This week, Pixar returns to the world of Monsters Inc. with Monsters University, and reveals what Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan were like as college freshmen. We spoke with several members of the MU team and learned secrets about the film. Here are 14 things you probably didn't know about Monsters University.
Director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and the rest of the Monsters University team were excited to return to the world of Monsters Inc., in part because we would get to learn more about Mike and Sulley than we did in the first film. At first they had hoped to center the film equally on both characters, but as they played with various story ideas, Scanlon says, "We eventually realized that if we make it both of their stories, it's nobody's story." So they decided to put the spotlight on one half of the scaring team. They tossed around a few possible plot lines for a Sulley-driven film. "You know him a little bit more," Rae explains. "You know how his life ends up: he's this incredibly famous scarer." Maybe Sulley started out on a different career path and discovered scaring along the way. Maybe he enrolled in the School of Scaring, but wasn't any good at it.
"But every time we did that," Scanlon says, "Mike's story rose to the top. It was always the more interesting story."
"There was more to discover," Rae adds. "When we were trying to think about 'Okay, what would be the craziest thing? If we're trying to make this not predictable, what was Mike? Who did he want to be?' That would be a scarer. And if you look at the second movie, you know that didn't happen." Mike's story, they felt, had a stronger emotional component, and was more substantial.
"Monsterfication" is the word the design team used to describe the aesthetic of the Monsters University world. Sets art director Robert Kondo explains that the movie's designers constantly asked themselves, "What would it be like to be a monster architect?" Some of the design challenges in creating the MU campus were practical. For example, since monsters come in all sizes, from Mike Wazowski through the giant football-playing slug creature, how do monster doors work? If you look closely at the campus buildings, you'll notice doors within doors. There are smaller doors with handles the smaller monsters can reach, framed by larger and larger doors. Even the stairs and drinking fountains are designed for monsters of varying sizes. Plus, flying monsters don't have to enter some buildings on the ground floor, instead landing on perches outside the top floor windows. Aquatic monsters have their own, submerged portions of campus.
Since the architecture has to be able to support the weight of the heavier monsters, the designers came up with a weighted trapezoid as a key motif. From the MU gates to the dorm room interiors, those weighted trapezoids add a heft throughout the campus. Even the bricks are more trapezoid than rectangle.
In the Monsters world, MU is a far older institution than Monsters Inc. (the former was established in 1313), and so the designers played with a grader architecture. The most immediately noticeable difference between monster architecture and our own is all the monstrous details; spikes, horns, tentacles, and fangs appear all over the various buildings. The designers hid monster faces in the architecture; they tried to dial the faces down enough to keep them from being distracting within scenes, but if you look for them, the architectural faces are definitely there. The vegetation gets in on the act, too, with ivy creeping across in tentacles across the buildings.
The set designers went so far as to determine which were the older and which were the newer parts of campus. The quad, where the fountain statue of the founder sits, is the oldest part of campus, and it contains well worn paths where grass no longer grows thanks to generations of monsters using certain shortcuts. It's also the only part of campus that uses white cobblestone pathways and home to the campus' oldest—and therefore largest—trees.
In front of the MU Scare School sits a bronze statue of one the school's storied alumni, and traditionally, freshmen rub the front paw of the statue for luck on the way to their first scaring class. Much like John Harvard's foot or Warner Bentley's nose, the front paw of that statue appears more polished and less tarnished than the rest of the statue.
One of the key aspects of the monsters' world is that everything is powered by scream energy, which the designers treat as a steam-like power source. That means that everything that uses power, every outlet, every light switch, has a pipe running to it. If you look for them, you'll notice these scream pipes running up and down walls and across ceilings.
Although the Scaring School is the main focus of Monsters University, we'll learn a bit more about the various professions available to monsters. Some of Mike and Sulley's classmates have majors we see in our own world, like philosophy and dance, but others seeking non-scaring degrees that are related to scream power technology. The professors in those classes don't always hold the most riveting lectures, however.
When the story team realized that they would be setting the movie at college in a world where scaring is such a significant career, they started to break down the "Art of Scaring." In the Monsters universe, scaring depends on some natural ability — but it requires training as well.
Global illumination is one of the technologies Pixar focused on for both Monsters University and The Blue Umbrella. Global illumination gives scenes a much more natural lighting look by replicating how light is emitted and reflected on all the objects in a scene. But in designing the shading and lighting for different scenes, Dice Tsutsumi, the Shading and Lighting Art Director, wanted the light to convey certain aspects of the story. Mike's greatest obstacles, like the Scare School and the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble, are frequently backlit, so that their facades appear in shadow. If you pay attention to Mike during his scaring studies, he tends to be in shadow when he's struggling and in the light when he's improving.
Sometimes, though, Tsutsumi uses light to signal that the characters are intimidated or exposed. After all, he says, "For monsters, light can be actually scary in a way. They work in the dark. They work at night."
One of the hardest design challenges was making the characters from the original movie look 18 years old.
Production Designer Ricky Nierva and Character Art Director Jason Deamer designed many of the characters from the original film, but suddenly found themselves confronted with the question, "How do you make an eyeball look 18?" The designers found it was simple enough to redesign Mike as a child for the beginning of the film, but for freshman-aged Mike and Sulley, the changes needed to be more subtle. Everyone on the design crew was asked to bring in their college yearbook photos—in part so they could laugh at one another—to note the physically differences between their 18-year-old selves and their adult selves. Mike they made a bit slimmer, while retaining his ball-like shape, and made his arms and legs longer and thinner while leaving his hands and feet adult-sized, giving him a more gangly look. His wrinkles and blemishes are gone and his lime green color is a bit more saturated. Finally, his horns were made shorter, indicating that they would grow as he got older. Sulley is also leaner, but because fur is now technically easier to execute, the design team spent a lot of time grooming Sulley's fur, giving him a bed-head look. (Like so many college students, Sulley travels from bed to class without a brush ever touching his hair.)
