BERKELEY — On the University of California campus recently, a tour guide told a group of prospective students about the many opportunities open to those studying in the Bay Area — “like getting an internship at Pixar,” she said.
The Emeryville animation studio is four miles away, but that day Pixar was even closer than the tour guide knew — director Dan Scanlon and three of his colleagues were walking right behind her, on their way to Sather Gate, a bit of Beaux-Arts architecture that had served as creative inspiration for Pixar’s new film, “Monsters University,” which opens Friday.
In 2001’s “Monsters, Inc.,” Mike, the one-eyed green orb voiced by Billy Crystal, and Sulley, his fluffy, blue brute of a buddy (John Goodman), were “scarers” in the city of Monstropolis, whose job is to frighten human children and collect their screams for use as fuel. In the new film, which is a prequel, Mike and Sulley meet for the first time as college freshmen enrolled in the rigorous scaring program at Monsters U.
Mike, who now wears a retainer, is a hard-working student without much innate talent. Sulley, slimmed down from his midlife self, is a legacy at Monsters U. who looks like he’ll coast through without lifting a furry finger.
The computer-animated movie is heavy with undergraduate atmospherics — there’s a perky R.A., pickup hacky sack games, an “undecided” oddball student named Art and a loser fraternity called Oozma Kappa, which Mike and Sulley join.
Creating an authentic collegiate vibe was a unique challenge for Pixar because Scanlon and many of his colleagues didn’t attend traditional universities, but instead studied at art schools — in Scanlon’s case the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio.
“We didn’t have big old buildings and fraternities and sororities,” Scanlon said. “Emotionally we all experienced college as far as the self-discovery and cold reality of, life is gonna be a lot harder than we thought, but physically, art school is a totally different experience.”
In the film, the rival fraternity and sorority houses compete in “Scaring Games.” At a critical point in the production, when the “Monsters University” crew hit a story snag, they engaged in some of their own Greek-system-inspired competitions — including dodgeball games, a tug of war and tricycle races.
“I remember feeling the scare games we were coming up with weren’t as fun as the ones we were playing,” Scanlon said. (Eventually they found the inspiration they needed, thanks in part to the mind-clearing experience of riding on giant tricycles.)
The idea to make a prequel to “Monsters, Inc.” emerged out of what is known at Pixar as a “blue sky meeting” for discussing ideas, which Scanlon attended with Pixar Chief Creative Officer John Lasseter, “Monsters, Inc.” director Pete Docter and several other filmmakers at the studio — almost all alumni of the California Institute of the Arts.
Twelve years would be an unusually long time to wait for a sequel at most studios, but at Pixar it follows logically from the overarching philosophy — wait until somebody has a compelling creative reason. In the case of “Monsters University,” the notion was to tell a story about that moment when a monster finds the limits of his talents.
“We realized with Mike we could tell kind of a failure story,” said Scanlon, 36, who is making his feature directing debut with “Monsters University.” “So many movies tell us if we work hard and never give up, everything will work out great and that is a great message but it doesn’t always work out that way. We thought, no one really makes movies for the rest of the population.”
After years of almost impossibly glowing reviews from film critics, Pixar has suffered some of its own humbling moments, such as the critical reception for “Cars 2.” Although its recent films continue to perform well at the box office and “Brave” won the animated feature Oscar last year, there is a perception that the studio is not producing sophisticated movies like the “Toy Story” franchise and “Up” that made its reputation.
Like most people who end up at Pixar, Scanlon’s is not a failure story, but he had episodes of doubt. Growing up in Clawson, Mich., Scanlon was a doodler and a mediocre student until he got to art school and suddenly felt seized with purpose.
“When I went to college I thought, ‘Oh, my drawings are up on my mom’s refrigerator, I must be a genius,’ and quickly realized that wasn’t the case.”
After graduation, when some of his friends got jobs at major animation studios, Scanlon stayed in Columbus and worked at a local shop. A few years later, a friend helped get his portfolio into the hands of someone at Pixar. Scanlon soon began working as a storyboard artist, and went on to co-direct the short film “Mater and the Ghostlight.”
“Being able to go to an art college engaged me in what I really wanted to do and I … suddenly was a completely different student and was obsessed with doing the best I could. As a result I didn’t really go party it up all that much.”
To steep themselves in the collegiate experience, Scanlon and his team, including producer Kori Rae, associate producer Nicole Grindle and story supervisor Kelsey Mann, took several research trips to campuses around the country, starting in their back yard at Berkeley and also heading to Yale and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“We were always looking for those touchstones that in your mind most colleges have, like a gate, an open quad,” Scanlon said. “Our hope was that we’d go to enough places and research enough campuses that we could make an amalgam that was original to our school but people would think it was their school.”
In the course of their research they visited frat houses — typically not during the parties — but the morning after, when the sticky floor smelled like bleach and worse.
“We’d go into a fraternity house, we’d be loud, taking pictures and then our tour guide would come in and be like, ‘Uh, hey, so there’s a guy asleep underneath that bunk,’” said Mann.
One of the chief challenges of the movie was finding a way to depict traditional undergraduate pastimes in a way that was appropriate for a G-rated movie. Instead of students making out on the quad — as a few couples were this morning at Berkeley — the affectionate monsters in “Monsters University” hold hands. Instead of booze-fueled ragers, the fraternity and sorority members are high on the fun of scaring.
“We realized that as long as people were being kind of rambunctious and wild, you could hang out of windows and break things and eat garbage and it felt like, that’s a pretty crazy party but it still could happen at an 8-year-old’s birthday party,” Scanlon said.
While strolling at Berkeley, it was easy to get nostalgic about the college years, but Scanlon said he has no desire to go back.
“It’s so romantic to be here on a campus,” Scanlon said. “But I’m so glad I’m just going back to work to helm a massive movie with no stress compared to having to turn in term papers.”
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