A Very Scary Business

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Lasseter is a passionate guy.

He gets worked up about telling stories and making movies and harnessing computers to make art. He's wild about animation and laughter and good jokes and not-so-good jokes and family entertainment and collaboration.

And on this day, the man described as the Walt Disney for the 21st century is really, really excited about Froot Loops. With marshmallow eyeballs. And a monster on the box. For a limited time only.

"Have you seen the Froot Loops? I'm a geek about these things." Lasseter flashes a big thumbs-up. Toys from his first three movies line the shelves of his office at Pixar Animation Studios, crowd the desk, fill the floor. Many more are on the way. And this time, there will be Froot Loops. "The colors are like our characters, so it's like green, purple and blue. With marshmallow eyeballs in there. It's great. I love the toys. I love all that stuff."

If it's merchandising, it must be a movie. And if it's a movie by the so far wildly successful Pixar, then there is serious money behind it, and there are serious expectations ahead. No one at Pixar is talking about just how much it cost to make and market "Monsters, Inc.," which opens Friday at a theater near you--if you happen to be anywhere in the United States of America.

But lots of people are talking about the expectations, wondering whether "Monsters, Inc." could possibly be as gripping as the "Toy Story" franchise, as beautiful as "A Bug's Life." And they're talking about the innovations; every Pixar movie rolls out complements of at least one technological breakthrough, and this one is no exception.

They're also talking about the competition. In the short term, it comes from a boy on a broomstick, when "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone" opens Nov. 16. And, in the longer term, it comes from a big, green ogre and PDI/DreamWorks, the studio that brought him to life in the year's biggest-grossing movie of any kind, "Shrek." "Monsters" comes out at a pivotal time for the 15-year-old Pixar, whose three full-length, computer-animated feature films are among the 10 top-grossing animated pictures ever made. While Lasseter--described as Pixar's executive vice president of creative--had his hand in nearly every aspect of the new movie, this is the first Pixar effort that he did not direct.

To Lasseter, that's evidence of the studio's maturity. Two movies into a five-picture deal with Disney, the Bay Area company has swelled to 650 employees, at a time when other technology and entertainment companies are hurting. It is about to outgrow its year-old headquarters, and has a seasoned team of directors and other artists.

To investors and moviegoers alike, it's a hopeful sign that Pixar might finally step up production and aim for its ultimate goal of releasing more than one film every 18 months. But until "Monsters, Inc." is officially unveiled and other Pixar movies follow, it remains to be seen whether the studio has a deep enough talent pool to meet the high standard set by Lasseter.

Which means that the pressure is on for Pixar and its partner, Disney. Dick Cook, chairman of the Walt Disney Motion Pictures Group, says there are always high expectations placed on the companies' major movies. But he acknowledges that it is different today. This is a big year for animation, with a crowded field and a first-ever Oscar for feature-length animated films at stake. "Falling on the heels of 'Toy Story' and 'Toy Story 2' and 'A Bug's Life,' there's great anticipation for the next Disney/Pixar movie," Cook says. "It goes with the territory. As long as we continue to deliver, those expectations are well-founded."

For now, however, there is "Monsters, Inc.," five painstaking years in the making--more, if you count director Pete Docter's childhood, all those nights spent wondering whether it was a tentacle sticking out of his darkened closet or just another shirt sleeve waving in the breeze.

Docter, who was the second animator Lasseter hired at Pixar, joined the studio in 1990 and served as supervising animator on the original "Toy Story." He also helped write that movie. After "Toy Story" finished production, he was dispatched to develop what became "Monsters, Inc." It is his directorial debut.

In the world according to Pixar, there are a few home truths. Toys come to life when their owners leave the room. Inside every anthill and beneath every clover leaf exists an entire, teeming world, fraught with drama. And finally, as of Friday, comes the latest dictum: There are monsters in the closet, just waiting to scare children.

The point of "Monsters, Inc.," Docter says, is to explain why.

"It's their job," he says, "their business. They clock in. They clock out. They eat doughnuts. They're just workaday Joes scaring kids, and they do it for the 'Scream.' The monster world is powered by kids' screams."

The residents of Monstropolis, like their counterparts in California, are suffering through an energy crisis. This parallel universe was probably at its peak around the 1950s, Docter posits, when the baby boom brought the United States more children than the country knew what to do with. Life in Monstropolis was good.

