Persistent and Egregious: The Tumultuous Career of John Lasseter
From Animation Underground Netsite, January 7th, 2017
“John Lasseter is the Godfather of CG animation,” said former friend and fellow innovative Icon of the medium Bill Kroyer. “People like to point to Joe Ranft, and yes, Joe – a great friend – indeed deserves the high praise that he gets. But it was John who really had that right combination of vision to see the potential [in CG animation] that Jerry [Rees] and I did and also the drive and determination and political acumen to make it happen. He saw what we did on Tron
and almost immediately set to work on [the CG-animated Short] ‘Where the Wild Things Are’, knowing that CG represented the future.”
That Short, of course, spawned the 1986 feature animated film Where the Wild Things Are
, which became a surprise hit and is credited in hindsight with kicking off the “Disney Animation Renaissance”. While predominantly hand-drawn, it relied heavily on computer technology, mostly for framing and backgrounds and compositing, but also for the rolling waters of the ocean and the transformations between bedroom and jungle. This “Hybrid” approach, which mixed CG and hand-drawn elements, was further supplemented by the Disney Advanced Technology Animation (DATA) digital ink & paint technology, which then Creative Chief Jim Henson had advanced along with VP Stan Kinsey, with Lasseter remaining a major player in the development and implementation of the technology for animation.
It was, to be true, the moment when CG animation began to grow up and became irrevocably the way of the future, and John Lasseter was undeniably at the very center of it. A jovial, ever-smiling man never seen without a Hawaiian Shirt (the louder the better), Lasseter was beloved by most of his male employees and celebrated by management for his “brilliant eye” and ability to take creative risks and succeed. He was notably less
popular with his female employees for reasons that we will get into shortly. Lasseter’s place in the development and promotion of CG animation is pivotal and he’s justifiably known as one of the big names in the industry. And yet, it would be his behavior which would define his career as much as, if not more than, his creative success.
Things accelerated greatly for Lasseter and his CG Dreams when Disney, at his recommendation, acquired Lucasfilm’s Computer Graphics Group (where Ranft had briefly worked on rotation, developing the seminal Wally and the Bee
) in whole. With the Lucasfilm group came Operations Head Ed Catmull, a skilled businessman with the vision to see CG animation for the game-changer that it was. Catmull, in turn, found the perfect enthusiastic creative partner in Lasseter, and together they forged the Disney Digital Division, or 3D, Catmull as Operations Head and Lasseter as Creative Head and one of Jim Henson’s “Creative Associates” there to ensure creativity and innovation. It was a match made in creative heaven, a “convergence of computer nerds and art geeks” that was far more than the sum of its parts. This division pioneered not just the DATA inking & painting technology, but the “Pixar” CG animation engine, “Luxo” lighting application, and “Beaker” sound application that dominated the industry until the appearance of Animatriarch. The group would work closely with Steve Jobs’ Imagine, Inc., and the Disney Softworks in general, and help pioneer such revolutionary CG animation hardware as the Disney Imagination Stations and the CHERNABOG compiler, which led in turn to the game-changing MINIBOG and AVE that came after.
Lasseter was critical in establishing the technical state of the art in CG, but he was also critical in establishing the creative “rules” and story methodology that defined 3D and soon Disney as a whole, in particular what would become the Disney Story Commandments
. Disney, thanks in large part to Lasseter and the rest of his 3D team, became more multidimensional, nuanced, and emotionally intelligent without losing that classic Disney “delight”.
3D under Catmull and Lasseter soon brought the world groundbreaking digital animation projects. Shorts like Tin Toy Troubles
amazed viewers at the time not just for technical prowess, but for their fun stories and loveable characters. But Lasseter had his sights set on revolution: the first fully digital, fully-rendered-CG feature film. And he had just the project for it: the 1980 Novella The Brave Little Toaster
The Brave Little Toaster
was greenlit for 1993/4 release as the first all-CG film, and would be Lasseter’s dreams made manifest. With Toaster
in production, Lasseter was the undeniable Rock Star of CG animation, with Joe Ranft as his right-hand man and other talents such as Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter and Brenda Chapman waiting in the wings.
But then in 1991 the entire industry was thrown into chaos, starting with Disney itself, when, following the dramatic testimony by Anita Hill that sunk the Supreme Court appointment of Judge Clarence Thomas, the longstanding industry tolerance for sexual harassment and the ill-treatment of women in general was laid bare. Disney led the way in what would become an industry-wide reckoning on sexual harassment and assault. And among those caught up in it all was John Lasseter.
