I got a chance to see the first 40 minutes of “Monsters University” earlier this month at Pixar along with the studio’s first photo-realistic looking short, “The Blue Umbrella.” Rest assured: I’ve seen enough of Pixar’s first prequel to report that Mike and Sulley’s origin story is not only a fun and funny college romp but also another animated breakthrough, thanks to a new lighting system that makes use of global illumination, providing richer colors and a whole new level of realism than we’ve seen from the animation powerhouse.
Of course, at Pixar there’s usually more than meets the eye, and the setup here with the one-eyed and diminutive Mike Wazowski dreaming of becoming a Scarer includes a hint of darker things to come before he becomes pals with rival James P. Sullivan. Still, the buzz out of CinemaCon, where Disney screened “Monsters University” in its entirety, was that it went over well as a laugh-out-loud buddy comedy.
But even director Dan Scanlon (storyboard artist on “Cars” and “Toy Story 3”) admits that prequels are more challenging than sequels because everyone already knows how the story ends. “So you have to own that fact and use it to tell your story,” Scanlon adds. “In the case of Mike’s story, it’s very much about someone coming up against a failure. We hope it doesn’t end that way because of the new information that we’ve learned about Mike and how much it means to him.” So therefore they have to come up with dramatic twists and turns to keep us from thinking about the inevitable outcome in the beloved “Monsters, Inc.”
Pixar hit on the central metaphor of one door closing and another door opening, and focused on college life at Monsters University because that’s the bridge to adulthood when you’re full of hope and optimism, struggling with your identity and trying to decide a career choice. Monsters U is a dense mash-up of various iconic Ivy League institutions and Monsterfication with faces encrusted throughout the architectural design by production designer Ricky Vega Nierva, who proclaims, “When story zigs, we zag.”
Indeed, there’s incredible detail among the trapezoid designs, surrounded by the autumnal beauty of trees and grass.The School of Scaring is the centerpiece and battleground with know-it-all Mike trying to one-up the talented yet brash Sulley, but they get kicked out of the program when their egos get in the way. However, Mike has a plan to outwit the intimidating Dean Hardscrabble (voiced by Helen Mirren), a giant centipede/dragon-like monster with 30 legs and a spectacular wingspan, by teaming up with Sulley and a fraternity of misfits, Oozma Kappa, in a last-ditch effort to win the annual Scaring contest among the less talented students.
Mike’s the perfect protagonist: the small monster in a large monster world, the underdog loner, who slips into the human world on a field trip to Monsters, Inc. as a youngster and gets a taste for what Scaring is all about in the prologue. We immediately glimpse why Mike and Sulley are fated to become buddies and partners, the melding of opposites, with Mike as the cerebral and comical schemer, who couldn’t scare anyone, and Sulley as the athletic and likable jerk, who has the potential to be the superstar Scarer.
But the ultimate challenge here was size and scope, populating Monsters U with more than 400 characters while making the overall look more advanced without betraying the design of the first movie. The amount of fur and cloth vs. the volume of assets was met head on with a new hair and cloth simulation system containing more efficient algorithms, a new crowd system able to handle hundreds of background characters, and the studio’s formidable new lighting system, which boasts six new lights for proper shadows and brightness, the introduction of global illumination, a new paint system for spherical lighting, and previs lighting that gets exported to sets. Global illumination in the past had been render intensive and limited to a single bounce. Here they turned the bounce on everything with ray-tracing that could handle organic objects for cheating a richer world and doubled the render farm resources. A greater artistic control of lighting and getting it through the pipeline earlier allowed them to really show off the hair, cloth, grass, and trees. It became more of a choreography with Mike and Sulley coming in and out of the light for dramatic emphasis.
In terms of design, Pixar made Mike (Billy Crystal) and Sulley (John Goodman) slimmer and took out the blemishes and provided more vibrant colors for the lime green and blue fur; they gave Mike less teeth and a retainer and put on a baseball cap; and they shortened Sulley’s horns and gave him tufts of fur. For Randall (Steve Buscemi), the snake-like rival from “Monsters, Inc.,” they made him slightly smaller and gave him glasses.
Dean Hardscrabble was actually a last-minute redesign from a Dumbledore-like male figure to a terrifying female. Since “Monsters, Inc.” was so male dominated, the notion of a lady Scarer was fresh and full of delicious dramatic possibilities. The Pixar team modeled her after a deadly Amazonian giant centipede, Scolopendra Gigantea, which were rendered harmless so they could study them up close.
Meanwhile, “The Blue Umbrella” short from technical director Saschka Unseld (“Brave,” “Toy Story 3”) makes use of the same global illumination technique for a real-world look that some might swear is live-action. But it’s fully CG though Expressionistic in style for this romantic tale of a blue and red umbrella that meet during a rain storm in a crowded city where everyday objects come to life. Only the faces are caricatured on the two umbrellas for this breakthrough embrace of photo-realism at Pixar. I will have a lot more to report about the wonders of “The Blue Umbrella” in an exclusive interview with Unseld. And there will be plenty of “Monsters University” coverage leading up to its June 21st release.
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