Tech Leads talk Monsters University and wow the crowd at Stanford University

Pixar, Professionals, Women in Animation San Francisco

Good afternoon folks!

Here’s a reprint of an article I wrote for the Women in Animation San Francisco blog about a recent talk we hosted at Stanford University. Technical lighting supervisors, animators and scripting writers joined forces to discuss the making of Monsters University, now on DVD and BluRay.

Scare School 101 was in session on February 10th at Stanford’s Annenberg Auditorium as students and professionals across the Bay Area enjoyed members of Pixar’s Monsters University team discuss how they created the film. The speakers of the evening, Supervising Technical Director Sanjay Bakshi, Technical Lighting Lead Steven James, Lighting Technical Director Scott Clifford, Animator Allison Rutland and Effects Supervisor Jon Reisch discussed how they used their technical prowess to tell the MU story.

“The story always comes first. If the point is important we have to figure out how to do it,“ said Sanjay. “For example, with movies like Nemo, we had to figure out how to do water. “
“We have big challenges but they also have to serve the story. So we try,” said Scott.


Supervising Technical Director Sanjay Bakshi kicked off the evening by presenting the three main challenges facing the technical team:

1. More characters than ever before.
2. Furry monsters with clothes.
3. Movie will be challenging to light and render.

In order to solve challenge one, the team built an army of Monster students and faculty by creating dozens of variations of characters from the original film.

An example of which was the character Fungus. Eight Fungus variations were created, each one with a different shape and silhouette to give variety, as well as with different controls built into the rig.
The team used a parts library consisting of items like horns wings spikes, plates, and knobs to further vary the multiple Fungus’ looks. This process was repeated many times over with other characters from the first film, as well as when making brand new characters for MU.

All of the Monsters were given a unique name as well in order to track them in the production database. Naming them descriptively proved to be a challenge, so they were named after members of the Pixar crew. Sanjay even pointed out a furry orange monster given his namesake.


Animator Allison Rutland then stepped up to the podium to share the process of how she brings a character to animated life. She animated James Sullivan, or Sully to his friends. As she described to the eager crowd, Sully’s physicality is important to him. He’s a 1,000-pound monster, but younger, slimmer and with shorter horns than his future self in Monsters, Inc. It was important for her to explore the different shapes composing Sully in order to enable him to retain his monstrous shape.

“[His] head had to be level with body to keep him monster-y so he didn’t like a duded in a suit,” she explained.
Allison then walked through the process of how she animated Sully for his first scene on screen, when he enters the classroom and overshadows Mike’s attempts to impress the teacher for the first time.
The first step in the process is to receive the layout from the layout department, said Allison. The layout team blocks in where the character needs to move as well as the other characters and props in the scene.

Next, she received the shot breakdown from director Dan Scanlon. The importance of the scene, she explained, was not only to get Sully from point A to point B, but more importantly, to show the character of Sully.

“He lacks confidence so he acts cocky,” said Allison. Before creating her shots, she writes down the dialogue in order to figure out the subtext of the scene.

“Yeah he’s my Dad,” she said, stating one of Sully’s iconic lines, meaning, “I love telling people this but I pretend it’s not big deal.”

Next, she figures out the rhythm of the statement. “Larger words may equal larger poses. Pauses show character thought processes,” she explained. She observed how Dan Scanlon imitated Sully’s lines, shot her own reference, and made thumbnails to figure out staging. Then Alison showed the audience her blocking pass – from pose to pose, as a means to figure out if it will work. Once blocking is approved she animates the character.
The story reel and layout team had Sully put both hands behind his head. She had him put hands on a chair in a triangle pose to take up more space and appear more in control.
Finally she showed the scene of Sully entering the room, sitting down, borrowing a pencil and picking out his teeth, a triumph of animation.


Lighting Technical Lead Steven James then explained the fascinating and sometimes complicated process of lighting a feature film. Monsters University required a complete rewrite of the tools needed to create realism in lighting.
The Pixar lighting tools required two main things:

1. A high level of control
2. A powerful system

Each character possessed 10 different sets of lights, for example, key light, bounce light, eye highlights and rim lights. Each set required at about 30 lights. In addition to this, each character had their own lighting rig, and when added together, each of these lights became the visual equivalent of crazed spaghetti.

The complexity of the lighting set up required a unique technical solution. To meet that solution, the GI Team created physically based lights – lights based on particular shapes, like disks and squares. They also created a paint system to create color texture and added color ramps.

This process allowed them to use a single dome light with paint textures to create beautiful lights that simplifies the number of lights needed, saves money and increases productivity.
The render time more than doubled so that the artists could do more creative and less technical work, explained Steve.


One of the funniest scenes of Monsters University is the first challenge Oozma Kappa faces – the Toxicity Challenge. In this scene, all of the fraternities and sororities must run through a darkened sewer tunnel filled with urchins that flicker light and inflict painful welts when touched. It’s a clever scene, and one that proved to be particularly complicated to master.

