Thomas J. McLean is an AwardsLine contributor.
You gotta give Pixar credit — they never follow the easy path. Take Monsters University, the first prequel to come out of the Emeryville toon works. Prequels are still new territory for storytelling purposes and it was no small feat for first-time feature director Dan Scanlon to come up with a story that met Pixar’s high standards when everyone who had seen 2001’s hit Monsters, Inc. knows where cyclopean nice-guy Mike Wazowski, voiced by Billy Crystal, ends up.
“It was a good story to tell as a prequel, because the drama comes out of knowing things aren’t going to work out for him,” says Scanlon. “He’s so excited about his journey and yet the audience knows it’s not going to work out. We had to really think about telling the story in a different way and really own the fact that people know the end instead of trying to deny it, which I think we probably did at first.”
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Mike’s journey and his friendship with blue-haired scaring natural James T. Sullivan, voiced by John Goodman, were always at the heart of the movie, and the idea of doing another Monsters movie sprang from the Pixar brain trust’s interest in exploring that friendship. Multiple false starts were explored as to how to tell that story, including following up on a line from Monsters, Inc. about the pair knowing each other in fourth-grade, before the idea of sending them to college reared its head.
“We loved the idea of seeing the monster version of (college),” says Scanlon. “It just felt like humor was already there. … I think at Pixar, we’re always looking for an environment and a world you want to be a part of and then we’re looking for the heart, and those are the two starting points.”
“We spent a good deal of time figuring out how do you get the audience behind Mike, and rooting for him from the beginning,” says producer Kori Rae. “We tried a bunch of different things at the beginning and even when it was Sully’s story — we had a whole scene that was young Sully with his parents and all this kind of stuff — it’s all those things that you try that are so important. We look back on it and it’s painful to see some of these scenes but those are the exact things that get you where you end up and you have to have those versions that you tried in order to get to the next steps.”
It was after screening three or four rough versions in-house that the mechanics of the story began to coalesce. “We were always excited about Mike’s story and that was always our theme and heart — we just didn’t know how to get there,” says Scanlon. “So I think the Oozma Kappa team and the events and the relationships with those guys was really the final piece of the puzzle of this is how we’ll take Mike and Sully on this journey.”
The long process of producing the movie, which spanned roughly five years from start to finish, offered constant opportunities for revisions and tinkering, often down to the last moment. A key example is the character of Dean Hardscrabble, originally designed as a male character and changed during production into a female character voiced by Helen Mirren.
“The more we thought about it, the more we thought we sort of defaulted to a male character,” says Scanlon. “In the first film, we never got to see a great female scarer — not one with a line anyway — and we felt like we were really missing an opportunity to really open up the world.”
The impact of that decision on production was underestimated, taking several months to complete and putting pressure on the production schedule, says Rae. “I’ve been making movies at Pixar for 20 years, and I said, ‘I bet we can do this in two to three weeks,’” she says. “It was a production hit, and it put a couple things on hold, but it was worth it. She’s an amazing character and she really elevates the quality of the film.”
Monsters University benefited from advances in technology made since Monsters, Inc. was released in 2001 but still needed the look of the first film.“We didn’t want to rehash the first movie,” says Rae. “But I think, looks-wise we tried to stay in the same palette.”
Pixar’s new global illumination tool, which more easily creates realistic lighting, was key to helping tell the story, as Scanlon used light and shadows to convey characters’ emotions throughout the movie. “A lot of what we did technologically was more under the hood,” says Rae. “But it helped us be able to do it better and faster and gave us a little more freedom.”
Looking back on the film with a bit of hindsight, Scanlon says he’s most pleased that a story about a character who doesn’t get exactly what he wanted was so well-received. “(It was) something we were excited about, but knew was a little risky, especially in a family film, for fear of the message coming out in any way that it was OK to give up, which was not what the film was about,” he says. “So it was great to meet people all over the world who said things like I wanted to be an animator and I went to school for it and it just didn’t work out and I’m kind of trying to figure out what to do with my life, and this story really inspired me to look for something else, to find the other qualities in myself that could lead to another path.”