Animating the adventures of Mike and Sulley in Monsters University posed a challenge for another "youngster." "Prequels are tough," said director Dan Scanlon, at the helm of his first feature-length animated film. "How do you tell a story when everyone knows how it's going to end? But knowing how the story ends actually helped us," said the 1998 graduate of the Columbus College of Art & Design.
Animating the adventures of Mike and Sulley in Monsters University posed a challenge for another “youngster.”
“Prequels are tough,” said director Dan Scanlon, at the helm of his first feature-length animated film. “How do you tell a story when everyone knows how it’s going to end?
“But knowing how the story ends actually helped us,” said the 1998 graduate of the Columbus College of Art & Design.
The first Pixar prequel, scheduled for a Friday opening, is set during the college years of one-eyed Mike and blue-furred Sulley — as they learn to become good “scarers” and get involved in competitions with rival fraternities.
“So many people run up against detours and failures in their lives,” said Scanlon, 36. “We wanted to tell a story for them and show how failure can actually lead to better things.”
He co-wrote the story and screenplay with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird as a follow-up to Monsters, Inc., the popular 2001 computer-animated feature about monsters emerging from children’s closets at bedtime.
“It’s been 12 years since Monsters, Inc. came out,” Scanlon said. “I felt strongly that we should wait until we had just the right idea for the movie.
“That’s why we waited so long.”
Pete Docter directed the original family film, about an alternate universe where monsters generate their city’s power by entering the human world to scare kids enough to make them scream.
“We wanted the Monsters University characters to be familiar,” Scanlon said, “but we were all different when we were 19.
“Mike’s story is a little different from Sulley’s — more of a tale of self-discovery based on the emotions of high-school and college kids.”
Mike is more passionate and naive in the prequel, Scanlon said, and Sulley — especially sweet in the first film — is lovably arrogant.
John Goodman and Billy Crystal reprise their roles as giant James P. Sullivan, or “Sulley”; and his assistant and best friend, tiny Mike Wazowski.
“Dan had great sensibility,” Goodman said last month at a news conference in Los Angeles.
“If the other characters weren’t there, he reads with you. ... And when you do something he don’t like, he gets a funny little look on his face.”
“Yeah,” Crystal added, “and we’d know not to do that.
“Dan is a hipster, ... a young guy, ... (with) totally different energy from Pete Docter.”
For its part, the Pixar creative team couldn’t imagine a prequel without Goodman and Crystal.
“John and Billy embody those characters,” Scanlon said.
When the writers and director described the younger Sulley to Goodman as an 18-year-old who thinks he knows how the world works, the actor’s reaction, Scanlon said, was visceral: “Oh, I know this guy. I was this guy.”
Computer animation has improved notably since the first film, but the prequel team — including Ohio State University graduate Beth Albright as a technical director — didn’t want to go too far toward the greater realism possible today.
“We didn’t want the monsters to look totally detailed,” Scanlon said. “We wanted them to seem deceptively simple, with very bright colors and simple shapes. ... You’ll feel like you’re still in the candy-colored look of the first film.”
Before joining Pixar in 2001, Scanlon paid his dues working on direct-to-video sequels to Disney’s The Little Mermaid and 101 Dalmatians at Character Builders — a Columbus animation company that has since closed. Then, at Pixar, he became a story artist for Cars and Toy Story 3.
Ron Saks, who launched the CCAD animation program, noticed the young Scanlon’s talent in animation and storyboarding classes.
“He was a great student,” said Saks, chairman of the Cinematic Arts Department.
“I can still close my eyes and see some of his early exercises. ... He was tapped at Pixar for his ability to draw well, draw quickly, and to articulate visually the way a story should move along.”
In his highest-visibility role yet, Scanlon said, his job was to “take care of the story.”
“As long as I focused on that, I could put off thinking of the ... (pressure),” he said.
“I’m a fan of Monsters, Inc., and it was fun to play in that world.”