOM HANKS (As Sheriff Woody): Hello. Check. Is that better? Great.
Can everybody hear me? Up on the shelf, can you hear me?

(Soundbite of squeaking)

Mr. HANKS: Great. OK. First item today--oh, yeah--has everyone picked a
moving buddy?

(Soundbite of toys making noises)

Mr. JOHN RATZENBERGER (As Hamm): Moving buddy? He can't be serious.

Mr. WALLACE SHAWN (As Rex): Well, I didn't know we were supposed to have one
already.

Mr. DON RICKLES (As Mr. Potato Head): Do we have to hold hands?

(Soundbite of toys making noises)

Mr. HANKS: Oh, yeah, you guys think this is a big joke. We've only got one
week left before the move. I don't want any toys left behind. A moving
buddy--if you don't have one, get one. All right, next, oh, yes, Tuesday
night's plastic corrosion awareness meeting was, I think, a big success, and
we want to thank Mr. Spell for putting that on for us.

(Soundbite of Speak & Spell)

Mr. HANKS: Thank you, Mr. Spell.

"SPEAK & SPELL": You're welcome.

Mr. HANKS: OK. Oh, yes, one minor note here, Andy's birthday party has been
moved to today. Uh, next we have...

(Soundbite of toys making noises)

Mr. RICKLES: Say that over again.

Mr. SHAWN: What? What do you mean the party's today? His birthday's not
till next week.

Mr. RATZENBERGER: What's going on down there? Is his mom losing her marbles?

Mr. HANKS: Well, obviously she wanted to have the party before the move. I'm
not worried. You shouldn't be worried.

Mr. RICKLES: Of course Woody ain't worried. He's been Andy's favorite since
kindergarten.

Mr. JIM VARNEY (As Slinky Dog): Hey, hey, come on, Potato Head, if Woody says
it's all right, then, well, darn it, it's good enough for me. Woody has never
steered us wrong before.

Mr. HANKS: Come on, guys, every Christmas and birthday we go through this.

Mr. SHAWN: But what if Andy gets another dinosaur? A mean one? I just don't
think I can take that kind of rejection.

Mr. HANKS: Hey, listen, no one's getting replaced? This is Andy we're
talking about. It doesn't matter how much we're played with.

(Soundbite of toy making noises)

Mr. HANKS: What matters is that we're here for Andy when he needs us. That's
what we're made for, right?

GROSS: John Lasseter, did you come up with the premise for "Toy Story"?

Mr. LASSETER: Well, I came up with it along with my colleagues Andrew
Stanton, Pete Docter and Joe Ranft. And we work in collaboration at Pixar.
And we just fell in love with this because--this idea of toys coming alive. A
did a short film called "Tin Toy" back in 1988 and it was about a little,
small tin toy that was alive and being chased by this little drooling baby.
And from the toy's point of view it was a horrible monster. And we always
loved the idea of toys being alive, and we thought there's a lot more you
could do with it.

One thing we didn't want to do with our first feature is just do kind of what
a lot of animated features were being--they were kind of like musicals with,
you know, a good guy, a bad guy, comic sidekicks, a love interest. And we
wanted something different, and we loved the buddy picture genre. You know,
films like "Midnight Run," "48 Hrs.," "The Defiant Ones," "The Odd Couple."
We just loved this. One of the reasons why we loved this so much was there's
tremendous character growth. And I think when you have a character that
really grows, there's a lot of emotion there. And that's the thing that we've
always strived for in our films. And...

GROSS: So the buddies in this are the cowboy doll and the newer, more modern,
high-tech doll...

Mr. LASSETER: Right.

GROSS: ...the battery-operated computer chip...

Mr. LASSETER: You're right. And...

GROSS: ...space doll.

Mr. LASSETER: And in the buddy picture genre, one of the goals is to begin
with the two characters being absolutely different, as different as possible.
And so we started thinking about, `OK, we have the story, which is an old toy
that's a child's favorite, and then at his birthday party, he gets a new toy
and it becomes the new favorite toy. What happens to that old toy?' And
that's where the essence of the story came from. And so we thought,
`Well'--we started looking at new toys, and I kind of looked around just in my
own home and realized it was action figures. My sons just love action
figures. So I started thinking about it, and I love "Star Wars." I'm a big
"Star Wars" nut. And so we thought, `Well, what about if it's a space action
figure?' you know. And so we kind of pulled from every space movie we could
think of, as well as NASA and those amazing moon shots when we were growing up
in the '60s, you know, with those amazing Apollo astronauts coming out with
those clear helmets. They were so cool. And that's why Buzz Lightyear has a
clear helmet. It's inspired by those NASA astronauts.

