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Joe Ranft, the Great One. By Mike Gabriel

Back in the early eighties some of us in the Disney feature animation department on the main lot back then, used to put on puppet shows in an office window of the animation building with these life size cardboard cutouts of celebrities, including Eddie Fisher who acted as the host of the shows by lip syncing to old Al Jolson tracks. We called them the Eddie shows. Joe Ranft was our Santa Claus—not cardboard, but Joe in a costume— for the Christmas Eddie Shows. Mike Giamio used to have a Christmas party every year and about half way into the party a knock at door and there was Santa Claus with a big HO HO HOOooo handing out gifts and laughs. My wife Tammy remembers meeting Joe for the first time when he showed up in full Santa Claus regalia at one of those parties. She loved him immediately. We all did. Everybody who ever met Joe—for ten minutes—or for twenty-five years like me—loved Joe the minute you met him. Joe Ranft was our Santa Claus. He was a darn good Santa Claus. In fact, he was better than the real Santa Claus.

Joe Ranft, the Great One has died. The Gentle Giant. We all looked up to Joe–not just because he towered over us in height but because he towered over us in every way a human being can. He worked harder, he had more sheer talent, better ideas, better solutions to problems, he was funnier, wittier, more original, more ingenius, drew funnier drawings, he gave more time to charities and time to whoever needed help, friend or stranger. He was the Great One. The great Joe Ranft. By contrast, the rest of us looked small when we complained about any trivial nothing and Joe would furrow his brow with genuine compassion and listen and truly care and soon he was smiling and we were smiling and we were all better. Negativity and misery didn’t reside in Joe’s orbit.

Joe was a big man. His untimely death makes us all feel extremely mortal and extremely vulnerable. If a huge strong big hearted guy like Joe can get taken out in the blink of an eye we are all doomed. Joe was entirely too strong and too nice and just so big that it would be impossible to end his life. Well, he has left us and we all feel oh so small and oh so less than the great one, Joe Ranft. Any human was small next to the great one. So much less than we should be. So much less than Joe. And Joe was so much more than any human could ever hope to be.

Everything about Joe made you smile. When he walked it looked like he had springs for bones. I don’t ever remember shaking hands with Joe over the 25 years I was friends with him. You hugged Joe. You wanted some of that Joe hug whenever you saw him. There was lot of love in that Joe hug. Life was good in those big Joe arms.

His hands were extraordinarily graceful and beautiful. Pure elegance. Joe’s hands. They were a thing of beauty, large with long delicate perfectly tapered fingers. They were an artist’s hands. They were a magician’s hands. He used them so expressively when he talked. I could watch them all day long. They made magic on a daily basis. The way they drew with such a light delicate touch, drawings that made you laugh. Joe could draw virtually anything—I repeat anything and make you laugh. He never realized how brilliant an artist and painter—story sense aside—he was.

Joe could speak very very softly and quietly, pulling you into those sparkly black little eyes that twinkled their spell on you, and he could speak very very loudly and ROAR into an improve at full window shattering intensity, throwing the entire room into gut busting laughter. He knew how to modulate. His stories. His life.

Joe was patient. Joe was polite. He always let you speak and always listened and always made you feel special. Joe cared. He truly cared. Joe was generous. He gave. He gave and gave and gave. Come on Joe–how much can one man give! Well, Joe, you shamed us all with how much you gave to your fellow man here on earth. You were exemplary in every way you chose to live. You gave without ever wanting anything out of it. You gave without ever letting anybody know how much you were giving. You gave because you wanted to. You gave because you cared about others. You gave and you gave and you gave. And that giving is what finally took you away from us. It isn’t right. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t make a good story.

I would like to be the first to suggest Pixar commision a larger than life bronze statue of Joe, meaning make it his actual size, walking along with
his beloved children Jordy and Sophia at his side, as one of Pixar’s founding fathers and have it placed in the gardens around their headquarters. I think it should be made from donations from everybody Joe touched in his life. If we all gave a nickel we could build a 50 ft solid gold statue of the great one—Joe Ranft–the best there ever was. The best of any of us. The best mankind has to offer.

