Joe Ranft was widely respected as one of the top story artists in the animation industry. He was one of seven writers nominated for an Academy Award® for best original screenplay for Toy Story, but Joe spent most of his time drawing storyboards for animated films.
“I don’t know if people really understand what I do,” he said in a 1998 interview. “When I say that I do story for animation, they say, ‘Oh, you’re a writer!’ If I tell them I’m kind of a writer, but I draw, they get this puzzled look. But when I say, ‘I’m the voice of Heimlich,’ the light bulb goes on and they say, ‘Oh, great!’”
Telling stories in one form or another was Joe’s lifelong passion. Born on March 13, 1960, in Pasadena, California, he grew up in Whittier, where his early interests included movies, drawing, performing in school plays, and doing sleight-of-hand magic
Joe entered the character animation program at the California Institute of the Arts in the fall of 1978. As a student, he was inspired by Bill Peet’s storyboards from the 1946 Disney feature Song of the South.
Joe left CalArts for The Walt Disney Studios in 1980, where he quickly established a reputation as an exceptional story artist, contributing to Oliver & Company, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Fantasia 2000 and overseeing story on The Rescuers Down Under. While at Disney he had become friends with John Lasseter, who later became the top creative executive at Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios.
Joe moved to Pixar to serve as story supervisor on Lasseter’s Toy Story, the first computer-animated feature film. His understanding of story structure and his talent for creating emotionally complex characters that audiences cared about won him a place in the core group of artists at Pixar.
“Joe was really a major part of Pixar’s soul,” Pete Docter, director of Monsters, Inc. and Up, once said. “He was one of the key players who made all the films what they are.”
Joe got the role as Heimlich in A Bug’s Life after John Lasseter noticed that his wife, Nancy, laughed harder at Joe’s temporary dialogue during production than she did at the actor hired to voice the caterpillar.
Joe served as story supervisor on Toy Story 2 and provided the voice for Wheezy the asthmatic penguin. He was credited with additional story material for Monsters, Inc. and oversaw the story on Lasseter’s Cars.
Joe was killed in an automobile accident on August 16, 2005. He leaves behind a legendary storytelling legacy.
“Joe had a great passion for telling stories, and he told them better than anyone,” John Lasseter once said. “He was funny, poignant, original, and he had an infallible sense for how to structure a story.” “He created stories and lived his life by two philosophies, one of which hung on his office door: THE JOURNEY IS THE REWARD. The other was: TRUST THE PROCESS,” recalled fellow story artist Brenda Chapman. “He was so passionate, so in love with storytelling.” Ranft himself once humbly reflected, “I have this notion that there’s a story there that wants to be told, and you’re just trying to find out what it is. And you go from trying to lead it to listening and letting it lead you.”