Filmmakers Go Back to School to Research Pixar’s Monsters University

“We wanted Monsters University to be Mike’s story,” says the film’s director Dan Scanlon.  “His drive and sincerity are so compelling—his quest so personal.”  From the beginning, Scanlon was drawn to the idea of self-discovery.  “Setting the story at the time when Mike is first venturing into the world by himself allowed us to delve into his journey of self-awareness, experiencing with him the fun, the ups and downs, the friendships and the revelations that come with growing up.  It’s during these years, whether in college or not, that we tend to learn who we are.  And it’s not necessarily who we thought we were.”  Continue reading for a spoiler-free behind-the-scenes look how Scanlon and his team created Disney•Pixar’s Monsters University, and click here for more coverage of Disney•Pixar’s Monsters University including images, trailers.  Monsters University arrives in theaters on June 21.


JUST ANOTHER WIDE-EYED COLLEGE STUDENT - Mike Wazowski has arrived, and Monsters University will never be the same. © 2012 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Filmmakers Travel Coast-to-Coast—and Enlist Some Cool Creatures—to Make Movie Roar

Research is one of the keys to Pixar Animation Studios’ success.  “For every movie we do, authenticity is absolutely vital,” says executive producer John Lasseter.  “Our teams traveled to Scotland for Brave, and for Finding Nemo, everyone became certified scuba divers. Monsters University was fun to research because it takes place in a college setting—I have five sons and three of them are in college right now.  I’ve been able to pick their brains.  I’d go and move one of my sons into college, bringing all these ideas and observations back to the next story meeting.”

Monsters University Bleachers


Director Dan Scanlon, like a lot of members of the production team, graduated from art school.  “We didn’t quite have that experience as far as the look of a classic campus—so we went to several schools to soak up the atmosphere.  Just seeing the students—so young and so stressed—most of us were glad to be done with that phase of our lives.  But we also got the distinct feeling that anything’s possible.  There are so many opportunities and areas to study—we saw all these different schools within each college, which definitely got us all charged up imagining what a monster college could be.”

Monsters University

(L-R): Sulley, Billy Crystal, director Dan Scanlon, and Mike Wazowski. Photo by Richard Harbaugh © 2011 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.


Producer Kori Rae took part in the team’s quest for knowledge and inspiration as the story was just getting off the ground.  “Our first research trip was to the east coast to visit a number of schools, including Harvard and MIT,” says Rae.  “It was a blast.  The first day of our visit, we were amazed—just blown away by the scale of the campuses and all the activity—saying, ‘Are you kidding me?’  We visited classrooms, listened in on lectures— everyone really got into it.”

Artists were inspired by the campuses they visited.  “In Monsters, Inc.,” says production designer Ricky Nierva, “they took the best of American manufacturing and translated it into a monster world.  When we went and looked at all these colleges, we wanted to feel the spirit of the university so we could similarly translate that into our monster world.


"MONSTERS UNIVERSITY" Sulley and Mike concept art by Peter Chan. © 2013 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


“We realized that there’s a lot of history—particularly at a campus that still has buildings from when the school was founded,” continues Nierva. “There’s history in the way the buildings were designed and the way they were built.  We could see how each campus evolved as time went by—there were really old buildings next to really new buildings.  We learned how the oldest—often the most ornate—building on campus was where the university started—typically surrounded by big, really mature trees—with the rest of the campus expanding from there.”

According to Nierva, the team paid attention to the details—ultimately incorporating much of what they observed into the film.  “We learned about the walking patterns of the students, which we found fascinating.  There were pathways snaking through the Quad on one campus that seemed random.  We realized that many of the paths had been left by students who had to get from point A to point B as quickly as they could between classes, so they would cut across the lawn in lieu of the original paved paths, killing the grass.  Eventually, groundskeepers just paved the short cuts because they didn’t want to keep reseeding the grass.”


"MONSTERS UNIVERSITY" (Pictured) The Monsters University campus. © 2013 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


As a result of their observations, artists made the School of Scaring the oldest building on the Monsters University campus, complete with big, mature trees, worn pathways that connected paved ones and a bevy of monsters to put it all to good use.  Filmmakers even borrowed a tradition from one of the schools they visited: students who enter the School of Scaring on their first day of school touch a statue’s toe for good luck.

But there’s more to college life than buildings, pathways and statues.  The team visited schools in their own backyard, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, and checked out some of the more entertaining aspects of student life.  Says Nierva, “Some of the schools felt much more open—people throwing Frisbees around on the grass and laying out.  We loved going to the fraternity houses.  The fraternities were very open to letting us into their places—we took a lot of photos.”

Some members of the production team attended a bonfire event at UC Berkeley prior to a big football game against Stanford.  The experience served as great reference for the MU-Fear Tech rivalry.


The team’s research extended beyond the college scene, especially when it came to Dean Hardscrabble’s design.  Artists studied owls and moths, among other things, but it took a visit with a particularly creepy creature to trigger her ultimate design.


"MONSTERS UNIVERSITY" (Pictured) DEAN HARDSCRABBLE (voiced by Hellen Mirren). © 2013 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Owen Maercks of East Bay Vivarium was invited to Pixar Animation Studios to introduce the production team to an Amazonian giant centipede—Scolopendra Gigantea—which can reach 12 inches in length.  “This creature was so creepy,” says Nierva.  “Mr. Maercks told us that he deals with super-venomous snakes, lizards and spiders, yet he said that he would not mess around with this centipede.  He had long leather gloves and metal tongs and he kept talking about how dangerous this centipede was.  The more he talked about it, the more we thought, ‘What the heck are we doing with this thing in our offices?’  It’s scary, because it’s voracious.  He said, ‘If it bites you, you won’t die, but you’ll wish you would.’

“But it had such beautiful, inspiring motion,” Nierva concedes.  “The animators got really excited and inspired.  We have a lot of footage from that day—taken from a safe distance.”


"MONSTERS UNIVERSITY" Dean Hardscrabble concept art by Jason Deamer. © 2013 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


Research for “Monsters University”—like with all Pixar films—often involves unusual experiments conducted on the Emeryville campus. For filmmakers to execute certain actions or effects in CG animation, they first employ real-life examples in order to inform and trigger their imaginations.


"MONSTERS UNIVERSITY" (L-R) CLAIRE, BROCK and MIKE. © 2013 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.


For example, the production team wanted to introduce some fun visual elements to the scene in which the MU clubs are pitching their benefits to Mike as he walks across campus.  “For the art club,” says Nierva, “there’s a fuzzball character who pours paint on his head and then slams his head against a canvas.  The effects crew had a great time filming reference for the scene.  They actually poured paint on a wig and slammed it against a white canvas—over and over again.  The video is hilarious.”

And the resulting shot—which takes about three seconds—reflects the attention to detail that went into creating it.

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.