Ink & Pixel: Monsters University

Last Updated on July 31, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I'm always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. In an effort to widen the reach of our continuously growing fan-base, Ink & Pixel has broadened its horizons with the inclusion of films from the Horror, Sci-Fi, Action-Adventure, and Fantasy genres. Additionally, if you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

When you were a child, where did the monsters in your life choose to hide? Were they waiting for the cloak of night, to gently nudge your closet door open before gobbling you whole? Did they alert you to their presence by creating a large puddle of drool beneath your bed? Or did they perhaps live in the unfinished part of your basement, waiting for the moment to snap at your heels as you race up to the main floor after turning out the light? For me, my monsters haunt the darkest corners of any room. They sit there, motionless, but grinning from where my eyes have yet to adjust to the darkness. I've no fear, though. Between you and me, I've always been fascinated by the concept of monsters. And wouldn't you know it, that lifelong interest in the improbable and bizarre has found its way into today's article!

Directed by Dan Scanlon, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY (2013) is the fourteenth 3D computer animated feature produced by Pixar Animation Studios! Written by Dan Gerson, Robert L. Baird, and Dan Scanlon, this delightful prequel tells the story of how characters, Mike and Sulley, turned a once bitter rivalry into a meaningful friendship while attending their first year at Monsters University. Originally, Disney's plan was to create a straight-up sequel to the Monsters Inc. property. Unfortunately, disagreements with Pixar brought the creative process to a standstill. The House of Mouse then placed the future of their Pixar-based franchises in the hands of Circle 7 Animation – a now defunct studio created by Disney for the purpose of producing sequels to their owned Pixar properties.

To make a semi-complicated story short, Disney purchased Pixar in January of 2006, which in-turn lead to the cancellation of Circle 7's follow-up to the original film. Additionally, after the Disney/Pixar merge (and change in management), Circle 7 was dissolved – and any projects they had waiting in the wings were canceled due to copyright issues as well as a conflict regarding the ownership of each property. As unfortunate as this may sound, it's reported that a total of 80% of the failed sub-division's employees were then transferred to Disney Animation Studios – where they continued to work on any new and future projects underneath the now shared umbrella of animation entertainment. 

There's no doubt in my mind that MONSTERS UNIVERSITY had the chips stacked against it from the moment of its conception. I say this because I remember the vehement reaction to the announcement of the film via social media – and just how much of a three-ring-circus that turned out to be. I think that part of the reason for the anti-MONSTERS U sentiment is that after the roaring success of 2010's TOY STORY 3, Pixar experienced its first true misfire with the release of CARS 2 in June of 2011. As a sequel to the 2006 original, CARS 2 seemed to cast a spell of disenchantment over critics and audience members alike with its uninspired plot and cast of lackluster character leads. Oh sure, the film still made a fair bit of coin with a worldwide return of $559,852,396 in box office receipts, but fans' once-resilient faith in the Pixar brand had been shaken none the less.

With the above-mentioned circumstances in mind, it's easy to understand how some might have been skeptical about allowing a MONSTERS INC. prequel into their hearts. Not wanting to be distracted from the task at hand, though, the studio began work on MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, as well as re-assembling members from the cast of the first film. Returning to their roles were actors Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Bob Peterson, and John Ratzenberger – who were then joined by Helen Mirren, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Peter Sohn, Sean Hayes, Joel Murray, Nathan Fillion, and Aubrey Plaza.

Beyond depicting the genesis of Mike and Sulley's bromance, the bulk of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY revolves around the pair competing in a school-wide event called the “Scare Games”. Designed as a way of discovering which monsters are the best at scaring the pants off of small children, the Scare Games consist of a series of events that measure everything from a participants sneaking agility to the creative ways in which they go bump in the night. In an effort to join the games and prove their worth, Mike and Sulley are forced to work together, with no choice but to request that members of the outsider fraternity, Oozma Kappa, to join their team. Once assembled, the group will need to settle their differences and learn to rely on each others strange talents to defeat the favored team, Roar Omega Roar.

I'd imagine that creating any manner of follow-up to MONSTERS INC. would have its fair share of challenges. For a moment, let's ignore the rabid fan expectations and focus primarily on the tech involved in the film's production. Obviously, in order to make a splash, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY would have to look markedly better than its predecessor. Thankfully, it had been several years since the original film's release, and plenty of advancements in the way 3D CGI entertainment was created by the time Mike and Sullivan were poised to brave their freshman year. That being said, animators are always looking for ways to make their newest films bigger and flashier, and what better way to do that than to invent some fancy new programs or techniques?

For MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, the animation department updated their existing tech used for TOY STORY by implementing a new system in the Pixar canon called Global Illumination. Before GI, animators would spend countless hours building objects like reflections and shadows, manually. Ugh! Imagine that for a moment. You're hunched over a crowded work space, systematically moving an artificial light source around characters and objects – frame-by-frame. You need to account for everything within the scene, from inanimate objects to cast members and backgrounds. It all needs to be accounted for and properly lit. Honestly, I'm surprised that anyone survived the creative process for so long with conditions like that.

