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netribution > features > interview with john lasseter > page one
With the UK release of Pixar's latest mega-toon Monsters Inc at the beginning of February, Netribution got the chance to quizz Exec producer John Lasseter and directors Lee Unkrich and Pete Doctor about their latest (potential?) blockbuster since Toy Story 2 way back in March 2000. It's been a long wait, no?
| by nic wistreich |
| photoscourtesy of pixar |
| in london |

A really obvious question to start with, probably something that everyone wants to know, is just where did the idea come from?
JL - Well the idea actually started way back when, around the time we were working on Toy Story, Pete and I did the worked on the story together. He was the supervising the animator. I directed it. Lee was the other… and Lee and I went on to A Bug’s Life afterwards. And so I always knew Pete was going to direct his own movie some day. And so I asked him to skip A Bug’s Life and start thinking about what the movie after A Bug’s Life would be.

PD - So, you know, I went in a room with a couple of other guys and things that I knew were true for me as a kid. 1 — that my toys came to life when I wasn’t in the room. And 2 — that there were monsters hiding in my closet waiting to scare me.

And so it seemed like a lot of other people had the same experience.

JL - As soon as Pete said that I was really excited because what we strive to do is try to come up with some aspect, subject matter or something of our film, that really the audience can relate to. And it felt like, you know, after we started talking about everybody’s own personal experiences we knew this was a common theme.

PD - Yeah. And so basically the idea came out of trying to answer the question why monsters scare kids. I mean, clearly they don’t do it just because they’re mean and cool because that’s what you just get told. But maybe it’s because, you know, we were thinking early on, because they’re trying to entertain other monsters. It’s like a reality TV show, or maybe even a sporting event where, you know, the top guys go in, they scare the kids and all the other monsters watch. "Very good, very good."

But that didn’t really go anywhere. So then, you know, being parents we knew that children are an extremely unstable source of energy. Very volatile. And so we thought well maybe the monsters go in, scare the kids to collect their scream and the scream is the power source in the monster world. And so that’s basically the idea kind of extrapolated out from that.

Did you aim it at a particular target market? I mean, were you aiming it at a particular age group because Toy Story 2 and other Pixar movies have very much gained a huge adult following? So I don’t know whether you intended that that adult following should keep with you for this one.
JL - At Pixar we always kind of make movies for ourselves. You know, we aim at ourselves. You know, we’re adults, reasonably intelligent. We love to laugh, we love to be moved in an audience, we love to see action and so on and so that’s kind of the approach we take. We really don’t get influenced too much from the outside. We just concentrate on making movies for ourselves.

We’re also parents and we love to take our kids to the movies. So in order to entertain adults and teenagers and so on, we don’t put in subject matter or language that might be unsuitable for kids because we are aware that we want to entertain kids as well.

And I think that it’s a high standard that we’ve set for ourselves but we’re very proud of that. And I think, now this being our 4th film, we are getting a following which is kind of nice.

And at the opening weekend of Monsters Incorporated in the United States we did record business. But what was very exciting was that 40% of the tickets sold that weekend were to people without kids, which is remarkable. So that was the teenagers, college students, young adults, old adults without kids. And all the evening shows and late evening shows, 10.30 shows were sold out and theatres across the country were adding midnight shows for a (G?) rated animated film. So we’re really proud of that fact.

At what stage did you get involved Lee with the development of the film?
LU - Oh yeah. Pete’s been working on this for, like, 5 years, which is about a sixth of his life, amazingly.

JL - We had to wait for him to drive before he could start directing.

LU - You know, as John pointed out, he’s been working on it since the first Toy Story. But I’ve had the good fortune of going on and working on all of the films that we’ve made. A Bug’s Life and co-directed Toy Story 2 with John. So basically when we finished up Toy Story 2, I came over and started working with Pete kind of that point. So I’ve been working on it for the last year and a half, 2 years.

