Saturday, August 20, 2011

D23 - In Depth Look At The Character Design Of Pixar's Monster's University

Monster's University Production Designer Ricky Nierva and Director Dan Scanlan were on hand at D23 today to provide attendees with an in depth look at the character design of young Mike and Sully in the new Pixar movie set for release in 2013. Below is a live account of what took place.


"Story is King" slide appears on screen
They remind themselves of this often at Pixar.
Can't do character design without story, until they know who characters are and what their stories are.

"Design from the Inside-Out"
Nierva's mantra.
When you design a character, you want to know who are they inside first - best friends, favorite food, hobbies, etc.

An original sketch of Mike and Sully by Monster's Inc director, Pete Docter

Nierva tells a story about how at CalArts, when he brought in a picture he drew of an elephant, the teacher said, now draw me Jim the Elephant or Sally the Elephant. It's not enough to just draw an elephant when telling a story. Can't be generic.

More after the jump

"Designing is Re-designing"
Designs constantly changing. Comes into play here with the new characters.

Show a spread from an Art of Disney book showing the evolution of a character from the Jungle Book. Begins with references, trying different looks, sizes of features, so on and so forth, until they reach the "we got it" moment. That moment where you know you have it because it truly fits the story you are trying to tell.

Scupture of a rejected design for Sully
Show earlier designs from Monster's Inc, specifically Sully and Mike. Sully's were extremely varied designs, all over the map. Mike's designs weren't as varied, but at one juncture, he had no arms and a soul patch.

Boo used to be named Mary and Sully used to be named Barrymore.

"How Do You Make An Eyeball Look 18 Years Old"
Becomes about subtleties
Needed to be able to look at Mike and Sully and know if it's them from Monsters Inc or Monster's University.
"it's not just that they are younger, it's that they are different characters. We were all different people 15 years ago."

Rejected designs for young Mike & Sully
Show some sketches of rejected designs, including Mike with glasses, hair, buzz cut, clothes on, braces, and Sully with hair (including an afro), being fatter because of the "freshmen fifteen hundred", and different clothing elements like sports caps and varsity jackets.

Did around five sculpts per character instead of closer to 30 that they did when originally designing the characters.

Finally showed the final results of both characters, which were shown earlier today in the Arena as well.

Mike and Sully, Old and Young

Details on Mike: (Getting to see the two characters side by side is pretty important). Slimmer, so the eye is bigger, shorter horns, retainer, reduced eyebags, more isolated cheeks, younger, juicier, smoother skin, nicer nails, reduced wrinkling and whiter teeth. Went with the retainer as the "hook" so you can tell right away that this is the Mike from Monster's University.

All of this also impressively shows how much detail went into initially aging the characters. They look their age!

Audience awwwwwes at Sully reveal. Nierva is ecstatic with that reaction.

Details on Sully: Mussier hair, kind of a mullet, better posture, brighter colors, softer eyes, small arms, less eye baggage, eyes slightly closer together, improved teeth and nicer, smoother nails.

After going through these detailed designs, they opened the floor up to Q&A. Huzzah!

Does the casting ever influence the design?
They try to capture the essence in every design. People often tell them "Woody looks just like Tom Hanks! Dory looks just like Ellen!" But they don't actually look just like them - it's people picking up on the essence of the voice actor captured in the design.

Will we see Roz [or other characters from the first film]?
Definitely their plan to have some familiar faces pop up, because they love those characters, but can't say specifics.

Boo, right?
Scanlan can't say, but Nierva offers - "It's a prequel!"

Why a prequel?
Wanted to tell more story about Mike & Sully's relationship - it's what interested Scanlan and Nierva about this project. Seemed like the natural place to go. And they wanted to build the University world itself.

How thrilled were Billy [Crystal] and John [Goodman] to be back, ten years later, to make a prequel, only possible in Animation?
Great that they get to keep the same cast, has been so fun recording them, just recorded them together at once for the first time since the first movie. They hadn't seen each other in a while, but were so happy to jump back into those characters, were doing improv and having a great time.

Is it gonna be a period film since it's a prequel?
Scanlan thinks Monsters Inc is kind of timeless, with a touch of different eras. They may play around with time a little bit. But if you look at the Scare Floor in first movie, it's a mixture of old and new technology, so it's hard to figure out when exactly it's supposed to happen. They are going for the "nostalgia" feeling, more than going back to a specific time period, but he points out that all the great college films come from the 80s, so that will be a heavy influence.

Will there be a new villain?
Scanlan can't talk about, but they will be opening up the world, tons of new characters, wish they could talk about them more. But they will blow our minds.

Is it harder to design an older character or a younger character?
Separate challenge for both. Prequels are challenging because people already know how it ends up. Did a lot of studying, design wise, looking at pictures of people growing up. Hairstyles are the biggest differences they noticed.

Are there any rejected designs from the original film that they looked at for Monsters University?
Always dipping into that well. Aren't any in particular they used this time, but the ideas they come up with, they never forget, and evolve into something new. Good ideas never go to waste.

Will they be changing the locations of the Monster's world, like making the streets cleaner?
They will be different in some way, but maybe less clean in the corners, more tangible. Campus is huge with lots of detail that will be picked up more and more with every viewing.

How does merchendising affect character design?
Always goes for story first and character first. That being said, there is probably a style they would still try to get to, but not just for merchendising purposes, but because it's true to the world. When Nierva was working one day, someone saw him designing and said "that might be in the Main Street parade one day!" and he couldn't deal - he doesn't like thinking about that stuff, becomes too nerve wracking.

Are they digitally making them sound younger?
They don't know if that is necessary, cause they are always amazed with how younger the characters look just with the way they move and the younger design.

They videotape the sessions to capture the idiosyncrasies of the actors as reference.

Did their college experiences influence anything in this movie?
Oh yes. Doesn't think you need to have gone to college to understand this movie, it's still universal. Lots of dramatic things happen in college and you realize there is a whole level of challenge you werent expected and realize you may not be who you thought you were, lots of self discovery. Looks back at college now romantically, but it was horrible at the time, terrifying. But absolutely it influences this movie, whih is why he loves telling the story in this setting.

How much of yourself do you put into the design of a character?
Nierva jokes about Sully's mullet coming from him. They can't not put a little bit of themselves into it since they create it. Can't help but do it.

How did they break into the industry?
They got really lucky. Scanlan thinks he wouldn't get in it nowadays. Says it's the same old hard work and loving it. Nierva says there is no "secret" it's just hard work and passion. Nierva attributes his working for Pixar to dumb luck and timing. Interned at Turner after graduating from Cal Arts, Turner was bought by WB, met the art director of Toy Story, got to be on the team, which continued to Monsters Inc. "If you love doing it, we'll find you." Many of them used to always make flip books growing up in every book they came across.

Are we going to see the establishment of Mike & Sully's relationship?
Without getting into specifics, yes, it's the concept of the film, how they became friends and what that meant

Nierva cried at the wrap party for Up because making it was such a fun experience. When these things end, you hope you can work on another great movie like that. And Monster's University is like that, getting to revisit something great.


So there you have it. I always love getting to hear artists talk about their art and am beginning to notice more and more how partial I am to presentations involving slides and concept art. It was a joy to hear from the animators themselves how this movie came to be, how the character design has been going, and how much they love doing what they do. Reaffirms my newest Bucketlist entry to "Visit Pixar Studios" roughly twelve-fold.