So we had the new toy first, and then the old toy we originally were thinking
of as like a Charlie McCarthy style ventriloquist dummy. And so Bud Luckey,
who's one of the artists that works with us, who grew up in Montana and loves
the West--he came to us and said, `Well, why don't you make--you have a
spaceman; why don't you make Woody a cowboy?' I thought, `That's perfect,'
because these characters will be as absolutely opposite as possible visually,
but on a deeper level, they're very much the same. They're both classic
American heroes.

GROSS: My guest is John Lasseter, executive producer of "Monsters, Inc." and
the director of "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life." We'll talk
more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: John Lasseter is my guest. And he's the executive producer of
"Monsters, Inc." He directed "Toy Story," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life."

Let me ask you about "A Bug's Life." This is a kind of epic about worker ants
that are basically enslaved to the larger, more powerful grasshoppers, who
demand a hefty percentage of all the food that the worker ants carry away.
Let me play a scene from this. The head grasshopper, the real heavy in the
movie, is played by Kevin Spacey. And here he is early in the film issuing
his demands and warnings to the ants. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is the princess
ant. Phyllis Diller is the queen ant.

(Soundbite from "A Bug's Life")

Mr. KEVIN SPACEY (As Hopper): So where is it? Where's my food?

Ms. JULIA LOUIS-DREYFUS (As Princess Atta): Isn't it up there?

Mr. SPACEY: What?

Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: The food was in a leaf sitting on top of...

Mr. SPACEY: Excuse me?

Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: Are you sure it's not up there?

Mr. SPACEY: Are you saying I'm stupid?

Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: No.

Mr. SPACEY: Do I look stupid to you? Let's just think about the logic, shall
we? Let's just think about it for a second. If it was up there, would I be
coming down here to your level looking for it? Why am I even talking to you?
You're not the queen. You don't smell like the queen.

Ms. PHYLLIS DILLER (As Queen): She's learning to take over for me, Hopper.

Mr. SPACEY: Oh, I see. Under new management. So it's your fault.

Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: No, it wasn't me. It was--I...

Mr. SPACEY: Oh, uh-uh-uh. First rule of leadership, everything is your
fault.

Ms. LOUIS-DREYFUS: But I...

Mr. SPACEY: It's a bug eat bug world out there, Princess. One of those
circle of life kind of things.

GROSS: A scene from "A Bug's Life." And my guest John Lasseter directed the
film. "A Bug's Life" was kind of, in some ways, like a slave epic, you know.

Mr. LASSETER: A slave--a slave epic. Well, we had the idea to create--we
call it an epic of miniature proportions because we got very inspired,
actually, looking at the world from an ant's point of view. We got down, and
the research we did, instead of going off to exotic locales, like a lot of
people get to do, we just went out to the planters in the garden in front of
Pixar and stuck our heads under all the plants and looked around. And the
world was amazing when you get down to that level.

I love working at Pixar, because we have the most wonderful geeks, and they
saw us with our heads under the plants and they said, `You know, we can help
you.' And they went off and they created this tiny little video camera. We
call it the bug cam. And it was put on the end of a dowel with little wheels,
and we could roll it around from, you know, like an inch above the ground and
look at the world. And one of the things we found at this level was that
everything is translucent. A blade of grass, a fallen leaf, a petal of a
flower, when the sunlight's shining through it, it's like a stained glass
window. And it was spectacularly beautiful.

And there was this big fallen leaf--I'll never forget--and we put the little
bug cam under it, and it was like all of a sudden you were in this
magnificent, huge building with this beautiful like orange and yellow stained
glass window above you, and that became one of the biggest inspirations for
this. And so most of the movie kind of takes place out of the tunnels above
the ground, and so we had to create actually new lighting tools to get to this
beautiful translucency in there.

It's interesting that there was--the movement we found--with our little bug
cam, we found this tiny little beetle. He kind of looked like a black ladybug
outside of Pixar. And we watched him walk around, and it was absolutely the
cutest movement we've ever seen. And he kind of rolled over on his back, and
he tried to get up, and he walked around. And we kept that footage and we
studied it and showed it to the animators. And there's a really big rhino
beetle in the movie called Dim. And the movements of Dim are directly from
this little beetle.

