The production veteran shares her insights on the trials and tribulations of bringing Pixar’s hit feature to the big screen.
With Pixar’s Monsters University scaring up big box office numbers in its first week of release, Kori Rae is probably resting a bit easier. Regardless of the success of any studio’s previous films, in today’s fickle movie biz, nothing is a “sure thing.” Not even a Pixar film. Especially not a prequel to one of their most popular films, Monsters, Inc. Kori, a 20-year Pixar veteran, knows firsthand the realities of the feature film business. That understanding, along with her steady hand and sensitivity to the rigors of the animation production process, are but a few of the reasons she was chosen to produce Pixar’s latest hit film. But it wasn’t always a hit film. For the better part of four years, it was anything but a hit film. Often, it was just plain terrible. But ultimately, Kori, Director Dan Scanlon and their entire crew iterated their little fingers to the bone and created a funny, poignant and charming film.
Prior to the film’s release, I had a chance to sit with Kori and discuss the frustrations, joys, pressure and overall dynamic of producing Monsters University.
Dan Sarto: There aren't that many animated feature films getting made, let alone getting made at your studio. There aren’t that many producers, let alone female producers. So how does one go about getting to produce a feature film at Pixar? Especially Monsters University. You’re treading on hallowed ground.
Kori Rae: Yes I know, I know. It was a little bit scary. At Pixar, personally, I started at the bottom and worked my way up. I think that's probably the story of a lot of people, especially in production. The producers here, a lot of us started a long time ago, coming to Pixar as a PA or an assistant. We learned everything here at the studio. But I didn't know, when I first arrived here, how much this was where I “needed” to be and where I wanted to be. It just turned out to be the perfect amalgam of art and technology and filmmaking and storytelling. Until I was here, I didn't even know that I had such a passion for production side of making films. It's so much about team work and collaboration. I have a little bit of background in teaching and coaching. I’ve played team sports my whole life and I think that helped me a bunch. It helped me because producing really is like overseeing a large team. But it’s also creative problem solving. That's kind of what teachers do in terms of having to teach new students every year. How do you teach the same thing over and over and not get bored? So really, at Pixar it's about creative problem solving and continued learning. I've been here 20 years and every single day I come to work I learn something new. I learn something about myself and about filmmaking.
DS: I'm sure there are group of folks that have similar capabilities. What put you in the producer’s chair? Was it a matter of timing? Did you hear about the project early enough in development to let it be known you’d like to produce?
KR: Well, I worked on Monster's, Inc. So I was quite familiar with that world and I definitely put my hat in the ring and let people know that I would love to produce this film. Timing is always a part of it. That worked out. Because of my history here and because I've been in production for so long, they trusted me and they gave me the shot. Luckily, hopefully, it worked out.
DS: In my opinion, having seen the film, I'd say it definitely “did” work out. As far as the dynamics of the 20,000 or 50,000 or 100,000 decisions that get made over the course of the production, how do you assess when to say “Yes” as opposed to when to say “No?”
KR: Part of it is my style, and part of it is the Pixar culture that I've grown up with. Most of the time, we don't know what we're doing. I try to create trust with the team that I'm working with. I am vulnerable and say, “I'm not exactly sure if this is the right way to go. But trust me, if it's not the right way to go, we won't be penalized for it.” I'm not going to say, “We can't.” I will say, “We'll still have time, still have resources, still have opportunities to go back and do it a different way if we need to. We’ll be able to fix it.” It's also about soliciting information and opinions from the people around me. I very rarely make a decision on my own even though the buck stops with me and I need to be the one who can make a decision. Most of the time, I'm getting input, just being the ring leader and saying, “Hey, this all sounds great. The majority seems to think that we should do this. That's sounds like a great idea. Let's try it.”
Again it's creating that trust with the crew that if it doesn't work out or if it's not the direction we should have gone in, it's nobody's fault. I found that a lot of the crew members fear that they’ll get in trouble if they do something wrong. They’ll be the one to blame. And so in order to get people to open up and not work from that place of fear, you have to back it up and you have to make sure that when it doesn't work out or when someone asks, “Why did we do that?” it's all my responsibility as the boss. It’s no one else’s responsibility but my own.
DS: Take that one step further. You are working with very passionate, very talented artists. Starting on down from John [Lasseter], from a creative standpoint, from a visual development stand point, from a story standpoint, what is the dynamic with regards to arbitrating decisions? Who gets the final say?
KR: The producer's role is to partner with the director of the film. It’s a creative partnership, and so ultimately the decision-making for the film should be coming from the director. We have an amazing brain trust here. We have John, Andrew [Stanton], Pete [Docter], Lee [Unkrich], a ton of resources to help us make those decisions. The truth is there very seldom needs to be any kind of arbitration because the best ideas generally are agreed upon.
DS: They percolate up…
KR: Right. On this film, it never happened that there was an idea put forth that the director said, “I don't want to do that” and I had to say, “Well, you need to do that because Pete or John really want it.” That just doesn't happen. It certainly didn't happen on this film. It's such a collaborative thing, that it's ultimately always agreed upon what the right thing to do is for the story. There are plenty of heated conversations, but that's what makes it great. The whole group, the whole studio, all everyone want is a good movie. So we're all aiming for the same thing.
