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Joe Ranft: Someone who made the world a better place

Joe Ranft: Someone who made the world a better place

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Hey, gang:

Jim Hill here. It's been a little more than two months since we lost Joe Ranft. And -- to be honest -- there's still a lot of us out here who dearly miss the big guy.

Toward that end, I thought that I'd share a story that Leo N. Holzer wrote about the celebration of Joe's life that was held at Pixar Animation Studios back on September 17th.

I realize that this piece has previously been printed in the newsletter of the Northern California chapter of the N.F.F.C. (Not to mention being posted over on the discussion boards at LaughingPlace.com). But it's such a great piece of writing and does such a nice job of summing up the event that I felt it was important to reprint it. To make sure that this article reached as wide an audience as possible.

Sooo ... Without further ado, here's Mr. Holzer with his story about Mr. Ranft ...

This is in tribute to Joe Ranft, who died in an automobile accident Aug. 16, 2005. He was 45 years old and leaves behind a wife, Su; a son, Jordy; and a daughter, Sophia; as well as his extended family at Pixar.

Some dedicated Disney and Pixar film fans might only know Joe Ranft as a gifted storyboard artist who left his mark as the voice of Heimlich the caterpillar in "A Bug's Life" and Wheezy the penguin in "Toy Story II" or that he was one of the key story artists who helped craft Pixar's first hit, "Toy Story." Some others -- those who've watched the bonus material in Pixar DVDs --might have a deeper knowledge and appreciation of Joe Ranft's talents.

But Joe Ranft's film legacy is far more reaching. He's worked on more projects than quite possibly anyone else at Pixar. His early days at Disney started with "The Brave Little Toaster" and included work on "Who Framed Roger Rabbit," "Oliver & Company," "The Rescuers Down Under," "Beauty and the Beast," "The Lion King" and "Fantasia 2000." He teamed up with his friend and Cal Arts peer Tim Burton on "The Nightmare Before Christmas," "James and the Giant Peach" and is credited as one of the producers for "Tim Burton's Corpse Bride."

At Pixar, he's been one of the creative sparkplugs keeping the production engines humming, delivering remarkable films to entertain people of all ages in every corner of the world. There's not a Pixar production that hasn't benefitted from Joe Ranft's creativity and story genius. His work, especially on "Beauty and the Beast," "Lion King," "The Nightmare Before Christmas," the landmark "Toy Story" and the upcoming "Cars," will entertain audiences for generations to come.

I never got to meet Joe Ranft in person -- but we did talk on the phone a few times as he promoted Pixar's films. I'll never forget our last conversation ... I called him at home on a Sunday about a year ago to invite him to be a guest speaker for one of our NFFC Chapter meetings in Sacramento. His wife, Su, answered and told me that he had stepped out but to call back a bit later in the day. I did, apologizing for bothering his family at home. The Ranfts were extremely gracious about it, both Su and Joe. And -- as guilty as I might feel about interrupting his family time -- I'm glad for those few minutes. I'm glad that I was able to tell Joe Ranft how much I admired Pixar's films and his vocal work. Joe Ranft politely set aside the invitation. He said he was too busy working on "Cars" but told me to call him back "next year" if I could wait.

The news of his sudden and untimely death stunned me. He was born on March 13, 1960 and was just a year older than myself. I could only read blog accounts and imagine how his colleagues at Pixar were dealing with the loss, especially John Lasseter. The two have become good friends over the years -- sharing a love of storytelling and researching their projects from the trip to a Toys R' Us store for "Toy Story" to a memorable cross-country tour of Route 66 for the upcoming "Cars."

"I'd never in a million years trade that trip down Route 66, the Mother Road," Lasseter said.

From the blogs, I learned about the Sept. 17 celebration of Joseph Henry Ranft's life at Pixar and managed to get invited. I wanted to learn more about this "gentle giant," to share some tears and a bit more laughter than I had expected with those who knew and worked with him. I wanted to thank the creative colleagues he's left behind for outstanding work -- an unparalleled string of entertaining successes. Over the years, I've interviewed a half-dozen of the top talents at Pixar -- all by phone. Here was a chance to meet them in person, if only to thank them for an impressive body of work and offer my sincere condolences.

"This is a big loss for us here at Pixar," John Lasseter said as he welcomed a few hundred guests to the Emeryville studio. "But we're here to celebrate Joe, his life, his creativity, his heart. The impact he made goes way beyond the credits of the films he's worked on."

Lasseter talked about Joe Ranft's ability to inspire others with his own infectious enthusiasm for a film. Right away at the beginning of a project, Joe Ranft would see something in the story and that "spark of an idea would inspire him. He'd storyboard the sequence and inspire us," Lasseter said. Joe Ranft's efforts became "the nucleus of creativity" that would benefit the entire film and everyone working on it.

