Friday, August 16, 2013

Dreaming of Joe Ranft

It was eight years ago today that Joe Ranft died in a car accident.  He left a huge void in the animation world, not only for his creativity, but also for his humanity.  Shortly after Joe's death, animator Al Holter told me about a dream he had about him.  He shares it today with FLIP.....
Joe Ranft with Al Holter puppet, CalArts, 1981.
I want to tell you about this dream I had.

First, it seems to me, that telling people your dreams is about as appreciated as sharing your new diet or latest medical procedure. Some will seem to be attentive but mostly because of their fingernail digging deep into their palm.

However, I had this particular dream two days after Joe Ranft died and he made a revealing appearance.
From 1983, Bill Berg, Matt O'Callaghan, Al Holter, Bob Seeley, Joe Ranft, John Hays.  Note Joe's "Wild Things" t-shirt from the early 3D test at Disney.  
I first meet Joe in the fall of 1979.
We shared time in the CalArts Character Animation program and my roommate, Bob Seeley, and Joe were both close friends in the year ahead of me. I saw him a lot.
Several photos I took of Joe working on his ice cream film are in John Canemaker's Two Joes book.
We bonded in the way that those do who survived Bill Moore's Design Class.
But there was always more than toons going on.
Whether I was having a visitor lunch with him at Disney, or meeting in Taipei, or shucking corn to cook on the balcony of his new Corte Madera home, our conversations tended to veer off to spiritual subjects. He made a point that we see the "Spiritual in Art" show at The LA country Museum together in 1987. He was curious about my ongoing interest in astrology and it's implications in character and event timing, tilting his head to better understand how I had meticulously arranged the time and date of my marriage to insure success and duration. He seemed to keep open channels to a range of ideas.

Then I got the call that he was gone.

The night before I left for his memorial in Mill Valley I had this visitation:

I dreamed I was walking down the sidewalk around Pico and 20th in Santa Monica, minding my own business, when a large person coming in the opposite direction stepped in front of my path. I stopped, looked up, and saw Joe Ranft standing there. Now, I knew Joe was dead, so having him there in front of me presented a problem. It seemed very rude to bring up the subject of his recent demise. So I just asked him what he was up to recently.

"Oh, I've been taking some time off from Pixar lately,..." he said.
"Actually, I've been working to get my barber's license in my spare time."

Of course, that made no sense at all. One of the era's great Story Guys - now training to be a barber?
But I was now following him down the street and soon he was unlocking the store front door to Joe's Barber Shop. Classic old-school. Mirrors, chrome tube chairs to wait in, marble counter with tools and jars of blue liquid.  I slid down on a waiting chair and opened my sketchbook.

As he slipped on a smock and tied it, a small boy leaned in the open door.
"Come on in!", Joe said encouragingly.
"Thanks." he said and the kid crawled up on Joe's chair.

He got the kid wrapped up and comfortable, started clipping hair and leaned in to say something silly.
He was reciting lines from Pixar films. The kid immediately picked up on what he was saying and spoke back with a Pixar line from a different film. A perfect response. Very clever from both sides.  They would volley back and forth during the clipping in the dialog that made perfect sense on a lot of levels and weaved between Joe acting Woody, then Mater, as the kid was doing a convincing version of a Nemo. Soon we were all smiling and laughing, each of us marveling at the twisting interaction.

But as I was drawing, it slowly dawned on me that the little boy was dead.  Not grizzly, like in Sixth Sense, just not quite tethered to a body anymore. And disoriented. That he was not clear as to what was going on but there was a harbor in this friendly barber shop.

Then it became clear and made a lot more sense. This was Joe's new job - acting as a guide to help the young bridge a transition.
Nothing so grim as rowing phantoms across the river Styx.
Just making the shift easier.

Soon others wandered in and filled chairs, each needed similar comfort, so I closed my sketchbook
and gave a small wave goodbye as I exited. And woke.

I've heard there is this Buddhist idea of spiritual service called a Bodhisattva Vow (Bo-dee-Sot-va) that's a lot like the idea of the dedicated crew of ship who's job is to help the passengers off the sinking ship, even at their peril.  But the notion is that this universe is the boat, and it's always sinking, and the passengers are continuously trying to get off and it's the role of the bodhisatvas to make sure that it goes somewhat smoothly.  And now Joe was trying to show some compassion to his young Pixar viewers.

That's how I enjoy remembering Joe Ranft. Cutting hair in Joe's Barber Shop.

-Al Holter


  1. A very beautiful story about a wonderful guy. Thanks Al.

  2. That was wonderful, and very touching Al, thanks very much for posting this. After reading it I decided it was time to give the old Steely Dan classic "Bodhisattva" a listen. It certainly puts the uplift back in wheel of life! :)