Because the more children there were, and the easier they were to scare, the more Scream that could be harvested to power the monster world. The company Monsters, Inc., an even creepier version of Pacific Gas & Electric, had patented a means of collecting Scream, the monsters' equivalent of fossil fuel. The company had been in the family of many-eyed, crab-legged Henry J. Waternoose, the voice of James Coburn, for generations.

But then came Nixon and Watergate and Vietnam and all that television and all those video games and all that carnage, both real and imagined. As Waternoose moans, scuttling through the opening scenes and fretting about meeting quotas, "Kids these days. They just don't get scared like they used to."

James P. Sullivan, the voice of John Goodman, is the star employee at Monsters, Inc. Big, bear-like and covered with blue-green fur and purple spots, Sulley has a roar that can yank a scream out of even the most jaded child. Mike Wazowski, a lime-green walking eyeball with the voice of Billy Crystal, is Sulley's oldest friend and "scare assistant."

Like the "Toy Story" movies before it, "Monsters, Inc.," is basically a buddy movie, an hour and a half of Mike and Sulley's exploits, as they vie with the slithery villain Randall (the voice of Steve Buscemi), grapple with the energy crisis and work valiantly to solve the film's central problem:

Children are toxic. Monsters are terrified of them. A very small and very loud one has found her way into Monstropolis through a workplace mix-up on Waternoose's troubled factory floor. Our heroes have to get her home. Along the way, she wins them over with her big, bright eyes and pre-verbal gibberish. She calls Sulley "Kitty." He calls her "Boo." She grows to love him, he becomes protective of her.

The morals of this story? One, says executive producer and co-screenwriter Andrew Stanton, is "the idea of facing your fears and this monster realizing he's the very fear itself that the kid's afraid of." Another is a natural, coming from a studio where nearly all employees are in prime childbearing years and every movie credits the babies born to staffers during production. ("Toy Story": 23 babies. "Monsters, Inc.": 49.) "Monsters, Inc.," says Stanton, "also just delves into becoming a parent and what it's like to learn the responsibility of it. We all are parents and see the three-layered effect the story line had."

When Pixar came out with "Toy Story" in 1995, it was the first computer-animated feature film produced. In an 81-minute romp, the studio made the world safe for mass-market computer graphics, nudging traditional two-dimensional animation aside for a 3-D movie that was sweet, smart and visually stunning. Each subsequent movie premiered with its own digital development.

In fact, earlier this year, Pixar President Ed Catmull and two Pixar senior scientists won an Oscar for "significant advancements to the field of motion picture rendering as exemplified in Pixar's RenderMan," a proprietary software for creating computer graphic special effects.

It is the marriage of technological innovation with artistic effort that sets Pixar above and beyond most of its competition, says Eugene Fiume, chairman of the computer science department at the University of Toronto.

"They develop software for their own internal computer graphics and animation needs," Fiume says. "Think of it as tool-smithing....The thing that makes them stand out is their ability with each feature [film] to come up with something new."

Steve Jobs, who bought what is now Pixar 15 years ago from Lucasfilm, describes "Toy Story" itself as a technological breakthrough--"the first computer-animated film in the history of the world," he says modestly.

"In 'A Bug's Life,' we went to a new method of lighting and texturing on our models, which gave the entire film a far more textured and luminous quality. No one has yet to catch up with this," Jobs says, modest again.

"Monsters," he continues, is even more refined in the visual impact of its computer-generated images. The biggest advance is software that gives artists the ability to animate fur, which is quite helpful when your main character is covered in it, the proud owner of 2.3 million flowing hairs.

Sulley, who is at the heart of nearly every scene in "Monsters, Inc.," was actually animated naked. The specially designed software allowed computers to add the fur later and make it move, an otherwise hugely time-consuming task.

"If an animator had to touch all of that fur to make all of the hairs move, they'd never get to the rest of the movie," explains Jobs, who is chief executive of both Pixar and Apple Computer.

Fur is actually a good yardstick for just how much Pixar's technological abilities have grown between the release of the original "Toy Story" and this week's release of "Monsters, Inc."

In the earlier movie, Scud, the evil dog owned by Sid, the evil child, is basically a smooth-sided beast with the mere suggestion of hair. Sullivan's pelt flows as he runs, blows in the wind, moves gently back and forth as he breathes on it in his sleep. It gets compressed when he rubs up against walls, and is softly backlit on occasion. It collects snow.

Technical directors Steve May and Michael Fong took a bald, blue Sullivan and covered the surface of his body with 25,000 "key hairs," which were then programmed with the ball and spring motion. Then May and Fong wrote software to fill in the rest of the hairs and communicate the motion of the key strands to the whole pelt.

