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Joe Ranft

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A Corte Madera man who made millions of moviegoers smile and laugh through his work at Pixar Animation Studios died this week in Mendocino County when a car in which he was a passenger flipped down a hillside and landed in a river.

Joe Ranft, 45, was an Oscar nominee who made a career as an animator working on such blockbusters as "The Little Mermaid," "Hercules," "Beauty and the Beast" and "Toy Story," and providing voices for characters such as Heimlich from "A Bug's Life," and Jacques in "Finding Nemo."

Ranft was en route to a Mendocino retreat Tuesday with two men from the Watts area of Los Angeles. The program, called Mosaic, pairs successful businessmen with men who are trying to straighten out their lives, said neighbor and friend Pat Ravasio.

"These retreats were very spiritual," said Ravasio, who knew Ranft for 10 years. "These were disadvantaged men he was hoping to help and inspire."

Ranft apparently let one of the men, 32-year-old Elegba Earl of Los Angeles, drive his 2004 Honda Element. They were northbound on Highway 1 at 3 p.m., traveling at about 30 mph, when the right wheels of the vehicle left the roadway along a sweeping left-hand curve, according to the California Highway Patrol.

The driver corrected to the left, but the vehicle crossed the opposite lane and continued off the side of the road and down a hill, tumbling end over end twice before landing in the Novarro River about 130 feet below the road, according to the CHP.

Both Ranft and Earl, who were wearing seat belts, died at the scene. The other passenger, Eric Frierson, 39, was able to escape through the vehicle's moon roof. He was taken to Mendocino Coast Hospital and treated for moderate injuries.

Ranft "was always so concerned about everyone else, he wanted to make sure everyone else was having fun," said neighbor and friend Bret Osborn, who also knew Ranft for 10 years. "He was a big wig at Pixar, but you would never know it by the way he carried himself. He inspired everyone that he touched."

His friends recalled that when he remodeled his home he turned the garage into a pavilion for neighborhood gatherings and an annual block party.

"He was the biggest-hearted, warmest father and nicest friend," Ravasio said. "The loss is just unbearable."

In a prepared statement, Emeryville-based Pixar studios simply stated: "Joe was a beloved member of the Pixar family."

Born in Pasadena, the 6-foot-5 Ranft began his career as a storyboard artist with Disney in 1980, after attending the California Arts Institute in Valencia.

"The teachers we had were great old Disney veterans who were in their 70s," Ranft told the Independent Journal in 1998, saying he learned volumes from Bill Pete, a retired Disney storyboard artist and Ranft's "hero."

A storyboard is a 4-by-8-foot board on which a series of sketches of characters and scenes are arranged in sequence for outlining the action of a film. In "A Bug's Life," for example, Ranft and his crew of eight storyboard artists produced 27,500 drawings on about 70 storyboards. Each board usually encompasses anywhere from 30 seconds to several minutes of actual screen time.

Once the storyboards are completed, the sketches are made into reels, where the sketches are projected in sequence prior to creating the actual animation.

"It's almost like you conceive it, write it and then when you draw it up and put it on the reels, you're kind of proving it," Ranft told the Independent Journal. He was among a group of Pixar animators nominated for an Academy Award for their work on "Toy Story."

He enjoyed doing voice work as well.

"You're creating a personality from scratch," he told the Independent Journal. "People talk about them like they are real and they are kind of real. They live in people. I really enjoy that."

Ranft is survived by his wife, Su, and two children, Jordy, 13, and Sophia 9.

A memorial service is planned for 2 p.m. Sunday at the Mill Valley Community Center. Family, friends and close associates are invited to attend. Pixar is planning a memorial for fans and others at a later date.
Published in Marin Independent Journal from Aug. 19 to Aug. 22, 2005
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