When those of us who knew and loved Joe heard he was dead it was like hearing Santa Claus is dead. How could anybody let Santa Claus die? What kind of a world would kill off Santa Claus? Who is going to give the children of the world, children of all ages the toy stories that Pixar continues to bless us with now? The years and years that we might have been hearing Joe’s stories and falling in love with Joe’s characters are ended. But happily, the gifts he has given the world in his 45 short years, are gifts that keep on giving. Whenever we see Woody, or Buzz, or Heimlich, or Wheezy, or any of hundred beloved Pixar creations we are receiving Joe’s gifts. His stories are his gifts. And stories never die like people do. They go on. Joe’s stories will continue to generate new ideas into all those little children’s minds hearing them, seeing them, falling in love with them for the first time. Their little light bulbs of imagination will be lit by Joe’s stories. Although the Luxo Jr. light bulb is out today, and the massive open atrium of Pixar is darkened with hushed reverence for a fallen hero, that will pass. Joe’s legacy will spark new light into that still flickering filiment in Luxo Jr’s little head. Every artist there today and all the future employees, children who grew up Pixarlated by Joe’s work, will think of Joe often and be inspired to do even better. Joe would expect it of himself. And he expects it of all of us.

Sleep well Joe, your work here on earth is done. Say hi to our other Joe up there. He now has the two best story men in the game. Tell him to stop
for now. Baseball trading is over. He wins. Let us have the rest. The world needs them. There is much work to be done and we don’t have you two to
help anymore. Roll up the sleeves, boys and girls, this is doing it the hard way.
Mike Gabriel

Posted by admin at 1.30 AM | 14 Comments
Labels: Legends, Story


  1. Ed (August 18th, 2005, 3.44 am)

    I was very saddened today when I heard of this tragedy. I’m not one to wear his emotions on his sleeve, but I would like to say a few things about Joe. Joe was one of those guys that would help anyone who asked and had a wicked sense of humor. As an underclassman at Cal Arts I could see that he would become one of the great story tellers of our time and when I worked with him at Disney he inspired me to want to improve my story telling abilities. He was a good person. I didn’t see much of Joe when he moved up north but I when I would run into him at parties or academy functions there was always a twinkle in his eye and I knew he was creating another story idea from just observing and listening to people.

    So now when I look up in the sky I will know that Joe is up there looking
    down and observing us all and creating a story that would tickle his funny
    bone and cause all the stars to twinkle. I will truly miss his presence!
    –Ed Ghertner

  2. Kelly Wightman (August 19th, 2005, 9.29 am)

    Joe was an outstanding person, artist, and teacher, and I will miss him. Joe was my story teacher in my freshman year at Cal Arts. He opened our eyes to the amazing, endlessly exciting world of story and storyboarding. He inspired me more than words can say. Is it a coincidence that so many people from my class became story artists, story supervisors, and directors? I think it is directly related to the skills, enthusiasm, and joy that Joe spread to all of us. He had a way of always being upbeat, always searching for new, inventive solutions, and encouraging those around them to just tap into their talents and go for it. He never belittled, complained, or made negative comments. He made everyone feel they were part of a team, equally gifted and with so much to offer. He brought out the best in people.
    The last time I saw Joe was when he flew up from Pixar for a day with Dave G and I, to look over our new Gnomeo beats and help us find places for humor and heart; two areas he was known for. He was positive, encouraging, warm and enthusiatic. His kindness was a gift at a time when many others weren’t quite as generous. And that is what I think of when I think of Joe; generous. I can’t imagine this industry without him. My thoughts are with his family. I wish I could thank him for all he’s done for me, all he has taught me and inspired me to do. Joe, you will be missed.
    Kelly Wightman

  3. Mitchell Bernal (August 19th, 2005, 11.05 am)

    I remember starting out and Joe would talk to me if I was having a hard time with something just to chat and forget. He was so good humored about a lot of things that you felt there was no need to worry, cause it would work itself out eventually.

    There are only a few people in life that can make an impression on you that you will never forget them. Joe is one of those. Not only was he so damn tall, his smile, enthusiasm and sense of humor made you feel you were always welcome.

    My family know him as the caterpillar in “a bugs life”. So, whenever my son talks about the caterpillar he has a big smile on his face and laughter in his voice. Thanks Joe for making my family laugh and smile.

    I miss you Joe and feel blessed to have known you even for just a moment.