“I’m a Hugger!” (Image source Hollywood Collectibles)
Lasseter had a reputation as a “hugger” with the female employees, giving them unwanted hugs and brief unwanted kisses. He’d also briefly touch women’s legs, seemingly as if to accentuate a statement. At the time, many of his male coworkers didn’t, couldn’t, or possibly wouldn’t see these actions as anything other than the “friendly interactions” that he claimed them to be, particularly since he’d hug his male coworkers too.
But female employees in general saw them for the microaggressions that they were, particularly as his body language was different with the female employees. “He’d give the guys a friendly hug, arms only, hips never touching,” one female employee noted. “With the girls, you’d feel his belt buckle and his breath on your neck. It was…really creepy. And unwanted, but you don’t say ‘no’ when the boss wants a ‘hug’.”
Other 3D employees mirrored these actions, or slipped into some of the “old Disney” habits of hanging inappropriate artwork. 3D’s reputation was well known among the female employees, who soon let each other know that 3D was not
the place that they wanted to work. Eventually, this information made its way to Cheryl Henson, who’d been assigned by her father to investigate any signs of sexual impropriety within the studio.
Cheryl Henson’s investigation soon came back with two narratives surrounding Lasseter, one predominantly from the men, the other from the women. One narrative portrayed a friendly, jolly, fun-loving guy in Hawaiian shirts who liked kind hugs, and the other narrative portrayed a predatory creep who abused his relative power to cop a quick feel. And the Disney Leadership, particularly Disney Studios Chairman Jim Henson, were in a conundrum.
“Cheryl at first recommended dumping him,” said an anonymous source. “But the Studio Board was adamant that they didn’t want to lose such a talent to another rival studio.”
Further investigation muddied the waters even more. When confronted, Lasseter expressed shock, explaining that he never intended to hurt anyone. “He seemed honestly shocked at the accusations, and hurt,” said Cheryl Henson long after the fact. “Was it an act, or did the sight of my dad crying really get to him like he claimed? I can’t read minds. In hindsight, we decided to give him a second chance, a decision that I supported at the time, but regret now. I guess that we naively believed that we could ‘save’ him, or steer him on the right path.”
But Lasseter did not get off Scott Free. He was suspended without pay, demoted, and temporarily reassigned as a coder in the Disney Softworks. His protégé Joe Ranft ascended to take over his position as 3D Creative Head with Lasseter’s blessing. Lasseter expressed deep remorse to anyone who would listen, and the going assumption was that he truly was regretful for his actions, which he continued to claim he had no idea were hurtful.
Lasseter returned to 3D in the Summer of 1993 following his suspension, demotion, and temporary reassignment. He immediately joined The Brave Little Toaster
already in production, becoming a Story Advisor. He seemed enthusiastic, but distracted, to the rest of the team, and was pushing to make some story changes in that were too late into production to make.
[to Ranft] was strangely hard for him,” said Pete Docter. “It was like having his baby raised by another. He confessed to me that Joe had done a good job, but after [the film] underperformed, he seemed very irritated. I think that he believed that if he’d been in charge the whole time, that it would have turned out differently. That it would have been a blockbuster. I think that, in hindsight, the silent resentment [for Ranft] really started there.”
And with respect to his treatment of women, at first, he seemed to have learned the error of his ways.
“He was very apologetic,” said Brenda Chapman, who’d had some “uncomfortable interactions” with him while briefly working in 3D and had largely opposed his return to animation. “I was reluctant to keep working with him at first. It was more than the unwanted hugs and the comments, it was the general way in which he made you feel, well, less than
. But I basically forced myself to give him a second chance, and for a while it seemed like he really had turned a new leaf.”
While it’s ever a challenge to assess a person’s true intents and motives shy of clairvoyance, reading the witness statements over the course of the years one does get the impression that Lasseter had indeed attempted in good faith to take the lessons that he received to heart, or at least made a good show of it. He stopped the hugs and the leg touching and the comments.
“Yea, I was really glad to see John back,” said Joe Ranft. “He seemed to be his old self in one respect, but also was acting much more respectfully. No more hugs, no complimenting the women on their looks, no little comments among ‘the boys’ about certain physical aspects of ‘the girls’; none of that. I was so happy to have him back, and also glad that he’d learned and grown as a person. But then he met Bakshi.”
Ralph Bakshi is an animation legend in his own right, creator of such monumental adult animated films as Fritz the Cat
, Howard the Duck
, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
, and such classic animated television shows as The New Rocky and Bullwinkle
, Hoerk & Gatty
. Many of these later works were done in partnership with John Kricfalusi, and their Bakshi-Kricfalusi Productions gained a reputation for pushing the very limits on animation subject matter and content to the degree that they were generally referred to as “Batshit Productions”. BKP had been hit hard by revelations of multiple, systemic, and egregious abuses of their female employees including severe sexual assault and a persistently hostile working environment exacerbated by limited opportunities for female animators elsewhere. The resulting class-action lawsuit led to the implosion of BKP.
