Immersed in Blu-ray: Monsters University

Pixar’s Monsters University arrives on Blu-ray today from Disney Home Ent. touting global illumination for a more authentic look that really pops and a refreshing story about not attaining your dream.

Beginnings are often difficult. This was certainly true of Pixar’s first prequel, Monsters University, which finds Mike and Sulley meeting for the first time as college rivals and dealing with primal screams. But it’s not often that you find a film about failure, and that’s the theme that makes their story so satisfying as a bridge to Monsters, Inc.

Monsters University is all about Mike wanting to become a Scarer and confronting disappointment. One door closes but another opens, which resonates with both Billy Crystal and John Goodman. “What I loved was I got to play him at a special time in his life,” Crystal enthuses. “I totally relate to his determination and don’t tell me I can’t. For me, Mike is fearless. He’s really the favorite character I’ve ever played. I really missed doing him until John Lasseter came up to me at his surprise 50th birthday party and said, ‘We have the idea: it’s a prequel. They’re in college.’  And he just walked away.”

For Crystal, it was great to be the protagonist and gain new insight into Mike. “It was such a brilliant idea to put them in that time period when they’re about to become who they’re gonna become. That’s what was so interesting to me. And playing it with John is phenomenal because we work together in the studio and we can act together.”

Initially, first-time director Dan Scanlon and his colleagues went for a funny ha-ha opening in which Mike gets dropped off at college by his parents. But there was an early note from the brain trust about making Mike an underdog that proved helpful. “And the suggestion was just have him on the bus and give him the biggest luggage that he’s draggin’ but make him the happiest guy there,” Scanlon explains. “You don’t even question where his parents are — he’s alone. Like he’s got the weight of the world on his shoulders and he’s showing up for college. I love that note. And as painful as it was to lose the entertainment value of the family, it made you root for him.”

Scanlon also got a lot of early notes pertaining to prequels: Since they’re predictable because you already know the outcome, don’t fight it — use it to your advantage. “We know that Mike is headed toward a disaster so let’s show how much he loves this thing and create tension. About Mike and Sulley dealing with failures in life, a lot of times, people say if you work hard enough, it’ll work hard, which is a great message. However, it’s not always the case and we really wanted to make a movie for people who were dealing with that, which is such a universal thing.”

Researching various universities around the country helped inform their unique composite for Monsters U, which contains both an Ivy League and West Coast vibe. Judging by the intensity of the colors, though, this is clearly an East Coast autumn. The school became a central character with its own history. “I always loved the conceit that the campus was built during different periods in architectural time,” recalls production designer Ricky Nierva . “It lends to the believability.” Additionally, the campus has a lot of vegetation, which allowed them to hide horns and spikes in trees and also weave ivy around the facades of buildings like tentacles.”

A striking new realism was achieved as a result of a new lighting system Pixar introduced that’s built around global illumination. Global illumination in the past had been render intensive and limited to a single bounce. But for Monsters University, Pixar doubled the rendering power and turned the bounce on everything (fur, cloth, grass, trees, water) with ray-tracing that could handle organic objects. There are now 300 to 500 intersecting sources of light, which can be viewed from all angles in a special browser by JC Kalache, the lighting DP.

It also made for tighter collaboration between lighting and the other departments so you could add another visual dimension on top of the performance with Mike and Sulley stepping in and out of the light to convey power or vulnerability. With the old system, it took 80% of the time just to set up a shot. Now the upfront process is much quicker and the artists can spend 80% of their time being creative.

Therefore, Monsters University was a choreography of light, which you can learn more about in the “Color and Light” featurette, among many educational making of mini-docs. Plus there are several deleted scenes. Speaking of global illumination, Pixar experimented with the new lighting system on The Blue Umbrella short, which is also one of the bonus features.

Designing the Campus – Monsters University Featurette on Disney Video

Posted on by Bill Desowitz in 3-D, Animation, Below the Line, Blu-ray, Clips, Home Entertainment, Movies, previs, Shorts, Tech, VFX, Virtual Production

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