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Interview: John Lasseter for "Monsters Inc."

By Paul Fischer Thursday November 1st 2001 01:54AM
John Lasseter for "Monsters Inc."

It seems that among this year's biggest and most memorable films are computer-animated. Now it's time for Monsters Inc, the eagerly awaited follow up to Pixar's Toy Story 2 and its rich predecessors. Paul Fischer catches up with two of the creative brains behind the delightful fable, executive producer John Lasseter, who created the Toy Story films, and making his directorial debut, Pete Docter.

Question: John, this is the first of these films you haven't directed, yes? Lasseter: The thing is, is if you think about these movies, they take really about four years to make. Docter: It's very exhausting. Lasseter: Toy Story took four years. We overlapped A Bug's Life by a year, so I jumped onto that and that took a total of four years, but it was overlapped by a year, and then Toy Story 2 was overlapped by two years of that and we started realizing that the goal of the company, Pixar, is to be able to come out with a movie every 12 to 18 months depending on when we want to release the movie, Christmas or summer. So we decided I can't possibly direct all of these movies with them being overlapped that much, so we decided we were going to start getting directors lined up to do their own movies and Pete was sort of the first one. We worked together on Toy Story, came up with a story, co-wrote it together. Pete was the supervising animator on it, where I was the director, so when I went on to A Bug's Life, I had Pete sort of skip A Bug's Life and start thinking about what the next movie was going to be. Then there was this little thing called Toy Story 2 that happened in between there. I don't know if you've even heard of it! In fact the next movie that Pixar is going to be doing is going to be directed by Andrew Stanton; Finding Nemo. That's going to be out 18 months from now as a summer picture for 03. I'll always be directing my own films, but I wear two hats. I'm executive vice president of creative. I oversee everything creative at the studio on one hand and then I also direct my own films.

Question: Are you surprised at how the technology has changed since Toy Story? Lasseter: Excited is more the word, because we're a part of that evolution. Docter: Really what's happened is that the computer has gotten faster, more powerful and really just enabled us to do more with them. The advances are really more due to the smart people that we have in house, they're able to use this great computing power and come up with things that we would have never been able to do. Five years ago we probably couldn't have done Sullivan's hair in Monsters.

Question: What's the process of making these films? Docter: The process is more or less this: The story is all important, so we spend two or three years, before we do anything on computers, just drawing and writing. Just coming up with the characters. Once we decide to go ahead and put it into production, we build the characters in the computer, if you think of it as a marionette or a puppet, so it exists three dimensionally in the computer, so from there forward there's no real drawings, it's all within the computer and the puppet, we're able to move it by using various controls, at the elbow is a fairly straight forward, there's just the one control there. Same with the wrist, although generally we'll have forward, back, left, right and twist so three different controls to move, so that way you could do any number of movements like this. And then all the way down. Woody had something like 300 controls, Sullivan I think 500.

Question: What software are you using? Lasseter: We have created it. We're fifteen years old this year and even before that we were the Lucasfilm computer division before it became a separate company. So we've been pioneering this medium from the beginning. In fact, our rendering system that we've written, called Renderman, won an Academy Award this year because it's become the standard of the industry. In the last ten years, there have been 26 films nominated for Best Special Effects, 24 of those 26 have used Renderman. Our technology has really become standard. Docter: Really what happens with the technology is that we want to do this stuff, again, it's all driven by the story, and we don't have any real way of doing it, so we write some new software that enables us to do what we need to do tell the story.

Question: Are you software people or creative people? Lasseter: It's not that simple. Both of us are trained in animation and art, on that side of it, and the storytelling side, and we work very closely with people who have been trained in computer science. Pixar is the best, best blending of art and technology, yet the line between that is very, very fuzzy. We actually have ongoing education at Pixar University, P.U., and we have classes where we have sculpture, acting, drawing, improv, computer classes. That's why it's amazing to see the artwork being done by the computer science people who have gone through computer science school and start seeing these clay sculptures by them and vice versa. Conversely we're real, real geeks. We are so into the technology. We don't know how to program, but what's important in to be a director in this, is to understand kind of how it works. You don't need to do it, but you need to understand it.

Question: Do you want to take this animation to the photo-realistic level like Final Fantasy? Lasseter: It's interesting. Ever since I worked with computer animation, there have been all sorts of people that have always desired and thought that is the goal. For me, the way that we work, is that we use sort of realistic imagery only as something to shoot for. We say that reality is just a convenient measure of complexity. Because if you can create a tool that can produce something that looks almost real then we like to take a step back and produce something the audience knows does not exist, that it's a cartoon, it's caricatured, it's fantasy, it's something, but then use these tools to make that look so believable into the world that we're creating. We want our films, for the audience to look at it, and say, 'I know this isn't real, but it looks so real'. Like Sully, he's walking around, you know he's not real, but look at that fur, bouncing and stuff, and that scene in the snow, I'm still amazed by that, I think that's an incredible thing, with the wind blowing and it's sticking on there and stuff, that's just on a whole other level, but you know that's not real. That's what I think is part of the entertainment value and what we've recognized.
Docter: With the kids, with the humans, and this was the case on Toy Story 2 as well, we always want to make sure that we're doing cartoons. We may be using computers but we're doing caricatured versions of reality. So we're not trying to mimic a real little two-and-a-half-year-old, we're doing a cartoon version of one.

