Last week I was lucky enough to fly up to Pixar in Emeryville near San Francisco to chat with John Lasseter. I'll be honest with you -- it's one of my favorite places to go. From the art on the walls to the toys around the offices, it's heaven for a lover of animation. Since I refuse to grow up, I love every visit.

During this trip, I got a chance to check out the new building, which was so beautiful, I actually offered to live on one of the couches on the roof terrace. (Perfect for entertaining -- each plant relates to an alcoholic beverage!) Done in brick and reclaimed wood, poured concrete and glass with a sushi bar in front of a garden ... well, you see what I'm saying. There is an employee pool out back, a soccer field (in the process of being relocated), a gym with massage rooms, yoga classes ... why oh why didn't I pay more attention in art class?



I, along with my colleague Jim Vejvoda from IGN, got to check out some footage from the newest Pixar offering, 'Cars 2' and watch the new short featuring characters from 'Toy Story 3.' Now, I can't give details about what I saw, but I can tell you this. It's James Bond meets 'Cars' and the visuals are beyond stunning. I'm a gamer and I tend to judge water effects very harshly. I noticed half way through the opening scene that my mouth was literally hanging open. Embarrassing, sure, but the water was just that incredible. Later, Lasseter invited us to sit through something called 'digital dailies,' where we sat in a screening room and watched each new segment of animation that had been completed that day.

When the time came to talk to Lasseter, we were taken right into his office. And oh my gosh, what an office! When I grow up, I want to work in a place full of toys too! He showed me his wall of old Matchbox cars and shelves of toys from each film. (Outside is a case of knockoffs -- ahem -- non-official Pixar toys from around the world that people have sent him, and a John Lasseter puppet. Another case houses pictures and memorabilia from the cross-country trip that doubled as a 'Cars' research mission.) Lasseter was incredibly welcoming as we sat down to talk animation. First we chatted about why Pixar always seems to get it right. 'Part of the magic of what is Pixar is, of course, number one is the story. It's the humor, the characters, the emotion ... of course all that is in there, but the look of our films. I feel like I could reach up and touch it but I know it doesn't exist. It's the believability. Instead of the word 'realistic,' I use the word 'believability.' The goal I have as a director and a film maker and Creative Officer here is, I want people to come in to our movies ... I always think of the audience every day with everything I do ... I want them to sit down, the lights go down and I want right away to suck them into our movies. And they don't think about a thing until our movie is over.'

Lasseter took pains to point out that the reason Pixar films just work is because of the characters. 'Imagine going to lunch or dinner with someone you've never met before,' he said. 'That's the characters in our movies. You don't want to sit with a jerk, you know? Someone you don't like?' I couldn't stop laughing and pointed out that I would love to have dinner with Remy from 'Ratatouille.' Heck, I'd love him to cook me dinner! But it's true. I've fallen in love with every single one of them. Even Big Baby from 'Toy Story 3,' though that took a while. I'm creeped out by dolls.


He made a point of telling me that he spent a lot of time on the eyes of a character. 'They're the windows to the soul. When we talk here, I don't look at your mouth. That would be kind of creepy.' And he talked about the richness of the techniques they use, including not putting anything major in the first 'third of a second of a shot' to give the eyes time to adjust and carefully calculating where someone would look at any given moment. Details like that are important, especially when you've seen it more than once. He laughed, 'My wife always said, 'Don't make the movies for the first time someone watches your film. Make it for the one hundredth time a parent has to suffer through it on video.'

We chatted a bit about 'Cars 2,' which marks Lasseter's return to directing. He said he wanted to do something unexpected, and talked about the opening sequence. 'People come in and say, 'Oh, it's Radiator Springs and Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and NASCAR and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) and all these characters I can't wait to see.' And then all of a sudden, it's like, [talking about the very super spy opening on a boat in dark waters] 'A boat? Wait, who are these guys?' But that's what I wanted. I wanted people to come in expecting one thing and then [say] wait a minute. What is this? This is really different. This is cool. It draws you in.



'The idea is, you're expecting cars and you get a boat. And then you see this little car on this boat. And you're like, what? That's how good story telling can draw you in. And then a bigger boat is there, which makes him seem that much smaller and he gets on the back. Then all of a sudden there is this massive oil derrick, and he's tiny! To make this guy seem really tiny, out where cars aren't supposed to be ... they sink to the bottom of the ocean! It's all there to kind of set up, frankly, how cool Finn McMissle (Michael Caine) is ... they set up this conspiracy. So what happens is, right at the end of the scene, the Professor Zundapp (Thomas Kretschmann) character says, 'With Finn McMissle gone, who can stop us now?' It's a classic bad guy line and what you didn't see [in that day's footage] is a smash cut of Mater. And he says, 'Mater. Tow Mater. That's who ... is here to help you.' And he's pulling off to the side of the road to a car that is broken down and he's going to tow him in. You're in Radiator Springs and you're back to what you're familiar with ... but there is a promise of what the movie is.'

Lasseter talked about how the first film was really personal to him, having grown up in Los Angeles with a dad who worked as a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership and doing part time jobs there when he was a kid. It also came out of a road trip across the U.S. inspired by something his wife said to him about missing out on time with his kids. This one had a different inspiration. As he traveled doing publicity for 'Cars,' he kept thinking about how Mater and Lightning McQueen would react if thrown into these situations like, 'Southern Italy where the traffic signals are mere suggestions of what you might want to do,' or 'driving on the wrong side of the road in England.' He also talked about Mater feeling out of place during a pre-race party that is full of sleek cars. It's a fish out of water story ... and speaking of water, stay tuned for the Japanese bathroom scene. I can't say more than that, but just trust me. It's hysterical.



He also mentioned that in the original film, Lightning McQueen and Sally Carrera's (Bonnie Hunt) first date was originally going to be at a drive in movie. They got really into the spy movie playing up on the screen about a character called Finn McMissle. It was cut out of the film, but ended up as the basis for this film. (He also said the 'Toy Story 3' character Lotso was originally created for the first film.)



Finally, I had to ask about some upcoming projects. 'Brave' is a particularly anticipated film for me. It takes place in Scotland where I got married, plus, it's a girl with a sword. Right up my alley. I told Lasseter this. 'I am so thrilled with this movie. It's, as you know, the first Pixar film with a female main character ... we are creating great female characters that are not sitting around waiting for their prince to come. They are in control of their lives and in control of the story. That's the big story in 'Brave.' It's what she wants to be versus the role ... what she's supposed to be ... it's a wonderful story. Even though it's set in Medieval Scotland, it's for today's audiences. We're very proud of that.



Before I left, I threw in one more question. I asked, 'Will we ever get an 'Incredibles 2? Everyone wants it.' 'Including me,' Lasseter said. I must have looked like a dog spying a cookie, because he continued, 'But I'm not saying we're going to do it, because we haven't ... look. This is one of the exciting things about Disney and Pixar coming together is that we have control of all of our characters. When we choose to do a sequel, it's because we've come up with a great story. We don't just do it because ... to sell more toys or sell more movie tickets. We are focused on quality and making great stories and great characters. We have a bunch of our movies where we love the characters and love the worlds. And we want to be doing more stories with them. We haven't announced anything. We don't even have any ideas or anything like that ... unfortunately I can't say anything about 'The Incredibles,' because there's not anything there yet.' Well, a girl can dream, can't she?


'Cars 2' will zooms into theaters June 24.