Bakshi reportedly approached Lasseter in 1994 after the release of The Brave Little Toaster
. Bakshi wanted to partner with Lasseter in a new studio “away from where the chicks are running the show.” Lasseter politely turned him down, though the two maintained contact and would meet occasionally for drinks. Over time, Lasseter would use Bakshi as an ersatz “confessional” for his frustrations, and Bakshi happily listened, and gave him supporting advice. Alas, the advice was not helpful.
By 1995 Bakshi had put together what he called a “support group” for animators and other creative artists “taken down” by “uptight feminists”. Eventually, one of them dubbed the club G.R.O.S.S. for “G
”, the name taken from a Calvin and Hobbes
The Inspiration for G.R.O.S.S. (Image source Twitter)
“It was like a support group, ‘Gropers Anonymous’, call it,” said one member, who spoke on terms of anonymity. “I feel like most of us just saw it as a chance to vent our frustrations for the bad decisions that we made, maybe make a few jokes at the expense of the women who we felt wronged us, and John was totally of that type at first. But some, well, they truly believed that there was some sort of Feminazi assault on Manliness going on and saw themselves as Warriors of the Y Chromosome, or something. I figured that they were just blowing off steam and joking around, but I guess that they really meant it. Whether John was pulled into the latter way of thinking, or whether he always felt that way and Ralph just gave him the excuse that he needed to drop the façade I can’t quite say. But as the months and years went by, he increasingly saw himself as the victim.”
The first 3D project post-Toaster
would be Andrew Stanton’s Finding Nemo
, a highly-successful picture greenlit by Jim Henson in 1992 with the express intent to release in 1995 coincident to the opening of the DisneySea Resort in Long Beach, California. The decision had been made while Lasseter was on reassignment, so he had no say in the matter, but even so, Lasseter seemed to expect to lead the next CG feature and was put out when Stanton was named to Direct.
“John wanted to take the helm,” Ranft recalled. “But it was Andy’s project. I made it clear that John could lead the next picture, which we all realized should be his Toys
But Lasseter seemed to set aside his resentment and became a driving force in the creative process. He was very professional and supportive for the female animators, in particular Patty Peraza, who’d been selected to do the character animation on the humpback whale Limpet and her calf Squirt. “He was at first being a real mentor-figure for her,” said Stanton. “He gave her good advice and could lean in to give advice without grabbing her shoulder or sniffing her hair or anything. Of course, he pushed back a bit on her creative suggestions, but seemingly no worse than he’d do with, say, Jorgen [Klubien].”
“The biggest problem that Joe had with John on Nemo
was occasionally having to remind John that Andy was in charge,” said Mike Peraza, who was leading animation on Nemo’s older brother Anchor. “Patty was saying good things about him, and I was starting to become his friend.”
Things seemed to change slightly when production on Finding Nemo
ended and production began on The Secret Life of Toys
. He was now the undisputed leader, head of storyboards and direction. And his attitude seemed to shift fairly quickly. “He was much more demanding and far less flexible,” said Jorgen. “He was acting much like he did when he was in charge [of 3D]. He sometimes even went behind Joe’s back on decisions, which made us uncomfortable. He didn’t like including the Christmas Toy
characters and he really didn’t like that Frank [Oz] was brought in to do character backgrounds. It was all a challenge to his authority. But the true difficulty really started with Patty.”
At first Lasseter had returned to his mentorship role with Patty Peraza, who was animating the Barbie spoof Big Sur Cindy. It began well enough, but then Lasseter pushed back on her character study. “Patty wanted to make Cindy into a smart, intellectual girl who’s always underestimated because of her looks, more ‘Doctor Barbie’ and less ‘Malibu Barbie’,” said Klubien, “But John wanted her to be this Valley Bimbo that all the other toys gawked at.”
The dispute started small, with Peraza insisting that Cindy “needed to be taken seriously,” but Lasseter insisting that it would be “funnier” his way. She tried various combinations and middle-ground variations, but Lasseter continually pushed her towards the “Beach Bimbo Barbie” (her words) approach. After a while, her suggestions became a sore spot. “I think that he saw Patty’s recommendations not as the useful suggestions of a fellow animator,” said Patty’s husband Mike, “but as a challenge to his authority. There was also something…else going on. Each and every time Patty made a suggestion, he responded by pushing for Cindy to be sexed up even more; more sway to the hips, more ‘hey, boys!’ moments, as if each attempt by Patty to make her less Goldie Hawn and more Reese Witherspoon was taken as a threat to his ‘vision’ and responded to with a counteroffensive. And then Patty described one day where he just snapped at her. She’d said ‘I feel it’s my job to be honest about my opinions,’ and he yelled, ‘Your job is do what you’re told!’ She ran to me crying.
