As day two of the Monsters University (MU) Press Event kicked off, we boarded the bus back to Pixar Animation Studios in the early morning, and the bus hushed with silence once again as we rolled into the Pixar parking lot – it was almost as if we were all here for the first time again. As the bus came to a stop we could hear a marching band right outside, giddy with excitement the bus unloaded and we were met with the Monsters University marching band.
The band had an energy that was so infectious that you couldn’t wipe the smile off anyone’s face while they played and marched around the grounds. I lingered back to take photos and videos of the band as they marched to the center of the MU quad (otherwise known as the location where Luxo Jr. and the Pixar ball reside). The MU Smile Squad was also on-hand again in the “club booths” to hand out paperwork, itineraries for the day, as well as our printed Monsters University IDs!
Once we received all of our goodies we walked inside The Steve Jobs building for a quick breakfast. Opting to skip breakfast (as a few of us had already eaten at the hotel), I headed right to the Pixar Studio Store to start shopping! Since T.J. wasn’t on this trip with me I made sure to buy him some special items, including a Pixar sweatshirt, t-shirts, and of course the La Luna Maquette (which he is obsessed with and will be doing a post about in the coming weeks).
After about 45 minutes it was time for class to begin…wait, classes – am I ready for school again? The Smile Squad had divided the crowd into about five different groups with about five-to-six people per group. Below is a brief description of each class, which was about 25-30 minutes in length. To hear audio of each class in its entirety, please listen to episodes 11, 12, and 13 of our Pixar Post Podcast! Because of the length, we broke the podcast down into three groups (episode 11 – The world of MU & chat with Dan Scanlon), (episode 12 – The characters of MU), and finally, (episode 13 – the technical elements and production of the film).
English 101: How to Tell a Great Story
Our first class was “English 101: How to Tell a Great Story” with Story Supervisor Kelsey Mann. We were led into a room with cozy blue couches and a large viewing screen. Mann was sitting in the middle of the room surrounded by monitors and animation equipment. We hurried to get to our seats as we knew this was going to be an amazing class.
As soon as we were settled, Mann began to go over the story process and he revealed that it was a very long process as he has been on the Monsters University film for four years. Mann then jumped up and walked over to a large whiteboard and said “This is how it begins”, the director, story supervisor, and writers will all go into the story room for hours and days coming up with ideas and placing those ideas that “feel good” up on the whiteboard.
Mann then walked up the aisle and pointed to a large board of concept art that was vaguely familiar and said that this was some of the art that inspired the look and story of the Monsters University March Madness commercial. It was really incredible to see some of the rough story sketches from that short commercial clip.
Towards the end of the class, Mann asked us to pick up the white pad of paper and the sharpie that was placed on our seats and asked us to do a quick short-hand sketch of Mike Wazowksi. At the end of the class, we showed our sketches to one another and it was a nice personal touch that Mann acknowledged all of us. I was captivated by this class and by the passion that Mann had when explaining the process – he truly has a drive that could motivate anyone to reach for their dreams!
Physics 250: Global Illumination
Our second class, “Physics 250: Global Illumination” with Jean-Claude (JC) Kalache (DP-Lighting), Sanjay Bakshi (Supervising Technical Director), and Christine Waggoner (Simulation Supervisor) was in a similar neighboring theater room.
Bakshi began the class by discussing the rendering time for Monsters University and how it had doubled for the film. There were also about 400 new diverse characters (mostly background) that were created for the film. An interesting fact that Bakshi shared with the class was that in past Pixar films, a scene traditionally has less than 10 characters whereas in Monsters University there were about 25 characters per scene. Bakshi also shared that the team stayed true to the original cartoon rule that their characters should only have four fingers (including their thumb) on each hand (even though they may have multiple horns, tentacles, or heads).
