Disney Animation – John Lasseter
The case focuses on John Lasseter, who currently is the creative head of Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios, both of which are owned by The Walt Disney Company. The case chronicles Lasseter’s interests in animation from a young age, the relationship he developed with the Disney organization, his developing interest in computer-animation and consequent demise at Disney Studios, his subsequent award-winning success with computer animation at Pixar Studios, and his recent ascension to creative head of Disney’s Animation Studio as part of the Pixar-Disney merger.
The case provides a marvelous illustration of the many types of interpersonal power ¾ reward, coercive, legitimate, referent, and expert that exist within an organization. The case also shows how power can be used to promote the well-being of the organization and its members or to benefit specific people’s interests at the expense of others’ interests. Herein, the two faces of power positive and negative come into play. Another linkage between the chapter material and the case occurs in the form of concerns about the ethical versus unethical use of power. Finally, the case can be used to explore the concepts of organizational politics and political behavior in organizations. Organizational politics often has a negative connotation, and some of the case facts lend themselves to reinforcing this negative connotation.
Power and Politics in the Fall and Rise of John Lasseter
John Lasseter grew up in a family heavily involved in artistic expression. Lasseter was drawn to cartoons as a youngster. As a freshman in high school he read a book entitled The Art of Animation. The book, about the making of the Disney animated film Sleeping Beauty, proved to be a revelation for Lasseter. He discovered that people could earn a living by developing cartoons. He started writing letters to The Walt Disney Company Studios regarding his interest in creating cartoons. Studio representatives, who corresponded with Lasseter many times, told him to get a great art education, after which they would teach him animation.
When Disney started a Character Animation Program at the California Institute of Arts film school, Lasseter enrolled in the program after encouragement from the studio. Classes were taught by extremely talented Disney animators who also shared stories about working with Walt Disney himself. During summer breaks, jobs at Disneyland further fueled Lasseter’s passion for working as an animator for Disney Studios. Full of excitement, Lasseter joined the Disney animation staff in 1979 after graduation. However, he soon met with disappointment.
According to Lasseter, “[t]he animation studio wasn’t being run by these great Disney artists like our teachers at Cal Arts, but by lesser artists and businesspeople who rose through attrition as the grand old men retired.” Lasseter was told, “[y]ou put in your time for 20 years and do what you’re told, and then you can be in charge.” Lasseter continues, “I didn’t realize it then, but I was beginning to be perceived as a loose cannon. All I was trying to do was make things great, but I was beginning to make some enemies.”
In the early 1980s, Lasseter became enthralled with the potential of using computer graphics technology for animation but found little interest among Disney Studio executives for the concept. Nonetheless, a young Disney executive, Tom Willhite, eventually allowed Lasseter and a colleague to develop a thirty-second test film that combined “hand-drawn, two-dimensional Disney-style character animation with three-dimensional computer-generated backgrounds.” Lasseter found a story that would fit the test and could be developed into a full movie. When Lasseter presented the test clip and feature-length movie idea to the Disney Studio head, the only question the studio head asked was about the cost of production. Lasseter told him the cost of production with computer animation would be about the same as a regular animated feature. The studio head informed Lasseter, “I’m only interested in computer animation if it saves money or time.”
Lasseter subsequently discovered that his idea was doomed before he ever presented it. Says Lasseter, “[w]e found out later that others poked holes in my idea before I had even pitched it. In our enthusiasm, we had gone around some of my direct superiors, and I didn’t realize how much of an enemy I had made of one of them. I mean, the studio head had made up his mind before we walked in. We could have shown him anything and he would have said the same thing.” Shortly after the studio head left the room, Lasseter received a call from the superior who didn’t like him, informing Lasseter that his employment at Disney was being terminated immediately.
Despite being fired, Lasseter did not speak negatively of the Disney organization, nor did he let others know anything other than the project on which he was working had ended. His personal admiration and respect for Walt Disney and animation were too great to allow him to do so.