“When I confronted him, he apologized to me then her, and told me that it was ‘work stress’, so I let it go. But that was just the start.”
Lasseter’s mood continued to darken, particularly with respect to the female employees. “He stopped looking at me like a colleague,” said Patty Peraza, “and started looking at me like a combination threat and entrée.”
“I was on the verge of punching him,” said Mike, “or going to the union. Joe [Ranft] promised to intervene.”
When Ranft ultimately took Patty’s side in the dispute over Big Sur Cindy, Lasseter said “Et tu, Joe?” with a large smile and laugh that seemed to defuse the tension, but witnesses note that “you could still sense the anger. John had meant it.”
Following the “talk”, Lasseter appeared to return to his more professional, less toxic behaviors, but behind the jovial façade he was increasingly seeing Ranft less as a friend and more as an obstacle. Things became compounded during pre-production on what became Bug Life
, where his idea for a “Grasshopper and the Ant” narrative was rejected in favor of a separate “Army Ants” idea. He was the Director and Story Lead, but the “story” was taking on a life of its own, with Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls getting hired for the lead roles of Flit and Raid only for them to start rewriting the characters around their own preferences. And while such changes were typical and had even happened on The Secret Life of Toys
with Antonio Banderas giving a whole unintended “Zorro vibe” to the character of Buzz. But feeling like his “vision” was increasingly “besieged”, Lasseter took the changes personally. This anger carried over into The Secret Life of Toys
, still in final animation.
“The production [on Toys
] became increasingly difficult,” Ranft said. Lasseter was “playing along” in the words of his coworkers, but he was showing renewed passive-aggressive tendencies and frequent microaggressions against the female team members in particular. Patty Peraza, who once saw him as a potential mentor and ally, now did her best to avoid prolonged contact.
“It would have been easy if he’d just grabbed my ass, or something,” she said. “Then I could file a formal complaint and he’d be gone. But he never did anything that overt, or actionable. He’d, say, give me a look that just made me feel, well, yucky, and it would be so subtle that I had to wonder if it was something that I was misinterpreting. I could say that he was making me ‘uncomfortable’, but all that management could do was talk to him and have him deny it. Joe and Jim [Henson] met with him a couple of times, and things seemed to improve again.”
But then, just as The Secret Life of Toys
was in final editing, things got noticeably worse very quickly. In early 1997 a visibly upset Ralph Bakshi told the assembled members of G.R.O.S.S. that his friend and partner John Kricfalusi had been arrested, he said for “flirting” online with young women. The FBI was much less flippant in their assessment of his actions, calling it “soliciting sex from a minor”. Kricfalusi would commit suicide in his cell, hanging himself from his bedsheet. Bakshi called it “murder”.
“Kricfalusi’s suicide hit John hard,” said the same unnamed G.R.O.S.S. member, “Though he didn’t see it as a ‘suicide’. Ralph had him convinced that the guards had ‘arranged’ something. He wondered if something like that would happen to him next. I joked ‘just don’t troll for teenagers on the net and you’ll be fine,’ but he just scowled at me. I stopped going to G.R.O.S.S. after that. The vibe had shifted into something really nasty.”
Following Kricfalusi’s death, Lasseter became more openly hostile and aggressive. He openly defied Ranft’s production and openly talked down to female employees. On top of that, several of the male animators were starting to act similarly. It turns out that Lasseter wasn’t the only member of G.R.O.S.S. on the production. The “boy’s club” had already become noticeable as Lasseter and a small group of male animators, a couple of whom had, like him, been reprimanded in the past for various improprieties, were increasingly seen hanging together at the cafeteria or outside on the Disney Campus. It became increasingly apparent that there was going to be an ugly reckoning, with HR already compiling the complaints and consulting the Legal Weasels, when Lasseter and the G.R.O.S.S. crew all turned in their two-weeks’ notices at once.