  4. Stacie Iverson (August 19th, 2005, 12.18 pm)

    I had the honor and good fortune to have met and worked with the amazing and talented Joe Ranft. He was the most joyous and geniunely kind gentle man. When Pam Waterman and I would travel to the north, Joe and Sue always made us feel welcome at the wonderful world of Pixar events. There was always a big smile, a hug and fun just bubbled out of them. In the biggest scheme of things, I understand the “Circle of Life” but am so sad that one of the best guys was taken from us way too soon. My prayers for Sue, Jordan and Sophia are that they will always remember the celebration that Joe is and will be happy knowing he was truly one of the good guys; he truly made a difference with his life. Heimlich, Tuck and Roll know you have your wings and will be watching over your beloved family (both intimate and extended). God blessed us with you…Stacie

  5. tprice (August 19th, 2005, 12.43 pm)

    I met Joe at Disney back in 1984, before he left for Pixar. We had been moved off the lot to the Flower Street building/warehouse and were finishing up on Great Mouse Detective. We used to have annual Talent Shows and I remember Joe doing amazing slight of hand and magic tricks.

    Joe had a face that just lit up when he smiled and he smiled alot. He always remembered me and greeted me with that great big smile even though we hadn’t worked together for 20 years.

    This is a tremendous loss and my thoughts and prayers are with Joe and his family.
    -Tina Price

  6. eric pigors (August 19th, 2005, 1.27 pm)

    I only worked with Joe for a few years before he left DISNEY’s.

    But i do remember Joe always had a big smile on his face and was always fun to be around.

    When JOE would be sent in to help make are films better at the end , and i would see him in the hallway i would always be happy to see him and his smile on his face. And i would stop and chat for a short while with him.

    I remember talking with him in his room on RESCUERS DOWN UNDER and JOE showing me his books he had about a funny duck i think it was. He said he wanted to make books one day of these short stories books he showed me and i couldn’t wait to see them made.They were really funny and the drawings were really fun to look at!
    He was one of the artists who got me excited about doing my own books.
    I hope someone does a nice artbook or these books of his one day.
    I will still be excited to get one!!
    Losing Joe is a terrible loss and ,he was an extremely taleneted artist and nice person.

  7. Rusty Mills (August 19th, 2005, 2.07 pm)

    I never got to work directly with Joe but knew him as a friend. He and I often crossed paths in odd places and would share a bit of what we were up to. Knowing his sense of story and humor I could often pick out his work on a film. I remeber once running into him with his family in a parking lot at a local mall in So.Cal after he was up at Pixar. He was down in the area visiting for Christmas. We visitied for a bit and I introduced my family to him and his family. When we heard of the news the other day my wife said she remembered meeting him that night and how pleasant he was with a great smile and laugh. To me that describes Joe perfectly.

  8. rasoul azadani (August 19th, 2005, 2.20 pm)

    I can say today is the sadest day in my 28 years in America.I lost a great American friend better say a brother.He was not only tall in hight ,He was tall in everything, Good person great artist and a great teacher.He was my watercolor body.He and I and another friend Sunny went to Mexico for a watercolor painting trip.I had the best time painting with him.He was the most positive person I know.Every year I got a christmas card from him that showed his family pictures, that showed he really loved his family and his friends.My family enjoyed his voice in Pixar movies and laughed.Joe brought happiness and joy in our life and I never forget him .Joe would be always in our hearts.
    Joe It was too early for you to go But You would be always Loved and missed .Our thoughts are with his family.
    Rasoul,Arezoo,Yassamin,Anahitta and Natasha Azadani

  9. Ben Burgess (August 19th, 2005, 6.08 pm)

    In early 1981 a weekly Super 8mm film class was offered listed in the Disney Newsreel. This class to be instructed by a vet cinematographer on the Disney main lot in the original Animation Building after work hours 7-9pm.
    Eventually the class lead into editing continueity into creating a story. To do the class assignments for shooting the Super 8mm what better place than the backlot Western Town. So many of the animation staff people would walk around the studio lot at lunch and break time. This made it
    possible to shoot a film with some characters that could act.
    I thought of making a simple plot line that would need characters only in symbolism or metaphor dualism “Good” vs. “Bad”. So, “Shadow of Death”, was shot at various lunch time outings with some people from the Animation Dept. and JOE RANFT was the “big dark shadow bad guy”. At the time Joe mentioned the cinema devise idea of “Parallel Editting”, two story lines that counterpart eachother until these storypoints come together.
    I still have this film with his editting suggestion and of course he got title credit at the end.