Lasseter recounted a "Toy Story" storyboard session featuring the Green Army Men and the reconnaissance mission at the beginning of the film. It was one of the first scenes storyboarded and it was "just magic when he pitched it," Lasseter said. It was one of many times that Joe Ranft nailed a sequence on his first pitch.

Disney animator John Musker talked about working with Joe Ranft back in the days even before Michael Eisner's arrival. He talked about Joe Ranft's passion for the craft of filmmaking and storytelling. He pointed out several of the sound-effect words Joe Ranft printed on his storyboards like "BLOORT," as Cogsworth is dislodged from a mound of Jell-O in a scene from "Beauty and the Beast."

Musker also screened a film of his own drawings in tribute to Joe Ranft's life. It included such highlights as a young Joe getting in trouble with the nuns at parochial school, Joe Ranft's stint and a stunt he pulled at an ice cream parlor, his love affair with Su, Joe Ranft as a proud father and finally as a beautiful butterfly heaven bound. This eulogy, featuring emotionally moving pictures, told me so much about Joe Ranft and why he was so beloved at home and work. It was a gracious gesture from a longtime friend. Musker was recognized for his efforts with a standing ovation and a room full of teary-eyed faces.

Pete Docter, director of "Monsters, Inc.," talked about "this most amazing effect Joe had on other people." Joe Ranft was among the alumni teachers at Cal Arts when Docter was a student there. "For Joe, teaching wasn't just lecturing. It was helping us get jobs, sticking his neck out for other people. I wouldn't be where I am today, here at Pixar, if it hadn't been for Joe Ranft."

Docter talked about receiving a letter and some sketches from a prison inmate and being a bit unnerved, but Joe Ranft picked up the letter and sent the inmate an encouraging note and some art books that he bought with his own money.

"He encouraged everyone," Docter said. "He always found something positive to say. Joe is big part of Pixar. He'd have faith in a project even when it sucked."

Still, this self-assurance that reassured others wasn't second-nature for Joe Ranft, "it was very intentional and he worked at it," Docter said.

The day also included numerous photos of Joe Ranft growing up, with his family and friends, pictures and video of him at school, at work and at play -- acting the part of a clown, amazing a crowd with a bit of sleight-of-hand magic or doing his impression of a hillbilly with his Billy Bob teeth. He was a fun-loving, hard-working good guy.

Other speakers included actress Bonnie Hunt, who said Joe was the "Dean Martin to John Lasseter's Frank Sinatra" in the Pixar Rat Pack, and magician Carl Willat who spoke of Joe's Ranft's love of magic -- a well-honed hobby. Willat performed the torn and restored newspaper trick to honor his friend. Other colleagues also spoke. Randy Newman performed two songs on video, unable to attend in person but wanting to be part of the tribute.

Another one of the emotional highlights came as the storyboard artists at Pixar each pinned up a panel dedicated to Joe Ranft. They each said a sentence or two about their drawing and a few broke into tears. They recounted Joe Ranft's ability to find something good in everyone's portfolio, the extra 5-minutes he'd give you in the parking lot at the end of a long day, and one recounted the stories proud papa Joe Ranft would tell about his son Jordy's latest achievements. Even Lasseter joined in, thanking Joe Ranft for being "so tall that you always kept the top row straight," pulling out a step-stool to add his frame to the top center of the board. Joe Ranft's favorite pitch stick was then retired.

"Joe cherished the process and trusted it," Lasseter said. At some point with every film, we'd find ourselves with story problems "working on the worst picture ever, but Joe just sat there smiling." Joe Ranft had a saying above his office door at Pixar ... THE JOURNEY IS THE REWARD and he had this faith in the skills of the team at Pixar and what they were doing. They'd continue to hone and then plus the story until everyone was pleased with the results. The public responded and Pixar's reputation only grew stronger with each new release.

"We joked that storyboarding was really story reboarding and on 'Cars,' it had become story salvage. I thought we'd break a record of horrible sequences with 'Cars,' " Lasseter said. "We were lost in a maze but Joe knew if you just kept walking eventually you'll get out of the maze."

The studio is nearly done with "Cars" and Lasseter believes that Joe Ranft's greatest film achievement came in his story ideas for Mater the tow truck character in upcoming Summer 2006 release. Mater is the world's best backwards driver and is one of the standout characters in "Cars."

"When you see the smiles in the audiences as they watch 'Cars,' that's Joe Ranft," Lasseter said.

That was Joe Ranft's gift to the world. He was someone who magically made the world a better place with laughter, with joy, and even through tears -- think of all those moments of pathos in Pixar's films. He was one of the world's best storytellers and entertainers. This is the picture of Joe Ranft, illustrated by loving words, art and cherished memories from his friends and colleagues.

Recognize Joe Ranft's talents and remember ... the journey is the reward. Enjoy and celebrate life on a daily basis.

Joe Ranft, God blessed us all with your extraordinary life.

Donations may be made to:

The Joseph Henry Ranft Memorial Fund
in care of Pixar Animation Studios,
1200 Park Ave., Emeryville, CA

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