And was that something that you asked, or did they just automatically pull you in?
LU - I’ll tell you, well the truth is that Pixar, probably more than anywhere else, it’s such a great collaborative environment. You know, we have multiple films going on now, which is great, towards our goal of having a film out every year eventually. And the only way we can do that is to have multiple films going. But rather than each crew being locked away working on their own film, we all get involved in all the productions and it’s, again, this great collaborative environment and it’s a great way of working. So it’s really great for me to jump around and work on the different films.

PD - Well we tricked him into working on it. We asked just for a little advice. "Could you sit in on this meeting?" And then suddenly he’s…

JL - ...yeah, we say, "We don’t need you any more Lee. Alright… you can stay."

PD - No, Lee comes from a live action background and John and I are both from animation, two-dimensional animation. Worked at Disney a little while and went to CalArts, which is the California Institute of the Arts. Since computer animation, it’s really kind of a perfect blend of both. It ends up being a great kind of marriage where Lee brings this great language of cinema and story telling and we come from the animation, sort of, caricature and sense of design and story telling and all of that. And it ends up being a good pairing of the two.

LU - I think it’s what’s made our films as unique as they are. You know, when I first came to work on the first Toy Story I watched a lot of traditional animation to try to learn about it because that hadn’t been my background. But what I quickly discovered working on Toy Story is that this was something entirely new. It was animation but it wasn’t quite. It looked like live action but it wasn’t live action. It was really a hybrid of the two. And I think it’s all of us bringing these different skills to the table that’s made our film so unique.

JL - In Monsters Incorporate I think, you know, the tour de force of these influences is the door chase section at the end. You know, it’s pretty remarkable. I was blown away when I first started seeing, you know, the stuff coming out the department that he was working on. It was really incredibly exciting. We knew it from the beginning but he took it to another level and so I think it’s pretty great.

PD - Yeah, I mean, as soon as we came up with this idea that, you know, Henry J Water is the president CEO of the company. His great-grandfather founded the company basically on the technology of the through the closet door scare and that’s really one of the keys to their success as a company through the years. And as soon as we came up with this basic concept we knew that all the doors would have to be stored somewhere and we knew we had a great third act because you get this roller-coaster ride combined with a chase around the world. You know, it’s kind of, Scooby Doo on steroids. You know, with all the door running back and forth. But really Lee and the lab team took it to this whole other level that just makes it really incredible.

There’s quite a lot of development in animation in this one as well, isn’t there? Like lighting. What were the types of things that were different and that moved on from Toy Story 2?
JL - Well always Pixar the technical development is really driven by the needs of the story. You know, we don’t just come up with some new technology and, "Hey, let’s use it in the movie". We come up with a story, you know, that has something in it that we don’t know how to do and that’s when we set out to try to achieve it.

The fur was, you know, probably the biggest technical advance in this film. I mean, inherently, you know, the more organic something looks or moves like, the more difficult it is to do with a computer. The computer likes things sort of simple and geometric. And I think hair, clothing, skin, these are extremely difficult things for a computer to do convincingly. And so when Pete came up with this idea to have the main character to be furry, it was a big challenge.

You know, the technical artists may grumble a little bit but they love being challenged and Pixar is.. you know, we’re a pioneering company. Everything we’ve ever done — our short films and our features — no-one’s every done before. No-one’s ever seen before. And I think that’s intoxicating. Everybody wants to be breaking new ground and trying new things, you know.

Describe how the amazing fur system worked.
PD - Yeah, the fur was done as a simulation dynamics programme. And so the animators were really like the actors for us. Sully ended up with, what, 3.2 million hairs, individual pieces of geometry, that all react and move and blow in the breeze. And rather than have the animators work on that which would just be stupid, we devised this system where the animators worked with a bald Sully. And as such they’re free to work on the gestures, the acting, the emotions, bring that performance that the audience identifies with. And then when the animation is finished, the hairs are applied and the movement is based off of that underlying performance that the animators have put in. But it’s all automatic, done with this dynamics programme. So it works out pretty well.

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