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Monstrous makeover: How Pixar artists made Mike & Sulley look more youthful in "Monsters University"

Monstrous makeover: How Pixar artists made Mike & Sulley look more youthful in "Monsters University"

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So how exactly do you make an eyeball look like it's 18 years old?


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

That was the challenge that Ricky Nierva faced on "Monsters University." As the art director / production designer of Pixar's first-ever prequel, Nierva (working closely with this project's character art director Jason Deamer) had to figure out how to properly reverse-age Mike Wazowski and James P. Sullivan. Turn these two "Monsters, Inc. " stars into believable college students.

So how do you get started on a design assignment like this? To Deamer's way of thinking, research was the way to go. Which is why -- before Ricky & Jason got started reimaging Mike & Sulley -- they asked everyone who was working on the "Monsters University" production team to bring in their senior class portraits.

"So we gathered together all of these high school pictures. And after we all had a good laugh at everyone's weird hairstyles & interesting fashion choices, we then took a close look at the differences between the 18 year-old version of a person and what they eventually came to look like as an adult," Deamer explained. "Because while some of the changes are obvious -- people put on weight, their hairlines recede -- a lot of the other changes were actually pretty subtle."


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

The other challenge which Nierva & Deamer faced with this project was that -- in the 12 years since Pixar had last visited the Monster world -- this animation studio had completely upgraded & overhauled the tools which it uses to make these movies.

"The technology we have at our disposal now is so advanced, so sophisticated that Jason & I didn't want the way that the college-aged Mike & Sulley looked & moved to be all that different from the way that these characters had looked & moved back in 'Monsters, Inc.," Ricky said. "So it then became this delicate balancing act. Trying to take advantage of what we could do now with Pixar's new animation tools while -- at the same time -- preserving the essence of these 'Monsters, Inc.' characters. Making sure that the college-aged version of Mike & Sulley still maintained their original flavor."

So keeping this delicate balancing act in mind, how did Nierva & Deamer go about giving Mike & Sulley more youthful appearances? Reimagining these middle-aged "Monsters, Inc." characters as 18 year-olds?


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

"Where did we start? Well, your typical college student is a lot more svelte than your average adult. So to make Mike & Sulley look more age appropriate, we carved a lot of weight out of their mid-sections," Ricky said. "Then -- to give the sense that Mike & Sulley still had some growing up to do --  we thinned up their arms & legs while keeping their hands & feet adult-sized. With the thinking being that -- just like puppies -- Mike & Sulley would eventually have to grow into their paws."

Then to get across the idea that these were far younger versions of Mike Wazowski & James P. Sullivan than audiences had previously seen in "Monsters, Inc.," Nierva & Deamer made these characters a much more vibrant green & blue. They also removed a number of skin blemishes & age spots and reduced the size of the bags under Mike & Sulley's eyes. Thereby giving Wazowski  & Sullivan fresher, much more youthful-looking faces. 

"We then took their horns and shortened them. Figuring that -- as a monster -- your horns would grow over the course of your lifespan," Jason continued. "With the end result being that we hoped -- once the audience looked at these versions of Mike & Sulley and then absorbed all of these little subtle changes that we'd made --  they'd then buy into the idea that these were college-aged versions of the character that they'd previously known from 'Monsters, Inc.' "


John Lasseter with some of the "Monsters University" toys that will soon be
appearing on store shelves everywhere. Copyright Disney Pixar.
All rights reserved

But when Nierva & Deamer showed their first pass at college-aged versions of Wazowski & Sullivan to John Lasseter, Pixar's grand poobah wasn't entirely enthused.

"Don't get me wrong. John was still very supportive of our work. He told us that we'd come up with some great looking versions of Mike & Sulley. His problem was -- in spite of all the design decisions that we'd made, the numerous physical changes that we'd made to these 'Monsters, Inc.' characters -- there was still nothing about these versions of Mike & Sulley which specifically told the audience that they were now 18 years of age," Ricky said. "We then realized that we were going to have to be a little more obvious about the 'Monsters University' versions of these characters. Hit the audience over the head a little bit more if we were actually going to get across the idea that the college-aged versions of Mike & Sulley were different from the ones that people had previously met in 'Monsters, Inc."

