The inspirations for Monsters University’s characters

Japanese sweets, SNL skits, Office Space, and giant scorpions. Just some of the inspirations for Monsters University’s new characters…

Pixar Character Art Director, Jason Deamer, was doodling before we entered the room; a Post-It note pad on the table in front of him is crammed with cartoon critters. As one of the designers of over four hundred characters for Monsters Inc. prequel, Monsters University – some entirely new, some just younger and leaner – it’s understandable that Deamer would have monsters on the mind.

It was doodling (well that, art school, and a freelance illustration career) that earned Deamer his break in Pixar sixteen years ago. Starting out as a PA on A Bug’s Life, his coffee cup drawings were spotted by colleagues, and he’s been working on Pixar characters ever since, on films from Finding Nemo to Monsters Inc., Wall-E, Ratatouille, and Brave.

Now, Deamer and Production Designer Ricky Nierva are back in the monster world, a world they populated. We chatted to both about their inspirations and challenges working on the raft of Monsters University characters…

Dean Hardscrabble

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The Dean’s character was originally male wasn’t it. So, how did the sex-change come about?

Jason Deamer: Dan (Scanlon, MU director) likes to play things against type and I think that was the instinct for changing the Dean from a male to a female character. A male antagonist Dean is an accepted thing in the college movie genre, so the idea was that it would be more interesting to make her a female; it’s something new. The problem was that change happened really late in the game, four weeks before animation production, and that included, after designing, modelling, rigging and shading the character. Also, we were in love with the old design so we had a hard time losing it.

Our initial instinct was to try to turn that original male design into a female, giving him lashes and stuff, but it ended up being like putting lipstick on a pig, it wasn’t really working. So, we gathered together some of the original designers from the first movie and then all of our character team in a room and tried everything you could imagine. We tried her as a moth, she was a bat, she was an insect, she was a snake, a scorpion, she was based on an owl at one point. We pinned all that stuff on the wall and brought in the director and nothing was really hitting.

The problem being that on one hand she’s Dean of a school, she’s scholastic and put-together and professional, but on the other hand, she’s supposed to be the most powerful Scarer that ever lived. Some designs worked as the Dean of a school but maybe not as the best Scarer ever, and then others works as the most amazing Scarer but not convincing as a Dean, and it wasn’t until we came across this giant centipede that it happened.

Ricky Nierva: Jason was talking about the difficulty of matching that inherent creepiness with this elegance and authority, so when we found the scolopendra gigantea, the giant centipede.

Ugh, that’s creepy.

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RN: That’s the same reaction we had, that was exactly what we were looking for! We wanted that visceral ‘ugh’, that thing that makes you creeped out.

When we actually brought one in, we also realised how elegant and beautiful they are, with the sine wave of the legs. Part of our big thing at Pixar is always do research, try to do as much research as possible, so we actually got one here and it was in this plastic Tupperware with this little flimsy lid that was taped down with a little bit of scotch tape. Then, we had an expert come in that deals with poisonous spiders and venomous snakes and scorpions, all things that he would hold with his bare hands, but when he saw this, he actually brought in big leather gloves and little tongs, and he said, “If you get bitten by one of these things, you will not die but you will wish for death”. We had it in this poor coordinator’s office for the longest time!

It was so inspiring when you see it move. The animators just see this beautiful grace, so that was the bottom part of her. For the top, she has these wonderful wings that are embedded in her design, camouflaged, so they just feel like they’re part of her and for effect, when she needs to be really scary, she’ll unfurl them.

JD: We designed her garments to reflect the fact that monsters live for a very long time in this world we’ve created, so we figured in her previous life as a Scarer she could afford fine garments but maybe as an educator, she still was hanging on to those fine garments, so we looked at all these thirties, forties and fifties women’s garments, like Coco Chanel stuff, hoping to evoke that history in what she wore.

RD: The wings were a cool solution that the artists came up with, because we had that tweed weave, so for the back we wanted this organic thing that matched so it blends in and it’s this wonderful scale texture and the colour is very close, so it really works.

At what point did Helen Mirren become involved?

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RD: After we designed it, and she really was amazing. She brought this character to the next level. Lending her voice to this character it not only hit all those marks and the planets aligned, but she brought this elegance and authoritative experience. When I heard it for the first time with our design, they would play her voice over this painting, it just was perfect, it was almost like we designed it for her.


RN: Art is one of my favourite characters. With every school, there’s always that classmate who just is a mystery, like, who is this person? He brings up all these non-sequitur kinds of things. Dan Scanlon was saying that there’s always a classmate who makes you ask, how old is this person? How long have they been in school? What’s their major?

A lot of these characters have first and last names, but Art is just Art. At one point, the design was a ball with legs coming out of it. There were so many permutations of what the design for him could be and we ended up with this great rainbow shape. The animators love it, because they can do so many things with it.