Question: Why no outtakes at the end of the film? Lasseter: You are just lucky to have a movie to watch. We were really, really, really under the gun to finish this one.

Question: Can you talk about that, about the hurdles in hitting your deadline? Lasseter: The big hurdles, frankly, is the story. Docter: The tough thing about the story is you never know when the idea is going to come, or if it's going to come. You're working on something and it's just not working, and you keep plugging away at it, and keep plugging away at it and it's usually until the eleventh hour when you're like, 'Hey, what about this?' Lasseter: We value the importance of story over absolutely everything else. That kind of drives the producers and the production side a little nuts, because if we get a great idea, even at the eleventh hour, that we think, 'Oh this is going to make it that much better' we will do it and we'll figure out a way to do it.

Question: Did that happen on this? Lasseter: Yeah, we don't do many of them, but we really value using previews with regular audiences. Not really what they say afterwards, but audiences are completely honest while they're watching a film. Afterwards is a different story. So we watch the audience watching the movie and we can see whether we've got them or not or whether they're restless or they're there or they're laughing and all those things and we evolved a few things in this. The preview was in spring time, I forget exactly when it was, and we came out of it with a lot of revelations. Then we tweaked it and changed it and we were supposed to be done with animation in June and so we were quickly turning things around. So outtakes. . .

Question: Can you be specific about the things that you tweaked? Lasseter: One of the things that we wanted to do, to have at the beginning, is we wanted to take the audience and kids into what they're familiar with about monsters coming out of the closet and scaring. So we were very conscious of like, where are we going to cross the line where something is going to be too scary. In the beginning we milked the tension and it was a little scary and so what we did was after the first preview . . . you know how it's like really scary, scary, scary, scary and then that monster gets more scared of the kid and steps on the soccer ball and lands on the jacks and all that, so we amped up the humour right after that, that much more to make it funny. And it really works, because kids are starting to watch it, and climb up in their parents lap and all that, and then all of a sudden, when he starts becoming a goofball, they're like laughing and in hysterics and all that. It really worked.

Question: The little bird short that precedes Monsters, is that going to be in theatres? Lasseter: Yes, and we're proud to say that. For The Birds. Docter: It was directed by Ralph Eccleston who was the production designer on Toy Story.

Question: Did you make that for the Academy Award consideration? Lasseter: That's not why we do it. The short films, we really love short films. That's where Pete and I got our start. We love them as an art form and they don't get enough play in the world. We produce them for two reasons; one, it is a great way for us to try out new technology, because sometimes when you're trying something, some new piece of software technology, it's very labour intensive to use. You can't have that on a feature film, but you can have it on a short, so we try out new things. For instance, in Jerry's Game, the chess player, it was the first time we had clothing that was dynamically animated. Meaning, the computer was animating the clothing based on the underlying structure of the body, it's the way clothing works on us. So you look at Boo, running around, her clothes, it's like that. It was kind of derived from that. In For The Birds, two computer objects don't know where the other one is, so if they move, they move right through each other. And so in this case, one of the things we worked on is when they get smashed together, they sort of know where each other is.

Question: What about including more Toy Story jokes in Monsters? Docter: We talked about that. I think if you go too far, you pop people out of the film and you want to keep them believing in this world. Lasseter: But we absolutely love putting those kinds of funny self referencing jokes in there.

Question: What about the role in Apple in all of this? Lasseter: Steve Jobs is our CEO and he's CEO of Apple, so there's a connection there, but that's just a person. The companies actually have no real affiliation, except that we use Apple computers throughout the company for email and word process, you know, and Apples are getting faster and faster and their new OS10 is Unix based which is all of our software is Unix based, but as yet we haven't transferred any of our software that creates the movie over to Apples.

Question: How did you make Boo such a fully realized character with only a three word vocabulary? Docter: With Boo, we knew early on that we wanted this really appealing little kid, so as part of the process, we make a temporary version of reels. We do the voices ourselves, we do temporary music and stuff, just to see whether the whole thing is working or not. What we did was, we initially started doing the voices ourselves for Boo, and it just popped you out of the film to have an adult voice. So, one of the story guys, Rob Gibbs, had a two-and-a-half-year-old daughter and we brought her in and she initially we were going to record her just doing the lines. I'd say, 'Okay, now pretend you're really scared.' And she would just go and run away and play and it was just really hard to get her to stand there. So we ended up picking up the mic and following her and we just played. We had toys, we had puppets and we just fooled around. We got her to say kitty and a couple of other things, but the rest of all the vocalizations were just real noises that she made. Lasseter: When she was young, when she first started, her language, you couldn't really tell. Only her parents knew what she was saying. But as she got older, she started speaking English to the point where the editors would go back and turn it back into nonsense.

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