Anyway, what Global Illumination does is create an algorithm that then translates the information into realistic lighting to be used as part of a 3D image. Now obviously, light is a varied and tricky thing to visualize, especially when it's competing with several objects that are obstructing its source. The cool thing about this program is that, once it has recorded the proper information for an object, it then stores that math for later use. Therefore, if a like object such as a table, chair, or character appears again, the software then recognizes that object and uses the predetermined algorithm to light it. Whoa, hold up. I know what you're thinking. You're saying to yourself, “Dude, characters and objects aren't always in the same place. So how does this thing know what to do if the object in question has been altered?” Ah ha! You're catching on. It's a rather simple explanation, really. The algorithm changes based on positioning and environment. So think of the original math as more of a jumping-off point than a default solution for all objects involved. It's all a part of that movie making magic, folks … very technical, complicated, and migraine-inspiring magic.

Part of the on-campus college experience involves the idea of diversity, and meeting people unlike yourself who then influence the way in which you see the world. In the case of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY, literally hundreds of creatures were created to present Mike and Sullivan's school as an equal-opportunity place of learning. In developing such a wide variety of student and faculty-related characters, the animation staff needed to account for each and every monsters size, shape, body weight, limb count (yes, limb count), as well as several other physical characteristics. For this film, a total of 5 base-monster body types were created. Thankfully, 50 or more characters could then be created using that base as a foundation – it was simply a matter of changing the physicality and texturing of the original model.

In order to ensure that every monster had their own trademark identity, Pixar's animators spent an incredible amount of time considering the mobility and even weight distribution for all of their characters. Let's consider this for a moment: If you were to build a multi-eyed, armless, gelatinous blob of a monster– how would that character then interact with common objects in the scene? Like, if they were expected to hold a clipboard when overseeing a crowded Scare Floor? These are things the team would need to consider not only when casting their creatures but also when presenting them to a watchful audience of millions. Funnily enough, on any given day around the Pixar offices, you'll find animators studying mirrors, as they make scary faces at themselves, in an attempt to artfully reflect that horror on their animated cast.

One of my favorite characters from the film is Helen Mirren's Dean Hardscrabble. Originally, Hardscrabble was poised to be a male character, but upon further reflection – and a general “Meh” attitude from the creators for the original design – Dan Scanlon requested that the character be changed to a female. When asked about how he arrived at his decision, Scanlon had this to say about the gender swap of the film's tyrannical villain, “So much of the fun of doing a sequel or prequel is to expand the world, and I realized that we've never seen a great female scarer. In the monster world, sometimes gender is a tricky read. Sometimes, it's eyelashes thrown on a character. So as we were trying to find this character, we were trying all these different things. She's one of the best scarers in the world, ever. So how do we get there? She had to be great, scary. Just figuring out how to make her terrifying, yet an authority and feminine. We spent months redesigning Hardscrabble.”  Eventually, the team arrived at a centipede-like design for the character, and brought poisonous centipedes into the office for study. Nope, nope nope!

After Mike, Sulley, and the rest of the monster student body enjoyed a total of 26 weeks in the theater, MONSTERS UNIVERSITY had earned a worldwide total of  $743,559,607. No amount has been given as to the film's budget, but it's been estimated that Pixar's first prequel stands as the (now) 15th highest-grossing animated film of all-time! In addition to its theatrical success, characters and locales based on the MONSTER'S UNIVERSITY film became part of the once-successful (but now canceled) Disney Infinity video game series. The game featured damn near every monster in the franchise performing pranks, and competing in elaborate games of paintball and hide-and-go-scare.

In the interest of remaining honest with you all, I fully admit to being that guy who sat through his first viewing of MONSTERS UNIVERSITY with arms crossed and a judgmental scowl on my face. I didn't think it was a bad movie, but I found myself struggling with having to bear witness to the growing pains of Mike and Sulley's friendship. The voice inside my head kept reminding me, “Dude, you know they're going to be friends by the end of the movie, so just chill out.” However, despite my best efforts, I was a total brat throughout the duration of the film and walked away from it feeling very sour indeed.

Then, upon a second (and even a third watch) I found myself embracing the rift between our main monsters, and started to appreciate the film as an honest-to-goodness underdog's tale. After settling on that frame of mind, I began to discover the clever comedic beats, the heartfelt message related to the subjects of peer pressure and classcism, and discovered a film that I (in time) have grown to love. It's not a perfect movie by any stretch of the imagination, but as a sequel(ish) it does help to bolster the bond between Mike and Sulley that we find in the original release.

At any rate, I'm not sure that we'll be seeing a MONSTERS THIRD any time soon. Not that it isn't worth exploring, but because I believe that Disney and Pixar have their sights set on the future, rather than looking back to squeeze another story out of these characters. That said, if you were going to do a sequel, why not have it be set several years into the future, at a time when Boo's own child has been taken by monsters and she needs Mike and Sulley's help to get him or her back? That could work, right? Call me, Disney, I've got ideas!


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.