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Immersed in Movies: Going Deeper into ‘Monsters University’

Immersed in Movies: Going Deeper into 'Monsters University'

With Monsters University failing to snag a Golden Globes nomination (a first for Pixar), many are wondering how it will impact the Oscar race. First, there were only three available GG slots this year and there are five Oscar nominees. So, unless the Academy pulls a shocking Cars 2 repeat — which is unlikely given MU’s enormous popularity and success — it will remain in the running when the nominations are announced on Jan. 16.

But then Pixar isn’t exactly playing it safe with its first prequel. Mike must confront failure in his goal to become a Scarer and find a new career alongside best friend Sulley. At the same time, Pixar stepped up its lighting approach to create a more complex and realistic-looking environment. 

And it worked out well with people from all over the world connecting with Mike’s story. “People often go on to new things and sometimes better things, which is something that we’ve all experienced in our paths to who we are,” Scanlon explains. “And yet we don’t see it often in family movies and it was so cool to see kids come up and say, ‘I just studied to be an animator and I just don’t have what it takes and this movie really connected with me and inspired me to look inside myself for the next thing.'”

The prequel started to jell when they conceived of Mike as a wannabe Scarer at an early Brain Trust meeting with John Lasseter, Monsters creator Pete Docter, Andrew Stanton, and Lee Unkrich. “And that’s what got me excited dramatically,” Scanlon continues. “This time around, Mike is not comic-relief, so we had to reshape him from being sarcastic about everything. He had to be sincere about this dream. There was a lot of discussion about if we should meet him already as a Scarer or before discovering the dream, and in the end the dream is just a vehicle Mike chooses to try and fit in. The real issue is: How do I matter in this world? I’m overlooked; what am I going to do to stand out?”

The beginning took a lot of iterations, of course, with Scanlon and the team setting up Mike as a fearless underdog and Sulley as a spoiled upstart. The college shenanigans were then constructed as a necessary rite of passage for both of them, leading to Sulley’s betrayal and a poignant confessional by the lake. Using the Woody and Buzz template, Mike and Sulley tap into much deeper emotional uncertainty, thanks to the the spot on performances of Billy Crystal and John Goodman and the Pixar animators.

“The conversation by the lake took a long time to craft through the details of the language,” Scanlon adds. “I asked Andrew Stanton about finding the right language, the poetic nature of the dialog. And he said it doesn’t matter: If you’re having trouble here, there’s probably a problem there. If you’ve done your job right, everything is leading up to that final confession or that final moment. And he’s right: you have to go back and make sure you’re setting up all the building blocks so you won’t have to explain much to have that emotion come through. 

“The betrayal had to be pushed more. In the earlier version, Sulley was just apologetic to Mike, but then we had him tell Mike the harsh truth. It may have seemed unappealing but that’s movies, that’s relationships, that’s friendships.”

Meanwhile, a last-minute gender redesign of Dean Hardscrabble (Helen Mirren) — a cross between a dragon and a giant Centipede — added just the right feminine touch of elegance and menace. She’s a retired Scarer whose thinking has calcified. It also elevated Scare Hall with back lighting and helped cast shadows around Mike’s career path.

But to create this dance of light, Pixar simplified the lighting system with a physically-based approach, introducing global illumination and ray tracing for the first time in its movies. “We usually don’t see the light when we’re animating but something as simple as Mike walking into the light and reacting to it adds a new visual force, so we wanted to use light earlier and see how it’s working,” Scanlon recalls .”As a result, we used light and shadow a lot to tell the story. My job is just to support it all the way through. We composed shots with light more than we had. But it’s incredibly tricky. People always ask how live-action is different from animation and here’s an example. Walking into that shadow is really an art.”

Global tech and research TD Christophe Hery (who came to Pixar from ILM after working on the Oscar-winning Rango) first set out to simplify the lighting setups. At Pixar, they’ve moved toward ray tracers and one pass renders. They’ve freed the artist from having to work out so many pre-passes. Ray tracers offer progressive refinement. The goal with the GI/ray tracing solution is to try and do everything in memory.

“They didn’t want artists to deal with hundreds of thousands of lights in one shot and emulating the effect of GI by hand and placing secondary sources of light,” Hery adds. “It took away from their artistic time. Greater photorealism and faster computation came along later. You get complex lighting almost for free. They could spend more time quantifying lighting in master shots to enhance the storytelling. They were able to paint with environments. 

“With ray tracing you attach different objects in the scene and those grids are not that large: they contain 4 to 5 micro polygons at the most. But with radiosity caching, they can run the direct lighting once on the grids and store them in memory. It’s almost like a point cloud in memory. And the cost of the shading language is not high. This worked well for indirect diffuse or ambient occlusion. In some scenes, you got a 30 x speed up.”

All of this was done in-house but Hery is now collaborating more closely with the RenderMan developers on this ray tracing approach. In the upcoming RenderMan 19, for instance, they will be coding everything in C++ directly, not in shading language. 

Pixar is also transitioning to both real-time lighting and Katana, the asset-based approach to look development and lighting offering greater scalability.”One of the things that the new shows will do is move toward ray tracing subsurface scattering. So we are truly in a one pass render solution. Memory, not time, is the real problem.”

On MU, though, Pixar achieved yet another breakthrough, achieving a rich environment while staying true to the world of Monsters, Inc.

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