5 Things We Learned from Our Visit to Pixar Studios for the Blu-ray Release of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY

     November 2, 2013


With Monsters University being released on Blu-ray and DVD this week, we were recently invited to Pixar Studios in Emeryville, California to participate in a press day marking the occasion.  In addition to video interviews with Monsters University director Dan Scanlon and producer Kori Rae as well as The Blue Umbrella director Saschka Unseld and producer Marc Greenberg, we were able to get an inside peek at how Pixar operates.  This included a tour of the facility, short roundtable interviews with a slew of different Pixar folks that worked on Monsters University, and more.

During our Pixar visit we learned a few fascinating things about how the studio works, and after the jump you’ll find a complete rundown.  If you missed our video interviews, click here for Scanlon and Rae and click here for Unseld and Greenberg.  Monsters University is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

pixar-monsters-university-modelsMajor Changes Can Be Made at the Last Minute

It’s no secret that Pixar’s development process involves working and reworking its films for years until the story clicks together.  On Monsters University, the studio made a pretty major last-minute change to the film, as Scanlon and his team decided to change the gender and nature of the pic’s antagonist Dean Hardscrabble from male to female.  Originally the character was an old and crusty male that had a sluglike appearance, but Scanlon late that they had an opportunity to create a really strong female scarer, given Hardscrabble’s reputation as one of the best scarers of all time.  After spending a year on the original design for Hardscrabble, the team had to develop the new female version in just four weeks.

Some Employees’ Paths to Pixar Mirror the Theme of Monsters University

One of the themes of Monsters University is as gutsy as any I’ve seen in a family film.  Mike learns that no amount of training or passion will make him a good scarer; effort isn’t enough, and there is a limit to everyone’s abilities.  However, sometimes the path you didn’t foresee turns out to be the best possible direction your life could take.  This is mirrored in some of the employees at Pixar, as we had the opportunity to meet with art director Daisuke “Dice” Tsutsumi, animator Jae Hyung Kim, and sketch artist John Nevarez.

pixar-monsters-university-dice-tsusumiAll three of these employees pursued wildly different career opportunities before landing at Pixar, with Tsutsumi planning to play professional baseball in Japan, Kim working as a medical doctor in South Korea, and Nevarez going to college with an eye towards mathematics before flunking out.  Obviously the trio ended up turning to animation and applying to Pixar, but with no short amount of difficulties to overcome.  Nevarez, for example, received over 20 rejection letters from Pixar before finally being accepted.  This fascinating turn of events is further documented in the Monsters University Blu-ray extra “Paths to Pixar.” 

The Monsters University Team Participated in Some Healthy Competition During Production

During the development and production of Monsters University, the folks at Pixar participated in their own version of the “Scare Games,” dividing into teams based on departments.  Story, Editing, Art, etc. went head-to-head in a series of games that tested both physical and mental acuity, not only giving employees an opportunity to blow off steam and take a break from staring at paper/computer screens all day, but also making for some intense competition.  The full exploits can be seen on the Monsters University Blu-ray extra “Scare Games.”

Storyboarding Is Now Computerized 

pixar-kelsey-mann-monsters-universityWhile at Pixar, we were treated to a demonstration of the studio’s story process by Monsters University Head of Story Kelsey Mann.  He explained that during development, particular scenes will be assigned to specific team members, who will go off and create a detailed storyboard of how the scene will play out.  Instead of pitching the scene using static paper, Pixar now utilizes a computerized program that allows the artist to sketch the storyboard digitally, which can then be presented in a rough animated form to the team.

Mann explained that when an artist is pitching his or her scene, it’s almost like a performance.  Studio etiquette states that there is polite applause once a team member is finished pitching the scene, after which the rest of the team provides input and notes on how to make it better.  Mann demonstrated this by showing a scene that he previously pitched involving Mike and Sully meeting on the playground in elementary school.  Obviously the scene never made the final cut of the film, but Mann went through many, many iterations of the sequence before they eventually dropped it.  He wasn’t deterred, however, as he added that every failure is useful because it gets the team to the next “thing,” which eventually leads to the finished product.

You Don’t Have to Be an Animator to Have a Passion for Pixar 

sashcka-unseld-blue-umbrellaAs is customary, Monsters University was accompanied in theaters by a new original Pixar short called The Blue Umbrella.  The pic came from the mind of director Sashka Unseld and utilized photo-real and handheld technology, but the short also has an interesting behind-the-scenes pedigree.  When Unseld first pitched the idea for The Blue Umbrella to the Pixar team, Pixar’s Vice President of Finance & Strategy Marc Greenberg was in the room.  Greenberg instantly connected to the pitch and subsequently agreed to produce the short for Unseld.  The responsibility meant that Greenberg would have to juggle his work on The Blue Umbrella with his executive role at Pixar, but his passion for the project propelled him forward.

A side note: a few months ago Pixar announced that longtime employee and Up co-director Bob Peterson had been removed as the director of the studio’s upcoming film The Good Dinosaur.  Many Pixar fans feared that this meant Peterson would be leaving the studio altogether after having been working there since the first Toy Story, but I’m happy to report that I glimpsed Peterson walking around the studio during my recent visit.  Hopefully this means he’s still with Pixar full-time.



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