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.

And for more info on Women in Animation San Francisco visit our Facebook Page at:

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Head of Animation Lino DiSalvo Talks Art of Frozen at Walt Disney Family Museum

Hello Readers!
Here is a repost of an article I wrote for the Women in Animation San Francisco Chapter Blog. You can find out more about our organization by visiting

Happy reading!

Enthusiasm for Frozen was palatable at the sold out Frozen: Art of Animation talk Friday night at the Walt Disney Family Museum. Lino DiSalvo, head of animation for the film and a Disney vet with over 15 years of experience at the company, led the audience on a fantastic and sometimes harrowing journey through the process of creating Disney’s 52nd animated feature film.

A Musical for Even Non-Musical People

“We watched every musical ever created,” DiSalvo said with a laugh as he chronicled the storytelling process. “[And] I started this journey hating musicals.”

It wasn’t the music he hated. DiSalvo grew up on classic Disney musicals and loved film. It was the “yearning look into the horizon” that truly bothered him.
He, along with the many other individuals who enabled the film to become a reality, wanted something more heartfelt for their heroines and the other characters.

He wanted the emotion of the characters to be so organic that they could not help but sing. “The scenes that worked in these films with singing, [there was] no other way for the character to convey the emotion they felt,” said DiSalvo. The dynamic duo of Tony Award winning scribes Kristen-Anderson Lopez and Robert Lopez enabled that vision to become a reality.

“They were awesome,” said DiSalvo.

Adventures in Compelling Storytelling – Elsa’s Journey 

Two of the other great challenges when creating the film were crafting the story and dealing with a tight production schedule. The Snow Queen remained on Disney’s radar for years, but it was not until Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee signed on as directors and Lee hemmed the version of Frozen that is now in theaters that the film truly clicked. One of the toughest parts was getting the story right. Their goal was to create a compelling narrative devoid of cliché. One major issue was that Elsa, the snow queen herself, played too much like a villain. This made it difficult for the staff to want to root for her by the end of the film.

“It’s a 90 minute film and you want to like the characters,” said Wayne Unten, supervising animator for Elsa. “To get her to the mountain top for ‘Let It Go’ you have to show what she’s been through. The villain part wasn’t working.” The story came together when Lee showed the staff the bond that needed to exist between Elsa and her sister Anna, and how that bond would ultimately save them.

“The film is family love, not romantic love,” said DiSalvo, crediting Lee with bringing to light the theme of the film. “Everyone in the room said that’s the film we have to make.”

To further illustrate the importance of this point, the directors held a “Sister Summit,” said DiSalvo, where every woman on the team brought in their sister to sit and talk about what it was like living with a sister. This provided a wealth of information to everyone on the crew and helped solidify in their minds the type of relationship they wanted Elsa and Anna to experience.

Time Waits For No One 

Another major challenge was the release schedule. Originally slated for a 2014 release, the studio made the decision to release the film a year early in order for Frozen to be released for the Thanksgiving season, and to give Disney’s next animated release, Big Hero 6 a chance to shine during the following holiday season.

“When we went from 14 to 13 everybody freaked out,” said DiSalvo. “When we calmed down, we figured out how we were going to do this.” They succeeded in finishing the film by being efficient, said DiSalvo, solidifying the story, making solid acting choices, and overall working with some of the most talented individuals in the industry.

Life at Walt Disney Animation Studios 

Audience members got a rare look into the inner workings of the Disney studio in Burbank, including photos of the story room, animator’s offices and the coup de resistance, a giant ‘A’ where animators who have completed their first film sign their names alongside revered Disney veterans like Glen Keane.

“The building says animation but it should say collaboration because that’s what we do,” said Unten.

DiSalvo explained the process of filmmaking at the studio, starting first with the three touchstones of what Disney strives for in all of its films: compelling stories, believable worlds and appealing characters. He also touched on five aspects of the making of Frozen that were crucial during the visual development, story and animation processes. These five enabled the artists to stay true to the character of the film and create a compelling story.

Truth in Acting 

“Truth in Acting, “ said DiSalvo, “was the most repeated phrase during the entire production.” Disney brought in an acting coach who helped the staff delve into what defined each of the characters on screen. This included imagining the lives of the characters before and after each incident in the film. By pulling the bits and pieces from the characters lives, the artists were then able to achieve a stronger emotional core for Elsa, Anna and the other characters.