Up next was Professor Waggoner, who explained the topic of simulation. “What is simulation? Simulation is motion calculated by software that’s too complex to be animated by hand or in a manual fashion”. Waggoner then shared some examples of simulation such as Sulley having too many hairs to animate by hand, folds in clothing, and the pages in the books seen around the Monsters University campus. During the class, Waggoner shared a comparison between Monsters, Inc. and Monsters University as she worked on both films.
|MONSTERS, INC.||MONSTERS UNIVERSITY|
|• Limitation of only one hairy character per frame (in most scenes)||• 25% of characters were hairy|
|• Boo’s t-shirt was the only simulated garment||• 127 simulated garments|
Another interesting fact that Waggoner shared was that 89% of Monsters University was simulated as the team wanted to get a naturalistic movement throughout the film. “If you don’t notice it, we’ve done our job” stated Waggoner.
It was now time for the Global Illumination portion of the class, Kalache began the class with a question “If you were to guess how many lights we have on a typical Pixar scene, what would you guess? The average shot had about 300, 400, 500 lights”.
Kalache continued the class by explaining how Pixar created six new smart lights that help the team create more proper shadows and warmth within the scenes. I sat in the class mesmerized by his discussion of all the technical and lighting information. We will be sure to post the incredible highlights from Kalache’s class on episode 13 of The Pixar Post Podcast (which will be released in late May).
Dramatic Arts: Bringing a Character to Life
Our third class was “Dramatic Arts: Bringing a Character to Life” with Supervising Animator Scott Clark who began the class by giving a little background information about himself.
“I’ve been here at Pixar for almost 17 years. I started as an intern when Toy Story came out. My first film was A Bug’s Life, but I’ve been a lead on four Pixar films starting with Monsters Inc. and I was the supervising animator on Cars, UP and now Monsters University” said Clark.
Clark then explained what animators do, stating that animators are the actors and stunt people of the virtual world. Animation means bringing to life and that’s what the animators do. As Clark sat at the front of the room he showed the class how he was working with Presto software (Pixar’s custom animation system) and showed the background code from a shot that was somewhat difficult for him to finish.
One shot that Clark had to rework quite a bit was from a scene at a fraternity dance party that featured Sulley and Squishy. The scene itself is just seconds in length, but you could hear the struggles that Clark faced when trying to animate the characters “just right” as these are 18-year-old college monsters.
I don’t want to give away details of the scene, but it was a great behind-the-scenes look at where this shot began, to what was finalized for the movie. Pixar animators work so hard and tirelessly to get these scenes just right even though it may only be seen for a moment on the screen. The animation department is full of talented, hardworking individuals and it was such a joy to gain this insight from Clark’s expertise.
Anthropology 152: Monsterizing the World
It was now time for “Anthropology 152: Monsterizing the World” with Dice Tsutsumi (Shading/Lighting Art Director) and Robert Kondo (Sets Art Director).
Robert Kondo began the class by showing how the team used a trapezoid shape throughout the film – I was at a loss for words as Kondo explained this as T.J. (from Pixar Post as well) had noticed this in the trailers and pointed it out to me weeks prior. So, to hear it explained and confirmed by Kondo was exciting to hear.
“It’s a subtle thing but on the steps, to the Scare school, you’ll notice that we have two different size steps. So, that bigger monsters and small monsters could comfortably get to their classes. That brings us to the idea that monsters are heavy. And so we liked this sort of idea of bringing this heft to the monster world. So we looked at this trapezoidal shape and found that it was a good heavy shape to carry throughout the architecture.
You’ll see it throughout the film, like in the front gate – we found a way to add weight to it by adding that trapezoid shape. You’ll also notice it in the dorm room on the window frames and the bedposts and of course, we wanted to add it into the smaller details such as the brick”.
Kondo continued explaining some of the details that went into the sets on MU. Most of which could go unnoticed but really adds to the authenticity of the University feel of the film…from the perches on top of some dorms (for the new “winged characters” to enter their dorms) to the worn grass in the MU Quad. The details are abundant and the team really outdid themselves creatively!
