Doing Their Homework: Back to School
Research is one of the keys to Pixar Animation Studios' success. "For every movie we do, authenticity is absolutely
vital," says executive producer John Lasseter. "Our teams traveled to Scotland for 'Brave,' and for 'Finding Nemo,'
everyone became certified scuba divers. 'Monsters University' was fun to research because it takes place in a
college setting -- I have five sons and three of them are in college right now. I've been able to pick their brains.
I'd go and move one of my sons into college, bringing all these ideas and observations back to the next story
Director Dan Scanlon, like a lot of members of the production team, graduated from art school. "We didn't
quite have that experience as far as the look of a classic campus -- so we went to several schools to soak up the
atmosphere. Just seeing the students -- so young and so stressed -- most of us were glad to be done with that
phase of our lives. But we also got the distinct feeling that anything's possible. There are so many opportunities
and areas to study -- we saw all these different schools within each college, which definitely got us all charged up
imagining what a monster college could be."
Producer Kori Rae took part in the team's quest for knowledge and inspiration as the story was just getting off
the ground. "Our first research trip was to the east coast to visit a number of schools, including Harvard and
MIT," says Rae. "It was a blast. The first day of our visit, we were amazed -- just blown away by the scale of the
campuses and all the activity -- saying, 'Are you kidding me?' We visited classrooms, listened in on lectures --
everyone really got into it."
Artists were inspired by the campuses they visited. "In 'Monsters, Inc.,'" says production designer Ricky Nierva,
"they took the best of American manufacturing and translated it into a monster world. When we went and
looked at all these colleges, we wanted to feel the spirit of the university so we could similarly translate that into
our monster world.
"We realized that there's a lot of history -- particularly at a campus that still has buildings from when the school
was founded," continues Nierva. "There's history in the way the buildings were designed and the way they were
built. We could see how each campus evolved as time went by -- there were really old buildings next to really new
buildings. We learned how the oldest -- often the most ornate -- building on campus was where the university
started -- typically surrounded by big, really mature trees -- with the rest of the campus expanding from there."
According to Nierva, the team paid attention to the details -- ultimately incorporating much of what they observed
into the film. "We learned about the walking patterns of the students, which we found fascinating. There were
pathways snaking through the Quad on one campus that seemed random. We realized that many of the paths
had been left by students who had to get from point A to point B as quickly as they could between classes, so
they would cut across the lawn in lieu of the original paved paths, killing the grass. Eventually, groundskeepers
just paved the short cuts because they didn't want to keep reseeding the grass."
As a result of their observations, artists made the School of Scaring the oldest building on the Monsters University
campus, complete with big, mature trees, worn pathways that connected paved ones and a bevy of monsters to
put it all to good use. Filmmakers even borrowed a tradition from one of the schools they visited: Students who
enter the School of Scaring on their first day of school touch a statue's toe for good luck.
But there's more to college life than buildings, pathways and statues. The team visited schools in their own
backyard, including Stanford and UC Berkeley, and checked out some of the more entertaining aspects of student
life. Says Nierva, "Some of the schools felt much more open -- people throwing Frisbees around on the grass
and laying out. We loved going to the fraternity houses. The fraternities were very open to letting us into their
places -- we took a lot of photos.."
Some members of the production team attended a bonfire event at UC Berkeley prior to a big football game
against Stanford. The experience served as great reference for the MU-Fear Tech rivalry.
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