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Monsters, Inc.: The Secret Behind Why Pixar Is So Good

Karl Cohen meets the key players behind Pixar's latest, Monsters Inc., and describes why there is that certain Pixar magic...it is technology, amazing story and animation teams, amazing directors and tradition and something else...

cohenmonsters01.gif All in a day's work: Top Kid Scarer James P. Sullivan (center right) -- "Sulley" to his friends -- and his Scare Assistant, Mike Wazowski (center left) show up for work at Monsters, Inc. All Monsters, Inc. images © Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved.

Monsters, Inc. from Pixar/Disney is the first feature directed by Pete Docter. To find out the story behind the production Animation World Magazine was invited to interview the director, co-director and two supervisors. After talking with the animation and technical supervisors it seemed this article would be about their amazing new technology that advances the art of animation. When a co-director was interviewed the focus shifted to how the success of a Pixar feature comes in part from having great stories and traditional cinematography and editing. How was his view going to fit in with the first two interviews? Finally, when we spoke with Pete Docter, the film's director, it became clear that the important story was how the studio shepherded him through the process of developing and directing his first animated feature. They brought together people with different talents who could work together as a team. The film was created through the sharing and cooperation (!) of all these elements, rather than by having a strong dictatorial director.

Although Docter is given credit for creating the original idea for Monsters, Inc., one of the first things he says is, "It is misleading to say the film was my idea because there are so many other people involved. It was a group effort." At first he developed ideas with story artist Jeff Pidgeon and production designer Harley Jessup. Andrew Stanton (Oscar nomination for Toy Story) wrote the first script and he became the film's executive producer. As they developed their ideas they would take them to John Lasseter (director of Toy Story, 1995; A Bugs Life, 1998; and Toy Story 2, 1999) who would advise them on how to make the script stronger. Docter explains, "John is so amazing, his input was invaluable throughout the whole process. He's already done three films and he has a great mind... he has a terrific grasp about how an audience views a film."

cohenmonsters02.gifMonsters, Inc. director Peter Docter (l) and executive producer John Lasseter combine forces.

Co-director Lee Unkrich continues, "One of the great things about working at Pixar is that you can assemble a great talent pool and just be a bunch of guys hashing this stuff out. John (Lasseter) is as quick to get in the trenches with us as anybody. In the end everybody contributes and they don't keep tabs of what each person contributed as the end product is what counts. It is Pete's film and John was there to guide him as he hadn't directed a film before. Pete is an amazing animator, but since this was his first feature John was there to help."

As the script progressed more people became involved, but the story development process remained essentially the same for five years. Docter says, "We would take it to a point where we were comfortable with it and we would pitch it to those guys and they would punch holes in it in a friendly way. We'd make it stronger and then when we were all comfortable with it, we would take it down to Disney and present it to Tom Schumacher (president of Walt Disney Feature Animation) and Peter Schneider and they would knock holes in it. We would go back and fix it again and the whole process repeats and repeats for 5 years, and now we are done. You build up thick skin as you tend to take it fairly personally. Nobody means it personally as you're talking about the film, but you really invest a lot of yourself. It's a tough process."

According to Unkrich one of the great things about their relationship with Disney (Disney and Pixar have a 50% partnership) is Disney didn't work on the project on a daily basis so when they were consulted they offered fresh criticism. "We sometimes are too close to our material and we can't see some of the problems. Tom Schumacher is very good at stepping in and giving very good broad stroke notes about things that are and are not working. Another great thing about Disney is that they never tell us how to solve a problem. They just point things out and have trusted us to come up with creative solutions."

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The biggest challenge throughout the production was the story according to Docter. "I think that will always be the case. At Pixar we place a great deal of emphasis on story and the characters. You can have some really stunning imagery and technical innovation, but after about 5 minutes the audience is bored and they want something more interesting -- story. You're asking people to commit an hour and a half of their life and it better be something worthwhile."

