Over the course of Edinburgh Film Festival I had the privilege of interviewing Scott Clark, the supervising animator for Monster’s University. Clark is a Pixar veteran, having worked with the beloved studio since A Bug’s Life. I used the opportunity to ask him quite geeky questions about the process of animation, but also about Monsters U as a whole. There’s nothing spoilery in here, but it does give away two cameos and discusses a scene in the final act. If you want to save that kind of thing until after you’ve seen it, I’ve highlighted the sections so you can skip past them.
What does a supervising animator do?
So my job is to support my crew of about 60 or 70 animators, helping them to get the performance we need for the director, and also helping the director. If I do my job right I’m giving them work that inspires them to give good performances as animators and actors and I’m giving the director support by offering my opinion on his responsibilities. I deal with the performances.
How early in the process do you get involved with a film?
Pretty early. The film takes about five years from concept to it being in theatres. My part of it is about three years. Once they have worked the premise into a pretty workable story, I go into pre-production and we start building models for characters we think are likely to stick around.
Are you involved with character design and storyboarding?
You actually just named two different departments. Storyboarding is the story department and they draw panels that tell the story. The designing of the characters is the art department, those are illustrators who decide what the characters look like. Animation is the team that brings these characters to life. We’re like the actors. But all of these departments are different art forms. Sometimes there is crossover where we influence each other.
Who is in charge of coming up with great visual jokes in the background – is that the screenwriters?
That’s the story artists or something in the script, but I have been in some gag sessions where I’m asked to pitch in if it is a very animated gag, where the humour comes from the performances. That’s definitely ours. Like Art flipping down the steps like a slinky, or introducing himself like a noodle, that’s all animation.
NEXT SECTION GIVES AWAY CAMEOS.
Which is your favourite joke?
You know, it’s not really an animated joke much, but I love the cameo by Roz.
I like the abominable snowman one, too…
John Ratzenberger… he always has to be in it!
But if they met the abominable snowman in the mail room, I thought in Monsters Inc. they hadn’t met him…
They weren’t in the mail room for very long.
And they were young…
They didn’t get a chance to know him. And I think he probably got banished from there pretty quickly.
BACK TO THE NON-SPOILER BITS NOW!!!
Pixar are famous for unusual approaches for building team spirit and getting into the zone of the film. On Brave they reportedly had sword fighting lessons.
And they wore kilts every Friday.
What was the Monsters University quirks?
We actually invented some Scare Games where we divided the whole animation department into different fraternities and sororities – and a guy or a girl could be in a fraternity or a sorority – and we had contests. At our animation wrap party we had the championships.
Did you win?
We didn’t win, but the frat that I was in did do pretty well, yeah.
Getting a bit technical, now. There’s a book called The Illusion of Life by Frank Thomas and Ollie Johnston. I’d like to look at two of the principles that I believe are carried into most animation, and see how they apply to Monsters University.
The first one is Squash and Stretch, the idea that physics should apply to characters and that flesh should move in a physically believable way. With the monsters films you have totally alien properties – with the old animal films they were based on footage of animals moving. What does squash and stretch look like when animating monsters – they could have totally different physical reactions to things, like Art or a slug monster or something.
Well everything is based on something we are familiar with. So Sullivan is human, but he is also a bear, he’s also an ape, with simian arms. The hair is like a dog or a bear. So we are always looking at things that we recognise from life. I’ll take squash and stretch even further to what John Lasseter calls ‘truth to material’ and it’s very important in computer animation that you accept what the character is made out of. So in Cars we try not to bend and squash and stretch the metal too much. You have to with the mouth, but you don’t see it bending that much or being cartoony.
Whereas someone more cartoonish like Squishy, the character from Monsters University – he’s the grey kid with the green sweater and many eyes – he’s very squishy, literally, so we could really be very pliable with a character like that. With Art we got to animate him like a noodle.
Do you think with the Monsters world you had more opportunity to be creative with squash and stretch?
