The usual image conjured when thinking of a director is that of an auteur instructing actors on set, working with scenery, props, costumes and human facial expressions. When that director is helming an animated film, however, the picture looks very different. Dan Scanlon, who wrote and directed Pixar's "Monsters University," not only guided the vocal performances of the like of Billy Crystal, John Goodman and Steve Buscemi, he also had to create the entire universe of his movie from scratch, right down to the last wriggling tentacle and weathered cobblestone on the campus of the namesake school.
Film.com caught up with Scanlon at Pixar's headquarters in Emeryville, Calif. ahead of the June 21 release of "Monsters University" (read our review here) to discuss the difficulties of directing an animated feature, Pixar's famous Easter eggs and the secret character Scanlon himself voiced.
FILM.COM Directing an animated feature seems like a totally different animal than directing a feature. How is the job different?
DAN SCANLON: In some ways they're similar. I think the biggest difference is in live action you show up and there's a set there and a ground to stand on, at least, and in animation, there's kinda nothing. You are making decisions on everything. I often try to tell people, "Look at that, now imagine that there's a white sheet of paper there."
You have to, your team, has to develop everything. Somebody is making a decision on all that stuff, and I think that you just want to make sure that — and I suppose this is true of live action too — that all of your decisions are being made to move the story forward or to accompany the story. It's just a lot of decisions. You have to create this whole world, and you have to physically create the actors. But like live action, you also have to physically direct an actor in a room, and I guess the difference there is that actor doesn't have anyone else to play off of, so there's a little more pressure on you to create context and act opposite them, and make sure that you're setting them up to succeed. That they know, "Hey, you're in a giant sewer, so you have to yell really loud," or "You're feeling this emotion because this thing just happened that you don't know anything about and haven't seen."
You're standing in a room in Burbank.
Right, yeah. I think that is kind of one of the biggest differences, is just a lot of decisions and a lot of context to make sure you communicate.
You also directed a short before this. How did that prepare you for directing a feature, or did it?
So I co-directed a short with John [Lasseter], and that was an interesting experience because it was a "Cars" short, and at that point we'd just finished the first "Cars" and everybody, every lead in the department, really knew what they were doing. They had really figured out how to light these scenes, how to animate these characters, so it was a little easier for me to step in — not to tell them how to do their jobs — just to tell them what the story was about and what we needed. Shorts are a lot of times more about entertainment and humor. Once you get into a feature, whether it's a sequel or an original one, you have to start all over again and you're creating a world, creating new characters. You're also tracking emotions. You're trying to create emotion and create a character that you can fall in love with for two hours. You're also creating a world, you're leading a bigger team for a longer amount of time. It's a marathon. Four or five years. It's kind of a marathon.
What's next for you? Do you take a break, or move on to your next feature?
I don't know really what happens next, we're kind working on this and then we'll see what happens.
What cool things can we expect to see on the DVD?
Actually, a lot of that stuff's already done. They do it as we go. I don't know if I'm allowed to say, but I will just say that there's a lot of great documentaries. I guess all DVDs have those, but those are done and I've seen them, and they're really, really good. To me, it's like a yearbook. I look and I think oh my god, I can't believe you've captured exactly what this feels like!" Except they made it look way more fun than it was. I mean, it was fun, but it doesn't have the day-to-day pressure or stresses of the story.
People will definitely be looking for Pixar's signature Easter eggs in this movie. Will they find them? Can you give us any hints as to where?
All that stuff's in there. It's part of the fun of doing it is, you don't really have a plan for it, but at some point someone'll be like, "Oh, we could put the Pizza Planet truck in this scene!" or this is a good place to do that and then you just kinda go oh, right, yeah, and check off the box. There is a glimpse at something from the next film, to which I'll just say keep an eye on the toys.
More "Toy Story"?
Nope, just keep an eye on the toys for the film that comes next.
In the credits, you're listed in an "other voices" section. Who did you voice?
Yep, I had one line. I played the improv student who screws up his one line.
How did that come about? Did it have some significance to you?
Nope, a lot of times we have to do the scratch voices before the real voices. That one, John Lasseter heard and he laughed, and he said, "Is that you? You gotta keep that one in." Alright! I didn't do it! It wasn't me giving myself a job, it was John.
What's it like to do a sequel and in some ways play in a universe someone else has created?
It's good. I'm a fan of the first film, and Pete [Docter]'s really involved, so I feel like I can run anything by him to make sure it's ok if I felt that. but pete knows that in order for this film to be good and to be its own thing, we had to make changes, we had to open up the world and explore. So he was surprisingly really good about pushing me to make changes in the world. it was good, a good experience.
There was an interesting message in this movie, that perhaps academia isn't the most important thing in the world.
I think the message, if anything, is just that there are lots of other ways to find your dream. We just wouldn't want people to feel like because they've hit a wall that there's no other opportunity for them. That's what we wanted to say.
And in the same vein, it also approaches maybe not having what it takes to achieve your dreams. That's not the usual message in kids' movies.
It's a similar thing, where so many movies say you can be anything you want, and that is great, but it's so true that so many people have run up against that. The way we saw it is at some point, if you hit that wall, to just be open to the possibility that there's something else that makes you great and that it's not all riding on that one thing. Mike just wants to belong in that world and to be noticed and to prove that he can be something more than he is. He just chooses scaring at the beginning to be the thing that everybody admires as a child. It's a vehicle that he decides and then devotes his life to. It's just a vehicle, but when it's gone, sometimes people define themselves by these things that they are and he really just needs to learn that no, there are other things that make him great.