A Dreamer Walking

Joe Ranft:Part 1: A Man with Many Struggles

Posted in Animation, Film and Filmaker Studies by Jacob on October 11, 2010

Joe Ranft was a Pixar storyboard artist who struggled at drawing. He didn’t look like anything special. In high School Joe kept his head down and struggled to pass his classes. He was tall, over weight for his age, and quite shy. Through most of his life Joe was swimming against the tide and he never got along with authority. In fact, he was kicked out of his conservative Catholic school because he would do things like throw cat’s on the roof, never stay quite in class, and spit at the nuns who were trying to control him.

I find it amazing Joe ever became an artist at such a prestigious studio like Pixar, let alone known by one of the studios founders, John Lasseter, as being “the heart and soul of Pixar“. Most of his colegues claim Joe represented the foundations of what the studio stands for. Joe was more then a story board artist to the Pixar family; he was considered a mentor, a guide, and a prime example of what the studio embraced when it came to art and story. Before I go into the success Joe had as an artist – and more importantly as a friend and mentor – I want to look at some of the struggles in Joe’s life and what I have learned from those struggles.

After getting thrown out of his conservative Catholic school Joe struggled in public school. Today Joe may have been diagnosed with ADD (attention deficit disorder). However back when Joe was a kid they did not have categories for kids like Joe other to say they were “trouble makers” and should be “disciplined”. In sixth grade Joe entered a piece of art in a calendar contest and won. After this Joe made up his mind he wanted to become an artist. Joe applied to CalArt’s and got into their animation program.

CalArt’s was a school devoted to all aspects of art. The collage was founded by Walt Disney and many old Disney artist came out of retirement to help teach the students in the techniques of painting, drawing, story boarding, and animating. Joe Ranft became close friends with many of his professors. One particular professor, T. Hee, was of great influence to Joe..T. Hee was an old Disney story man and director. He taught caricature and storyboarding. T. Hee always pushed Joe to do things in his own unique way. When ever Joe was trying to copy another student’s art T. Hee would stop him and tell this insecure student he was interested in what Joe had to say as an individual. T. Hee was one of the first to give Joe a voice as an artist.

Unfortunately, when Joe went to Disney it seemed the studio tried to do everything in their power to muffle Joe’s voice. Joe was considered a very talented storyboard artist when he came out of CalArts, however he was put onto very mediocre projects. The CalArts students wanted to create new and unique films at Disney, the management however wanted to play it safe. This meant more of the same. After being completely denied when showing management several months of work he had done for The Great Mouse Detective and being put on the sequel to The Rescuers (a movie Joe felt was geared toward money rather then the people) Joe began to feel burnt out. He ended up leaving Disney to find a more potent means of expressing himself.

Joe had a dark side he expressed most vividly as an adult in his art work. Many of Joe’s personal pieces of art are filled with characters and descriptions I personally find unpleasant and belittling. He produced drawings of scary monsters and people with forks and knifes stuck in their heads (or sometimes through their heads). Joe used rusty red blood looking colors and smeared them on all of the character’s faces and clothes to make them look even more gruesome. He made drawings of figures with their heads cut off, distorted faces showing just as much skull as flesh, and drawings of monsters eating little innocent kids. Although with many of these drawings people could see humor I feel they revealed a great amount of insecurity in Joe and a sadness in his life he had a hard time expressing even to his closest friends.

I wasn’t surprised when I found out Joe was said to have suffered from depression through most of his life. His depression might even have thickened due to his dedication to his art form. When Joe came back to animation and began working for Pixar, he wanted to be the best leader he could possibly be for those to whom were under him. However, this meant many long hours at work. He was unwilling to leave his colleagues behind; he was the first to show up in the morning and last to leave. When Joe was head of story for Toy Story and A Bugs Life he got very little sleep and his family hardly saw him.

Thankfully Joe eventually received treatment for his depression and began to take time off to spend with his family. He stepped down from the head of story role for a while and became a mentor to his fellow artists (something I will be talking about in my next few blogs).

While on a spiritual retreat, Joe got in a freak car accident and died. He was only 45. The death was no doubt devastating to both his immediate family and his Pixar family. The good news is Joe’s struggles had a silver lining. His struggles did not consume him. Rather, he pushed through and was overcoming them all the way up to his death.

The reason why I concentrate on Joe’s struggles in this blog is because it is something we all go through as artist and as human beings. Joe somehow managed to push through the hardships and experience life. He did not only experience life, he also gave it. Joe was a man with many struggles, but he did not struggle in vain. He was able to use those struggles to create in himself an artist and a mentor who will never be forgotten in the medium of animation.

(To Be Continued…)

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  1. […] influences in the history of animation. As I have explained in my last two blogs about Joe (Here is Part 1 and Part 2), Joe went through many struggles and was able to push through them to become a very […]


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