Ricky Nierva and Jason Deamer Talk MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, Technical Challenges, Playing with Scale, and Re-Designing and Introducing Characters

     April 29, 2013

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During our recent set visit to Pixar Animation Studios for their upcoming film Monsters University, Production Designer Ricky Nierva and Character Animation Director Jason Deamer took time out of their schedules to participate in this one-on-one interview.  The pair talked about the film’s technical and creative challenges, establishing a broad sense of scale in the monsters’ world, re-imagining old characters, creating new characters, how  character animation inspired plot and vice versa, and just how much of the human world we might be seeing.

Monsters University features the voices of Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Helen Mirren, John Krasinski, Nathan Fillion, Charlie Day and many more.  The film opens in 2D and 3D starting June 21st.  Hit the jump for the full interview.

monsters-university-character-animation-director-jason-deamerQuestion: We talked a little bit earlier and you guys kind of gave us a breakdown of all the characters that we’ve been introduced to, whether they’re characters we’re revisiting as a younger version or  new characters completely, I just wanted to get your opinion on your favorite character to design and then the most challenging, for each of you.

Jason Deamer: It’s going to be one in the same for me, Mrs.  Hardscrabble, maybe my most favorite because it was the most challenging so it ended up being rewarding because of that experience.

Ricky Nierva: It’s funny, I’m going to take your answer but not use Hardscrabble.

Deamer: Okay, go for it.

Nierva: I cannot choose one character that is my favorite.

Deamer: That’s not taking my answer.

Nierva: No, no because what I’m going to say is it’s all characters, and the most challenging are all characters.  It’s the same idea; every character is a big challenge.  Now of course you’ve heard Hardscrabble’s story, but as a production designer I have to think of the larger scope, the entire look of the movie and how the characters fit in that world, how the world works with the characters, and how to make that work as a prequel of an existing movie.  So a lot of these things were a challenge for me in that respect. 

There were technical limitations on the first film and it doesn’t really seem like there’s any sort of technical limitations on the second one, does that make it easier or harder for you guys to design this now that there are no limits?

Nierva: There’s not a specific technical thing with cloth or fur or whatever, but I think the volume of characters in this movie was a technical challenge.  Talking to the TDs about the development of this film, coming up with a almost 300 background pool of characters was a big deal because you have to shade all these characters, you have to articulate all these characters, you have to not only design it, but you design it then you go along the path, and then you have to animate all these characters.  Another thing is when you have a shot you have to lay out all these characters and make sure that these characters don’t steal the show from the main animation thing.  And animation had to deal with, normally they’re animating two or three characters in a shot, if even that, but now you have an entire shot of crowds and multiple shots.  I think the crowds for this film and creating a larger background pool of monsters that had different variations of shape, shading, and fur, and all that stuff was a big technical feat for them.

monsters-university-ricky-niervaAnd you guys kind of have to distinguish each one of them, they have to be unique, they have to be memorable in some cases.

Nierva: There was also, another thing I can add, it wasn’t necessarily a challenge, but there was new technological advances made on this movie in terms of lighting, so there was the global illumination that was done.

Deamer: There are some examples of having to use some restraint though.  As an example, making furry characters, fur has gotten easier over the years and we initially made a lot more furry background characters until Dan Scanlon came and said, “You know you guys, I’m getting a little worried that we’re veering away from the look of the initial film a little bit,” which was bound to the technology of its time and therefor had less – I think they could only render one furry character on screen at a time.  That’s an example of having to show restraint with the new, more advanced technology.

Nierva: That’s what makes it hard making a prequel when you’re making a prequel further out from the original film.

Right and you’re beholden to that.

Nierva: Yeah, and you have a look, for example, because of the limitations of technology back then, then how are you going to make it kind of jive and feel the same?  That’s a really a big challenge on my end and the art department’s end.

In the presentation you gave earlier today you had a graphic with all your characters lined up and they all had these headers up front; there was the slug, the furry, some I didn’t quite understand.  What was the process of coming up with that?  Or could you give a little more explanation for that?

Deamer: Those names are actually the names they had in the first film.  The characters that don’t have speaking roles or aren’t actually called out in the script with a name, we internally name them for our database, just as a reference so we know what we’re referring to.  Some of those names, actually the weirder ones, we inherited from the first movie we wanted to reuse those characters so that, again, it felt like he first movie.  The other names were just ones that we made up for the same reason.

