Dan Scanlon – Monsters University

Dan Scanlon – Monsters University

With the DVD/Blu Ray release of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY Director Dan Scanlon has a chat with us about the film.


Mike and Sulley head to university in the Pixar prequel, Monsters University. Did you watch ‘80s college movies for inspiration?

We want to do our homework with every movie we make, so we go and watch a bunch of movies from different genres. We’ll look at movies from the genre we’re working in and we’ll look at different themes, too. Our movies naturally get inspiration from all over the place. However, we noticed that all of the great college movies seem to be made in the ‘80s. Even though we didn’t set this monster world in any specific time period, we added a touch of ‘80s in there as our salute to college movies.

How challenging was it to lift the character of Boo out of the monster sequel?

It was tough to take Boo out of the story because she was such a big part of the first film – but we really had no choice, given that we were going to create a college movie for Mike and Sulley. That said, when we started to add the Oozma Kappa team to the story, we thought of them as naïve little kids. Throughout the movie, Mike and Sulley are often like bickering parents to their sweet, little naïve children. Mike and Sulley seem to come off best when they’re taking care of someone. To see them take care of these guys and learn to love these guys really helped that. It created this similar, but different relationship.

There are lots of new characters and monsters in Monsters University. Which is your favorite new creation?

I always feel like I shouldn’t pick favorites, but I really do love the character of Don. He’s the mature student in the movie and I think he’s really funny. I grew up in the Midwest and I knew a lot of guys like that. He’s always been a favorite of mine.

How did you come up with the look of the new characters in the movie?

The movie’s art department did a wonderful job, which was based on notes about who I thought these characters should be. We would meet every week and they would throw out ideas – and I’d make little suggestions here and there, while always trying to keep the story in mind. Luckily we have amazing artists who have an endless imagination. It’s really the art department who made these big creative decisions.

Most of the time, you record each cast member separately on an animation like this. How difficult is it to pull all of their parts together?

In animation, it is tough when everybody is [recorded] apart. We recorded John [Goodman] and Billy [Crystal] together as much as we could because they wanted to do it together. They know that it raises their energy levels and they joke with each other in the booth. We also recorded Sean Hayes and Dave Foley together. They play Terri and Terry in the movie and they are phenomenal at improvising. It was great to sit back and watch them go. When Terri and Terry introduce themselves as dance majors in the movie; that was all improvised.

Can you talk about the music of the movie?

Randy Newman came back to score the film, which was such a joy because he is fantastic. The music is so specific to this film and it adds emotion that you never knew was there. Even though we never really used, or barely used, themes from the original film, you still feel a sense of familiarity. You want people to get lost in the movie, and Randy was really great about that. He has a sincerity to his music that really helped propel Mike’s story.

On a personal level, do you relate more to Mike or Sulley?

I feel like I relate more to Mike, certainly in college. I went to an art college and I thought I was the greatest drawer in the world because my drawings were on my mom’s refrigerator. But then I got to art school and I realized I had such a long way to go because there were so many people who were so much better than me. College can be really lonely in a kid’s life; I really felt that pressure and that competition. I feel like I related to Mike a lot in that way.

What advice would you give to youngsters who want to get into animation?

I would say, ‘Just try to make a lot of films.’ Make a lot of animations, but choose things that can be done easily and quickly. Do five seconds of animation every week. Don’t try to do one big project; make lots of little, small projects that you can learn from. If you want to be a director or a writer, tell stories. Literally tell stories and write stories. You can make a movie on your phone now and it can be 10 seconds long, but it still tells a story.

What other advice can you offer?

Don’t talk about making movies, just do it. And don’t worry about it being bad. Make a bad animation. Make another bad one after that. Just keep moving and keep doing the work. I feel like everyone at Pixar makes art on their weekends; they draw or paint when they are not working. They are obsessed. They are passionate. That’s the way to be if you want to be successful.

What advice would you give to animators trying to get into Pixar?

When people apply to Pixar, I always ask them if they have any personal projects that they’re working on. A lot of the story artists do comic books on the side. They have projects that they are publishing themselves or they make little movies at the weekend. I love that. I feel like that’s a person who is taking it to the next level. It’s not just their job; they are continuing to learn and they would create animations even if they were not getting paid. They have a passion for it, and that shows in their work. Those are the people who end up here at Pixar, the people who have a real passion for it.

Monsters, Inc. is a Pixar classic. How much pressure did you face in directing the follow-up, Monsters University?

I came to work at Pixar the month that Monsters, Inc. was released. I loved the movie and I was a big fan of the movie, so the pressure I felt was that of a fan wanting to make a good movie for other fans. I was very aware of the pressure, but everyone at Pixar is incredibly supportive. You’ve got [Monsters, Inc. director] Peter Docter right there with you, helping you and rooting for you. Luckily, there are a lot of smart people to talk to at Pixar. There are a lot of people who will talk through ideas and give you support. I certainly felt the pressure, but in this atmosphere it wasn’t as bad as I’m sure it could have been.

What advice did Pete Docter give you during the filmmaking process?

As an executive producer on Monsters University, Pete Docter would meet with us every week or two to look at drawings and talk about the story. He would give notes, but he went above and beyond that, too. Anything I wanted to talk about, we could talk about. His advice was absolutely invaluable to me.

Do you remember the first time you saw the original movie, Monsters, Inc.?

I absolutely remember the first time. I worked here one month and I went to the wrap party that they had for the whole team that worked on the film. It was the first time that I went to a wrap party and they’re amazing to go to because there’s so much excitement about the release. People cheer for things that you don’t understand because they are technical achievements. I’ll never forget Sulley landing in the snow in the first movie. When he wipes out, everybody cheered. Even though I knew it looked cool, I was like, “What’s going on here?” It felt like a real honor to see the film with the filmmakers.

What went through your mind at that first screening?

I remember thinking that the factory of Monsters, Inc. looked like this place [Pixar], so I felt like I worked at Monsters, Inc. and it was crazy. I really connected to the movie, so to get to tell this new story with these characters is a dream come true. When I went to the wrap party for Monsters University and I watched it with the filmmakers, it was great to listen to people cheer for their crazy technical shots. It was like a bookend to the dream of worki