Dice Tsutsumi spoke next and he went right into discussing the importance of the color script. “Now you know how much we put into designing the sets and all these details on the film. And it goes the same with color and lighting as well. We put a lot of thinking behind everything we design. This is what we call a color script. You might have heard of color script and basically, the color script is our visual road map of our film. It follows color and lighting and kind of keeps track of things like emotion, time of day, seasons and weather”.
Tsutsumi continued to discuss how the team used lighting to evoke certain emotions as well as reflect how the characters were coming along in the story. Another interesting detail was the reason that certain colors were chosen in the film. The hero’s color was green and the obstacle/villain’s color was red. You’ll notice that not only is Mike Wazowski green but the colors of his fraternity OOZMA KAPPA are green. Then notice who is red, well Dean Hardscrabble is red, and red is also the primary color of the ROAR OMEGA ROAR Fraternity. This was definitely a great fun fact!
Sociology 203: The Deconstruction of a Character
The final class of the day was the one that I was most anticipating, “Sociology 203: The Deconstruction of a Character” with Ricky Nierva (Production Designer) and Jason Deamer (Character Art Designer). I was completely starstruck with both Deamer and Nierva as these are two artists that I have admired for many, many years and to have this chance to listen to details regarding their character development process was unbelievably surreal for me.
In case you didn’t know, the duo has previously worked on Monsters, Inc. and helped create many of the original, now-beloved characters. Deamer shared the challenges of turning back the clock on these characters to make them look younger and Nierva discussed the “tufts of fur” that were created to make Sulley appear to have an adolescent feel.
The duo went over some of the newer characters within the film, focusing on the OOZMA KAPPA fraternity. It was interesting to hear and see some of the character process that Squishy went through as he looks completely different in the final film than how his character concept began. A fun fact was that it was Nierva who created and designed the glasses on Don Carlton.
The character Art was created by the pose that Chris Farley made in the (now infamous) Saturday Night Live skit of him being a motivational speaker who, “lives in a van down by the river”. That’s is how the shape of Art came about!
Deamer explained that in the 15 years that he has been at Pixar, the character design that he did for Dean Hardscrabble was one of the most challenging things he’s done. The amount of concept art that was done for Dean Hardscrabble was unreal, as the character was originally going to be male. I surely hope that the Art of Monsters University shares as much of this beautiful artwork as we were able to see because the transformation of this character was awe-inspiring.
Lunchtime in the Monsters University Quad
As the classes came to end it was now lunchtime on the MU Quad – we were greeted once again by the MUMarching Band and now the MU Cheerleaders as well!
It was such a beautiful, blue-sky day in Emeryville, California – the perfect day for a tailgate lunch which was very delicious and provided a great variety of food to please even the pickiest of appetites. What made lunch even more special was the fact that it wasn’t only lunchtime for us, but for the entire Pixar community. During lunch, I had the wonderful opportunity to chat with a Pixarian who had worked on many Pixar films including Wall-E, and is now in a new role of promoting the films.
After lunch, we were ushered back into The Steve Jobs Building where we attended three different roundtable discussions with Director, Sashka Unseld, Director, Dan Scanlon, and Producer Kori Rae.
The first roundtable discussion was with Director, Sashka Unseld, who was warm and inviting from the moment he walked into the room. Unseld’s accent (German) added to his charm when he discussed the emotions and story behind The Blue Umbrella. What’s great is that all the questions that were asked and discussed during this roundtable were covered (and more) in our interview with Unseld back in March, so if you haven’t had a chance to read that, be sure to check it out.
The second roundtable was with MU Director, Dan Scanlon who greeted us all with a casual hello and smile – it was nice to pick up on the casual nature of Dan. As soon as Scanlon sat in his chair, questions were hurled in his direction. I was able to ask a follow-up question from our previous conversation from the night before;
Q: Yesterday you kind of spoke briefly on how backpacks were a big technical challenge. Can you explain why?
