Pixar’s Monsters University in UK cinemas now, and it comes highly recommended. I reviewed the film back in June, and said:
Monsters University ably solves the problems of its own existence, undermining the complaints of the “not another sequel” naysayers. More importantly, it’s a worthwhile story on its own terms.
In the meantime, it has only grown on me.
The day after I first saw the movie, I sat down with director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae. We talked about how this particular story came into being, about some of the dead ends they had to abandon during development, and about how hard it is to animate the Monster world.
Dan Scalon: We came up with the idea of what Mike’s story would be, but we still felt like it should be Sully’s story, because he’s the lead in the first film. After two years of beleiving that, we realised Mike’s story was the more emotional through-line of the film.
Kori Rae: Mike kept popping up, his story kept coming back.
DS: It’s funny how that happens. Sometimes you’re just right from the beginning and shouldn’t listen to logic. Eventually we realised this is Mike’s story, because that’s where the heart is, and so that’s where we try to put our emphasis.
I think that, if we made this about Sully, some his story would’ve been similar to what it is now. It was just eclipsed by Mike’s. Mike was who you cared about.
We found ourselves making these crazy decisions of “Maybe Sully doesn’t want to be a scarer, and the whole movie is about Mike convincing him to be a scarer. Maybe he wants to be a dentist or something?” But that stuff just felt like a gimmic. We know nobody wants him to be a dentist, he looks like a scarer. We were lying to ourselves and the audience – killing development time in a way. I think we finally realised we should own what he looks like. He looks awesome. He should be a scarer, he should want to be one, and part of the fun of that is he’s 18, he can be cocky about it. And then we have him learn to be the Sully we know from the next film, more of an emotional, personable character.
KR: The idea for the film came from a collective of John [Lasseter] and Andrew [Stanton] and Pete [Docter] and Dan, all of them seeing if there was an idea there at all, a reason to go back into this world and make another film.
DS: It felt like, certainly if there wasn’t, we wouldn’t have done it. We were really just testing the waters to see if there was anything worth doing, and then we got this idea which we all fell in love with right away.
KR: Which is doing a prequel, going backwards and having the story be about how the two of them meet. It was like “Oh, what if they met in college?” and it took off from there.
DS: I think it was Andrew Stanton came up with “college.” As it always is with the best ideas. I think at that point I was still just in the running to direct. I think that, having spent so many years in story with a lot of them, they felt confident that I could do it. I’d also made a live action comedy on the weekends called Tracy, by myself, with friends from work, as just a practice to see if I could write and direct a movie. I think that that helped. John and those guys had seen the film and felt comfortable. I love the film. It seems like there should be a better version of Tracy out there, but it’s an okay version.
This is where I asked about the difficulty of dealing with the pay-off of the first film, where the monsters learn a lesson about scaring – specifically: it’s unethical – when, for this story, scaring is their ambition.
KR: We kept the end of the first film in mind and made sure we did sync up with that. We didn’t want to do something completely different. And I think we just fit into the world. It didn’t require that much effort to do. As we were working on the story we were like “Yeah, that’s what we have to do.”
DS: We did have things that don’t match up. There’s one thing in this film that doesn’t match up with this one, which was a tough decision that we had to make. There’s a line in the first film where Mike says they met in “fourth grade”. We thought about it a lot. We took it very seriously. For two years we had versions where they were meeting young and then we skip the story ahead to college. But that was another one of those situations where the logic was destroying the story. And the spirit of that line was only ever in the first film to feel so we’d feel like they’d known each other a while, which college still does for us. At some point Pete Docter and John Lasseter both said “You’re being too beholden to that line and it’s ruining the movie.”
Sometimes tough decisions like that had to be made, and they’re easier to make when you realise that they’re helping the story, and that by losing the line, it doesn’t hurt anything from the first film.
What I like about the pigeon joke at the start of the movie is not just that it’s a joke, but it’s a joke that’s re-establishing you in the world. It was a tough joke, because we thought we had a few seconds to get the audience back in, we don’t want to be presumptuous. We want to re-introduce people into this world of monsters and we have a few seconds to say “Hey, you’re back in this world, this is a monster world” and then get out of their way, as quickly as we can. Sometimes jokes like that early on in a movie, there’s a lot of pressure on them. How do we establish all of this stuff really quick and just make it look like a joke? We establish that Mike is this precocious little kid, and that was the main reason for another joke at the start, about these little kids that call their elders by their first name, it’s like we’re saying “Okay, even at that age he was still Mike Wazowski.”
Noah Johnston [the voice of young Mike] was brilliant. What was interesting was we wanted to find a kid who was like Billy Crystal, this precocious, funny, wisecracking kid. Frankly, it’s tough because you can get a little kid who does that, and it can seem too adult or sometimes kind of obnoxious, in a way. And we don’t want that, we want to love this little kid. Noah’s voice is so sweet, and so sincere, almost in a totally different direction than Crystal. Ultimately, we thought it would be better to get a kid with a sweet little sincere voice, and then write wisecracking comments, rather than the other way around. It’s really a bizarre casting choice in a way, but I think that it really helps the audience love him. And Noah’s really funny so he was able to read those things brilliantly. He even improvised the line “Watch the eye!” which I thought was great.
KR: Creating so many characters was incredibly challenging, from design all the way through animation. The task of filling this university with such a diverse range of characters. And we knew that we wanted to do that really well, from the beginning so we almost started designing the background characters before the main characters. We wanted to make sure that we gave them enough love.
It was really challenging because we wanted the university to be diverse. We wanted to make sure we had every different type of monster. Tentacles and slugs and things with wings and two heads. That was all difficult to build and animate. You get shots where the animator has seven characters just in the foreground, and they all have completely different motion. Terry and Terri, the two headed brothers, have two heads and tentacles. And then Art is this crazy U-shaped character. And so the animator would have to animate all those different types at once. It was quite challenging.
It’s difficult, especially in an ensemble cast, to give each animator a specific character because it means you have seven animators working on one shot. And when you have Mike, Sully, and the Oozma Kappas in one shot it’s difficult to keep things in context and have it work in a fluid way, very difficult to break the shot up like that. We really only get, at most, two to three animators in one shot and that’s with probably seven to ten characters in the foreground or midground.
DS: I don’t know if I’ll move back to live action. I have no idea, I love working at Pixar, I love making films here, so hopefully I’ll keep doing that.
They’d be fools to let him go.
Monsters University is in UK cinemas now. Do go, it’s incredible fun.