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Monsters University prequel is a bigger picture all round

Pixar's likeable Sulley and Mike return for the animated prequel Monster's University, writes James Mottram

 

If you happened upon San Francisco's Bill Graham Civic Auditorium on a particular day earlier this year, you'd have seen an excitable bunch of grown- ups there for a special screening of an animation film. It was Pixar Animation Studio's employees' showing of Monsters University, the 3-D prequel to 2001's mega-hit Monsters, Inc.

A ritual undertaken for every one of the 14 feature films produced by this remarkable animation company, everyone who works for Pixar goes - whether or not you worked on the film.

With the company now boasting more than 1,200 staffers - their offices stretch across a nine-hectare site in Emeryville, California - the screening is a major event in the life cycle of a Pixar film. "It's my favourite time to see the movie because I always tear up when I'm watching it," says Monsters University's supervising animator Scott Clark. "I feel very proud. I know how hard these things are to make. There's so much love put into them. People really care."

That, and the attention to detail, is what sums up Pixar's ethos, from the company's early days making short films to the 1995 debut feature Toy Story. Since then, it's only got better.

A Bug's Life, Monsters, Inc., Finding Nemo and Wall-E grossed more than US$2.2 billion and earned 15 Oscar nominations between them. Even so, when Monsters University opened in the US last week, it surpassed the already sky-high expectations that accompany every Pixar release.

 

Taking a massive US$82.4 million in the US on its first weekend - just behind the numbers posted by Toy Story 3 - it opened at number one, maintaining the company's enviable record that has seen each of its 14 films land at the top of the box office charts upon release.

Yet, according to Clark, they don't expect big returns as a matter, of course. "You can't control what happens once you release it into the wild; you market it and you go, 'OK, come see it.'" So are they nervous just before a release? "We're always nervous! We're nervous every time," he says.

Clark is sitting in a hotel room, having arrived for the Edinburgh International Film Festival, which has Monsters University in its programme this year. Pixar has a strong relationship with the event; last year, aptly enough, saw the Celtic-themed adventure Brave premiere there.

Clark has a personal reason to be excited this time around; he has his young daughter with him. "This will be her first Pixar film where she goes to the theatre. She's actually going to see it for the first time in Scotland."

An informally dressed family man, the genial Clark is exactly as you'd imagine a Pixar animator to be. He's been at the company for 17 years, following his training at the Rhode Island School of Design.

After animating segments of Toy Story 2 and A Bug's Life, he went on to become a directing animator on Monsters, Inc. ("I was kind of like the deputy to the sheriff," he explains) before graduating to the role of co-supervising animator on Cars (with Doug Sweetland) and finally flying solo in the job on Up.

That Clark was so involved on Monsters, Inc. makes him the ideal person to compare it to this latest Pixar movie which reacquaints us with those friendly neighbourhood creatures, Mike and Sulley, during their college days.

"When I look at Monsters, Inc. versus Monsters University, the scope of the film is much greater this time around. In the first one, Mike and Sulley are walking to work, and the characters in the background look like the ones they work with at Monsters, Inc. because it was expensive to build lots of [creature] models. This time, we were able to fill the world out more," he says.

That's certainly true: the campus scenes are fleshed out with many ghoulish monsters in the backdrop. If the average Pixar film once contained 10 characters per shot, Monsters University's average is 25.

The movie also required 100,856 storyboards, more than any other in the studio's history. And it seems that the eternal animation bugbear, hair, has finally been cracked. Sulley boasted 2.3 million individually animated hairs in Monsters, Inc. He now has 5.5 million.

"I think we are also standing on the shoulders of all the other films before, technology wise, and we learned something on every film," says Clark. "Sulley was the first hairy character we did, in Monsters, Inc., and then we figured out long hair for Violet in The Incredibles, and then we did really good hair on Dug the dog in Up.

"So every time the hair technology gets better. Now we've got this version of Sulley where the hair clumps in a very realistic way - little oily clumps that look like what you'd have on a dog or a bear," Clark says.

With first-time director Dan Scanlon co-writing the screenplay with two Monsters, Inc. alumni Robert Baird and Daniel Gerson, it shows just how much Pixar values continuity. Two rituals were once again maintained. First, there were research trips for a number of key personnel to university campuses like Stanford and Harvard.

"We always like to do the research for whatever film we're on," shares Clark. "We like to get into that world and find out two things: who are the characters that inhabit these worlds and what makes it fun to meet them?"

Secondly, the movie is flush with in-jokes. In almost every Pixar film, a Pizza Planet truck - first seen in Toy Story - can be glimpsed. "Even in Brave - it was a carved wooden Pizza Planet truck in the witches' hut," explains Clark.

Likewise, the yellow ball with a blue stripe and red star - from Pixar's 1986 short Luxo Jr - has been similarly celebrated. Then there's the tradition of placing a character from the next Pixar project somewhere in the background. "We have a dinosaur toy hidden in one of the scenes for our upcoming film The Good Dinosaur," says Clark.

Clark, who has yet to decide on his next project, doesn't see any difference between creating sequels and generating fresh stories. "I think the concept is, if we have a good story to tell, regardless of whether it's a sequel, we want to make the story. Of course, we all grew up watching sequels.

"I love sequels that allow me to continue to be in that world and extend that storyline when they're done well. We're always just trying to make sure it's a story that's worth telling, that we love." It's this - more than anything - that highlights why Pixar remains the Hollywood animation king.

48hours@scmp.com

 

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