Scanlon: No, I can’t (laughs) I have no idea. We were just laughing at the fact that with every Pixar movie there’s some technological breakthrough – hair, the ocean, and waves, and it’s usually something that looks really impressive on-screen once you’ve accomplished it. And early on, I was told backpacks are really hard and this is a college movie and there are people with backpacks. And I still don’t really understand why technically, but backpacks, especially on fur, and how it’s got to react as they’re moving is.
And mainly the big technological problem or trick with this film, was just that it was so dense. There are so many students, and I think the issue became so many students with backpacks and needing that to sell the college. But there are some backpacks in there and they look great, but I feel like I’m not sure if people will get up and applaud when they see them, sadly, ‘cause we worked very hard.
Everyone during the roundtable was able to ask Scanlon at least one question which was nice as he is ever so gracious and gave abundant information in his answers.
Our third roundtable was with Producer, Kori Rae, who was incredibly passionate about the characters and story within Monsters University. Her love poured over into her answers as she discussed everything from the challenges of producing this prequel, to how the parents of Mike and Sulley almost made it into the film (but the storyline didn’t allow – time-wise).
Rae also explained the long search for the voice actor for young Mike Wazowksi. The challenge was to find a young actor with that “Billy Crystal gumption”. Rae also explained that Billy Crystal and John Goodman were thrilled to come back to reprise their monster roles.
Another question was asked about how the team figures out when and where John Ratzenberger will voice a character in the Pixar films as he is known as their lucky charm. Rae stated that sometimes it’s decided early on and sometimes it’s later in the film process but it always happens organically. After seeing Monsters University from the pre-screening in Detroit, I will say that I was more than pleasantly surprised with John Ratzenberger’s appearance in MU.
Activities in the Student Lounge
Once the roundtable discussions ended we were able to take part in some of the activities in the Student Lounge.
There was a rousing game of Monsters University-themed ping-pong going on – though I’m sure the monsters of the JOX fraternity could have put us to shame!
The Scare-O-Meter was a lot of fun to try out. All you had to do was be enclosed in a very futuristic-looking capsule and as you wait in the dark you are instructed to give your best SCARE! I did just that (insert loud scream here) and I ended up ranking as Mike Wazowski with my scare, not too shabby considering I thought I’d rank as the lovable character Art.
Another fun activity was the Monsters University green screen photo with Mike and Sulley. As you can see above we just stood on the green screen and held up either a MU sign, MU foam finger, or the MU megaphone and our photo would magically appear with Mike and Sulley which you can see in the final photo below.
Once these fun activities were finished it was time for “Snack-time with ‘Squishy’ (also-known-as), Peter Sohn”. I made sure to get to the student lounge early so I could get a front-row seat to hear Sohn talk about Monsters University and other upcoming Pixar projects. I also made sure to grab a quick cookie and I must say that the bakery at Pixar is outstanding, it was literally the best cookie I’ve ever had (M&M sugar cookie)!
Snack-time with “Squishy”, Peter Sohn
Here are some of the questions that Peter Sohn answered during snack time. The entire audio can be heard on episode 11 of the Pixar Post Podcast which will be released the week of May 5th.
Q: How did you get the role of Squishy?
Sohn: It’s funny. I’ve played, Emile in Ratatouille here, and it was like “you’re chubby and you’ll eat funny food, so why don’t you play this guy?” I’m like “okay”. And then this is kind of like, “you’re chubby and you’re kinda nerdy too, so why don’t you give this a shot?”
I’m pitching stuff and as you’re pitching stuff you do voices. But this was a straight-on kinda casting call for the thing where they wanted me specifically. So it was just Dan (Scanlon) and Kori (Rae) saying come on down and do the scratch for it. Do you know what the scratch voices are? Temporary — like a fake voice just to put something in there — just to feel out how the story’s going to work.
And, that’s how I started, this is just fake dialogue stuff and then it became permanent. It’s really interesting ’cause working here at Pixar and then doing voices, it’s just like it’s kinda this give and take with all the other productions here ’cause it’s so familiar. We’re such a family, you want to do whatever you can for each other.
