The home stretch: How Pixar wrapped 'Monsters University'

Pixar's films can take four or five years to complete. But what does it take to close the deal? CNET has the scoop.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
7 min read
Pixar's 'Monsters University' opens in theaters Friday. Disney-Pixar

EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- It's early April, and there's just over two months before Pixar's newest film, "Monsters University," hits theaters. For years, the filmmakers at this hit factory have been working like crazy, taking what was once a mere idea for a prequel to 2001's "Monsters, Inc." through every step on the way to the silver screen.

Thirty-two miles away, some of the "MU" team is still toiling away, mixing the film's sound at Skywalker Ranch, but here at the studio's headquarters, inside the Steve Jobs Building, it's pretty much a wrap. After four years, the hard work of making a Pixar film is done.

"Down in the production office, we have this very unique thing," said Ricky Nierva, the "Monsters University" production designer. "We have these scare canisters for every department, and there's a light bulb, and as they get closer to 100 (percent finished), they turn a light bulb and the lights turn on. So if you're 90 percent done, there's one light bulb left, and then you know when they have that light bulb turning ceremony, and they turn that last one, you're done. A hundred percent."


And, as it happens, this is a big day. "There's going to be a light bulb turning ceremony today," Nierva said, for the lighting, layout, sets, animation, and simulation departments. "Every single department."

Besides director Dan Scanlon, producer Kori Rae, and a small number of others, Nierva has been working on "MU" about as long as anyone, and he's watched the film slowly edge closer to reality. "When I know I'm in the home stretch is when we're in the digital dailies," Nierva said, "and they start telling us that we have 60 shots left, or 40 shots left. And I remember when they said, 'We have [something like] 70,000 shots left. So you know when you're down in double digits," it's almost over.

The animation studio is famous for its four- or five-year production cycles, and for turning out a new film every year. On Friday, "MU" opens nationwide, while last year was "Brave," 2011 was "Cars 2," and before that, there was "Toy Story 3," "Up," and "Wall-E." But what does it take to actually finish making a Pixar movie?

Working in paradise
There's few workplaces in the world as beautiful as Skywalker Ranch, home to the best sound mixers in the business. Located in Nicasio, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Francisco, the property features endless rolling hills, stunning gardens, a lake, and the timeless feeling that you're in paradise.

"It's a really great experience there at the end of finishing a movie to get out of the studio a little bit and go to Skywalker," Scanlon said. "It's a really beautiful environment. It's very beautiful land all around, and then you go into these really nice buildings...and you go into a theater and watch your movie, and listen to blaring sound effects all day long."

During his days there, Scanlon would come in, sit down in a theater featuring a giant sound mixing board, and "sit back in a chair like Captain Kirk surrounded by people in chairs. It's very Enterprise-like."

On Scanlon's days at Skywalker, he'd sit down and get to work, leaning on his Skywalker Sound counterpart to ensure that the sound design helped tell the "MU" story. "You communicate the point you're going for," he said, "and you trust everyone else to do their jobs."

A sound design studio at Skywalker Sound, where 'Monsters University' had its sound mixed -- the final step in the film's production. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

But finishing up at Skywalker means that the work of actual filmmaking is done. The movie is in the can. And that can be hard. "It's actually kind of depressing in a way," Scanlon said. "It's exciting that you're about to share it with the world. But the transition is a surprisingly tough one. You work with these people, and they're there to support you, and pretty quickly they're gone, on to other projects. And then you wrap up this four-year experience. It's almost like leaving college."

Every department on a different schedule
Although many different departments had light bulb turning ceremonies on the same day in April, the reality is that most were on different schedules.

For "MU" producer Kori Rae, finishing the film was a multi-step process. That's because a department might be closing the book on one section of the film, and just getting going on another. And Rae had to field whatever was coming in at any time. Even when the movie was close to done. "The first time you feel like you're approaching the finish line," Rae said, "is when you're delivering the first reel, and saying shots are finished and you're never looking at them again."

But that process is slow, and staggered. As the first-time producer recalled, "You're finishing part of the movie, and because the delivery of the reels happens over a four-to-five month period, you're still in the thick of it, and maybe still in story on an earlier reel."

At that point, Rae said, the director and the producer are still straddling reels in different stages of completion, while finishing up shots in digital dailies, and even still working things out in editorial. Or doing what she called a "humor pass," a crucial step on a comedy like "MU."

Watch this: Pixar goes back to the future to make 'Monsters University'

Story, of course, is necessarily one of the first elements of the film to be done, long before animation, let alone sound. Yet for Kelsey Mann, the movie's story supervisor, it didn't feel like his job was almost done until close to end of the process. For him, the finish line was in sight "when we ran out of the really big problems," he said. "I remember one of the last things was we had a problem on Act 2. And it was basically where we solved that issue, and when we realized we had no other huge eggs to crack, that I knew that we were pretty much done. From here on out, it was going to be the small things."

At the very least, Mann added, that meant that he and his team knew what all the big questions -- and answers -- were, and the film's major direction. "And once you have that direction, throughout the movie, from beginning to end, it gets easier because you know what the point of each scene is, and how it's serving the big story. Any little decision you make has to come from that main structure that you've set up. It has to support that."

Added Mann, "In essence, that was when story wrapped -- when all the scenes were approved for production."

At Pixar, more than almost any other studio, animation is king. So for "MU" supervising animator Scott Clark, the home stretch came at the end of a grueling year of production. "That's where you're at your most tired," Clark said, "but you know what you're making."

As the animated assets accumulate, time is quickly running out, and there's almost none left to fix a broken model, Clark said. Still, in the end, Clark's job is to make sure that the animation works, so room has to be set aside to play around and experiment, he said. In the last months, though, "it gets harder at the end to try things out, because of the deadline."

Concept art from 'Monsters University' that Scott Clark's animation department had to turn into final art. Disney-Pixar

Yet, even at the very end, Clark had to be willing to give an animator the time to perfect certain shots if they were "going to be Pixar quality." And that meant selectively doling out "a couple weeks instead of a couple days."

But it was all about picking your battles, he said. If something was a simple story point, it probably wasn't worth overthinking. "That's why deadlines are a good thing," Clark said. "They force you to focus on things at the top of the list."

The same held true when making sure the flow of the movie was right. As Sanjay Bakshi, the film's supervising technical director recalled, context is everything. It doesn't matter how good something looks if you don't know the full context. "When you put it all together, you notice things that are impossible to notice out of context," Bakshi said. "That's why we always plan in the late stages to have an emergency fund [of time]. There hasn't been a Pixar movie where this hasn't happened. And I've never seen us say no to something that will make the movie better."

One man sure to have fretted about everything that could make "Monsters University" better is Scanlon. Only audiences will be able to tell if he succeeded.

For Scanlon, finishing the film -- all save sound mixing -- came suddenly, three days early in fact. "It's been an odd couple of weeks," he said at the time, "because you're so busy and so ramped up. There's such a big crew and suddenly it all drops off."

Added Scanlon, "When we called final on the last shot, none of us knew what to do. There was odd clapping, and then we walked out of the theater like we just survived a plane crash. No one knew what to do."