One of the most important contributors to the success of both Disney and Pixar, not to mention the entire medium of animation, was a man named Joe Ranft. It would be impossible for any Disney fan not to owe him thanks, especially if they enjoyed the company’s output in the nineties.
The Pasadena-born Californian loved to entertain even as a child, and this took form primarily in his magic, although he was equally passionate about film and comedy.
Like many talented future Disney artists, he enrolled in CalArts in the seventies, studying in the character animation program alongside people like John Lasseter and Brad Bird.
His student films got him hired at Disney in 1980 where he wrote and did storyboard art, mentored by the great Disney animator Eric Larson.
While at Disney, his comedy aspirations were cultivated when he got accepted into the L.A.-based improv troupe The Groundlings, where many famous comedians and actors got their start, including Paul Reubens, Melissa McCarthy, Will Ferrell and Kristen Wiig.
Ranft provided art and story material for The Brave Little Toaster, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Oliver & Company, The Little Mermaid, The Rescuers Down Under, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, The Lion King, Fantasia 2000, The Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach.
He was hired at Pixar in 1991 as Head of Story and became a key member of the Pixar braintrust, contributing mainly to Toy Story, Toy Story 2, A Bug’s Life, Monsters, Inc. and Cars.
While at Pixar, he voiced a number of characters. Take a look at the animated stars he brought to life.
I was sad to hear Ranft died in a car accident back in 2005, because I knew how important he was to the team when I constantly saw the man alongside the Pixar directors in all the behind-the-scenes footage in the “Making-of” videos.
From what I’ve heard, Ranft was a talented creator. He had an infectious enthusiasm lost in most animation productions. He had a keen sense of what was funny and what would or wouldn’t work in any given film. Heimlich the caterpillar from A Bug’s Life was only voiced by Ranft because no actor could be as funny as he was in the scratch voice sessions.
He defined the role of Head of Story, a difficult job for an animated production because it requires you to be able to juggle ideas, interact with many different artists, and constantly change your vision so that the film will be as great as possible.
Like Walt Disney, Ranft could inspire you and make you want to do better. He was known for being hilarious and easygoing, a rare quality in a leader. You’ll never hear a negative thing about him from his colleagues, either.