As Master Lighting Artist Scott Clifford explained, this is the type of scene that “makes a computer cripple to its knees.”

“We have to pay attention to how we do it, in a non standard lighting set up so computer car render property,” he explained.
Lights have to act as a crowd but be individually direct-able so that the main action – the relationship of Mike and Sully, can be seen by the audience. For this reason, the lighting department needed to be able to control which urchins lit up at specific times during the scene. And on top of this, the render time needed to be efficient.

“Let the urchins light the scene!” explained Scott. The first attempt to solve this challenge was to combine the shading of the urchin with sphere lights, and ray tracing shadows with geometry. This proved to be a huge fail, said Scott, resulting in three days of rendering.

He went back to the drawing board, and realized to get the scene to work, he would need to encompass four things:

1. Optimization
2. Model Complexity
3. Boundary volume hierarchy for lights
4. Changed sphere lights to not illuminate urchins

Scott wrote a script to fix this — distance based optimization that simplified the shot pipeline. In fact, he wrote several scripts, each one created to solve specific problems, until the toxicity challenge played the way it needed to in order to enhance the story.

Scott’s process, along with the processes of Sanjay, Allison and Steven, highlighted the main point of the evening – there will always be challenges. The key is to come up with a creative solution and to seek out the assistance of your fellow team members.


At the end of the evening, the speakers took questions from the audience to further explain their process and working at Pixar and their road to reaching the studio.

“For animation the most important thing is to find a mentor in the early years,” said Allison. They also explained that it is often not a linear path to get to the studio, or any studio for that matter.

“You may think you want to do this and but you may have to do all these other things first,” said Scott. “It’s amazing the path you can take if you’re willing to do whatever it takes. Be interesting. Do your own stuff.”

Special thanks to Stanford Design Initiative and Pixar’s Jon Reisch, Sanjay Bakshi, Scott Clifford, Steven James and Allison Rutland for helping Women in Animation San Francisco put together such a fantastic event.

Women in Animation San Francisco is a chapter of Women in Animation, a nonprofit dedicated to helping women succeed in the animation industry.

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Pixar Storyboard Class Week 2: Economy of Storytelling

Academy of Art University, ANM 499, Kristen Lester, Pixar, Pixar Storyboard Class, Storyboarding, Storyboards

This semester I am taking ANM 499 Digital Storyboarding for Feature Animation with Pixar Story Artist Kristen Lester. I am chronicling my experience on the blog for myself and for those interested in learning more about storytelling. I highly recommend trying your hand at the assignments we were given, as well as watching the films assigned. Happy boarding!

*In order to fully discuss Kristen’s notes, I detail events that occurred in the films we watch. Watch the film, then read on to see how we analyzed the film.

Image courtesy of

Today we started class watching the montage scene from The Hudsucker Proxy. An excellent film released in 1994 written by Joel and Ethan Coen and Sam Raimi, The Hudsucker Proxy chronicles the rise, fall and rise again of Norville, played by Tim Robbins, an idealistic young man fresh out of Muncie College of Business Administration. He has an excellent idea “you know, for kids!” that he wants to share with the world that becomes the hula hoop. It’s like watching a live action cartoon, and proved to be a great movie to analyze. There are many excellent sequences that propel the story forward.

Some of the take aways Kristen mentioned were to have a scene ask a question, then give an answer. For example, in the Proving Room scene, we first see men behind giant windows, then we see men in hazmat suits jumping behind sandbags. We are asking ourselves “What is a proving room?” “What’s with the hazmat suit guys?” Then the camera cuts to a mannaquin with a bomb strapped to him and a hula hoop around the waist. We realize they are going to blow up the mannequin to see what happens to the hoop. The filmmakers could have showed the mannequin first, but they instead opted for us to ask a question, then the answer is revealed later.

In the same montage scene, the shopkeeper throws out all the hula hoop, and the red one rolls through the street on a magical journey to the footsteps of a small boy. We watch the event that eventually pans down to the hula hoop’s POV, as though we are the hoop itself. In this way we are like both the hula hoop and, in a way, Norville, we just want someone to believe in us. We, (the hula hoop) want to reach our full potential.

The montage works because it conveys a lot of information in a condensed period of time. It is a story within a story.

Next, we learned a set of useful terms to help us in our storytelling process.


Always have something build to something else. Ask yourself, is every shot giving a new piece of information that’s adding to the story? Each shot should have its own moment, an opportunity to build humor, intensity or emotion for example. Also, the emphasis should have the most contrast.


Why say it in 5 shots when you can say it in 3? Why not 1? Always try to move the story forward.


This refers to clarity of the idea, not the drawing. Rough sketches are fine as long as they convey the story point. A beautiful drawing is pointless if the story doesn’t shine through. Again, does every scene work?


How are you telling your story? For this, we briefly discussed The Hero With A Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Glove and Boots made a fun video about it too. We didn’t mention the Glove and Boots film in class but I love it so here you go:



Ultimately, everything you’ve done is for naught if the story is not something that people want to watch. Are there interesting and unexpected reversals? Good staging? Our job as filmmakers is to entertain and educate. That’s why we shell out the bucks for movie tickets.

