The animation game has long been dominated by only a handful of company giants. One relative newcomer to the animation game is set to become the next in line to the throne. Skydance Productions has been around for fewer than 20 years, and their animation division – Skydance Animation – has only been around for a little over five years. Numbers aside, the animation division is already on its way to the top.
Their secret? Hiring the most successful names in the business – like John Lasseter of Disney/Pixar fame.
A Brief History of Skydance & Its Divisions
Skydance Productions is the brainchild of David Ellison. Formed in 2006, Ellison’s love of flying inspired the name. “Skydancing” refers to the fancy trick flying done by well-skilled pilots. Ellison himself is a pilot and saw endless potential in flying and filmmaking, which inspired the name. If you’re like many and judge books by their covers, the name “Skydance” itself has its creative potential.
Although Skydance co-produced several films in cooperation with big production names like Paramount, they eventually moved on to make their own movies. Their first feature film debut was the Cohen Brothers’ reimagining of the Western Classic, True Grit. Right out of the park, the film made history. Not only did it receive dozens of awards – including 10 Oscars – but it remains the highest-grossing Western film of all time, including inflation. True Grit especially highlighted the need to expand resources for the company’s benefit, so they started hiring big names and expanding their production offerings.
Skydance Television opened its doors in May of 2013, adopting Marcy Ross as president and Carolyn Harris as vice president of the division. The opening of their television division secured a continuation of its deal with Paramount to continue producing television shows. After Paramount, Skydance went on to capitalize on the burgeoning success of Apple TV+, producing their hit show The Search For Wondla. The Apple TV+ deal also secured a $125 million budget to produce two feature-length films produced by John Lasseter of Skydance Animation.
The Emergence of Skydance Animation
Skydance Animation is one of the newest members of the Skydance divisions family, opening its doors in March of 2017. The animation studio’s launch came after a successful partnership with Skydance Animation Madrid (formerly Ilion Animation Studios), started by animators and creatives Javier and Ignacio Dolset. Ilion was a relatively new animation company, having only been founded in 2002. However, the animation studio caught the eye of Skydance and helped with its rise to fame. In 2017, Skydance Animation only needed someone to lead its animation team. Luckily, they found the perfect fit less than two years later.
In early January 2019, Skydance named John Lasseter of Disney/Pixar fame as its new head of animation based in Los Angeles, California. Shortly after that, Skydance animation formally acquired Ilion Animation and incorporated its talent. In 2020, after Ilion was officially rebranded to Skydance Animation Madrid, they brought on Shane Prigmore as Senior VP of Development for animation, as well. Of the acquisition of John Lasseter, David Ellison said,
“John is a singular creative and executive talent whose impact on the animation industry cannot be overstated,” said John Ellison, CEO of Skydance. “He was responsible for leading animation into the digital age while telling incomparable stories that continue to inspire and entertain audiences around the globe… we look forward to John Bringing all of his creative talents, his experience managing large franchises, his renewed understanding of the responsibilities of leadership, and his exuberance to Skydance as we continue to expand our animation efforts for the global marketplace.”
John Lasseter joined Skydance after a successful tenure at Pixar – arguably the person who brought Pixar into the status of other well-known animators of the time, like Disney. Of the new position at Skydance, Lasseter said, “I’m grateful to David and the Skydance team and know that I have been entrusted with an enormous responsibility. It is a distinct privilege that I will relish… I join Skydance with the same enthusiasm that drove me to help build Pixar, with a firm desire to tell original and diverse stories for audiences everywhere. With what I have learned and how I have grown in the past year, I am resolute in my commitment to building an animation studio upon a foundation of quality, safety, trust, and mutual respect.”
John Lasseter was brought on after an August 2017 deal between Skydance, and Paramount (which later included Apple TV+) was continued through 2021. With a transformative leadership potential, it was clear that David Ellison had big plans for the animation division.