When it came to Mike Wazowski, the easiest way to illustrate that he was just 18 years-old was to give him a retainer & a baseball cap to wear. Whereas creating a believable college-aged version of Sulley would prove to be a much hairier challenge.


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

"Given that Sulley -- at least when we first meet him -- is kind of gliding through college, not paying all that much attention to his studies, we wanted his physical appearance to reinforce that idea. So since some college students will just roll out of bed and then head off to class without first running a comb through their hair ... Well, we wanted Sulley to kind of have a head-to-toe bed head look," Jason laughed. "We also added a tuft of hair to the top of Sulley's head, almost a mohawk, to suggest a youthful rebellious streak."

And when it came time to come up with a more youthful appearance for the college-aged version of Randall Boggs, Nierva & Deamer actually went the other way. They gave "Monsters, Inc." 's villain a pair of glasses and slightly improved his posture. Visually reinforcing the idea that the 18 year-old Randall is the type of guy who really wants to make good at school, who seriously wants to fit in.

"Of course, what's great about giving Randall glasses is that -- once he takes them off -- he immediately goes from being this wide-eyed innocent to looking just like that squinty-eyed villain that we all know from 'Monsters, Inc.,' " Rick said. "So this is one of those moments that we could actually use character design as a way to foreshadow some story elements."


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

And speaking of innocents, one of Nierva & Deamer's favorite parts of working on "Monsters University" was getting the chance to create all of the other students that Mike & Sulley would interact with while they're at college.  Take -- for example -- Scott "Squishy" Squibbles, an Oozma Kappa fraternity member (Who -- here's a neat bit of trivia for all you animation fans -- is being voiced by Ricky & Jason's fellow Pixarian, Peter Sohn. Who's currently co-directing with Bob Peterson this animation studio's next feature-length project, "The Good Dinosaur." Which is due to hit theaters in May of 2014. Anyway ... ).

"There's always that guy at college who's still trying to figure himself out. In this movie, that's Scott. He's already a sophomore at Monsters University but his major is undeclared. So while we were designing Scott, we tried to use this character's very shape and coloration to suggest how moldable & undefined he still is," Jason said. "When we were searching for inspiration on Squishy, we actually looked at a lot of Gummi candy that was colorless & squishy. But in the end -- because Scott has to look child-like because he's not really an adult yet. More importantly, because Squishy had to be lovable -- we settled on mochi balls. They're soft and super-appealing. Plus they have this nice, powdered surface. We so wanted Scott to look like this kind of Japanese rice cake that we actually sent multiple pictures of mochi balls to Pixar's shading department and then told them that we wanted Scott to be shaded just like that."


Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

So of the 400+ characters that Nierva & Deamer designed for "Monsters University," are there are any that didn't make it into the finished version of this film that Ricky & Jason wished had actually made the final cut? These two had a quick answer for that question.

"Mike's parents. In several earlier versions of 'Monsters University,' Mr. & Mrs. Wazowski played a very big part in this story. So we came up with some great designs for these characters," Ricky said. "But as we made our way through the production process and then kept refining & refocusing this film's story, it became obvious that 'Monsters University' was more about Mike and his journey. And the more we cluttered Mike's storyline with characters that -- while they might be fun -- didn't really move his story forward ... Well, his story suffered. Which is why -- in order to give Mike as much screen time as possible in order to properly tell his story -- we wound up cutting Mr. and Mrs. Wazowski."

"Mind you, Mike's parents are still in the movie," Jason enthused. "You just have to know where to look in order to find them."

It was at this point that my time to interview  Nierva & Deamer ran out. Which was kind of ironic. Given that -- at this very moment -- Ricky & Jason sounded just like Mr. and Mrs. Wazowski. Two proud parents who couldn't wait to hear what the world had to say about "Monsters University" once their baby graduated (i.e. completed production) and headed out into the world.

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