Last and certainly not least, we each pitched our homework assignment from last week.

Our assignment was to take this image:


And create a story using only 6 cuts and no more than 30 images. She allowed us to use B and C cuts so you can ignore that part at the end of the image. Everyone submitted very imaginative stories. She emphasized the necessity of making appealing drawings that are loose so that we focus on who the story is about and their POV rather than an omnisicient POV. She also discussed the importance of putting the camera in the best place to tell the story and paying attention to the 180 rule, which everyone breaks from time to time. The 180 Rule, of the Rule of Left to Right, can be remembered this way: if a character is on the right, they should always be on the right. This will keep you from crossing the line. Kristen went through all of our stories, one by one, and shortened them. Cut out the fat. It was amazing. Turns out you don’t need that many drawings to tell a story at all.

For example, here is my original story:

ZiegfeldMurders01 ZiegfeldMurders02ZiegfeldMurders03ZiegfeldMurders04ZiegfeldMurders05ZiegfeldMurders06ZiegfeldMurders07ZiegfeldMurders08ZiegfeldMurders09ZiegfeldMurders10ZiegfeldMurders11ZiegfeldMurders12ZiegfeldMurders13ZiegfeldMurders14ZiegfeldMurders15ZiegfeldMurders16ZiegfeldMurders17ZiegfeldMurders18ZiegfeldMurders19ZiegfeldMurders20ZiegfeldMurders21

And here it is after Kristen’s cuts:

ZiegfeldMurders01 ZiegfeldMurders09 ZiegfeldMurders14 ZiegfeldMurders16 ZiegfeldMurders21

You get the same meaning in fewer shots. Still exciting, fewer drawings, story point is still intact. This is the essence of economy of storytelling – simplifying the story into ONLY the images you need. AMAZING. And time saving.

For our second assignment, we are using Late Night Hashtags by the one and only Jimmy Fallon, my favorite talk show host and future host of The Tonight Show. Our assignment was to turn the following hashtag into an amusing story in 10 images or less:


My friend yawned and a rubber band from his braces shot out of his mouth and hit a lady in the face. #awkwardpromstory

You can watch the whole clip here:

You’ll see my story in the next post! ‘Til next time storyboarders…

The Hudsucker Proxy image courtesy of





AIGA SF Event featuring Pixar Director Mark Andrews

Mark Andrews, Pixar, Professionals, San Francisco, Women in Animation San Francisco

I had the great pleasure of meeting Academy Award winning director and all around hilarious guy Mark Andrews on Thursday night at AIGA SF’s Lecture Design Series. Mark shared the joy and pitfalls of creating storyboards for live action and animated features. I wrote an article about the experience on the Women in Animation San Francisco blog that you can read here.


Enter the Dream Factory


Going to Pixar is akin to visiting the land of Oz. You step inside the gate and you are transported to another world. The air is fresher. The sun is shinier. The benches are benchier. You try to contain yourself – to conduct yourself with decorum. Then you see the giant Luxo Jr. and all bets are off. Suddenly you are a little kid like “Charlie in the Chocolate Factory.” All the memories of seeing films in the theater with your parents, extended family, friends, significant others, where you were, the time of day, come flooding back into your mind. It’s amazing. Like visiting old friends.

My friend Rhonda and I came to the dream factory to see a special screening of “Brave.” Fantastic movie. I had not had the opportunity to watch it and I genuinely enjoyed the story. I have not seen a film that delved into the mother/daughter dynamic, especially not in animation, which is usually male-centered. It was a privilege watching this film, and I look forward to meeting some of the fine folks at CTN who worked on it, including Brenda Chapman herself.

We took a ridiculous number of pictures. And there were some things that we could only see with our eyes and not capture with the camera, like the “Brave” Exhibit on the second floor of the Atrium. Some truly fabulous art up there. There were areas roped off, where we can only imagine the artistry at work. And we saw a few employees in the wild, no doubt busy on some soon-to-be seen project.

After the screening every milled about – no one was in any hurry to return to the real world. We were able to leave only because we knew that one day we would return. After visiting the studio, and seeing the film, the bar has been set. Onward to glory!

Pixar Animator Mike Makarewicz’s Excellent Lecture Notes

Animation Club, Events, Mike Makarewicz, Pixar, Professionals, The Animator's Journal

Academy of Art alum, 8 year Pixar animator and all around swell guy Mike Makarewicz (MUH-KARE-UH-VITCH) gave a great talk at the 79 Montgomery theater on Saturday April 21st on the most important of the 12 animation principles to him: timing. It was an excellent talk. He spoke extensively on the subject, provided great film clip and musical examples, reviewed animation club member Brandon’s reel, and even gave a demo on how to animate Sully from “Monster’s, Inc.” Animation gold, I tell you. Here are my illustrated notes. You can also read some non-illustrated and equally helpful notes over at the Animation Club blog.