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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
" 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."
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
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
"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
"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
"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
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
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."
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
"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
"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.