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

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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