Pixar’s much-anticipated Monsters University raises the bar on big feature prequels this summer.
It’s been 12 years since Pixar introduced audiences to Mike Wazowki and James P. Sullivan, two monster best friends who work together scaring kids to generate energy for the city of Monstropolis in Monsters, Inc.
Movie magic, however, has caused time to go backward for this duo, whose friendship we get to see at the start during their college days as students in Monsters University, due in theaters June 21 from Pixar and Disney in stereoscopic 3D.
Many ideas were batted around for another story set in the world of Monsters, Inc., but the one that really stood out to director Dan Scanlon was a prequel.
“We loved that there was an opportunity to meet Mike and Sulley early and see how their relationship evolved. We loved the college aspect of it because it just felt like a no-brainer for monster gags,” he says.
Pixar folks have been saying for years that good stories are the key to their success and in Monsters University, Mike is shown as having a lifelong goal of becoming a scarer himself — a job that Sulley, not Mike, had in Monsters, Inc. What happened to that dream became the kernel of a story Scanlon found irresistible.
“It seemed like something that hadn’t been done before,” says Scanlon. “A lot of films tell you, ‘Work hard and it’ll always work out,’ and it’s a great message, but sometimes it doesn’t work out.”
That tension also helped solve the typical prequel problem: The audience knows how it ends.
“We know Mike isn’t going to become a scarer, and in a weird way, that’s where the drama comes from,” says Scanlon. “It becomes more of an emotional drama, not wanting to see this happen to the poor guy, and asking the question, what’s it going to look like when it happens? How is he going to deal with it?”
Being Pixar, the journey is a lot of fun as Mike, voiced by Billy Crystal, and Sulley, played by John Goodman begin as rivals, with Mike studying hard to succeed while Sulley coasts on natural talent. Running afoul of Dean Hardscrabble turns them into allies and, with their outcast friends in the Oozma Kappa fraternity, they find their way to graduation and beyond.
Building a Better Monster
When Monsters, Inc., debuted in 2001, the breakthrough was Sulley’s fur, which took up a large portion of that movie’s resources. On Monsters University, technology has advanced enough to allow the filmmakers to focus more on expanding and diversifying the monster world.
While Sulley and Boo were the only characters in Monsters, Inc., with hair and clothing to simulate, 25 percent of characters in Monsters University have hair and more than a hundred have clothing, says simulation supervisor Christine Waggoner. Sulley now has 5.5 million hairs, a five-fold increase. Simulations were used on everything from hair and clothing to grass and the fluttering pages of textbooks, with 89 percent of shots having some simulation in them, Waggoner says.
But perhaps the biggest breakthrough on Monsters University was the use of global illumination, which more realistically lights characters and sets more quickly without sacrificing artistic control, says Jean-Claude Kalache, director of photography, lighting.
“Over the years, we the artists asked for so much control and we pretty much got everything. But as a side-effect, we created an unmanageable complexity,” says Kalache.
Global illumination automates lighting to account for reflectivity and more accurately simulates the effects of, say, light coming in a window and hitting a colored ball next to a white wall.
“We ended up with a system that is physically real, but tweakable if we need it,” he says.
It sped up the process so much, that departments further up the pipeline were able to get effective lighting to work with when they had none on previous movies, Kalache says.
Handling this processing workload required Pixar to double its render capacity to 24,000 cores to handle the 100 million CPU hours needed to render the movie at a rate of 29 hours per frame, says supervising technical director Sanjay Bakshi.
On a more obvious level, the movie features more than 400 characters built to populate the campus. Bakshi says their demographics broke down to each character having an average of 6.2 limbs, 5.4 horns, 3.2 eyes and — in the finest animation tradition — four fingers per hand.
Existing characters got makeovers to give them that college-age look. Character art director Jason Deamer says they began by having the crew bring in their senior-year portraits so they could compare them and see what qualities makes someone look 18 years old.
“The differences are kind of subtle,” he says.
For Mike, wrinkles were removed, his limbs and mid-section slimmed down, and his green hue deepened just a bit; Sulley was similarly slimmed down, Deamer says. That proved to be not quite enough for people to tell the difference, so Mike was given a retainer and baseball cap while Sulley got a jacket and his hair was scruffier.
Of the new characters, Dean Hardscrabble, voiced by Helen Mirren, turned out to be one of the most difficult as she needed to be both an authoritative academic and believable as the greatest scarer of all time. Originally conceived as a male character, Dean Hardscrabble was re-designed only a few weeks out of production. Inspiration came from a deadly giant centipede that was creepy but elegant, says Deamer.
While all this technology improves the look of the film, the job of the 70 or so animators who brought the characters to life is largely the same as 12 years ago, says Scott Clark, supervising animator on the film. The real challenge was the scope of the movie, both in quantity of characters and detail.
“When you have a scene with 50 characters in it and they all are different species of character, it’s a lot to get through,” says Clark.
Tweaks had to be found for characters from the first movie, all of whom had to look and act like college-age versions of themselves.
“You’ve got actors who are older doing their voices, but they’re good actors and their performance is young and vibrant, and that’s what we have when we’re younger: more energy,” says Clark. “We’re also a little looser and more cocky and confident but underneath there’s an insecurity. You’re still searching for who you are.”
Again, Dean Hardscrabble posed a real challenge to the animators.
“The design was challenging because you wanted her to be scary but elegant,” says Clark. “The monster world is kind of cute, but she’s not cute — she’s beautiful; she’s high-status.”
With the movie down to its final days of production, Scanlon says he’s found the experience of directing to be akin to walking a tightrope, but satisfying nonetheless.
“I’m amazed how much of being a good director is being able to balance your gut and listening to other people’s opinions,” he says. “I don’t think you ever want to be the kind of director who says, ‘This I my way of doing it and it’s the only way to do it.’ Nor do you want to be the director who’s asking the whole room, ‘What do you guys think? I don’t know what to do? You need to be somewhere in between.”
Disney/Pixar’s Monsters University opens in theaters nationally on June 21.