DS: As far as Monsters University, there’s the pressure not just of doing a sequel, but a prequel. How do you handle the pressure that seems to be coming at you from all sides?
KR: That’s a great question. As much as the buck stops with me on the production front, I really do look to my partner Dan, as the director, to share that burden. I look to the whole crew as well as my AP and production manager. If I'm letting everybody do their job, all of the pressure shouldn't just be on me. You know what I mean? Emotionally it is, but not in a negative way. But I do try to share that wealth. Mostly because of my experience here at Pixar, I know that as dark as things can get and as difficult as things can get, because we're generally always focused on the right thing, things work out. I do have the luxury of being a part of eight or nine films here where we went through bleak times. At some point in every one of our movies, they stink. They're bad. We don't have a story, we don't know how we're going to do something. But, you work through it and look to the people around you, the other directors, the other producers, your crew members, people around the studio, to figure it out. A lot of it is trust and faith that makes me not be freaked out every day. Also, I have the responsibility of being the calm. I can't come in…
DS: You have to be calm. You’re supposed to keep everyone else from freaking out…
KR: Yeah, I have to be calm. A lot of my ability to do that is because I have the faith and know how to go about solving problems and get the right people to help solve those problems. I know we'll figure it out.
DS: You've touched on something I want to ask you. At a certain point, every one of these films is terrible. To people not involved in the production of films like this, it's hard to fathom that so many people and resources can get so far into a production and people one day say, “Jeez, we’re 18 months out and what we have is crap.” Obviously it does happen, but how can that happen? How can it happen? You’re starting with a story that is deemed good enough to spent north of $100 million dollars making. Is it just that these films always are just works in progress, or is it that the best ideas, once you actually start implementing them, turn out not being that good?
KR: I think you hit on it. It's all of the above. It's been my experience that filmmaking is a lot of one step forward, two steps back. You have to try things. We are a company that just iterates every single aspect of the pipeline. We iterate. We put up story reels. We show them to people and we tear them down. Often, we'll get rid of the whole thing. We might keep certain elements. But, we'll take the whole film and tear it down and start over again. Maybe we’ll keep a few elements. We do that over and over again over the four year period. In animation, we show a shot to the director in dailies. It will be roughly blocked out and if it's not doing what it's supposed to do for the film, it gets scrapped and we start over. Or we make notes. It's iterative. That's how filmmaking is done here at Pixar. I don't have any experience in the live action world. I know the process is much different. The way you have to make live-action films is quite different. We have both the blessing and the curse of being able to iterate. But I think the iteration process, especially in story reels, is what makes our films successful. When we hit a road block, or when we look at the movie and know it’s working well, we certainly could at that point say, “Yes, that’s good.” And we would have a good movie. But I think we tend to push beyond that and say, “But is it great? Is it absolutely the best movie it can be on all fronts?” We push hard and that's kind what makes it “really” work.
DS: When everyone is pushing together like that, you know you get everybody’s best effort.
DS: Do you think for artists who make a living wrangling technology to get stories and visuals on screen, there are times when the technology hinders rather than empowers the creative process?
KR: I think yes and no. I think both because limitations often spur creativity. Artists will say, “Oh, if I had all the time in the world I could make this really great.” The truth, I think, is not necessarily. Sometimes the deadlines or a tool’s limitations cause creativity to come out in a different way. An unexpected way. In terms of schedule and time, we need that kind of restriction sometimes. I'm not saying that we want to hinder ourselves. But I think it goes both ways. Sometimes, technology can get in the way. People can’t work as fast or efficiently, so the turnaround is a little bit longer. Sometimes, that’s frustrating.
Even just rendering time, you know? If someone could instantaneously animate a shot and press a button and have it there immediately, that’d be great. But we need compute time. It has to render. It has to do its thing. You come back and take a look at it. You have to take a quick break, go get a bowl of cereal, come back and then it’s there. And so I think all of those things are part of the process. But we try to not let the tools impede in any real way. That’s why we try to stay ahead. When it does happen, that’s what we try to address. And I think Global Illumination is a testament to that. That’s exactly one of the things that we were trying to accomplish. To make it less laborious for lighting TDs to do their job.
DS: What theme or message from this film do you hope resonates most with audiences?
KR: Well, what I hope, and what we've really been striving for, is to make a film that has a lot of heart. It's not like we set out making a film with a message. But at the end of the day, we set out to make this movie and it turned into Mike’s story. We told the story of a character who wants one thing in life, has one goal, one single focus and what happens when that doesn’t work out. A lot of movies tell the story of, “If you work hard enough, you can get whatever you want.” Sometimes that's true, but not always. For most of us, we've had failures at some point in our lives. Usually, those failures lead us to better things, different things, things we don't know at the time will end up being what was supposed to happen. That's a really cool message. It's a unique message that hasn’t been done a whole lot before. It's not a hit you over the head kind of message. Because you're with Mike on his journey, you see it from his point of view. You see how it comes out. It’s provides a little bit of hope for those of us who’ve hit a wall and have to figure out what to do and where to go from there. I think it's a personal but pretty universal message. Keep yourself open to what could and most likely will come next because it's truly happened to all of us. It's how I ended up here.
Dan Sarto is editor-in-chief and publisher of Animation World Network.