I just heard some very bad news this morning. Joe Ranft, the original, and many would say the best, "Head of Story" died yesterday in a car accident. It is really very sad indeed. Many of the best animated films of the last few decades bear his stamp. The NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS and TOY STORY, to name some obvious examples. The mighty animation force that is PIXAR, has become what it is today due, in large part, to Joe's considerable talent, and his genial stewardship of the other talents that work there. I first heard about Joe when I was working in Taipei, Taiwan, in 1986, at the CUCKOO's NEST studio. He was part of a team of young artists puting the finishing touches on THE BRAVE LITTLE TOASTER. I remember the guys from that group really having a passion for what they were doing, in contrast to the jaded weariness of most industry guys I met in those days. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to work with Joe at that time; I was involved in cranking out some truly atrocious Saturday morning cartoons elsewhere in the building.
A few years later, we did briefly work on the same project at COLOSSAL PICTURES. This was just prior to his going to work on the NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS. But, after knowing him socially for years, my first chance to really work WITH him came when I did some storyboarding on CARS, a project where Joe was head of story. Being a Head of story on an animated feature is, I think, one of the toughest jobs there is in animation, because it requires so many rare qualities in a person. They have to be passionate about their ideas, but be able to let them go at a moment's notice if they aren't in sync with the director's vision. Some have the talent, but not the people skills… or that all-important ability to work with others. Some have the personal skills, but just don't have the talent, or the ability to inspire those around them. I think this is a very difficult balance to strike for most people, but not for Joe Ranft.
I can say that I very much enjoyed working with him at PIXAR on CARS, he ran a very easy going and collaborative story team. Many OTHER creative leaders that I have worked for lead by making you feel inadequate, and that you have a long way to go, but Joe had a way of making you feel witty, smart and capable, and as a consequence his crew wanted very much to rise to the level of his confidence in them. As cliched as this may sound to anyone who didn't have the great good fortune to know him, it is true to say that you'll never hear a bad word about Joe Ranft. Which is all the more remarkable when you bear in mind the length of time he has worked within an industry that has more than its fair share of easily bruised egos. For a man to have worked at so high a level for so long, always pushing for better quality and yet never pressing anyone's buttons… well, he is truly an inspiration to those of us who believe that talent isn't synonymous with prima donna behaviour. Joe Ranft will never be replaced, but nevertheless, we should all try our hardest to be just like him.
Here are some other peoples' fond rememberences of Joe:
You can read about the man in his own words in the interview with Joe that was posted on the PIXAR website back in January 2002.