And the story is really fun because it's much more of an epic story than "Toy
Story" was. And we had these great bad guys. And we did a lot of studying of
grasshoppers and how they--you know, grasshoppers are--you know, when they get
together and start, like, massing, they become locusts and it becomes this
hordes, you know, that come and take over things and just, you know, wipe out,
you know, fields of wheat and so on. And we just loved that idea. And when
we started looking at the way they were designed, it almost looked like the
back of biker jackets--Hell's Angels jackets. And so we had the idea that
they're like this Hell's Angels, you know, group that comes in and terrorizes
a small Midwestern town and demands, you know, an annual payment. And so
that's where kind of the idea came from. And that's where Kevin Spacey
says--you know, leaves, he always says, `Let's ride' and they start up their
wings kind of like Harleys starting. In fact, in the sound track there
actually is, you know, the sound of Harleys, you know, mixed in with kind of
insect buzzing noises when they start up.

GROSS: Are there any cast of thousands type scenes that you modeled any of
the scenes in "A Bug's Life" on?

Mr. LASSETER: We studied a lot of cast of thousands scenes, you know, from
all the great epic motion pictures. And it was one of the biggest challenges
of "A Bug's Life," to animate, you know, hundreds and hundreds of ants. And
we actually had a whole group that was devoted to just animating the crowds.
And this is where the technology with computer animation and using computers,
really worked for this movie. There's no way you could do this by hand.

And what we did is we created, you know, kind of a generic ant, and then we
animated just simple movements that were happening in the background just on
this generic ant. The computer then changed the shape and changed the color
of the ants to make them very, very different, but the animation would still
work on this. And then the computer would then propagate these characters
throughout the scene and we would kind of take a top down view, and we would
paint an area where we wanted all these characters to be, and then a point in
which they would all be looking at. And you can move that point around and
their heads would move as well.

And it was really amazing as the only way that we would have been able to
animate as many ants--because one of the--you know, we kind of got ourselves
into a corner with the subject matter because ants by nature--the living
organism is the entire ant colony. It's not the individual ant. And so it's
such an important thing, and it became a theme of the story that if you, you
know, individually they can be defeated, but if they stand up together and
they work together, there's nothing that they can't do. And it came out of
actually studying the real ant colonies and how they worked. And we realized
that we had to animate an ant colony. You couldn't have an ant colony with
five ants.

GROSS: In designing the grasshoppers--they're the mean and ugly ones--there's
a kind of creepy sound when the grasshoppers move. And I'm wondering what you
used to get that sound.

Mr. LASSETER: Gary Rydstrom, who does all of our sound design--in fact, he's
nominated for an Oscar for "Monsters, Inc.," he took--it's a combination of a
kind of creaking leather and sort of natural--I think it was sort of tortoise
shell kind of things. And it just sort of--as they walked, he just had this
slight, kind of creaky, clicking, sort of sound and it all added to this kind
of creepiness. You know, Gary has really had a tremendous influence on our
films because not only--he always felt that the imagery in computer animation
is so realistic that you can't really put cartoony sounds on it. I think part
of the believability of the worlds that we create comes from the sound that
Gary and his staff do, which is remarkable. And he takes a lot of kind of
realistic sounds, but then combines them in ways that you wouldn't think.

GROSS: You have five sons. And you create movies that, you know, are
animation films, so they're designed for the whole family, but you know, a lot
of kids go seem them.

Mr. LASSETER: Right.

GROSS: Do you have anything you particularly love or dislike about kid pop
culture today?

Mr. LASSETER: I think what happens a lot in the kid pop culture is that the
kids are told the emotions that they should be feeling when these, you know,
cartoons and things are shown. Even in the great Disney films, really the
classic films, emotions are discovered by the audience. They're not--you
know, the audience is not told to feel something at this time. And I think
when you remember back to, you know, when Bambi's mother was killed, or I
think to me my favorite movie of all time is "Dumbo," and when Timothy the
mouse takes Dumbo to go see his mother, who's chained up, mad elephant and so
on, and they can't see each other--they can only touch by touching the tips of
their trunks together, it is--and the great song "Baby Mine," is sung at the
time--that's one of the most emotional scenes. And I think when I became a
parent and looking at this, it just kind of gives me--makes my eyes tear up
every time I see it because of the incredible true emotion that's in there.

And I think, you know, in this--the current pop culture with, you know, the
sort of music videos, MTV, you know, all the 24-hour cartoon networks and so
on, things are so quick and hip and fast and boom, boom, boom, that rarely do
you find things that actually have true emotions. And I think that's one of
the things in our films at Pixar that we always strive for, almost more than
anything else, is to find, you know, that emotion and let the audience
discover it instead of just telling them how they should feel.

GROSS: And you have a new one in the works?

