Monsters University Director Dan Scanlon on the Making of a Pixar Prequel

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Monsters University - Dan Scanlon
Monsters University Director, Dan Scanlon talks with press at Monsters University Long Lead Press Days. Pixar Animation Studios. Emeryville, California. April 9, 2013 (Photo by Jessica Brandi Lifland/Pixar)

It’s really, really hard not to be jealous of Dan Scanlon. He’s been working at Pixar since joining as a storyboard artist back in 2001 — the year Monsters, Inc. came out — and has now directed his first full-length feature film for the company. Of course, as envious a job as his is, it wouldn’t be a job if it weren’t difficult. On my visit to Pixar in April, Scanlon told me and a bunch of other bloggers about the process of making the film.

His biggest problem, he said, was probably that he was tasked with making a prequel, which is always tough to do as a storyteller, because the audience already knows how the story will end up. How do you make it compelling, interesting, funny — in a nutshell, entertaining? Moreover, how do you deal with the fact that the original movie contains a line that makes things really tough. Here’s what Scanlon had to say about that:

Specifically, in the first film, Mike and Sulley actually say this line…

Mike says to Sulley, “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since the fourth grade.” And so it’s a thing that a lot of people have brought up, and we certainly noticed it right away when we started developing the idea. And it can be really tough when you have a moment like that. We really explored it a lot. We did several versions of the film where we actually showed the guys meeting when they were younger, and one of the things that ended up happening is we ended up realizing that, in order to service that particular line, we were hurting the story.

We were hurting the story that we wanted to tell, which was the story of how these guys met, and how they became friends. It became clear that in order to respect that line, we would had to have made Monsters Elementary, which was not a story we wanted to tell.

So it was really [film Executive Producer] Pete Docter and [Pixar Chief Creative Officer] John Lasseter who kind of came to me and said “You kind of have to let that go. It’s in the long run, gonna hurt both movies if you don’t tell this right.” And the spirit of that line in the first film was to say, these two guys have known each other a long time. So we felt like, well, it still supports that idea to have them meet in college. So. So, let’s just imagine that “You’ve been jealous of my good looks since fourth grade” is just a monster expression.

Monsters University - Dan Scanlon
Monsters University Director, Dan Scanlon talks with press at Monsters University Long Lead Press Days. Pixar Animation Studios. Emeryville, California. April 10, 2013 (Photo by Alexandra Ambrose/Pixar)

One of the other challenges of movie-making is, of course, marketing. Disney, which has owned Pixar for over seven years now, is not exactly a newcomer to running big marketing campaigns, but Pixar, always trying to innovate, wasn’t satisfied with the typical routes. They created a wonderful website for Monsters University — the school, not the movie — that makes it look for all the world like it could be a real place… if, you know, it weren’t populated by computer-rendered monsters. The site doesn’t break character, never mentioning the existence of the movie or acknowledging its fictional nature. Scanlon had this to say about the website:

The sort of college marketing? That idea was really from one of our story artists. She at one point just pitched this idea of, as a teaser, just doing a college commercial. And we thought it was such a great idea. But at the time, thought, oh, I don’t think we can do that, or it would have cost too much money or something. And, and the idea kind of went dormant for a while, but we brought it up again to John Lasseter.

And he loved that idea. John’s always looking for a different way to do things. And so he really just championed the idea of, we should do a college commercial, and then we should do, you know, a website. We should treat it like it’s a real university. And we all just got so excited about that. And John was really adamant about: and I don’t want there to be any links to the movie. I want this to just seem real. And don’t talk about when the movie comes out on there, and, and you know, that’s got a lot of people scared, like, “Whoa. What are you talking about? How will anyone know?” It’s like, don’t worry about that. That’ll come later. For now, just make this real. And I think it, it’s a big part of what John is always trying to do, which is make these worlds seem totally real. But we had a blast doing all that stuff.

And yes, you can actually purchase a 4-armed hoodie at the online college store, though sadly they’re “sold out” of the 6-armed and 2-collared versions.

So, in summary, if you can figure out a way to not be jealous of Dan Scanlon, let me know, because I’ve got nothing. John Lasseter is clearly one of the best bosses in the world, and Pixar is clearly one of the most creatively energizing and fun places to work I’ve ever seen.

Stay tuned for my review of The Blue Umbrella, the short film showing before Monsters University in theaters, in two weeks. And of course I’ll have a review of the movie on June 21, when it premieres.

All travel expenses for the #MonstersUEvent were covered by Disney, but I received no other compensation. All opinions expressed here are solely my own.

Photos courtesy of the official Pixar #MonstersUEvent photographer; Used with permission.

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