Dan Scanlon is a comparative babe in the Pixar woods, having helmed a pair of shorts and worked on various creative teams. The top brass have been impressed, however, because this summer, they have entrusted him with directing Monsters University, the highly anticipated sequel to Monsters Inc. During the press day at Pixar’s Emeryville headquarters, he talked about the challenges of prequel-dom and the way the film’s eclectic mix of characters.
Question: What took so long to get this sequel made?
Dan Scanlon: We really didn’t think about the possibility of doing a sequel right away. After the first movie, we just went to work on other movies. And then in time we just realized we miss these characters. We love these characters. And we got together to decide it there was an idea there. If we didn’t have an idea, it wouldn’t have gone any further; we’d just poke around. And one came pretty quickly in that meeting, which was essentially John Lasseter and Pete Docter, the original director, and Andrew Stanton. The idea of doing a story that was a little more specific to Mike and Sulley’s relationship came up. And that's where we got the idea of meeting them when they were young. The Monster College notion just seemed great, but also the idea of doing a story about Mike and dealing with failures in life, which we thought that most movies don’t deal with a lot. A lot of times, people say if you work hard and never give up, it will always work out, which is a great message. However, it’s not always the case in life. And we really wanted to make a movie for people who were dealing with that. That was kind of the genesis of the idea.
Q: How daunting is this being your feature debut?
DS: It’s funny. It causes some strikes against you. But it also gives you some money in the bank in a way, you know what I mean? There's good reasons and bad reasons. The good thing is everybody loves the characters. As long as you're true to the characters, hopefully people will come along for the ride. The hard thing is I’m a huge fan of the first movie. And it’s a great movie. You don’t want to let that movie down by making a second-rate follow-up. I was lucky to get people who’d worked on the first film and some who hadn’t. So you get that sort of familiarity and then that new breath of fresh air. That was part of the fun of working forward it.
Q: Who do you go to for advice?
DS: Part of it is your own gut. You want this to be a familiar world. But you don’t want to rehash. You know, I think sometimes sequels fall into that camp where they just sort of rehash the old movie. We really didn’t want to do that. We wanted this to feel like its own story, and feel like, even if you hadn’t seen the first film, you can still enjoy this movie.
I was lucky to have Pete Docter who directed the first film as an Executive Producer. I would meet with him weekly and run ideas past him, and show him artwork and character designs. Near the end, Pete started asking me questions, which I always think is such a great thing for a teacher to do. “Oozma Kappa, how did you guys figure them out? They're a great team, you know?” That was great. Hopefully those meetings will continue.
Q: Is there a technological advancement with this film?
DS: Backpacks apparently. At one point, we were talking and the simulation department said “backpacks are really hard, especially on fur.” Not as sexy as water and hair and explosions, but that was one thing. The other thing was just the size of the movie. We had never done so many monsters in one shot before; we just couldn’t do that in the first movie. This was a college. So we had to fill it with monsters. There are all different rigs and set-ups: tentacle ones, sliding slugs. The scope of the movie was probably the trickiest part.
We also had great technological breakthroughs with the lighting. This was a movie we did for the first time with global illumination, which is just this software that allow the film to just look richer. That was a big leap forward on this movie.
Q: How did you make sure it didn’t freak kids out?
DS: It’s always a fine line. I think that we make our movies to just entertain ourselves at first, because that’s the only audience we have. And we feel pretty strongly that if you do that, hopefully people will connect with it. We rarely say “oh, this is for kids. We shouldn’t do this.” But when it comes to being scary, it’s probably one of the few times we back off on things a little bit. We want people to be on the monsters’ side, kids especially. I hope that even though this movie deals a lot with fear, you’re always with the monsters. It’s always the monsters’ point of view. And even if we let Sulley or the misfits get a little scary, it’s still your pal Sulley. I hope that that makes a big difference in terms of being too scary for kids.
Q: Is there one supporting character that grew bigger?
DS: Yeah, that seems to happen sometimes. There are characters that become sort of more popular as we do it or that we sort of fall in love with. What I love about this movie is I feel like that was almost every main character at some point. There was some point where we were all in love with Squishy and writing everything for Squishy. And then there was a point where it was Don. It’s like everything is going to Don. And suddenly Don has all the lines. And then it was Art. And then it was Terry and Terri. We all fell in love with them at some point or another
Mrs. Squibbles is a good example of that. We loved her! We wrote a bunch of stuff for her. And then we cut it out for time. And we rarely do this. But this was a case where it felt really good. We had an audience test screening. People loved Mrs. Squibbles and they loved Art. And we’re like “we like those characters too. And there was stuff we took out. We’re gonna put it back in.” It was good to get a little more of those characters in there.
Q: It seems like Art really emerged from that derby to become the favorite..
DS: [Laughs] It does. Art’s actually a terrible example of how to design a character. But it’s what I love about him. Most of the time we create a character with a lot of thought about what his purpose in the movie is. We never knew what Art was. We just knew we needed another member of Oozma Kappa. The designer, Chris Sasaki, just drew an A and put eyes and a mouth on it because he didn’t know anything about the character. We didn’t know a thing about him. And then one day, suddenly, it all made sense: that was the character. He’s that guy who everyone knew in college, who was there before you got there and still there after you leave. He may not even be a student; he just seems to exist for the experience of it. And it was perfect!
I don’t think that can happen every time, but he is a good example of how spontaneity in animation can be a good thing sometimes. It’s very hard to do spontaneity in animation. Sometimes we can make everything a little too perfect. So I always was a fan of giving direction but every now and then going, I don't know. You know, what do you think? Or let’s see. Let’s see what happens. And the stuff does start to just form.
Q: Any characters that didn’t make it from the original?
DS: That's a good question. I think we love all those characters, and we’d love to see them, but honestly, I didn’t want to have a billion cameos. I didn’t want it to feel like we all went to Monsters University. I kind of liked that we tried to keep the cameos appropriate: fitting in with the story. And I really want people to walk out of here going,” oh, I’m gonna go watch Monsters Inc.” and I didn’t want people to think about Monsters, Inc. at the beginning of the film because this is a prequel. And you kind of don’t want people to go, “oh, yeah, I know what’s gonna happen.” We wanted it to be its own film. And we just didn’t want to have a lot of characters that didn’t need to be there. That said, I love the cameos that are in the film. And they feel appropriate.