June 23, 2013

Movies: Pixar's 'Monsters' crew goes to college

By REBECCA KEEGAN, McClatchy Newspapers

BERKELEY, Calif. - On the University of California campus recently, a tour guide told a group of prospective students about the many opportunities open to those studying in the Bay Area --"like getting an internship at Pixar," she said.

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Sulley and Mike, above, in a scene from “Monsters University,” a prequel to 2001’s box office and critical hit “Monsters, Inc.”

Pixar courtesy photos

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Director Dan Scanlon, who with his team, made research trips to several college campuses around the country.

The Emeryville animation studio is four miles away, but that day Pixar was even closer than the tour guide knew -- director Dan Scanlon and three of his colleagues were walking right behind her, on their way to Sather Gate, a bit of Beaux-Arts architecture that had served as creative inspiration for Pixar's new film, "Monsters University," which opened Friday.

In 2001's "Monsters, Inc.," Mike, the one-eyed green orb voiced by Billy Crystal, and Sulley, his fluffy, blue brute of a buddy (John Goodman), were "scarers" in the city of Monstropolis, whose job is to frighten human children and collect their screams for use as fuel. In the new film, which is a prequel, Mike and Sulley meet for the first time as college freshmen enrolled in the rigorous scaring program at Monsters U.

Mike, who now wears a retainer, is a hard-working student without much innate talent. Sulley, slimmed down from his midlife self, is a legacy at Monsters U. who looks like he'll coast through without lifting a furry finger.

The computer-animated movie is heavy with undergraduate atmospherics -- there's a perky R.A., pickup hacky sack games, an "undecided" oddball student named Art and a loser fraternity called Oozma Kappa, which Mike and Sulley join.

Creating an authentic collegiate vibe was a unique challenge for Pixar because Scanlon and many of his colleagues didn't attend traditional universities, but instead studied at art schools -- in Scanlon's case the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio.

"We didn't have big old buildings and fraternities and sororities," Scanlon said. "Emotionally we all experienced college as far as the self-discovery and cold reality of, life is gonna be a lot harder than we thought, but physically, art school is a totally different experience."

In the film, the rival fraternity and sorority houses compete in "Scaring Games." At a critical point in the production, when the "Monsters University" crew hit a story snag, they engaged in some of their own Greek-system-inspired competitions -- including dodgeball games, a tug of war and tricycle races.

"I remember feeling the scare games we were coming up with weren't as fun as the ones we were playing," Scanlon said. (Eventually they found the inspiration they needed, thanks in part to the mind-clearing experience of riding on giant tricycles.) 

THE IDEA to make a prequel to "Monsters, Inc." emerged out of what is known at Pixar as a "blue sky meeting" for discussing ideas, which Scanlon attended with Pixar chief creative officer John Lasseter, "Monsters, Inc." director Pete Docter and several other filmmakers at the studio -- almost all alumni of the California Institute of the Arts.

Twelve years would be an unusually long time to wait for a sequel at most studios, but at Pixar it follows logically from the overarching philosophy -- wait until somebody has a compelling creative reason. In the case of "Monsters University," the notion was to tell a story about that moment when a monster finds the limits of his talents.

"We realized with Mike we could tell kind of a failure story," said Scanlon, 36, who is making his feature directing debut with "Monsters University." "So many movies tell us if we work hard and never give up, everything will work out great and that is a great message but it doesn't always work out that way. We thought, no one really makes movies for the rest of the population."

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