Pixar's John Lasseter on Steve Jobs, Creativity, and Disney Infinity

With a major new Disney video game on the way, the legendary animator behind Toy Story and The Incredibles explains how his partner and close friend Steve Jobs inspired his work: "Everything is based on a simple rule: quality is the best business plan, period."

On August 18, Disney will release Disney Infinity, its largest-ever video game effort. Infinity does something unheard of in the Disney universe: It brings well-known characters from different Disney and Pixar properties—Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, Monsters University, etc.—into a single environment.

As Disney and Pixar’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter is the gatekeeper to many of the company’s most beloved characters, and he was deeply involved in Infinity's development. Lasseter helped pioneer computer animation at Lucasfilm, and after Steve Jobs bought the studio's computer graphics division in 1986, he worked closely with the Apple CEO to establish an independent company called Pixar. When Disney acquired Pixar in 2006, he returned as the company's head creative executive. He has been a producer for 60 films and directed 16 more, including Toy Story and Cars.

Fast Company recently spoke with Lasseter for a story in the upcoming September issue.

John Lasseter

How Steve Jobs Influenced Pixar:

When Jobs bought Lucasfilm's computer graphics division in 1986, establishing it as an independent company called Pixar, Lasseter became his creative partner. "We were so close he became like a brother to me," says Lasseter.

Both men admired the other's work. Jobs liked the idea that stories, unlike technology, didn’t necessarily have a shelf life. "I’ll never forget," Lasseter says, "Steve Jobs was kind of waxing poetically about things and he said, ‘You know, at Apple when we make a computer, what’s the lifespan of it? Maybe three years. In five years it’s a doorstop. Technology moves so fast. If you do your job right with Toy Story, this thing could last forever.'"

Lasseter, meanwhile, tried to instill his movies with the same quality that Apple built into its products. "Everything I do and everything Pixar does is based on a simple rule: Quality is the best business plan, period. With Steve Jobs, this is what we had driven the company to be all these years."

Why Creativity Is Important:

Lasseter’s mother was a high school art teacher, a fact he says contributed to his commitment to the creative process. "She always believed that a career in the arts was a noble profession," he says. "And that was a very rare point of view. When I look at the success I have, it’s because of my creative-thinking skills. And I would extend that out to anybody in any field who is immensely successful, like Steve Jobs. What breaks my heart is that it’s the first thing [to go when] public school budgets get cut. Art, music, theater, shop—anywhere where kids learn to do things with their hands and be creative goes away. And in my mind, it should be the last thing."

Why At First He Didn’t Like The Idea Behind Infinity:

When Disney's console game studio, Avalanche, presented the idea for Infinity to Lasseter, his first thought was "no." The idea conflicted with his creative instincts. "They wanted to combine all the Pixar characters together in one game and one world," he says. "That’s always been taboo for us. Because, look, every Pixar movie we create is a unique world and our characters live in it. They have their own rules and all that. Mr. Incredible cannot go over into the Cars world, because there are no humans in that world. He cannot walk into Andy’s room, because it is a different style and look and just a different world."

How Infinity Promotes Creativity:

Lasseter thinks Steve Jobs would like the clean interface of Infinity. "It’s so simple," he says. "It reminds me in a way of how hard…everybody on [Jobs’s] teams at Apple worked to make the interfaces of Apple products simple and beautiful."

But he also thinks of it as more than just a game. "It’s not just fun—it’s important for us to do, because for kids to spend hours playing the video game, a lot of people look at it as a mindless waste of time for kids. How exciting is it to have this really fun, inventive platform where the most fun thing in the game is for kids to be creative and to build and to think about it and to try things and experiment and to iterate and to try it and get excited? To be able to give that to kids in a form they love—video games—I thought: This is noble. This is something to fight for. This is something to get out there."

[Image: Flickr user MMG]

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  • Test

    One minor correction: Lasseter has directed 5 feature films and produced about 20 films. The rest of his credits are on shorts and TV shows. 

  • Kathy Mast

    I am a huge fan of John Lasseter. He has long been my example of the creator whose innovations were not embraced by corporate America (Disney). I wrote a major article on how to create an environment of innovation with a focus on Lasseter and life at Pixar. My other example? P&G, a huge conglomerate but leader in innovation.

    Mr. Lasseter and Mr. Lafley, we need your help. Companies need to make innovation a key discipline for sustainability. That doesn't mean just "idea programs." There are models and ways to foster innovation, but the C suite does not seem to be listening nor investing. Let's work together to find independent ways to promote innovation, and, more importantly jobs at every level, to ensure our country's global leadership and sustainability.

  • Abc

    There's already a game out where Disney characters are all in one world. Kingdom Hearts

  • Jones6534

    "his first thought was "no." The idea conflicted with his creative instincts" - but obviously not with his business instincts...

  • Tophrman

    While he had originally thought no, he changed his mind when the game designers reimagined the characters as toy version of themselves and not as the "actual" characters.

  • Guest

    That's why you can only play as specific characters in their story. The toy box is the only place they mix and match.

  • E.V.

    Infinity Speakers at E3 and other events have said themselves that 'Andy's Room' and playing style (similar to the playing style of kids today) was a huge inspiration for Disney Infinity.

  • Todd Bernhard

    Which is how creative businesses become successful.

    Starving artists don't get to create much if they starve to death.

    And look at Toy Story. Andy has a dinosaur, a pig, soldiers, a car, a space ranger, and a cowboy all playing in one environment, just like kids do. Infinity will only be virtualizing what kids do with action figures and toys anyway.

  • Jones

    Well, as a matter of fact, Lasseter et.al. never tire of telling us that the way to become succesful is to follow your creative instincts...