"Every single hair needs to be different," Fong says. "The length, the scraggle, the color needs to vary. These hairs clump together. You're approximating things like oils to make the hair more interesting."

Why does fur and the ability to make it appear lifelike matter to anyone other than some computer geek? Because it is the essence of Sullivan's character, part of what makes him the most effective scarer in all of Monstropolis.

"We as human beings were chased by big, hairy animals millions of years ago," Jobs posits. "When you see something with fur move, you can determine how heavy the character is and, roughly, the internal body shape. It's hard-wired in our brains because we were chased."

Anthropology aside, fur and liquids are among the last frontiers of computer graphics, those attributes of the physical world that have been the most difficult and time-consuming to animate. Creating software that can realistically make fur while allowing animators to focus their energies on more salient tasks, therefore, is more than just a great computer trick.

So, fur is key to the story. And at Pixar, as they will tell you over and over again, the story is king. The fur team will tell you the story is king. The lighting specialist will tell you the story is king. Jobs, Lasseter, Docter--shoot, even the guy who mans the wood-burning pizza oven at the Pixar cafe--would tell you the same thing if you bothered to ask him.

Ed Catmull, however, probably says it best.

"There are films that succeed for other reasons," explains the soft-spoken Pixar president. "Some are like roller-coaster rides without a story. Some are beautiful to look at. The ones that last are the ones with a good story. Most of us grew up loving the old Disney stories, 'Pinocchio,' 'Dumbo.' Those are the stories that still work. That's the kind of legacy we want to create."

Catmull acknowledges that it's tough to find a moviemaker who would ever even whisper otherwise. Even the most hard-bitten action-movie director would never be caught dead saying, "It's really all about blowing up cars." But pay attention to where directors spend their time and money, he suggests.

"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within," for example, flopped, and Tokyo-based Square Co., the video-game company behind it announced last month it is quitting the movie business. This computer-animated feature boasted a main character so realistic (except, of course, for her unrealistic measurements) that it sparked discussion about whether actors will ever be needed again.

"No question," Catmull says, "Final Fantasy" "was about showing off the technology."

Pixar, on the other hand, went out of production for a very expensive five months on 1999's "Toy Story 2" because of a story crisis surrounding the character of Sheriff Woody. The "Monsters" plot took a similar, lengthy wrong turn about 18 months ago.

"To date, we haven't bought fairy tales or [J.K. Rowlings' novels about] Harry Potter," Jobs says. "We came up with original story ideas inside of Pixar and made them into movies.... Every film has had a story crisis. It's a necessary part of the process. This is really hard."

Or as the more jovial Lasseter--he of the trademark aloha shirts and mild Froot Loop fetish--says: "Every single movie we have ever done at some point in time really was horrible. Really stank. And we knew it."

"Monsters," which apparently fit that description at least once in its five-year gestation, could have ended up a far different movie. The writers initially cast about trying to figure out the movie's foundation: why monsters scare people in the first place.

"The world itself, we didn't know what it was," Stanton says. "For a while, it was thought of that it was like a television show and it was ratings, and people liked to watch kids get scared by the monster. [We didn't know] whether it was like a game show. Finally, someone said, 'What if we make it their job to scare children?"'

That was about when Stanton joined the process. He believes that a movie's fantasy world is built of a lot of rules, all of which must be explicit to the audience. People need to know the parameters of a made-up universe or they won't believe it.

"So I said, 'Well, why do they have to scare?"' Stanton recounted. "I came up with the idea of scaring them for Scream, which would be the fossil fuel of their world."

Leading man James P. Sullivan also went through dramatic changes. At first, he was envisioned as sort of workplace damaged goods, a monster with post-traumatic stress disorder, a candidate for a workers' compensation claim.

After a while, co-screenwriter Dan Gerson said, the writing team figured that "was a little bit of a dark place to start. We ended up with a character on top of the world who has something come into his life that causes him to question the very thing he does."

Such a synopsis, of course, obscures the key fact about "Monsters, Inc.": That this is 95 minutes of family entertainment with a wittily imagined fantasy world, endearing moments that cause even Jobs to tear up, he says; a couple of mild body function jokes; and an action-packed last half-hour or so.

Anyone who has paid attention to California's ills will appreciate headlines in monster newspapers like: "Scream shortage looms. Blackouts expected."