Mr. LASSETER: We do. We have a bunch of them in the works. Our next one
that's coming out from Pixar is--Andrew Stanton is writing and directing
it--it's called "Finding Nemo." And it's with tropical fish as characters.
And I tell you, never have we produced a film that the world is perfectly
matched to our medium like the underwater world. It is spectacular looking.
And it's so fun. It takes place on a coral reef. They go out into the big
ocean. There's whales. There's sharks. There's sunken World War II
submarines. There's turtles. There's jellyfish. They get caught and put
into an aquarium with nutty, nutty characters. It's like a prison almost, you
know, and they almost get eaten by seagulls. And it's an amazing story. And
that comes out in the summer of 2003.

GROSS: Well, John Lasseter, thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. LASSETER: Oh, this has been great, Terry. And I'm one of your biggest
fans.

GROSS: Thanks.

John Lasseter is the executive producer of "Monsters, Inc." He directed "Toy
Story," "Toy Story 2" and "A Bug's Life."

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews "A Is for American." This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Review: New history book by Jill Lepore called "A Is for American"
TERRY GROSS, host:

Historian Jill Lapore won the prestigious Bancroft Prize among other awards
for her book "The Name of War: King Philip's War and the Origins of American
Identity." American identity and its messy contradictions are still
preoccupying Lapore in her latest book "A Is for American." Book critic
Maureen Corrigan has a review.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN:

Ever since I stuck a flag outside my house on the morning of September 12th,
I've been engaging in sporadic debates with friends and neighbors over what
exactly the American flag signifies. Some of my fellow Americans perhaps look
at the flag in my flower pot and assume that I share their belief that in the
aftermath of that terrible day, George W. Bush went from amiable frat boy to
Winston Churchill with a twang. Others tell me that displaying a flag means
that I am at worst jingoistic; at best, a victim of false patriotic
consciousness.

To those interested in a clear-eyed analysis of what he calls `the soft
anti-Americanism of a portion of the American left,' I recommend Todd Gitlin's
essay called Blaming America First in the January issue of Mother Jones
magazine. Gitlin, the media and culture critic, and former president of SDS,
says he put out his own flag after September 11th as a badge of belonging, not
a call to shed innocent blood.

But belonging to what? That's always been a vexing question for us as
Americans. At this charged moment in our history, Jill Lapore's new book, "A
Is for American," offers some especially compelling stories about the
19th-century search for a language that would unite the sprawling, chaotic,
young republic. According to the first national census taken by functionaries
on horseback in 1790, out of population of about four million, one in four
people did not speak English as their first language. That's compared to one
in six estimated by the 1990 US census. All this linguistic diversity then as
now seemed threatening to some native speakers of English.

Lapore investigates how, in the 19th century, spelling books, syllabaries, the
Morse code and sign language, among other things, promised to strengthen the
integrity of a country that, in the words of Noah Webster, was `held together
by little more than a cobweb.'

The subtitle of Lapore's book reads "Letters and Other Characters in the Newly
United States." And I suspect she intends that word `characters' to have a
double meaning because her book is populated by an impressive variety of
homegrown eccentrics, visionaries and cranks.

Foremost among them is Webster himself, who by most accounts was a boring
pedant, but put his pedantry to good use by first producing his famous
spelling book to standardize the national use of the ABCs, and then his even
more famous dictionary to make sure we American English speakers knew exactly
what we were saying. But lest we think of Webster as a starry-eyed patriot,
Lapore shows how his work, like that of some of the other six men she
scrutinizes here, was motivated at least as much by anti-immigrant animus as
it was by love of country.

The most fervent nativist in this crowd is Samuel F.B. Morse, the inventor of
the Morse code, who became caught up in designing a language of dots and
dashes because he believed an international conspiracy, led by the pope, was
trying to undermine American democracy by exporting Catholic immigrants to the
United States.

Lapore also explores the ideas of less familiar figures, like William
Thornton, who concocted a universal alphabet so all the world could be allied.
Thomas Hopkins Gallaudet was also an American one-worlder who thought that
sign language was the natural language of humans lost at the Tower of Babel.
He was instrumental in promoting sign language to instruct deaf Americans to
help them achieve full and active citizenship, and to understand the Bible in
the hopes of hastening the second coming.

A couple of flaws make Lapore's book itself a little less than transcendent.
The story of the slave, Abd al-Rahman Ibrahima, who used his Arabic literacy
to eventually engineer his passage back to Africa, is remarkable, but its
inclusion in a book about nation building through language seems forced. And
Lapore's own language is a little flat. Many of her sentences could have used
an electromagnetic jolt from one of those telephonic devices another one of
her subjects, Alexander Graham Bell, was always tinkering with.

Those imperfections acknowledged, "A Is for American" offers an enlightening
look at our cyclical history as Americans of failing and trying to all get on
the same page.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She
reviewed "A Is for American" by Jill Lapore.

(Soundbite of music)

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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