This week, Pixar returns to the world of Monsters Inc. with Monsters University, and reveals what Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan were like as college freshmen. We spoke with several members of the MU team and learned secrets about the film. Here are 14 things you probably didn't know about Monsters University.
The story team thought about focusing the movie on Sulley.
Director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and the rest of the Monsters University team were excited to return to the world of Monsters Inc., in part because we would get to learn more about Mike and Sulley than we did in the first film. At first they had hoped to center the film equally on both characters, but as they played with various story ideas, Scanlon says, "We eventually realized that if we make it both of their stories, it's nobody's story." So they decided to put the spotlight on one half of the scaring team. They tossed around a few possible plot lines for a Sulley-driven film. "You know him a little bit more," Rae explains. "You know how his life ends up: he's this incredibly famous scarer." Maybe Sulley started out on a different career path and discovered scaring along the way. Maybe he enrolled in the School of Scaring, but wasn't any good at it.
"But every time we did that," Scanlon says, "Mike's story rose to the top. It was always the more interesting story."
"There was more to discover," Rae adds. "When we were trying to think about 'Okay, what would be the craziest thing? If we're trying to make this not predictable, what was Mike? Who did he want to be?' That would be a scarer. And if you look at the second movie, you know that didn't happen." Mike's story, they felt, had a stronger emotional component, and was more substantial.
The Monsters University campus reflects a lot of thought about monster architecture
"Monsterfication" is the word the design team used to describe the aesthetic of the Monsters University world. Sets art director Robert Kondo explains that the movie's designers constantly asked themselves, "What would it be like to be a monster architect?" Some of the design challenges in creating the MU campus were practical. For example, since monsters come in all sizes, from Mike Wazowski through the giant football-playing slug creature, how do monster doors work? If you look closely at the campus buildings, you'll notice doors within doors. There are smaller doors with handles the smaller monsters can reach, framed by larger and larger doors. Even the stairs and drinking fountains are designed for monsters of varying sizes. Plus, flying monsters don't have to enter some buildings on the ground floor, instead landing on perches outside the top floor windows. Aquatic monsters have their own, submerged portions of campus.
Since the architecture has to be able to support the weight of the heavier monsters, the designers came up with a weighted trapezoid as a key motif. From the MU gates to the dorm room interiors, those weighted trapezoids add a heft throughout the campus. Even the bricks are more trapezoid than rectangle.
In the Monsters world, MU is a far older institution than Monsters Inc. (the former was established in 1313), and so the designers played with a grader architecture. The most immediately noticeable difference between monster architecture and our own is all the monstrous details; spikes, horns, tentacles, and fangs appear all over the various buildings. The designers hid monster faces in the architecture; they tried to dial the faces down enough to keep them from being distracting within scenes, but if you look for them, the architectural faces are definitely there. The vegetation gets in on the act, too, with ivy creeping across in tentacles across the buildings.
Monsters University has its own history and traditions.
The set designers went so far as to determine which were the older and which were the newer parts of campus. The quad, where the fountain statue of the founder sits, is the oldest part of campus, and it contains well worn paths where grass no longer grows thanks to generations of monsters using certain shortcuts. It's also the only part of campus that uses white cobblestone pathways and home to the campus' oldest—and therefore largest—trees.
In front of the MU Scare School sits a bronze statue of one the school's storied alumni, and traditionally, freshmen rub the front paw of the statue for luck on the way to their first scaring class. Much like John Harvard's foot or Warner Bentley's nose, the front paw of that statue appears more polished and less tarnished than the rest of the statue.
Monsters University has one thing in common with steampunk.
One of the key aspects of the monsters' world is that everything is powered by scream energy, which the designers treat as a steam-like power source. That means that everything that uses power, every outlet, every light switch, has a pipe running to it. If you look for them, you'll notice these scream pipes running up and down walls and across ceilings.
The school prepares students for professions besides scaring.
Although the Scaring School is the main focus of Monsters University, we'll learn a bit more about the various professions available to monsters. Some of Mike and Sulley's classmates have majors we see in our own world, like philosophy and dance, but others seeking non-scaring degrees that are related to scream power technology. The professors in those classes don't always hold the most riveting lectures, however.
When the story team realized that they would be setting the movie at college in a world where scaring is such a significant career, they started to break down the "Art of Scaring." In the Monsters universe, scaring depends on some natural ability — but it requires training as well.
Light and darkness are used as storytelling clues
Global illumination is one of the technologies Pixar focused on for both Monsters University and The Blue Umbrella. Global illumination gives scenes a much more natural lighting look by replicating how light is emitted and reflected on all the objects in a scene. But in designing the shading and lighting for different scenes, Dice Tsutsumi, the Shading and Lighting Art Director, wanted the light to convey certain aspects of the story. Mike's greatest obstacles, like the Scare School and the fearsome Dean Hardscrabble, are frequently backlit, so that their facades appear in shadow. If you pay attention to Mike during his scaring studies, he tends to be in shadow when he's struggling and in the light when he's improving.