Someone else mentioned the back and forth between story and character design.  Sometimes you design a character that sparks something in a writer that they’re like, “I really want to take this character and put them into this scene as a quick gag or a separate moment.” Sometimes they have a scene that they want to write, but they don’t have a character in mind.  Can you just give a couple examples of how that works in both directions?  Just from the footage I’ve seen there was the slug character and then there was the giant Frisbee-catching character, those stuck out.

monsters-university-jason-deamerDeamer: Because there was a point when the story was going through a lot of revolution and in order to be careful where we spent our resources we went and designed all the background characters that we showed you, because we knew we were going to need them at some point no matter what incarnation the story ended up in we were going to need to populate the quad and the classrooms.  So we spent a lot of time designing those guys really early and we built them.  So as the story evolved, say for example that slug gag came up, we encourage story, “We built all these beautiful characters, if it’ll fix your gag use them!” [Laughs]

Nierva: Yeah, that was pretty much the case.  As the film was developing story-wise we knew we had a campus, we knew we had to start populating that campus and we knew we had to start building this large pool, we can’t wait until the end to do it.  So as the film was developing in story and they had these gags hopefully they could pull and cast from that great background pool of monsters that we designed.  There were also times when Dan would look at something and go, “You know, that would be great,” but then we would have to make an adjustment.  For example, that slug that is late for class, there is a slug body type in the background pool, but then we had to actually add eyestalks because it was a part of the design that he really liked to get those eyes pushed forward, because he’s pushing as hard as he could.

Deamer: That came from story, right?

Nierva: Yeah.

Deamer: That’s a good example.

We were talking to the director a little bit earlier and he mentioned some of the scrapped ideas for different classes at the university and he mentioned that one of them was building destruction for monsters, like a Godzilla type scale.  It looks like you’ve guys extended the scale or at least kept it …  You have mentions of both sides of the scale– I remember in the first one there’s a monster within this building and you only see the eye,

Deamer: Just the eye behind the door, yeah.

monsters-university-dean-hardscrabbleExactly, how did you play with scale in this one since you can create this vast universe of creatures?

Nierva: In Monsters, Inc.  we had a large array of sizes, little tiny guys, and then you have the gigantic ones,  you have the eyeball in the building, and you have the Godzilla- or not Godzilla, but you have the big leg when Mike and Sully are going to work and you hear the chicken sound effect.

Deamer: Used to be a Godzilla sound, but they changed it.

Nierva: Then you notice in Monsters, Inc that there was a coffee machine and next to it there were cups, there was a large cup and there are tiny cups.  So those kinds of things where we wanted to make all the assets or the world fit for all the different monsters.  We made different door handles, we have top and bottom door handles for doors in the dorm, we have different size steps for a stairway, there’s short ones and big ones. 

Deamer: There’s the Frisbee guy that walks by in one shot.

Nierva: There’s a gigantic monster.  We also have expanded the world of aquatic monsters, we have aquatic school.  We tried to get the fanciful world of size and shape as much as we can.

Deamer: When it really comes down to it we have to hint at it rather than – you can’t design and tell a movie with the massive scale going on, so if we can hint at it anywhere then the audience fills in the rest.

Nierva: In terms of the other schools we have the underwater school, the school of aquatics, and we have the school of aviation.

We saw the designs for those, they were pretty cool.  Just the way that you guys kind of brought different aspects to highlight different things, like the landing perches for the aviation school and just the way the underwater school looks.  That’s just imagination.  It’s a lot of fun.

Nierva: It’s really fun.

Deamer: We had a lot of fun with it, yeah.

monsters-university-set-visitDid you guys spend a lot of time re-imagining the human world too?  We’ve only seen glimpses of that, maybe only in one room.  How much time would you say we spend in the human world?

Nierva: Enough time.

Enough time, so we get a look at it?

Nierva: How much can we talk about the human world? [Laughs]

Deamer: Not really, huh?

Nierva: It’s a spoiler.

But we get a glimpse.

Nierva: Yeah, you get a glimpse.

You’ve got about two months until release, what do you have lined up after this?

Deamer: Vacation.

Nierva: Vacation.

You’ve been at this for how many years now?

Nierva: I’ve been working on this thing almost four years – over four years now.

Deamer: Three and a half for me.

So nothing else lined up right now?

Deamer: Not yet, going to come back and discuss it.

Click here for all our previous Monsters University coverage.

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