Unbeknownst to Joe Ranft or anyone else, Lasseter had already made contact with Chris Wedge at Blue Sky Studios. Wedge had recently made a name for himself in the CG animation game for his Short CottonTale
, and now former 20th Century executive Chris Meledandri had come on as CEO for the small studio, bringing with him the support of Filmation Studios, who agreed to underwrite the small studio as it spun up a feature animation department. Unaware of Lasseter’s growing behavior issues, Meledandri hired Lasseter as the President of Feature Animation and Chief Creative Officer. Lasseter took many of the G.R.O.S.S. crew with him and even hired some of the “Saboteur 35” who’d deliberately tried to sabotage production on Universal Animation’s Spirit of the West
out of spite against CCO Jeff Katzenberg, including slipping pornographic images into the background of shots.
While Disney and Joe Ranft quietly thanked their stars that the “problem” was gone, openly hoping that the new opportunity would give Lasseter a chance at a fresh start and another chance at self-realization, in reality the “problem” had just moved.
 This has not yet reached the level of the egregious “feeling up” that he was accused of doing in the 2000s and 2010s, where the women of Pixar had developed a technique that they called “The Lassiter” for crossing their legs and keeping their hands in their laps to keep his hands from “going further”. At this point, it’s a “quick squeeze on the knee” and at this point these early aggressions were looked past by management as “friendly” rather than “predatory”. As noted in earlier posts, abuses tend to start “small” and escalate as the perpetrators “get away” with things.
 Calvin & Hobbes
creator Bill Watterson was reportedly irate to hear about this.
 So, once again it’s time to read minds while grabbing a third rail with both hands. As I have stated before, it is always a challenge to address issues where you lack the facts and individual reputations are getting called into question. Moving beyond issues about if someone is “born” bad or “made” bad, it’s a real challenge to look at individual cases where accusations of inappropriate behavior have been made and then make judgement calls. It’s very easy to err either way, so I try to stick with the limited known “facts” and try to extrapolate them onto this timeline’s specific circumstances. It’s fairly straight forward in cases of egregious sexual assault or quid pro quo, particularly where a jury has made a clear indication of guilt (e.g. Harvey Weinstein). It’s harder in cases of Hostile Work Environment, because that can be very subjective.
In the case of John Lasseter, the accusations, if accurate, indicate persistent, egregious, and systemic sexual harassment and a textbook hostile working environment as well as frequent sexual assault (forced unwanted hugging and kissing, persistent and “ascending” leg touching) that grew to a level that there were ultimately multiple allegations of inappropriate behavior from a large swath of the female employees made against several males in the employ of Pixar in the 2000s and 2010s, Lasseter chief among them. When I first began this timeline, my research gave a situation that was very muddled, with Lasseter’s intentions impossible for me at the time to discern, particularly since the worst of such alleged abuses in our timeline was over a decade in the future of this timeline, and I wondered if there was “hope” to prevent things from ever reaching the persistent and egregious level of Pixar in our timeline, but as I dug deeper into the allegations, the results spoke not to a man unaware of the inappropriateness of his behavior, but to a man who used and abused his power and weaponized his sexual aggressions as a predatory and discriminatory tactic for keeping female employees on the outside of the “boy’s club” and “in their place”.
Parallel accusations by Jorgen Klubien and Henry Selick about his aggressive micromanagement and unreasonable and shifting demands, if true, also speak to me to a man who tears down and sabotages (or flat out steals) other creative people’s work, as if seeing them as a threat. To me, this speaks to a person with power issues and aggressive insecurity.
Again, it’s hard to definitively say what happened when the full set of facts are unknown, but the many accusations, if true (and I have no reason to doubt their veracity) seem really, really egregious and unjustifiable to me. Cassandra Smolcic’s allegations
are just sickening (warning
: frank and graphic depictions of sexual assault).
So, could this fictionalized Lasseter have been “saved” from perpetuating abuse (as part of me honestly wanted to believe, as I like to believe in second chances), or was he predatory by nature? Was he on the “road to recovery” and backslid, or just faking, possibly to himself? Was Bakshi leading him astray, or did he want
to have his predatory and misogynistic inclinations justified and Bakshi and G.R.O.S.S. simply provided him that avenue? Who in the hell knows? You can frankly see me trying to answer these questions myself in the writing of this post, and I very deliberately left things muddied and open to interpretation both to add verisimilitude and because I don’t have any definitive answers to the questions and uncertainties myself. This post represents my best good faith attempt at portraying a fictional situation with no personal malicious intent to any real person.
And a MASSIVE CAVEAT that all of this is a work of speculative fiction
based on limited publicly-available resources. I’m not clairvoyant and have no special knowledge about the intentions and beliefs of Lasseter, Bakshi, or any other real person. Accept nothing that I say here as factual or an accurate reflection on reality or the inner thoughts and desires of any of the real human beings being fictionally portrayed here. Your guess as to the reality is as good as mine.