John Lasseter to Exit Disney at End of the Year

John Lasseter - 2015 Inside Out Press Conference - Getty - H 2017
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Directors Pete Docter and Jennifer Lee are expected to take on added roles at Pixar and Disney Animation as Lasseter leaves the two animation studios after having admitted to "missteps."

John Lasseter, the creative force behind Pixar Animation and Walt Disney Animation, is officially exiting his post as chief creative officer of both animation studios at the end of this year, the Walt Disney Co. said Friday. His departure follows his admission last year that he had committed unspecified "missteps" that left some employees feeling "disrespected or uncomfortable."

He will have a consulting role with the company until Dec. 31.

Disney did not immediately name replacements for Lasseter, but animators Pete Docter (Inside Out) and Jennifer Lee of (Frozen) are expected to take on added responsibilities at Pixar and Disney Animation, respectively.

In announcing Lasseter's departure, Disney chairman and CEO Bob Iger said, "John had a remarkable tenure at Pixar and Disney Animation, reinventing the animation business, taking breathtaking risks and telling original, high-quality stories that will last forever. We are profoundly grateful for his contribution, which included a masterful and remarkable turnaround of The Walt Disney Animation Studios. One of John's greatest achievements is assembling a team of great storytellers and innovators with the vision and talent to set the standard in animation for generations to come."

Lasseter also issued a statement, saying, "The last six months have provided an opportunity to reflect on my life, career and personal priorities. While I remain dedicated to the art of animation and inspired by the creative talent at Pixar and Disney, I have decided the end of this year is the right time to begin focusing on new creative challenges. I am extremely proud of what two of the most important and prolific animation studios have achieved under my leadership and I'm grateful for all the opportunities to follow my creative passion at Disney."

The decision follows Lasseter's months-long sabbatical, during which the fate of the most powerful man in animation had been up in the air. On Nov. 21 of last year, Lasseter acknowledged problematic behavior and said he would take a six-month leave of absence in order “to start taking better care of myself, to recharge and be inspired, and ultimately return with the insight and perspective I need to be the leader you deserve.”

Lasseter announced he would take a sabbatical in an email to employees just hours before The Hollywood Reporter published an investigation detailing allegations of inappropriate behavior as well as excessive drinking. During his tenure, Lasseter, in his favored Hawaiian shirts, had cultivated an image of a gregarious family man with an almost childlike sense of wonder and enthusiasm. But as the #MeToo movement gathered momentum, a number of insiders complained of Lasseter's hugs and other unwanted forms of expression. The Wall Street Journal vividly captured Lasseter's propensity to move in for a hug in a 2011 feature that documented him giving 48 hugs, to both men and women, in the course of just one day.

In his Nov. 21 statement, Lasseter acknowledged that he'd had "a number of difficult conversations that have been very painful for me." In a memo to employees he went on to say, "I deeply apologize if I have let you down. I especially want to apologize to anyone who has ever been on the receiving end of an unwanted hug or any other gesture they felt crossed the line in any way, shape or form. No matter how benign my intent, everyone has the right to set their own boundaries and have them respected."

When Lasseter first stepped aside in November, Dan Sarto, co-founder and publisher of Animation World Network, told THR, "The impact of John's stepping aside can't be overestimated. That said, he's also developed and helped foster a tremendously deep and talented group of artists that should be able to step up and fill the void to a big degree."

Having become a modern-day equivalent of Walt Disney, Lasseter's departure would appear to bring a major chapter at Pixar, which began in 1979 as part of the Graphics Group at Lucasfilm, to an anticlimactic close.

Lasseter was one of the founders of Pixar. He was hired by Pixar head Ed Catmull in 1984, and after Pixar was spun off as its own company, with funding from Steve Jobs in 1986, Lasseter developed and popularized computer-graphic animation with early films like 1995's ground-breaking Toy Story, which was followed by such features as A Bug's Life and Monsters Inc. 

In 2006, after Disney, which had been distributing Pixar's movies, purchased the Emeryville, California-based animation studio for $7.4 billion, Lasseter was named chief creative officer of both Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios. He has since become the face of all Disney animation, overseeing the recent resurgence of the studio's namesake brand with properties like Frozen and Moana.

The turnaround that Lasseter engineered at Disney was particularly dramatic given that he had been fired by Disney near the beginning of his career. After graduating from California Institute of the Arts in 1979 — during summer breaks, he worked as a tour guide on the Jungle Cruise ride at Disneyland — he was hired as an animator at the studio, where he first began to champion the idea of CGI animation, but the studio, which wasn't ready to embrace the then-new process, let him go in 1984.

Lasseter, who directed Toy Story and Toy Story 2, among other Pixar films, produces or executive produces every Pixar project and executive produces every WDA feature. While Lasseter has only won two Oscars (one is a special Oscar for his work on Toy Story), Pixar has racked up an impressive nine best-animated feature wins. Under Lasseter's purview, WDA has received three nods, most recently with 2016's Zootopia.

Pixar films have grossed more than $6 billion at the domestic box office. Its most recent feature was Coco, which grossed more than $806 million globally. Pixar's next release, the sequel Incredibles 2, opens June 15, and Disney Animation's next release, the Wreck-It Ralph sequel Ralph Breaks the Internet, is scheduled to bow Nov. 21.

In addition to overseeing animation, Lasseter has served as principal creative advisor for Walt Disney Imagineering, and his films have also served as inspirations for attractions at Disney's theme parks. In 2012, for example, Lasseter presided over the opening of the Radiator Springs Racer ride, a $200 million attraction at Disney California Adventure in Anaheim based on his Cars movies. And this summer, California Adventure opened Pixar Pier, with the park's California Screamin' rollercoaster transformed into an Incredibles-inspired Incredicoaster.

However, as integral as Lasseter has been to Pixar and Disney's animation success, restoring him to his former position became problematic. In February, the company held an unprecedented "day of listening" at the Disney animation unit and brought in a handful of human resources professionals to facilitate a discussion of workplace concerns.

Additionally, at a moment when women filmmakers have been raising their voices throughout the industry, Pixar has become known as a boys' club centered around Lasseter. And that, in turn, made it even more difficult to ignore the concerns that had been raised about Lasseter.

For while Pixar has relied on its so-called "Brain Trust" to critique each other's work, the main figures at the studio have been mostly men: Docter, Andrew Stanton, Brad Bird. Brenda Chapman, who was to have been the first woman director of a Pixar feature when she was given the reins to 2012's Brave, was replaced on that project in mid-production when it was handed over to Mark Andrews. And in March, after winning an Oscar for Coco, producer Darla K. Anderson, who had been with Pixar for 25 years, announced she was leaving to pursue other endeavors.

Once a regular presence at both Pixar and Disney as he commuted between northern California and Burbank, Lasseter has been absent from the scene in recent months. Although a former member of the board of governors at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, he didn't attend the most recent Oscar ceremony, and when Coco won its Oscar, none of the filmmakers invoved mentioned him by name in their acceptances. Lasseter also skipped Tuesday's Hollywood premiere of Incredibles 2, and when Bird, who directed the film, was asked whether he thought Lasseter should return to Pixar, he responded, "We only know what you know. John was very involved with this film, and The Incredibles never would have been made at Disney if John hadn't defended us when we were in our early days."