Docter oversaw every facet of the production. One area he found "rather exciting and somewhat nerve-racking" was voice recording sessions. He had gone to a couple of recording sessions on Toy Story, to observe Lasseter working with actors. "What I learned is that my job is to set up as much of the situation as I can, give them all the information that they need and then stand back and watch them go."

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Using his improvisational skills, actor John Goodman created the voice of James P. Sullivan (Sulley). Billy Crystal brought his great comedic talents to the vocal role of Mike Wazowski.

It turns out there is a lot of improvisation on Pixar soundtracks. Also, the script changed from time to time so one week he would tell John Goodman "so Sullivan is a janitor now" and the next month "now he's the best scarer on the floor." Luckily, Goodman "was very patient with us. He rolls with the punches."

He was also delighted to work with Billy Crystal whom he describes as an amazing actor; very clever and really funny on and off screen. "He is like having a team of writers along." He was glad Crystal was recorded in a soundproof studio as Docter would have ruined a lot of takes with his laughter had he not been in the control room. Crystal is the voice of Mike, Sulley's best friend. Mike is the little one-eyed round green monster that you've probably seen by now.

It is common in the industry to make video tapes of the recording sessions so animators can study how voice actors move when they say their lines. Animators didn't use as much of this type of reference material on Monsters, Inc. as the film's characters are so unusual. The one person they did watch a lot was Marry Gibbs, the girl who did the voice of Boo, the little girl who enters the world of the monsters. She is the only human in the film. Boo was the character they were most concerned with at the beginning of the project as her success on the screen depended on how well they captured the movements of a real three-year old child.

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Boo is not a photo-realistic child. She is an abstracted human like Al in Toy Story 2 or Geri in Geri's Game (an Oscar winning short produced by Pixar and directed by Jan Pinkava, 1998). She was designed to fit into the world created for this film. Docter didn't want her to stand out from the other characters.

Docter is a fan of the strong modern looking 2D animation of the 1950s. He is glad that the title sequence is a nod to that look. It was designed by Geefwee Boedoe and definitely recalls the work of Saul Bass.

Work at Pixar often began about 8 in the morning for Docter and he usually went home around 8 or 9 at night. At home he would spend time with his kids, eat, and then spend about 1 or 2 hours answering his e-mail. He usually had his weekends free as the producers at Pixar "are getting better and better about that so people don't kill themselves." He is looking forward to a vacation before going back to begin development of his ideas for future features.

As he looks back over his 5 years of work on the film he says, "I wouldn't say this film went very smoothly, but in the end I'm very pleased with what we have."

Team Monsters, Inc. (l-r): Billy Crystal, executive producer John Lasseter, composer Randy Newman, director Peter Docter, John Goodman and producer Darla K. Anderson.

Team Monsters, Inc. (l-r): Billy Crystal, executive producer John Lasseter, composer Randy Newman, director Peter Docter, John Goodman and producer Darla K. Anderson.

Pixar's Use Of Co-Directors

Since live-action features normally have one director, people are surprised that Pixar had three on Monsters, Inc. Lee Unkrich explains that the company adopted that system after John Lasseter directed the first Toy Story. He says Lasseter found out the hard way that a computer generated feature requires too much work for one person. At Pixar they choose co-directors who can bring different strengths to each film.

Lee Unkrich came to Pixar with a background in live-action editing and cinematography. He oversaw the editing, staging and cinematography of the new film, the same role he had on Toy Story 2 (1999). He says, "In designing the cinematography of this film, I held true to the philosophy that I've used on all of the other Pixar films. Even though we are doing animation I only do things with the camera that you can do in a live-action film. Although we have the liberty to do anything we want with our camera, it is better to keep everything more restrained. People are comfortable seeing a world that they are used to seeing when they go out to see a movie." He avoids tricky shots, rapid fire editing and other things that might be appropriate to rock videos.

