Many of your colleagues at CalArts also went into the film industry.
Yeah, Tim Burton was in my class, John Musker who's done a lot of the animated features at Disney, Chris Buck who directed Tarzan, Brad Bird… we actually learned as much from each other as we even did from the teachers.
There was this amazing camaraderie, it’s really part of the core for the way we work at Pixar as well.
Was Tim Burton already a bit Goth?
Yeah, yeah he was. [Smiles] He came from Burbank and commuted to CalArts, so he didn’t have to stay in the dorm like the rest of us but we’d still get together at weekends. He was great. He would stay up all night and watch these horror films…
But the thing I remember most about Tim is his sketchbooks. He’d go to this mall, Glendale Galleria, on the weekends and just sit and sketch people. Even back then, he had such a unique drawing style, a unique vision. But also, he was so funny, and a great mimic/actor as well. I think that’s why he works so well with Johnny Depp.
Didn’t Tim work at Disney at the same time as you?
Yeah. Tim was working on Vincent. Have you seen it? It’s kind of his autobiography, about a kid who wants to be like Vincent Price. Then he developed The Nightmare Before Christmas.
I was doing some things for Where The Wild Things Are and developing Brave Little Toaster – a feature film to do with computer animation techniques, so it was a very interesting time. But of course, both of us, you know, basically ended up being fired from the studio…
Ah, yes. We’ll get onto that... But while you were still at CalArts, Star Wars was released. Is it true that was also a pivotal moment for you?
Absolutely. I went the opening weekend to see it at the Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. We waited about six hours in line but it was so exciting, this movie that could entertain me and the rest of the audience to such a level.
I looked around and saw such a great cross-section of kids and adults and teenagers, college students... And I remember thinking: ‘Animation can do this.’
Did you not feel animation was doing that anymore?
Well, this is my own little take on things... Walt Disney made films for himself. The kind of film he liked to watch was for kids as well as adults. You know, Snow White was a number one film at the box office for weeks.
And when Chuck Jones was at Warner Bros, the Warner Cartoons were released in front of live-action films. Again, they basically made the films for themselves and they were really funny and witty.
It wasn’t until television came along that animation started to be shown on Saturday morning or after school and became aimed mainly at kids. The entire mindset changed.
After the retirement of the old animators, the people left in charge were there through attrition rather than talent. And their attitude was that animation was for kids.
That must have been discouraging to the new wave of animators.
A lot of my friends, after Star Wars, abandoned animation and went into special FX, live action special FX. Because they were so blown away by Stars Wars. It inspired an entire generation of Hollywood filmmakers.
It inspired me too, but I had already chosen animation, and I believed that animation could be entertaining on that level. That it could be that big.