Pixar has obviously come a long way technologically since Monsters, Inc., so the design challenge with the Monsters University prequel was to expand the world through creative engineering while maintaining consistency. They call it “Monsterfication,” and I went deeper into the process with production designer Ricky Nierva and sets art director Robert Kondo.
“I dived into the look of Monsters, Inc. like a research paper,” Kondo suggests. “I never worked on it. But we saw certain things, like faces, tentacles, and eyeballs showing up as motifs. I wanted more of that. The Scare Floor set was also like archaeology, digging up those sets and
flying around in them. I realized that the technology has changed a lot
but the design work was really cool: how the whole door system was
figured out and the technology behind the harvesting of screams. These
are fossils from our digital backlot. But just like looking at cell
phones over time, we thought it would be fun to backward engineer what
the door stations would be. And if you look at the leader board, even
that is rethought to be a little older.”
Nierva, who worked in the art department on Monsters, Inc. when he first came to Pixar, adds that they have faces everywhere, expanding on the production design from the original movie. In fact, he’s been doodles monsters in his spare time ever since. “But we were very careful that it wasn’t too obvious with each building being a monster face that you enter,” Nierva says. “It’s a secondary impression. We put tapered shapes to accommodate different sizes and weights of the monsters. Everything is thicker and chunkier.” For example, buildings have a trapezoidal shape to complement the monsters.
Researching various universities around the country helped inform their unique composite for Monsters U, which contains both an Ivy League and West Coast vibe. Judging by the intensity of the colors, though, this is clearly an East Coast autumn. The school became a central character with its own history. “I always loved the conceit that the campus was built during different periods in architectural time,” Nierva recalls. “It lends to the believability.” Additionally, the campus has a lot of vegetation, which allowed them to hide horns and spikes in trees and also weave ivy around the facades of buildings like tentacles.
The crown jewel of Monsters U, of course, is Scare Hall, which is a theatrical extension of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren), the stern yet elegant antagonist who’s a cross between a dragon and a giant Centipede. “We designed Hardscrabble and that set around the same time and talked about the lighting,” Kondo continues. “It became this little dance between all of the designers and the lighting team to figure out that we wanted Hardscrabble to be back lit. The set needed to be somewhat darker and we needed to bring in a spotlight from somewhere. So we tried this circular window and thought it would be great to frame her in an intimidating way and put teeth all around the stage. It’s the oldest building in the school and we had to do something fun with this.”
The effectiveness of this back lighting is largely as a result of a new lighting system Pixar introduced that’s built around global illumination. This provided a striking realism. It also made for tighter collaboration between lighting and the other departments so you could add another visual dimension on top of the performance with Mike and Sulley stepping in and out of the light to convey power or vulnerability. With the old system, it took 80% of the time just to set up a shot. Now the upfront process is much quicker and the artists can spend 80% of their time being creative.
“We could quickly iterate and see these things,” Kondo explains. “It’s a dance between shadow and light and a choreography of design, lighting, acting, and camera. It puts a lot of focus on filmmaking. It’s very theatrical and fun to come up with the ideas but hard to be consistent throughout the film. That was a new discipline.”
But as Nierva emphasizes, “Story is still king and as story zigs we have to zag.”