Getting Schooled at Monsters University


Anyone who saw the 2001 Disney•Pixar hit Monsters, Inc. may have left with a bunch of questions like: “How do monsters get employed in a large corporate energy plant?” and “Why is scaring adorable kids a career that monsters thrive for?” Most normal people probably just wondered, “How did James P. Sullivan meet Mike Wazowski and how did they become friends? I mean they’re both so weird and different, them being friends is a bit like Julia Roberts dating Lyle Lovett!” (That reference just went over the head of anyone under 30 and I apologize.)

But what did happen is that Sully and Mike became the best of friends and there was definitely a story to tell about how they met and the answer to that question is at Monsters University.

To get everyone ready, Walt Disney Pictures invited to the Emeryville, California location where Pixar Animation Studios has made its home for many years as well as giving us a sneak peek at the first 40 minutes of the movie and some behind the scenes of how the minds at Pixar work to make the movies we all love.

The thing is that the Scarers of Monsters, Inc. aren’t just born, they’re made, and that’s where Monsters University comes in, molding the scariest monsters into the Top Scarers. As one might expect, the Scarers are the most respected big men on campus, much like the sports heroes of American colleges.

With that in mind, we were more than ready to step fully into the world of Monsters University, and that began with a screening of the first 40 minutes of the movie, preceded by the short “The Blue Umbrella,” directed by German animator Saschka Unseld. It’s a cute film that’s a lot more photo-realistic than normal Pixar films and it involves a lonely blue umbrella trying to make its way through a rainstorm. It’s a simple story but it’s an enjoyable one.

Monsters University opens by introducing an even younger Mike when he’s on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. and has his first encounter with a Scarer. We then we cut forward a number of years to when he’s arriving on campus excited about his own future prospects as a Scarer but it doesn’t take long before he ends up underfoot of the cocky James “Sully” Sullivan, who comes from a family of legends. We also got to briefly see Steve Buscemi’s Randall Boggs, who was much nerdier as a youth, wearing glasses that gave away whenever he tried to turn invisible. We won’t say too much about the story or the gags since we know you want to experience them for yourself, but the footage was our first chance to see Dean Hardscrabble, the character voiced by Helen Mirren, whose own achievements as a Scarer have made her a legend at the school. The footage ended with both Mike and Sully inducted into the lesser Oozma Kappa frat–Sully was hoping to get into the superior ROR but an altercation with Mike got him suspended–as they encountered the odd characters including Art (voiced by Charlie Day), Squishy Squibbles (Peter Sohn), the two-headed Terri and Terry (voiced by Sean Hayes and David Foley) and the adult student Don Carlton (Joel Murray). Their frat house is actually in Squishy’s house and during their top secret initiation ceremony, him Mom (voiced by Julia Sweeney) comes down and interrupts.

After watching the movie, we were taken to a dinner reception and as luck would have it, we would spot both original Monsters, Inc. director Pete Docter and Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich picking up their mail.

The next day we arrived at Pixar to a marching band heralding our first day at school and admissions and all the Disney•Pixar people were standing at various stands to admit us and take us in our appropriate groups. Of course, Disney’s always awesome Dustin Sandoval was heading the Arts Class that included all the cool kids from various websites around the country, and after a quick breakfast, we were taken to class, basically shifted between various conferences rooms at Pixar to create an immersive experience. Going by the student ID created for this writer on his admission into Pixar’s Monsters University mere hours after getting off a cross-country flight, he looked like he would probably fit in with MU’s Stoners group, the monsters who play hacky-sack and talk about poetry and have very little to offer.

First up was “Anthropology 152” as Sets Art Director Robert Kondo talked to us about how to “Monsterize the World,” essentially making the buildings of Monster University look more terrifying with spikes and horns as well making them larger scale to fit all different sizes of monsters. Each building has different sized doors for different sized monsters and they found a specific shape that worked for all different kinds of monsters. They also had to accommodate the monsters that fly at Monsters University with perches and stoops, as well as underwater buildings for swimming monsters. They’ve also hidden a lot of faces in the building facades to try to make them pop out a bit more compared to normal campus buildings and there are pipes everywhere that allows the campus to be powered by “scream power.”

After that, shading/lighting art director Dice Ttustumi talked us through how lighting and colors was used within the storytelling, which is something most people won’t realize how much it contributes to the experience when watching a Pixar movie. He showed us the color script, the visual road map for the film, which is fairly common for animated movies, but what surprised us was how they used shadow and light consistently along Mike’s journey. All of his goals are lit from the from the front while any obstacles that come along his way are lit from the back. They even used lighting to enhance the evolution of the friendship between Mike and Sully to give you some idea how much thought is put into something that normally one wouldn’t think affects the storytelling as much.