Well yeah. With Brave, last year’s Pixar film, that had more naturalistic physics. It’s still caricature, but it’s humans, bears and horses. So it’s stuff that we see in real life and are familiar with. In the Monsters world we get to push it a little further and we get to go ‘well what about this guy with five eyes’ or ‘this monster is just a noodley U-shape.’ I do think we get to be a little cartoonier.
What was your reference point for Mike?
Well Mike is definitely very human, only with one eye. With Billy Crystal’s performance in the first movie, he was the sidekick. This one, being the main character, he had to emote more. We had to feel really sad for him when he discovers he’s not really that good at being a scary monster, you know? So we are looking at ourselves, you know, the things we deal with as people and the struggles we have. I mean, I think who hasn’t gone to school and majored in one thing but come out the other side as someone else? Very few kids are going to do exactly what they dream of. It could be something incredibly different that might be wonderful, but not exactly what you thought.
That leads on nicely to the second aspect of character animation I want to talk about, which is ‘Appeal.’ The idea that an animated character has to elicit emotions – even the villains. There’s a quote from the book that says ‘the whole idea that you can communicate feelings with lines seems ridiculous at times.’ Monsters U is very emotional at times, like when young Mike first visits the scare floor. It connects with people. Is it uniquely challenging, because you are creating creatures we are supposed to be quite scared of, to create appeal in these characters? How do you go about that with Monsters as opposed to say, Toy Story or A Bug’s Life?
Right, well appeal is a word that seems simple but is quite complex. It’s like an Al Hirschfield caricature that is just a few lines, but is so exquisite and simple that it really looks more like the person than the person. That’s what we are trying to get out of our characters. It should go to the core of emotion. It’s tough. There are a lot of other designs along the way that look ugly and unappealing. We always try and figure out how is this an appealing design, or an appealing performance? Are people drawn to this story? Is there heart warmed by it?
I would hope that we are able to make you cry one moment, then laugh in relief, then really laugh at something really funny. I think that contrast gives it greater depth.
NEXT QUESTION DISCUSSES THE FINAL ACT
I think the standout moment for that is when they are in the human world. That, for me, had the biggest laugh of the film when they recreate a horror film in order to scare the adults. That followed just on from the big moment of self-realisation in the film.
There’s an appeal to the adult watching that, knowing that we are parodying a certain genre of film that kids are enjoying it at a dramatic level. But what kid, also, doesn’t want to see adults scared by big monsters?
Looking at a more studio wide perspective. Dreamworks and Disney are upping their game in terms of invention, creativity and critical reception. Is there pressure to compete with the other CG big guns out there?
There are a lot of CG animated films out there, but there’s a lot more live action films. If you look at the total of films made, we’re just a small percentage. I think there is room for more. If they are good. I love animated films, but I also don’t like seeing bad movies. I just want all the studios to make good movies and if there are more animated films that are good, I’m happy.
What’s next for you?
I don’t know, I’m in between.
That’s quite exciting, not knowing what Pixar have in store for you next.
All I know is that it will be fun. I’ve been working for Pixar seventeen years in July, and I’m looking forward to whatever it is. I have some ideas of what it might be. We’ll see.
A personal question for my blog here. I’m covering all fifty two of Disney’s animated films over the year. I’m in the ’80s at the moment.
Oh wow. The eighties.
Yeah… Do you have a favourite Disney animation?
Of the classic films, I want to say 101 Dalmatians. Or The Jungle Book. Oh gosh… The Jungle Book. I’ll go with The Jungle Book. Otherwise I’d have to say Dumbo. It’s both short and simple, and they really had to make it fast, but there is some perfect storytelling going on in that movie. It’s appealing.
Finally, what did the monster that lived in your closet as a child look like?
It was probably a boogey man or an alligator that waited under my bed that would eat me if I fell down there. It wasn’t as funny as the monsters in our movie.
So it didn’t make it into the film, then?
No. Well, the essence of it did. There’s something appealing about the idea that it is these monsters’ job. They punch their time card, they have names like ‘James P. Sullivan,’ and they’re very formal, but they are kinda goofy and their job is to scare the bejeezus out of children. I think every kid has to deal with that.