"There's always something in the background and little gags that you don't see the first time," Docter says. "That helps make it (a) more entertaining and (b) just make it a much richer world, a more believable place."

Like all of Pixar's movies, the announced goal is to reach everyone in the family in a way that appeals to all and offends none. The key to a movie like that is heart, says Lasseter, going on to quote his hero: "Walt Disney once said that for every laugh, there should be a tear.

"If you could really touch someone--regardless of whether they're a 14-year-old boy or a mother or a father or a grandparent or a child--if you touch them, and if the characters in the story have heart, I think it stays with people longer."

"Monsters," he says, is just such a movie. The jury, of course, is still out for another week or two, until the reviews and box office receipts roll in.

The biggest question mark in this sweet new movie is whether that 14-year-old boy will be entertained enough. "Monsters" is less savvy than "Toy Story 2," less hip and less scatological than the animated summer hit "Shrek," the computer graphics ogre tale by PDI/DreamWorks.

Animation historian Jerry Beck has seen "Monsters, Inc.," and says he loved it. But he did have one caveat.

"To compare it against the other Pixar films, I'd still say 'Toy Story 2' had the edge with humor, heart and even accessibility to adults," Beck said. "This film had all those elements too. This one skewed a notch toward the kids more than the adults. But just a notch."

In the post-Sept. 11 world, however, maybe sweetness isn't such a bad thing. Action movies have been pulled before release, with studios wary about offending audiences. The proudly G-rated movie probably has a more secure spot now that the world is a scarier place.

That's a point not lost on Catmull. The day the world changed for the worse, Pixar, like many employers, gave workers the option of going home. One day later, Catmull called his employees together and gave them a very necessary pep talk.

This is what he said: "For some of you, it may be hard to work, because what we do may seem inconsequential. But our job is to bring joy to people and bring out the good. And that's important."

Two weeks after "Monsters" comes the much-awaited "Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone," which is also likely to benefit from post-disaster escapism desires. In December, "The Fellowship of the Ring" opens. Both will likely skew to an older audience than the Pixar production.

Tom Schumacher, president of Walt Disney feature animation, impatiently waves away any notion of Pixar's competition, past or present. Even though "Shrek" comes out on DVD and home video the day "Monsters, Inc." opens, he is dismissive.

"A movie that was out six months ago has very little relevance to this movie," Schumacher says.

Lasseter, however, acknowledges that this has been a banner year for animation in general. There has been a large and wildly varied crop of movies, ranging from the traditional two-dimensional works to those created entirely with computer graphics and others that combine live action with computer-generated characters.

Ken Perlin, director of the Media Research Laboratory at New York University and a 1997 Oscar winner for technical achievement, agrees with Lasseter's assessment of 2001. To him, "Shrek" was "the first movie that wasn't about, 'Look, it's computer graphics."'

When watching the "Toy Story" movies, "A Bug's Life" (1998) or "Antz" (1998) by PDI/DreamWorks, Perlin noted, it was "really impossible to forget you were looking at computer graphics. I'm curious to find where 'Monsters' is on that particular continuum."

Soon, some lucky 2001 movie will receive the first Oscar ever given for a full-length animated feature. "Shrek" and "Monsters, Inc." will likely be serious contenders.

"It was important for me, important for us, to do the first computer-animated feature film, because I knew we could make a good movie," Lasseter says. But "I've been dying to see this medium get into the hands of other artists, other filmmakers with good budgets, so they can do decent films and [I can] see what they do."

Even if, on their face, some of these movies might have more appeal to the popcorn-munching, scooter-riding, industry-steering teenager? Sure, says Lasseter, unworried.

"You know what's nice about a 14-year-old boy nowadays?" he asks. "They grew up on 'Toy Story."' *

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Animation Kings

Nine of the 10 top-grossing animated movies of all time have some connection to Disney. The only holdout: "Shrek."

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Title Year Gross Studio "The Lion King" 1994 $768 million Disney "Aladdin" 1992 $502 million Disney "Toy Story 2" 1999 $486 million Pixar "Tarzan" 1999 $435 million Disney "Shrek" 2001 $434 million PDI/DreamWorks "Toy Story" 1995 $358.1 million Pixar "A Bug's Life" 1998 $357.9 million Pixar "Beauty and the Beast" 1991 $352 million Disney "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" 1988 $349 million Touchstone/Amblin "Dinosaur" 2000 $348 million Disney "Pocahontas" 1995 $347 million Disney

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Source: Internet Movie Database

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