Q: Describe your character Squishy. What do you like about him?
Sohn: I like that he’s so sincere and kind of naive about things. You know, like there’s a scene in the film where Mike and Sully want to throw a party. And he’s like, “this is great, grab some couch cushions ’cause we’re gonna build a fort!” I totally connect with that type of guy just ’cause that’s how I grew up with my cousins. We didn’t have the internet, so the world was so “out there”.
Q: What advice would you give to young people?
Sohn: I call it “love the tree,” you know? And I always talk about this because what that means is “love it whole-heartedly”. In doing so you’ll start finding all the other branches of it and then you start to learn everything about it and the more knowledge you have of something, the more you begin to understand. The more you love it and become passionate about it, the more you can’t help but just do it.
And it’s hard work – these films are like four to five years. It’s that passion that can create life if that makes sense and in animation that’s what it’s all about. It’s about trying to make something real and alive and the only way you do it is to love it really.
The day continued and we were each given our custom interview times. I had an interview scheduled with Sets Arts Director, Robert Kondo – which I was ecstatic about. Once it was time for my interview the Smile Squad ushered us upstairs in The Steve Jobs building and we were waiting in a room designed to look like Squishy’s mom’s living room (OOZMA KAPPA house). There was incredible concept art hanging on the walls and clay maquettes of the main OOZMA KAPPA characters. I was taking a million ‘visual’ photos as it was an artistic overload.
When it was my turn to interview Robert Kondo, he greeted me and remember who I was from the “Anthropology 152: Monsterizing the World” class earlier that day – it made me smile.
Q: Could you tell me some of the set details that you didn’t want to be overlooked in Monsters University?
Kondo: Yes, in the Scare school there are a lot of monster motifs in there but it’s a dark room. Being a set designer it’s great that the lights are dim as it’s very theatrical, but I want people to see this and the reason why we really felt that this was the cornerstone to what’s monstery. The Scare School is an extension of Dean Hardscrabble and we really put in a lot of teeth motifs. Our graphic designer Craig Foster designed this beautiful scale-like pattern on the ground and that same motif is on the stained glass throughout the Scare school.
It was all about dialing in on the monstery world without having it in your face. Even in the dome of the school, it echos the look of Dean Hardscrabble’s wings and so we tried really hard to keep it a special room because this is where everyone wants to be, in the School of Scaring. Another thing we did was add brass accents throughout the room as it’s set mostly in the dark but these accents would catch the light and give the audience a sense of the room without revealing all the details.
Our conversation continued as Kondo answered many more of my questions including who gets to decide where to hide the coveted A-113 in the Pixar films. You’ll be able to hear the remainder of the interview on our episode 11 Podcast that will be released the week of May 5th.
End of the Day Surprise
After our one-on-one interviews, we were invited to take a tour of the studio and were gifted with a Monsters University backpack full of great treasures, including Monsters University toys, a book, and a real Blue Umbrella, just to name a few. We will have a complete write-up on all these wonderful surprises the week of May 5th.
I wasn’t able to catch our guide’s name as I was late to join the tour, but she was wonderful and pointed out some great tips. Once inside the Brooklyn building we walked by a recording studio and the large center fireplace that also houses a secret lounge! A fun note was that the Brooklyn building also houses its own cereal bar (just like the Steve Jobs Building – so the residents of the building never have to wander far for a snack. Our guide made sure to point out the small steel Pixar character cutouts that are embedded in the concrete-like floor – the character we found was Wall-E.
As our tour came to an end and we started to head out of the Brooklyn building, Director, Pete Docter walked by our large group! He greeted us with a smile and continued his journey – it was a really special reminder that even though we were there for the Monsters University event, there are so many more incredible stories that are in production, pre-production, or even just written on a whiteboard somewhere, and that has me more excited than ever for Pixar’s future!