r.i.p.: Joe Ranft (1960-2005)
You’ve gotta love the penguins.
This year’s surprise hit March of the Penguins is nothing new; the cute flightless birds have been used as an endearing part of family entertainment for a long time. Even when mischievous, as they are in Batman Returns, The Wrong Trousers, and the recent Madagascar, penguins are lovable. None are quite as adorable, however, as Wheezy, the broken squeeze toy in Toy Story 2. Sadly the man responsible for giving us that character, in design and in voice, has been killed.
Story man Joe Ranft, who worked on ideas and storyboards for Walt Disney and Pixar, died in a car crash Tuesday afternoon. In addition to the creative designs he provided for films including Beauty and the Beast and Toy Story (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), he was known best as the voice of Heimlich in A Bug’s Life and more recently as Jacques in Finding Nemo.
I feel a little connection to Ranft, who followed the career path that I had once planned. A fellow Piscean and Kurt Vonnegut fan, he spent his childhood practicing magic before attending CalArts in the late ’70s. This was the same time that the school, famous for its cultivation of animators, was fostering the talents of Tim Burton, John Lassiter, Brad Bird, Gary Trousdale and Henry Selick. After two years there, Ranft was recruited by Disney. He also studied with the legendary comedy group The Groundlings, which featured Paul "Pee-Wee Herman" Reubens, Phil Hartman, Jon Lovitz and Bob Saget. He credited that improvisational education as a major asset in his development as a storyboard artist. Eventually he became, as director Peter Docter (Monsters, Inc.) calls him, "the undisputed storyboard master at Pixar".
Joe Ranft was a terrific example of the uncelebrated pieces that form a great film. He was praised enough in his field to able those unfamiliar with his contributions to discover that he concocted the realtionship between Lumiere the candlestick and Cogsworth the clock in Beauty and the Beast and actualized the entire army men sequence for Toy Story. He never aspired to be more than a great story-boarder, and in his career as one of the best, he gave the position a significant respect. Now that he’s gone, we can hope that his success inspires other collaborators to remain as humble and aids in the construction of more great films.