JD: They were thrilled immediately when they saw it. Because he’s a new age philosophy student, I was looking up motivational speakers at one point, and I don’t know if you ever saw that Chris Farley skit on Saturday Night Live where he’s yelling at these kids talking about “living in a van down by the river”? He does this stance (Deamer adopts the stance, legs apart, leaning forward, arms hanging down between his legs) and people were just doodling and drawing him like that. Somehow that evolved into the weird anatomical choice of his arms being connected between his legs, so we went for that.


RN: Squishy is that undefined, undeclared, mouldable, malleable character who’s just a kid, he’s young. So in the early designs we were literally just looking at gels, things that are really, really simple.

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JD: He was a gelatinous kind of candy at one point, but eventually we came to Mochi candy, that Japanese doughy jelly thing that’s powdered on the surface. We were like ‘this is perfect!’ because it’s soft and it’s got this appealing powdery feel, there’s just something appealing about it.

RN: And it’s sweet when you eat it, it’s like him.

JD: So we actually photographed it and said, make the skin look like that, it’s perfect.

Don Carlton

RN: Don Carlton is the mature student, the guy who was in sales for a while and he decided to go back to school to “learn the computers”. Dan Scanlon really loves this character. It’s that combination of finding the character and the designs all hitting those things for him.

JD: Dan had the voice down like really, really early on. He was doing the scratch voice performance initially. He had the accent down and he had that character really crystallised in his mind early on.

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RN: I love the little details. That batwing moustache motif was brilliant, and the receding hairline. Even his shirt is the Polo shirt that he would have been wearing for his sales pitches, and there are subtleties to it that make him a deeper character.

JD: We were assuming that he still had the same garments from when he was in his office job, so we tried to make it look faded and washed a million times and we had it ride up his belly because t-shirts kind of shrink on you.

RN: He’s also got the magic pocket with all of his business cards.

JD: Ricky had the exact glasses in mind, he was like, ‘I know the perfect seventies frames’.

He looks like Milton from Office Space.

JD: Yeah, totally, that came up.

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Archie the Scare Pig

We were told that Archie the pig was based on Dan Scanlon’s Japanese Chin dog?

JD: Oh yeah. The Scare Pig, Archie, is kind of a funny story because making an animal in the monsters world is a weird conceit when you think about it because a lot of them are based on animals. They have horns, fur, and so on, so it was about how can you make sure it reads like an animal and not just another student running around. So we just stuffed it with as many animal cues as we possibly could, the goat legs, the nose, the fur, the goat eyes, the pig nose…

Eighteen-year-old Mike

RN: That was the challenge, what does an eyeball look like at eighteen? What do you do?

JD: When we knew we had to make them eighteen, one of the first things we did was ask everyone in the crew to bring in their their senior high school portrait. After we were done getting a good laugh out of it, we just tried to figure out what makes somebody look eighteen, which proved to be a little more subtle and tricky than I first anticipated.

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It’s almost easy to make somebody look childlike because there are drastic changes, but when you’re eighteen you’re an adult in your frame so the differences are minute and subtle. What we did to Mike was to take off as much weight as we possibly could, which wasn’t much because he’s a green ball, but we made his limbs longer and thinner, we kept his hands and feet large as if he was a puppy who would grow into them. We saturated his colour and removed all the blemishes and wrinkling from him but even after all of that, if you don’t have a direct comparison between the two versions, you just see Mike from the first movie.

And that’s exactly what we heard when we presented our new designs to John Lasseter. He said, ‘To be honest, I don’t really see the difference. It’s hard to tell.’ We were so close to it, we were familiar with all those changes and we were like ‘But it looks so different!’. We got a good note though, which was that it’s not actually obvious and so we had this idea of needing to cue the audience with something a little more obvious so with Mike we gave him braces and he wears the hat.

Eighteen-year-old Sulley

RN: For Sulley, we did the same thing, we skinnied him up, saturated his colour, these little horns will grow into the older horns… but the big thing for him was getting that tuft of fur look. With any college student rolling out of bed and going straight to class, we wanted the bedhead look but all over his body. We added this little tuft of faux-hawk hair on the top of his head.

Eighteen-year-old Randall

RN: Randy was one of the biggest challenges.  We had some of the original artists come to look at this new design and they were like ‘what did you change?’. Getting that major visual clue of adding the glasses was a good solution, and I think it was a great solution actually, because when he removes them, he squints, so you start seeing that sinister look from the first film.

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JD: The character designs sometimes inspire story and gags, and a perfect example of that is Randy’s glasses, which we originally did as a visual cue that he’s younger and then we rationalised it by saying well, he squints when he takes them off! It was really a way of justifying it. We loved the idea of the glasses and so we had to figure out a way to wedge that in.

Monsters University comes out in the UK on Friday the 12th of July.

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