John Lasseter’s Role In Skydance
As head of Skydance, John Lasseter spearheads growth, production, operations, and strategy for the animation division of Skydance. He has already started on two feature-length animated films – Luck and Spellbound— and several new streaming and toy deals to accompany the motion picture deals.
While the company has already released a beloved short (Blush), the company sought to expand its animation offerings with Luck and Spellbound. The rights to both feature-length animations were acquired by Apple TV+ early on through a deal with Skydance Animation. The deal also included their show, The Search For WondLa, which will continue for at least two seasons more.
However, the heart and soul of Skydance’s feature animation will come from Luck and Spellbound. Luck has already been cast with a team of all-star actors – including Eva Noblezada, Simon Pegg, Jane Fonda, Whoopi Goldberg, Flula Borg, and more. True to Pixar origins, Luck has a quirky backstory. Sam, the lead character, is down on her luck (literally) until she discovers the Land of Luck. In the Land of Luck, she hopes she can discover just how to turn her bad luck around.
Spellbound is not just a feature-length animation; it’s a musical – scored by Disney legend Alan Menken. The musical follows the backstory of a girl whose kingdom is divided by a spell. It is up to her to figure out how to rejoin the kingdom (and save everyone in it).
More Big Names in Animated Features
John Lasseter isn’t the only big-name draw-in in the world of animation. He is joined by other Disney, Pixar, and Warner Brothers animation minds, including Allan Menken, Rich Moore, and Brad Bird.
Brad Bird and Rich Moore will be working together on Brad Bird’s clever animated piece, Ray Gunn. Ray Gunn is a passion project started by Bird around the same time as the Iron Giant. This won’t be the first time working under John Lasseter, who helped with The Incredibles franchise and Ratatouille – both in animation and voicing iconic characters. Rich Moore, formerly CCO of Walt Disney animation studios, also worked with Lasseter earlier in their tenure at Disney. Moore signed on to a multi-year, exclusive deal to work with Skydance, including directing Ray Gunn.
Meanwhile, Allan Menken will also join the Skydance team to score Spellbound – one of the few details released about the highly-anticipated animated musical.
Adding to the anticipation about Skydance’s animated features is a new set of toy licenses. Spin Master and PMI limited have teamed up with Skydance to produce toys for Spellbound. Spin Master is working on dolls and accompanying vehicles representing characters in the film. Meanwhile, PMI limited is tasked with creating plush toys, stationery, keychains, games, and activity sets as part of the movie franchise. IMG brokered the deal. The excitement was shared across the board, with the head of consumer products at Skydance saying, “We were excited to partner with PMI to expand the enchanting world of Spellbound beyond the screen, and look forward to delivering engaging experiences for the consumer with these products.”
John Lasseter is a creative visionary, so toy and creativity licensing news were not unheard of. With Lasseter and other animation kingpins in the Skydance team, viewers have only seen the beginning of the animation division at Skydance.
About John Lasseter
John Lasseter has a long history as an animator and creative mastermind. As a kid, he loved to draw, and his mother encouraged his love of animation. He eventually interned with and then joined the Disney animation team. Lasseter animated several well-known Disney classics, including the Black Cauldron and The Fox and the Hound. Eventually, he experimented with 3D animation and made his directorial debut in 1995 under the watchful eye of Disney.
Toy Story, the movie in question, was the world’s first feature-length animated film and the first animated movie recognized in the best original screenplay category. He went on to direct and produce several other beloved Pixar films, including A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Cars, Cars 2, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo, The Incredibles, Ratatouille, Wall-E, Up, Toy Story 3, Brave, Inside Out, The Good Dinosaur, Finding Dory, Cars 3, Coco, and The Incredibles 2.
Lasseter was behind much more than just Disney/Pixar animation, however. He became the Chief Creative Officer of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Imagineering’s principal creative advisor. Under these roles, Lasseter oversaw animation, Disneyland features, theme park expansions, and much more.
If his past with Walt Disney and Pixar can be considered (and it should be), it bodes well for the imagination and the creative future of Skydance Animation – and Skydance production itself.