  10. Pam Coats (August 20th, 2005, 3.28 am)

    I met Joe when I first started with Disney, we were working on Rescuers Down Under together. He was tall, kind, funny and very welcoming. I was a fish out of water and was completely overwhelmed by the level of talent that I rubbed elbows with everyday–Joe always made it all okay. I have read the posting written before me and they are so eloquently and passionately written that I can only echo them with my love and support of the great smiling Joe. I too immediately thought of how I hope our two great Joes run into each other up there. True creativity never dies, it just changes form.
    My thoughts and prayers are with Joe’s familiy at this time of transition. Thank you for all the time we had with him. I always think that one of the great markings of a man is how he talks about his family when they are not around. He loved you all so much.
    Thanks Joe, for your laugh, your warmth, your talent, the time you gave each one of us –we are better people.
    Pam Coats

  11. jean morel (August 20th, 2005, 8.18 am)

    I met joe twice, the first time was in 87′ or 88′ in a pub in dublin with his then fiance, they were travelling to australia to do research for rescuers down under..i remember being enthralled by how he was talking about the subject or idea which i don’t remember. he also entertained us with some slight of hand.
    the second time was at the take 20 gym in burbank 1 or 2 years later where we had huffed and puffed through an aerobics class.he told me that he was going up to the bay area to work for what i guess was pixar.
    very sad to hear of his passing.
    jean morel

  12. Tony Bancroft (August 23rd, 2005, 6.15 pm)

    Kelly Wightman and I have something in common. So do Pete Doctor, Jim Capobianco, Marty Scully, Mark Kennedy, Donavan Cook and many others. We were all fortunate to have Joe Ranft as our freshman story teacher at CalArts. Later, as I started to work at Disney Joe and I worked on some of the same films and his smiling face and reassuring way always made me feel excepted amongst all of the very talented artists there. I have never been in awe of someone and yet felt such a keenship at the same time. I guess that was his true talent. He made you feel as though you and he were on the same level even when his creative greatness was obviously superior to yours. Joe touched more people in his 45 short years of life then most of us will by the time we die with our old gray hairs. He touched my life and I will miss him dearly. I pray now for his family that he left as they suffer a life with out him. I suffer with them. Good bye Joe….

  13. T. Dan Hofstedt (August 30th, 2005, 10.38 am)

    I met Joe inn ’82 or ’83 when I was a student at Cal Arts, when the Disney Channel put together a Frank and Ollie animation one-hour program entitled “Animation Fascination.” The show brought together 5-6 of us Cal Arts students, 4-5 Rowland Heights High School animation students, and 2-3 young Disney artists (which included Joe) into a classroom setting led by Frank and Ollie. Joe’s sunny disposition and humor helped make the day-long shoot a fun day for all. He was featured in a segment of the program as Frank and Ollie were talking about observing life and getting those observations on paper, and Joe came up before the class to demonstrate a character walk he had seen. It was great to see how he got these two Disney legends to smile and laugh approvingly at Joe’s rendition of this character. Of course, all of the students there wanted to be where Joe was at: working at Disney, drawing and making the animation magic that we had all grown up admiring and dreaming of someday being a part of. And here he was showing that he had what it takes to make a couple of animation icons smile as if they were saying, “The future of animation is in good hands.” For the next couple of decades, it certainly was in good hands: the good Joe Ranft’s hands, as his touches of humor, light, life, love and grace filtered into many of the best animation moments his generation of artists created in the recent renaissance of animation. Over the years since he always had a smile and a hearty hello when he would come down to Burbank for story meetings, and again when I visited Pixar. His life and work are still an inspiration to me, and I am saddened that his smiles and hellos have been taken from us too soon. But he has left us as many smiles as Frank and Ollie and Milt and Freddie and Marc and Woolie and so many before him did, rightfully earning his place alongside them as an animation legend. Good-bye, Joe….

  14. James "Ross" Quinn (July 3rd, 2006, 11.09 pm)

    I have had a hard time letting go of Joe. I first met this genius, and his wonderful wife Su, at a spiriual retreat on Orcas Island, Washington. We became friends and admired each others work. It was an honor for him to have me present my personal growth seminar to Walt Disney Feature Animation in 1993. Shortly before his passing, he called me … after about 12 years … to do another one for Pixar. I would have loved to have had the chance to spend time with Joe again. But, that was not to be.

    Today, I finally broke down and went to see his ‘tribute’ film, “CARS”. I was probably the only person in the theatre who occasionally sobbed while watching that wonderful movie. Tears of joy and sorrow … that cannot be seperated. I will always remember Joe. I hope Su and their children can find some peace with their loss, in knowing how much joy that Joe will contribute for generations to come. Good Bye Joe.

    With Love and profound Respect … Ross

    “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.” Lennon/McCartney, Abbey Road

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