Lasseter was recruited to Lucasfilm by Ed Catmull to work on a project that “turned out to be the very first character-animation cartoon done with a computer.” Not too long afterwards, Steve Jobs bought the animation business from George Lucas for $10 million and Pixar Animation Studios was born. Lasseter became the chief creative genius behind Pixar’s subsequent animated feature film successes like Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, and The Incredibles, among others.
In 2006, Disney CEO Robert Iger and Pixar CEO Steve Jobs consummated a deal for Pixar to become a wholly-owned subsidiary of Disney. Iger points out that, in making the Pixar acquisition, Disney wanted to protect Pixar’s culture while giving it “a much broader canvas to paint on.” Instead of Disney absorbing Pixar into its culture, Iger gave Pixar executives “Ed Catmull and John Lasseter control of Disney’s animation operations, with the mission to get the old studio’s computer-generated efforts up to par.”
Iger wanted to reinvigorate animation at Disney, and as the top creative executive at Pixar, John Lasseter was viewed a key figure in achieving this objective. Lasseter “is regarded by Hollywood executives as the modern Walt [Disney] himself [with capabilities] ¼ that have made Pixar a sure thing in the high stakes animated world.” Former Disney Studios head, Peter Schneider, says Lasseter “is a kid who has never grown up and continues to show the wonder and joy that you need in this business.” Current Disney Studio chief, Dick Cook, says that Lasseter is like the famous professional basketball player, Michael Jordan. “He makes all the players around him better.”
According to Iger, “[t]here’s no question that animation is a great wavemaker for the company. We believe we have a very vibrant creative engine there, mostly driven by Pixar, and we hope that Disney Animation will once again experience glory days too. We believe we’re on the right track.” Cook notes that Disney was the king of animation for a decade from the mid-1980s to the mid-1990s. Cook continues, “[b]ut I think the biggest challenge in any mature organization is how do you continue to evolve and press the edges of the envelope, and I think it’s fair to say we stopped doing that.” He also observes that getting Catmull and Lasseter “was like a giant shot of adrenaline to the system.”
Lasseter now oversees development of movies at both Pixar’s and Disney’s animation studios. Says Lasseter, “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am to have all these new roles. I do what I do in life because of Walt Disney—his films and his theme park and his characters and his joy in entertaining. The emotional feeling that his creations gave me is something that I want to turn around and give to others.”
Without a doubt, Lasseter is realizing his dream, and very successfully to boot. Bolt, a recent production of Disney Animation Studios, received a Golden globe nomination in late 2008 for best animated feature film. And Wall-E, a Pixar Studios production, was nominated for the same award as well. Jennie Yabroof, a reporter for Newsweek, writes that “Lasseter himself has played perhaps the biggest role in the elevation of the lowly cartoon” to the animated feature film.
Lasseter’s influence at Disney extends well beyond the animation studios. The reconstitution of the Disney theme parks’ submarine ride is a great example. Refurbished as a take-off on the animated film Finding Nemo, “the ride resurfaced with whiz-bang video and audio effects that allow the animated sea creatures from Finding Nemo to seemingly swim and talk in the water.” “Disneyland’s Finding Nemo Submarine Voyage is emblematic of Disney’s efforts to keep its parks relevant in a digital age.” Two other projects, based on the hit movies Cars and Bolt, would not have been possible without Lasseter and his Pixar colleagues’ hands-on input, says Bob Iger.
What a professional journey. Being fired by Disney Animation Studios for trying to be too creative, then ultimately becoming the chief creative animation genius for both Disney and Pixar!
This case was written by Michael K. McCuddy, The Louis S. and Mary L. Morgal Chair of Christian Business Ethics and Professor of Management, College of Business Administration, Valparaiso University.
Answer the following essay questions and explain your answers with concepts from the reading.
- What forms of interpersonal power are evident in the case and why?
- In what ways do the two faces of power appear in this case? Please explain your answer.
- Does the firing of John Lasseter from Disney Studios and the events leading up to his firing demonstrate the ethical use of power? Explain your answer.
- Did the firing of John Lasseter indicate the existence of political behavior in the Disney organization? Why or why not?
- Describe a situation, from your experience, where political behavior in an organization contributed to benefit or detriment to you or someone else.