Next up was “Sociology 203: The Deconstruction of a Character,” where they basically talked about the designs for new characters on the film with Production Designer Ricky Nierva and Character Art Director Jason Deamer taking point, both of them having worked on Monsters, Inc. thirteen years prior. Part of the challenge with the character designs for the new movie was designing the characters to look younger with one of the questions being “How do you make an eyeball look 18 years old?” What they ended up doing was having everyone on the team bring in their senior class portraits to try to figure out what changes between college and adulthood and they used those to modify Mike and Sully from their familiar Monsters, Inc. designs.

They also talked about designing the characters of Oozma Kappa such as “Squishy” Squibbles who was designed to look like a Japanese moshi ball, Art, the odd furry character voiced by Charlie Day, and Don Carlton, the “mature” member of the frat, who owes a bit to Chris Farley’s motivational speaker on “Saturday Night Live.” They also were excited that they could populate the campus with so many different monsters since they weren’t limited by technology when they made Monsters, Inc.

The rest of their presentation focused on the designs for Dean Hardscrabble, the new character voiced by Helen Mirren, which ended up being one of the most challenging characters they’ve designed in their 15 years in Pixar. The dean had to be graceful and regal and academic but she also had to look of being the most successful Scarer in Monsters, Inc. history. They went through all the different incarnations of the character, finally ending up with something that was a cross between a horned lizard, the legs and body of a giant centipede and the wings of a bat. They only ended up with the final design for the character six weeks before production, which is later in the game than usual.

The most difficult course in our Monsters University day of Pixar immersion was “Physics 250,” which talked about “global illumination,” which if we were able to explain it easily, we’d stop writing about movies and become genius scientists like Stephen Hawking. JC Kalache, the film’s DP, Sanjay Bakshi, the supervising technical director, and Christine Waggoner, the Simulation Supervisor, tried their best to explain it but they were talking to movie writers not tech heads and who knows what the Mommy bloggers who visited earlier in the week got out of it. From what we can tell, simulation is a way they can animate various objects in a shot using a computer program rather than manual animation, which allows the animators to focus on the main characters.

The next class was a fun one called “English 101: How to Tell a Great Story” with the movie’s Story Supervisor Kelsey Mann showing us how they design a storyboard for a scene, this one being the scene when Mike and Sully first arrive at their room at the Oozma Kappa frathouse just before the lights go out. Mann had been working on Monsters University for four years going back to the pitch meetings where they were starting from a blank page. He talked about how he first got together with director Dan Scanlon and the writers to throw ideas around. At that point in time, any crazy idea is open as they talk at length until they start throwing ideas on a whiteboard. Once they have enough ideas and some sort of structure that feels right, it goes to the writers who start working on pages, which could be tackled in any number of ways. While the script is being written, some of Pixar’s story guys are coming up with ideas to pitch to the team. It was a really interesting look into the very foundation of Pixar’s storytelling process which is at the very core of what makes their movies so terrific.

He then showed us how they go from sketching directly on the script to turning those into storyboards using a Wacom tablet to draw into the computer, allowing them to roughly animate their ideas using Pitch Doctor and PhotoShop. The drawings were really rough although Mann clearly knew how to draw fast versions of the two main characters, which was the main focus of the storyboarding. After his demonstration, Kelsey also gave us a quick lesson on how to draw Mike Wazowski and you can see the results of our first attempt at drawing him at right.

In our last class, “Dramatic Arts: Bringing a Character to Life,” animator Scott Clark–who happened to star in Dan Scanlon’s first live action feature Tracy–showed us how they go about animating storyboards with a scene at the frathouse where they’re having a dance party and “Squishy” convinces Sully to come onto the dance floor and show off his moves.

After our classes were over, we were taken outside for a picnic lunch in the fields outside Pixar with a marching band and cheerleaders celebrating the end of our first batch of Monster University classes. Actually this might be a good time for you to check out some of the pictures we took while at Pixar which you can check out in our Monsters University Gallery.

Afterwards, we had something called “Snacktime with Squishy,” a chance to spend some time with the one and only Peter Sohn, an incredible individual who was the inspiration for the Russell character from Up who also voices “Squishy” Squibbles, but he basically gave us an impromptu 20 minutes of impromptu conversation, storytelling about his life and why he became an animator, freestyle thinking and answering a couple questions. As it would happen, Sohn is co-directing Disney•Pixar’s 2014 release The Good Dinosaur with Bob Peterson but that’s one thing he wouldn’t really talk about.

Lastly, we sat down to talk with director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae, an interview which you can read by going to Page 2.