John Goodman, for his part, had fun playing Sulley as more of a young jerk. Scanlon describes college age Sulley as "lovable" in his youthful arrogance, "the kind of guy you're just rolling your eyes at." Billy Crystal, on the other hand, had to add a layer of vulnerability to his performance as Mike.
It's clear that Oozma Kappa brother Scott "Squishy" Squibbles is one of the favorite new characters among the Monsters University production team. Scanlon described him to the character designers as a student who hasn't quite grown into himself, and isn't quite fully formed, and the designers decided that he his body should be as pliable as his persona. After playing with various gelatin-inspired designs, they eventually settled on mochi, the glutinous rice cake, as the basis for Squishy's appearance. Don Carlton, the "senior student" brother, is part officer worker, part dragon, with a wing for his mustache. The designers imagined that Art, the new age philosophy major, might become a motivational speaker later in life, so there's a little of Chris Farley's Saturday Night Live character Matt Foley in Art's design, but he also has a little bell-bottom pants and a bit of rainbow in his DNA.
While Boo couldn't logically be a part of Monsters University, Scanlon says that the MU team quickly realized that Mike and Sulley are especially fun when they're taking care of something. In Monsters Inc., that something was Boo, and in Monsters University, it's the misfit Oozma Kappa fraternity. Scanlon describes Mike and Sulley, as "the mom and dad of the Oozma kids." "The Oozma Kappa team…they're really sweet, sincere guys," Scanlon says. "So they feel like kids." Scanlon explains that the story team was never out to replace Boo, but they saw Mike and Sulley develop a similarly familial relationship with Oozma Kappas.
Perhaps no new character in Monsters University went through as many design iterations as the legendary scarer and head of Monsters University. Deamer described her as the most challenging character he has ever worked on during his tenure at Pixar. As the dean of Monsters University, Hardscrabble needed to be put together and graceful, but as the most successful scarer in the history of the monster world, she also had to be pretty darn terrifying. Her design was so hard to pin down that she ended up being completely redesigned—including modeling, rigging, and shading—six weeks before she was due in animation shot production. Nine character designers worked on her, drawing her as a bat, a dragon, a snake, a scorpion, a spider, a butterfly, a moth, and an owl—but none of the designs seemed quite right.
Eventually, they came across Scolopendra gigantea, the Amazonian giant centipede, an animal that hit that perfect mix. Nierva noted that the centipede is a creepy thing, but when you watch its legs in motion, it has a remarkable elegance. They had an animal handler bring a small Scolopendra gigantea—whom the team nicknamed "Kendra"—into the studio, and the handler used enormous leather gloves and tongs when picking up the centipede. Its bite isn't deadly to humans, but the handler explained that it will "make you wish for death." The animators delighted in studying the centipede, especially when it ate. Kendra might tear off one cricket's head and then pin another one to the ground with its legs and rip into the cricket's body. (Despite the animators' hopes, that didn't make it into the movie.)
Dean Hardscrabble's upper body is fitted with a beautifully tailored jacket, inspired by high-end fashions from the 1940s. The designers figured that monsters are very long-lived and that Dean Hardscrabble has owned her clothes for a very long time.
Early on in production, Scanlon realized that we had never gotten a chance to meet any great female scarers in Monsters Inc., and he wanted to remedy that in Monsters University. "We felt like it was such an awesome opportunity to open up the world." Once they changed the menacing dean from a man to a woman, Scanlon says, "Her character just came to life after that, especially after we cast Helen Mirren."
While the designers found the design for the female Dean Hardscrabble so challenging, they actually had a male design they liked a great deal. But trying to retain the design while changing the gender ended up being, in Deamer's words, "like putting lipstick on a pig."
Monsters University certainly plays with a lot of your typical college archetypes: cheerleaders, jocks, goth kids. But don't expect them to behave according to their usual college movie stereotypes. The Greek Council president, for example, delivers announcements through Aubrey Plaza's famous monotone. And watch out for the pom-pom skirted ladies of Python Nu Kappa. All those chipper attitudes and pink clothes belie something terrifying.
Now that Pixar has mastered clothing and fur, what was the big technical challenge for Monsters University? Animating so many freaky characters. Using six core body types, the character designers created nearly 300 background characters in addition to the core cast. It creates the sense that the campus is huge, and packed with a diverse student body. Some of the characters were designed in a certain way so as not to completely exhaust the animators. One of the Slugma Slugma Kappas looks a bit like Boo's hair stuck on a snake's body, but Deamer assures us she's not based on Boo. The animators asked for some characters that would require minimal articulation, and making a character who was largely hair provided a handy solution.
Monsters University is all about what happens when you realize you can't achieve your greatest dream.
Thanks to Monsters Inc., we know that Mike doesn't become a professional scarer, which has been his goal since childhood. Rae believes that Mike's story will resonate with a lot of people since it isn't about how you achieve your goals, but what happens when you learn that you aren't the person you thought you were. Scanlon agrees, "A lot of movies tell us that if we work as hard as we can, things will always work out. Which is a great, inspiring lesson, but it doesn't always work out that way."