Drive My Cars

See that big, friendly-looking guy in the Hawaiian shirt with cartoon Cars all over it? He's probably the most important man in Hollywood. No, really.

Consider John Lasseter's résumé: One of the founders of the legendary Pixar studios, he created a string of groundbreaking shorts that infused computer animation with the engaging characters, wild comic energy, and other signature traits of the best cell animation. And Pixar's features - four of which (Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2, and Cars) Lasseter directed and all of which he's had a hand in - are poised to pass George Lucas's Star Wars saga as the most successful string of movies ever. He's magnanimously thrown open Pixar's doors to fellow genius Brad Bird (The Incredibles, Ratatouille). And he's now the creative head of both Pixar and Walt Disney animation studios (while also helping to spiff up the Disney theme parks by coming up with new rides).

At Pixar, Lasseter has created a new kind of movie - kiddie flicks that are just as satisfying for adults (often, more so), and that have consistently left critics stunned by their technical virtuosity and flawless storytelling. And fans of classic animation are hoping he can now work his magic at Disney, which has fallen into a creative funk since its early-1990s renaissance.

Some people call him the new Walt Disney. But I think it's more flattering and apt to just think of him as John Lasseter, because his thriving body of work stands completely on its own as one of Hollywood's supreme triumphs.

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It doesn't at all hurt Blu-ray Disc, as it trudges on in a pretty much pointless format war with HD DVD, to have somebody of Lasseter's stature and infectious enthusiasm in its camp. When he talks about Blu-ray, Lasseter seems genuinely charged up about the possibilities it creates for experiencing Pixar's films. He's so keen on the format, in fact, that he decided to offer up Cars as a cutting-edge example of what Blu-ray can do, creating new menus and interactive extras, including an elaborate game you can play in real-time while watching the film.

Disney recently invited what seemed like half of the world press to L.A. to interview Lasseter about the Blu-ray Cars. But I was lucky enough to get a good chunk of time with him so he could conduct a personal tour through the disc.

From the moment Lasseter sits down next to the Panasonic flat-panel set with a PlayStation 3 controller in hand, it's obvious who's going to be in the driver's seat. (You don't so much interview him as hit his Play button and then sit back and enjoy the show - although I was able to work in a few questions.) Lasseter started his Disney career as a skipper on the Jungle Cruise, and it's not hard to catch glimpses of that former persona as he gamely delivers his Blu-ray spiel.

As he feeds the Cars disc into the PS3 and waits for it to load, Lasseter talks about his longtime affection for home theater. "I loved the big, boxed laserdisc sets with the commentary and all that - I was a big collector. So all during the making of our films, we saved everything to make these great box sets. But when we finished our first movie, Toy Story, I was in Japan doing publicity and I ran into some people who were there from L.A. finalizing the DVD accord, and they told me what DVD could do.

"So when we were on production of our second movie, A Bug's Life, we set aside a digital version of every scene when we finished it; we would send it off to be put on film, but we saved a digital version, too. When it came time to make the Bug's Life DVD - which was our first movie on DVD - we didn't go to film; we went straight to the digital material. So A Bug's Life was the first digitally-created, digitally-direct, digitally-to-the-home DVD release. We understood what the technology could do and how it could make the viewing of our movie that much better."

Similarly, when Lasseter heard about Blu-ray, he immediately started thinking of all the ways he could use it to enhance the experience of Pixar's films. "I went to Bob Chapek over at Disney Home Entertainment, and said, 'Teach me, teach me, teach me about what you can do with Blu-ray that you can't do with DVD!' There were two main things I got excited about. One was the new ways to do commentary, which I love. As a filmmaker, the commentary is the one true document of the making of the film, because everything's fresh in your mind. Ten years later, I forget the stories of the little details of making Toy Story. But at the time, you know it. And the second thing is, a Blu-ray player is like a little computer, so there's so much more you can do.

"I love making the movies for the theater, but I also love making them to be seen at home. With Blu-ray, all the high-definition and the amazing sound helps bring out the details - and we really, really stress the details. The amount of data this format can handle lets us go so much deeper into the story - the characters and their world - but also lets us talk about the filmmaking."

One of the most intriguing (and, so far, all but unexplored) aspects of Blu-ray is its ability to support games that are a huge leap over the tedious, cursor-controlled efforts that have marred many a DVD. So, rather than just throw a game into the extras section of the Blu-ray Cars, Lasseter decided to wed the gameplay to the film itself. "This is a world where Cars are alive and there are no humans. But with computer animation, you get nothing for free. You have to create everything. So we had to fill this world with other Cars besides the main characters. With all these characters in the background, I started getting this idea - maybe we can explore them in a fun, unique way. And I'm all about having fun. We ended up calling it the Car Finder Game."