Joe Ranft

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:

Ronnie DelCarmen
Enrico Casarosa
Ted Mathot
Cartoon Brew
Rotten Tomatoes

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.

9 thoughts on “Joe Ranft”

  1. Jamie, Ouch, I’m so sorry for the loss of another great talent at Pixar. Thanks for posting the info about him. I never met him but admired his talent greatly. -Amber

  2. Joe Ranft was a dear cousin of mine. My family will miss him greatly and we appreciate the kind words. Joe never made enemies. He was a loving man and had such talent!! We will all miss him! He was taken well before his time…

  3. He was a lovely man, and he had a big soul in him. I learned even more about Joe at his memorial in Mill Valley yesterday. Attending the service was a great help to many of the people who cared about Joe, including myself. Even though none of what I heard was a surprise, it was reassuring to hear the many eloquent, funny and moving eulogies offered to Joe from his friends, colleagues and family members.

  4. Thanks Jamie. I had the good fortune to spend some time with Joe the week before he left for his trip. A lunch and then one day three of us watching a pitch by Dan Scanlon, then sitting around the story room yaking and drawing. It’s the memory I’m clinging to the most, sort of a bottled and preserved sample of my last four years at Pixar, the most enjoyable stretch of my career, in large part thanks to Joe. –Steve

  5. Being in the San Francisco animation scene myself, of course I always knew Joe’s reputation as a story guy, as this amazing wunderkind over at Pixar and Skellington. Our professional careers never overlapped, though; instead, my connection with him was mainly through some really fabulous holiday dinner parties, including the past dozen or so New Years Eves. Joe Ranft was GREAT at a party. The same story-telling ability that served him so well on the job really cut loose when he had a paper hat on his head and a glass of champagne in his hand. The ultimate raconteur, he would regale his fellow celebrants with stories on evey topic under the sun. Not just the animation war-stories, or long-ago Cal Arts escapades– but also comic misdaventures with Marin housing contractors, or what it was like to be a kid at camp, or madcap vacations with the his family. Joe’s tales were like his magic tricks, always concise and witty, with a well-defined beginning, middle, and end. But they had another element as well– they were always sweet. Never a discouraging word. Never a hint of mean-spirited gossip. And always there would be some point, some pay-off, some punch-line, which would somehow make the listener feel good about life in general. Joe’s love of story came out of his love of life, in all its complexities and characters and comic details. He was so good at what he did because he was good at Life, and what’s more, he made being good look cool. That’s a pretty rare talent. We’ll all miss him. -GE

  6. Joe Ranft was good at Pixar. He’d done good as storyman and voice actor. I loved his performances as Hemlich the caterpiller in A Bug’s Life and as the Peterbelt in Cars. My tribute goes out to Joe Ranft, his family, and the people at PIXAR.


  7. This Saturday Joe would have been 50 years old. Today at lunch in the theatre at Walt Disney Animation Studios, John Musker, Chris Buck, and ex roomate Michael Giaimo held a Celebration for Joe Ranft. We heard stories, watched video from the early 80’s, and saw lots of sketches. This was one of the best lunch times I’ve experienced at the Studio that I’ve been a part of since Lion King in 1993. Joe you are certainly missed.


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