'Cars 2' Director John Lasseter: How Getting Fired Drove Him Forward

John Lasseter
John Lasseter

John Lasseter's Pixar movies have made a total of $6.5 billion, and his latest, Cars 2, is expected to add a large chunk to that tally after it opens Friday. His personal wealth has been put at $100 million, a fortune he can toast with vintages from his own winery.

So what in the world can he teach us regular folk about the workaday life? How can we possibly relate to this Peter Pan-like genius who owns 358 Hawaiian shirts and dispenses hugs like handshakes?

As it turns out, Lasseter has shared one rite of professional passage that too many of us have been through recently: He was fired. It wasn't just from any job either. It was the job he had wanted since he was a boy -- animator at Disney (DIS).

Getting the ax had such an impact on Lasseter that he has devoted commencement speeches to it.

"I always try to tell kids that you will have a dream in your life and you'll work toward that dream and sometimes dreams come true and often times you'll hit a closed door," he told The Price of Fame. "What you do at that time sometimes puts you on a path you were not expecting that changes you forever."

Second Time Was the Charm

Lasseter got the Disney gig right out of college, and he thought he'd truly landed in the Magic Kingdom. But the fogies who had been drawing Mickey Mouse for generations found his enthusiasm contagious -- like the measles. When Lasseter began talking up a crazy idea called computer animation, they reacted faster than Sneezy in a field of ragweed. Disney told him to pack up his toys and play in another sandbox. "It was creatively not the place I thought it was," Lasseter, 54, said.

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Cue Buzz Lightyear and the "infinity and beyond" catchphrase. Lasseter pursued his eventual mastery of computer-generated imagery working for a company being run by George Lucas. Steve Jobs bought that company, which was to became Pixar. Lasseter orchestrated all the Pixar projects while directing Toy Story, A Bug's Life, Toy Story 2 and Cars. (He also directed Cars 2.)

It gets even better. Disney bought Pixar for $7.4 billion in 2006, and this time it handed Lasseter the keys to the kingdom. He became chief creative officer for both Disney and Pixar animation.

There can be an upside to getting downsized, he explained. "Be open to when the door closes in front you. Look at this as a potential opportunity to try something different, to go in a different direction than you were expecting."

A similar lesson is learned by one of the returning heroes in Cars 2. Mater the tow truck, dimwitted sidekick to dashing racer Lightning McQueen, gets sucked into international espionage and doesn't think he has the nuts and bolts for it. But his untapped knowledge of auto technology arms him against some high-octane baddies who are plotting to sabotage the big race and rule the world.

For Lasseter, the nudge out the door accelerated a career ascent the likes of which show business may never see again.

"It was the best thing that ever happened to me," he said.

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