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Thursday, August 18, 2005

JOE RANFT (1960-2005), RIP

Sad news in the animation industry. Most people outside my industry probably never heard of Joe Ranft.

Pixar Animation's Joe Ranft, 45

Joe Ranft, Pixar Animation Studios' head of story for more than a decade and a cornerstone of the company's creative team, died Tuesday when the car he was riding in plunged into the ocean after running off the road in Mendocino County, Calif. He was 45.

A spokeswoman for the Mendocino County Sheriff-Coroner's Office confirmed Wednesday that Ranft was one of two people who died when the 2004 Honda Element they were traveling in veered off the road while heading north on Highway 1.

The California Highway Patrol said the crash occurred at about 3 p.m. Tuesday as the driver tried to regain control of the car after swerving when he headed into a tight left curve. The car fell 130 feet over the side of the road, overturning twice before it landed in the water near the mouth of the Navarro River where it meets the Pacific Ocean, the CHP said.

The driver, identified by the Coroner's Office as Elegba Earl, 32, of Los Angeles, also was killed in the crash. The third person in the car, whom the CHP identified as Eric Frierson, 39, of Los Angeles, survived by climbing through the sun roof. He was hospitalized with moderate injuries at Mendocino Coast Hospital, according to officer Robert Simas of the CHP office in Ukiah.

Ranft was a co-writer on 1995's "Toy Story," for which he earned an Oscar nomination, and 1998's "A Bug's Life." Before Pixar, he was a leading member of the story department at Walt Disney Feature Animation, where he was a writer on 1991's "Beauty and the Beast" and 1994's "The Lion King."

"Joe was an important and beloved member of the Pixar family, and his loss is of great sorrow to all of us and to the animation industry as a whole," the Emeryville, Calif.-based company said Wednesday. In addition to his work as a writer, Ranft performed the voices for numerous characters in Pixar features.

Director Henry Selick, Ranft's friend and longtime collaborator, called him "the story giant of our generation."

Before joining Pixar, Ranft worked with Selick as a storyboard supervisor on 1993's "Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas." Selick met Ranft at Disney in the early 1980s, and his first impression of Ranft was that he was "a huge guy" who was well over 6 feet tall.

"His drawing at the time was really crude, but he was the sweetest, funniest guy," Selick said. "I've never seen anyone try to improve himself as much as Joe did over the years."

He also was highly versatile, Selick recalled.

"He could do these beautiful sweet gags for a family film and then do these weird, depraved cartoons of anyone who needed to be skewered," Selick said. "We'd do hundreds of drawings, and Joe was always the guy who was able to go back in and say, 'This is about the process; let's try it again.' "

Ranft's voice-over work for Pixar included such characters as Heimlich in "A Bug's Life" and Wheezy the Penguin in "Toy Story 2."

Born in Pasadena in 1960, Ranft was raised in Whittier, Calif., where as a child he developed a fondness for performing magic tricks. He was a classmate of Pixar's John Lasseter at the California Institute of the Arts in the 1970s.

After two years at CalArts, Ranft joined Disney in 1980. In 1992, he reunited with Lasseter at Pixar, where his early work included pitching and storyboarding the first sequence for "Toy Story," the Green Army Men sketch.

"Every film Joe's name was on was successful artistically and financially," Selick said. "Sometimes he contributed small details, sometimes the whole thing. He was a story giant of our generation."

Cynthia Littleton contributed to this report.
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