Unkrich explains that because the film is about monsters it starts out dark and creepy. That is what most people will expect. Then the mood changes and people will discover it is a raucous comedy. There are scary parts "as most people enjoy being a little scared, but this is a family film and we don't want to turn anybody off with it." All Pixar films have dark moments and this film follows in that tradition.

"Much of my time was spent in the editing room with Jim Stewart and the other editors," says Unkrich. "We spent a lot of time hashing things out and restructuring the movie to get the rhythm of performances working nicely." He spent time working with layout supervisor Ewan Johnson and his team designing the shots of the film. Also, "as story problems would come up I'd jump in to help."

The other co-director was David Silverman, one of the original directors of The Simpsons. Silverman worked on the story and wrote a lot gags. He helped develop the personalities of the characters and added a great deal to the film's humor. He helped make the characters entertaining and believable and added a delightful sense of irreverence to the script. Unkrich believes that Silverman's great sense of humor indeed helped to make Monsters, Inc. a very funny film. Now Silverman has moved back to Los Angeles to direct The Simpsons first feature.

Silverman will be missed for many reasons including his musical abilities. He was in the company Dixieland band. Other regulars are senior animator Bud Luckey, Pete Docter and the lead character designer Ricky Nierva.

Mike and Sully prepare to battle a fearsome opponent: a two year-old human girl named Boo.

Mike and Sully prepare to battle a fearsome opponent: a two year-old human girl named Boo.

What's New In Computer Animation At Pixar?

Since Toy Story was completed there has been a trend toward greater visual complexity in each of their films. Tom Porter, supervising technical director on Monsters, Inc. -- and winner of two Oscars -- says Toy Story was made with 1/50th the computing power available today.

When Porter joined the Monsters, Inc. team he began by making a list of the technology they had to develop to get the film completed. One of the big problems was making hair move realistically. Sulley, a star of the film, is an 8 foot tall horned monster with a 700 pound body covered in blue-green hair. Having animators animate his hair by hand would have been an impossible task. Developing hair simulation software that can control hair movement was the answer.

They also developed simulation technology to move clothing independently of body motion. The big problem for Porter's staff the first year of pre-production was to develop these programs. "We spent a lot of time up front making sure we could get the simulation working. In the end it worked fine."

Another problem was creating the visual feel of atmosphere in large spaces. Monsters, Inc. was going to take place in an enormous factory and in vast outdoor spaces. They knew they had to suggest wind blowing, smoke, snow and other atmospheric effects. Porter said that historically computer graphics has presented a rather clean or crystal clear view of the world.

If you have seen the ads for the film on TV you may have noticed a line of monsters marching toward the camera. In that factory sequence they become easier to see and their colors become richer and brighter as they move toward the camera. This naturalistic effect suggests some of the subtle attention to detail Pixar's team has achieved.

Lighting on this film was also a lot more sophisticated then it was in Toy Story. Lighting a hard plastic surface is a lot simpler than lighting fur and clothing. Therefore, they got involved with the principles of back lighting, rim lighting and other problems that they hadn't experienced in their previous films.

Lighting and atmosphere in animated films were elevated to new levels by the creators of Monsters, Inc.

Lighting and atmosphere in animated films were elevated to new levels by the creators of Monsters, Inc.

A typical day for Porter found him going over shader reviews, lighting reviews, keeping track of the big issues and running render checks to examine individual frames for problems that can develop. He oversaw approximately 100 people in the departments of lighting, shading, modeling and shots. The shots department was established for this project to implement the hair and clothing simulation.

Pixar also has a new laser recording system that was used to transfer digital images to 35mm film. It offers a wider range of colors. Despite the use of this state of the art system to create the finest 35mm prints possible, Porter prefers seeing the film digitally. It will be shown this way in some larger markets. He says, "Digital projection looks terrific! It's rock solid. It's so much better than watching film going through a projector. Film has a slight jumpiness to it and grain; it looks a little different. Digital looks exactly as it does on the monitors here when we are doing the lighting reviews, the effects reviews and everything else. That is what the director wants to see."

