Contemporary animation lost a visionary on August 18, 2005 -- at a point when Pixar continued to deeply reilluminate the possibilities of the animated form, via their perennial collaborations with Walt Disney Studios. The vision and artistry of Joe Ranft played a vital, essential role in this process.
His name might not be a household one on par with Disney or Avery, but in his brief window of 45 years, Ranft made an indelible mark on American animation to rival the contributions of the greatest. Born in 1960, and raised in the blue-collar Southern California community of Whittier, Ranft acquired and honed a deftness with magic tricks from a young age. He attended the California Institute of the Arts in 1978, as a classmate of John Lasseter -- who would become one of his enduring collaborators and a lifelong friend -- and in 1980 joined the ranks of Walt Disney animation. Ranft's early drawings were purportedly crude, but he exuded such a versatility in style and subject -- and projected such warmth and good humor -- that it scarcely mattered. Moreover, Ranft found an even stronger niche in the sphere of narrative. He honed his storytelling craft to a magical level as time progressed. Ranft received his first official credits for screenwriter, screen story, and a key voice on the critically-acclaimed 1987 animated feature The Brave Little Toaster. Subsequent roles included screenwriting credits on Oliver and Company (1988), The Rescuers Down Under (1990), Beauty and the Beast (1992), and The Lion King (1994), as well as storyboard supervisor on Tim Burton's 1993 film Nightmare Before Christmas and James and the Giant Peach in 1996.
Ranft officially began at the Emeryville, California-based Pixar in 1992 and re-encountered Lasseter, who held the position of studio head. The co-alums set to work and storyboarded the first Toy Story sketch, with the green army men. Ranft became a co-writer on that feature (for which he earned an Oscar nomination), and subsequently co-wrote the smash hit A Bug's Life (1998) and worked as story editor on Toy Story 2 (1999). Lasseter fondly recalled Ranft's willingness to sit in on looping sessions for those two features, doing "test voices" for several of the characters as a formality; Ranft performed so beautifully, in fact, that the producers used his voice in the final cuts of the films; he performs as Heimlich in A Bug's Life and Wheezy the Penguin in Toy Story 2. He also worked as a story artist (and did supporting voices) on 2001's Monsters, Inc., perfored as Jacques the Shrimp on the 2003 Finding Nemo, and voiced tertiary characters in The Incredibles (2004).
These were all warm-ups, however, for Ranft's broadest contributions to an animated picture, when he and Lasseter co-directed and co-wrote the Pixar feature Cars -- a film in which Ranft also performs as corvette Red, one of the main characters (who also illuminates the film's teasers, his toothy grin emerging from beneath a protective sheath).
Cars would become one of summer 2006's top box office draws, but tragically, Ranft did not live to see it happen. On August 18, 2005, he and two friends, Elegba Earl and Eric Frierson, were traveling in a 2004 Honda Element north along the tortuous Highway 1, 130 feet above the rocky Southern California coastline. Earl, the driver, mismanaged a hairpin turn and the car spun off of the roadside cliff, crashing onto the banks of the Navarro River. Ranft and Earl were killed instantly. Lasseter later avowed that despite the irony of the manner in which Ranft died, he sees Cars as a testament to the talents (and permanent legacy) of one of his best friends and an animation pioneer. Lasseter and company dedicated the film to Ranft's memory.