John Lasseter Remarks
John Lasseter, Chief Creative Officer, Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios
First, congratulations to the Eckerd College Class of 2013!!
Thank you President Eastman, Trustees and esteemed Eckerd faculty; I'm honored by this recognition. I also want to thank you for this amazing school. You see, I am a proud parent of a graduating senior, Paul Lasseter. To witness the growth and blossoming of our son here was amazing to watch. Your encouragement his freshman year to take a trip in his winter term changed his life. He discovered Italy. Today he is graduating with a degree in International Business and a minor in Italian. Thank you to Professor Morris Shapero for being such a great teacher and mentor, and an inspiration to our son. PJ, we are so proud of you.
Today I want to talk to you about dreams. Everyone says to follow your dreams... I did.
I loved cartoons my whole life, even when it wasn't cool. When my friends were spending all their time on sports and girls, I would race home after school to watch Bugs Bunny cartoons. I was a freshman in high school when I found out that people actually made cartoons for a living, and at that moment I knew my life's dream: to be an animator for the Walt Disney Studio. I wrote to the studio while I was in high school, and when they sent me a letter my senior year and told me they were starting a Disney animation program at the California Institute of the Arts, it seemed like fate was rolling a path to that dream - right out in front of me. I was the second student admitted, and when I actually began attending classes, I couldn't believe my luck. First of all, the studio had coaxed these great Disney artists out of retirement to be our teachers. On top of that, my fellow students were the likes of Tim Burton, Brad Bird and John Musker. We were so amped by what we were learning that we didn't want to leave class at the end of the day. We'd get together in the evenings and watch 16mm prints of the great Disney movies, talking about them into the wee hours - we learned as much from each other as we did from our teachers - and all the while dreaming about working for Disney ourselves some day.
When I landed a job at Disney after graduation, I was so excited. I arrived at the studio that first day convinced that my dream had come true and I was about to start my lifelong career there. I and my fellow CalArts alums were chomping at the bit, with the film revolution of the 70's happening - I mean, Star Wars had come out! The Godfather, Close Encounters, Raging Bull, The Shining, Raiders of the Lost Ark! We were eager to show that animation could do great things too. But I soon found that the reality at Disney wasn't anything like what I had been dreaming of. The studio leadership was not interested in hearing what we had to say, or seeing what we could do. After making a suggestion on how to improve a scene one day, I was literally told, "keep your opinions to yourself, and do what you're told. If you don't want to, there are lots of people out there who are willing to take your place."
While all this was going on though, I started seeing the beginnings of computers making pictures, and it really lit a fire in me. The passion in me started building up, because I knew this was the future. You see, one of the things I had always admired about Disney was its innovative spirit. Walt Disney had been a great advocate of the new, and many groundbreaking developments in film technology had their origins at his studio. I felt that computer animation was what Walt had been waiting for. I threw myself into suggesting projects that would show how the computer could be used to take Disney Animation to the next level; I even did a test. It seemed like a natural extension for this studio that had always been so innovative. I kept getting the answer, "No, that's not how it's done." But I kept trying, I wouldn't let go of the idea that computer animation was something Disney should be doing, because I knew it would make the studio and its films better. Then one day, the manager of the Animation Dept., Mr. "No" himself, called me into his office - and fired me.
I was devastated. My dream was shattered. I didn't know what to do. I had had this dream of working for Disney for so long and without it, I felt lost. I felt like such a failure, that I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone what had happened. In fact, it wasn't until just a few years ago that I could tell people that I was actually fired from Disney.
Soon after being fired, I was at a computer graphics conference on the Queen Mary, and I ran into a guy I had met when I was trying to set up the computer animation projects at Disney. We chatted a bit and later in the day he sought me out to offer me some freelance work in the San Francisco area. Since I didn't have anything else going on, I agreed. The initial gig was for a month's work, and it turned out so well, I've never left.
That guy's name was Ed Catmull, and the group I went north to work with was the Lucasfilm Computer Division. Ed had gathered most of the best computer graphics researchers in the world to work with him - I was amazed. I asked Ed how he was able to get them all here, and he said simply, "It's easy; I just try to hire people that are smarter than myself." What a difference from the creatively stifling Disney I had just left. Everyone here was so creatively supported and challenged to aim for greatness. The work was so innovative and cool that I'd stay in my office animating for days on end, sleeping on a futon under my desk. I blossomed there.
Steve Jobs was so impressed at what Ed and all of us had built that he tried to get Apple to buy us, but they said "No." A short time later Apple fired Steve and he ended up buying our group himself from Lucasfilm, and in 1986, we formed Pixar.
We all have dreams we follow. Often, we build large parts of our lives around pursuing those dreams. So when there comes a point at which a door gets slammed in your face - and there inevitably will - it can be crushing. But what I'm here to say is... how you react to these setbacks can end up defining you more than the pursuit of the dream itself.
Getting fired from Disney was really painful, but it was one of the best things that ever happened to me.
I want to share with you two lessons that I learned from it.
First... trust your passion. When you get shut down it's easy to doubt yourself, or even be tempted to throw in the towel altogether. But it's in those moments that it's most important for you to hold on to the things that inspire you, the things that you love to do. If I had stopped pursuing computer animation and just done what I was told at Disney, I would not be where I am today. I know that not everyone finds their passion early like I did. But everyone has that little voice inside, that intuition. Follow that intuition, head towards the work that feels meaningful and satisfying - and it will lead you to where you're meant to be.
Second... when bad things come your way, stay positive. Learn what not to do in negative situations. I got squished at Disney by someone who told me to keep my mouth shut and do what I was told, and at that moment I told myself that if I was ever in charge, I would never ever say to anyone what that person just said to me. Life is too short to hang out with squishers like that. Years after I left Disney, the studio came back to me and offered me a job as a director paying 4 times what I was making at Pixar. But I stayed with Pixar, even though at the time it was a small company that was barely staying afloat. I did it because we were doing this incredible groundbreaking work that no one had ever done before. But just as importantly, I did it because Pixar was a place that enabled people, that trusted people, that hired the best people in the world, let them do what they were great at, and always challenged them to be better. If I hadn't learned how important it was to be around people who lift you up and make you better, I would never have ended up who I am today. When I refused to leave Pixar, Disney eventually came back and offered to make a project with us - at Pixar - and that project became the first computer animated feature film in history. That project became Toy Story.
It is important to follow your dreams, but it is more important to follow your passion. Because when your dreams get shattered and you trust your passion, guess what: you get a lot more dreams, and they will come true.
Thank you and good luck to the Class of 2013.