Check out this fur! New simulation software was developed to create the realistic movement of Sulley's blue rug of a coat.

Check out this fur! New simulation software was developed to create the realistic movement of Sulley's blue rug of a coat.

Taking Advantage Of New Technical Innovations

According to Glenn McQueen, supervising animator, the increase in computing power allows "you to get more visual complexity on the screen. More stuff, more atmosphere, more characters, more clothing, more everything." This can make scenes more complicated to animate and keeping track of all that detail can become a problem.

McQueen is a big fan of their new simulation software. It allowed the animators to spend more time on the performance of their characters. "That's where I want to see our animators spending their time. It was a terrific improvement." In Toy Story 2 Al's shirt and pants had to be moved by hand. "I hate animating things like that. You have to spend a lot of time on it and if it is done correctly no one will ever look at it. It doesn't help the film develop the story or provide entertainment. Having a computer do that grunt work is a great improvement."

Strangely, they preferred to animate one hair element by hand. The only human in the film is the little girl who invades the world of the monsters. She has a ponytail. It was easy to animate by hand as the movements were similar to animating the antenna on ants, "something we all have had a lot of practice doing" thanks to A Bug's Life.

The studio created a "tentacle package" in case they were going to animate a character with lots of arms or legs. At one time Sully had 8 tentacles. McQueen said 8 tentacles would have been very difficult to animate within the production schedule planned for the film. "It said monster loud and clear, but I gave a sigh of relief when the director and art directors decided to go with a two legged character. It made getting the film done on time more realistic."

In the case of Sulley, two legs are better than eight in the eyes of the animators.

In the case of Sulley, two legs are better than eight in the eyes of the animators.

The tentacle package was used on minor characters. Since there is little scientific evidence about what monsters look like, some of Pixar's creatures have multiple eyes, arms and legs. Many of them are extras designed to be built quickly and then moved by the new system. "They don't talk, but are great background characters as they have strong silhouettes. They are quick and easy to pose."

One monster that stood out from the others moves like a crab. A zoologist was consulted about crab locomotion systems since it is quite different than the walk cycles most animators are used to drawing. McQueen said that none of the monsters were based on recognizable animals. Why should they be familiar looking when there are so many "tantalizing ideas" of what the characters could be.

A typical day for McQueen and his staff of approximately 50 animators began at 8 or 8:30 with 1 1/2 to 2 hours of dailies. At these sessions they critique work currently in production. Everyone is free to participate in these discussions. Another purpose of the dailies is to make sure everyone is animating the same character the same way. Pixar does have lead animators who concentrate on getting great performances out of a character (John Kahrs on Sulley, Andrew Gordon on Mike and Tasha Wedeen and Dave DeVan on Boo), but there are scenes that were animated by others.

After dailies McQueen's day included meeting with individual animators, going over production schedules and working with the technical departments. The model and prop departments were building new props and characters right up to the end of the show. The model department had to test their work constantly to make sure it functions properly before it is turned over to the animators.

To keep the staff of Pixar up-to-date when new proprietary software is developed, they hold classes at Pixar University (good old PU). The school also teaches the basics for new staff members and offers other classes when people are not working on a production. McQueen says, "It behooves us to make sure everyone is as flexible as possible."

Glenn McQueen has started work on "John's next film" as animation supervisor. Lee Unkrich will be a co-director of that feature. Unkrich hinted that it is about something Lasseter has a passion for, just as his love for toys resulted in Toy Story. He didn't elaborate, but he did say, "You can look forward to another great film."

Pixar's next release in summer of 2003 will be Finding Nemo. Andrew Stanton is the director. Also in development is an untitled project being directed by Brad Bird. Bird directed the critically acclaimed Iron Giant for Warner Bros., a remarkable film with a strong message of peace. However you look at it Pixar's winning streak doesn't look like it is going to end soon. Lucky us!

Karl Cohen is President of ASIFA-San Francisco. His first book, Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators, is published by McFarland Publishers. He also teaches animation history at San Francisco State University

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