Along with working with an acting coach, the staff also hosted “Inside the Actor Studio” sessions with the voice actors, taking notes and recording how they sang so they could infuse the same level of resonance and emotion in the animated characters. The acting sessions with the acting coach along with working closely with the voice actors, as well as the animators acting out and thumbnailing character moments themselves, allow the heroines, heroes and villains of the film to be fully fleshed out characters instead of caricatures.

Casting and the Emotional Crescendo Board 

The film crew created a “crescendo board,” said DiSalvo, a literal board mapping out the conflict and resolution of every scene in the film. This allowed them to track the highs and lows experienced by the characters so that they could build to pivotal sequences in the film without giving away too much information early on. It was crucial to follow the board to ensure that the artists build up the character to a specific emotion.

“The goal is believability,” said DiSalvo. “We don’t want it to be real. We want it to be believable.”


Every film requires hands on research, especially one set in a world of snow and ice. Disney sent the animators to Wyoming to explore what it would truly be like to live in a snow-covered kingdom. This led to crazy scenarios, including the animators tromping around in full length wool skirts to see just how difficult it would be for Anna to maneuver around. They also held races in the snow and soon discovered that it is incredibly difficult to run in knee-deep snow without falling on your face.

Hand-drawn and CG Tests 

Collaboration with hand drawn artists, according to DiSalvo, is one of the most fun things about the film-making process.

The story team, visual development artists and animators worked closely together to flesh out the character arcs of the characters in the film. Among the many artists who helped flesh out the characters were Bill Scwab and Jin Kim, who DiSalvo credited for helping to bring some of the great expressions of the characters to life.

Elsa character designs by Jin Kim


Anna character designs by Jin Kim

The animators then went on to create screen tests to show the emotional range of the characters. These tests were later used as teaser trailers, including the ones below for Elsa, Olaf, Kristoff and Sven.

Acting in Animation 

“If you can capture that little truth you’re on your way to something honest there,” DiSalvo said about the acting process. Each day the animators gathered in a room to watch the dailies, where the supervisors and directors watched their shots and gave notes. It was in dailies where DiSalvo and the team could analyze the acting, subtext and gesture of the characters to make sure that they flowed well within the story. “As animators we flesh out what the character is thinking and feeling,” said Unten.

“If there’s no heart behind the animation, then you’re just animating for the sake of animating,” said DiSalvo. For this reason the analysis went beyond the typical animation critique, which often focuses more on mechanics, such as fixing pops and improving arcs, and more about the acting.

Bringing the Characters to Life 

The high attention to acting and drama paid off for one of the most pivotal turning points in the film, the ‘Let It Go’ sequence, when Elsa transforms from Queen of Arendelle to the Snow Queen herself. Unten spent five weeks animating the sequence, spending his days supervising his animation team and his nights animating the sequence.

“Each of us has different methods,” said Unten, “but the goal is the same, to create amazing characters.” His method included watching recording sessions with Tony award-winning actress and voice of Elsa Idina Menzel, acting out expressions himself, thumbnailing his ideas, animating the sequence, receiving notes from COO of Walt Disney and Pixar Animation Studios John Lasseter, and animating again. It is a painstaking process, but one deserving of the time.

“It’s not just a music video, every line means something,” said Unten.

Parting Words 

The evening ended with DiSalvo and his team fielding questions from the eager members of the audience, who included everyone from students and professionals to small children.

DiSalvo gave a particularly good piece of advice to students, who are often inundated with cynicism from the industry.

“These movies are a hard journey,” said DiSalvo, and he credited the talent of his staff for making Disney a great place to work and make films.

“I think Frozen is a great example of artists believing in each other,” said DiSalvo.

And it is this belief that will continue to inspire future artists and animators the world over.

Special thanks to Walt Disney Animation Studios, the Walt Disney Family Museum, Head of Animation Lino DiSalvo,  Animator Amy Smeed, Animation Supervisors Wayne Unten and Jason Figliozzi and Walt Disney Animation Studios Director of Talent and Development and Outreach and Women in Animation Secretary Dawn Rivera-Ernster for this excellent event.

And for more info on Women in Animation San Francisco visit our Facebook Page at:

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Andreas Deja and Carol Kieffer Police at the Walt Disney Family Museum

On Saturday I had the great pleasure of meeting Andreas Deja and Carol Kieffer Police at the Walt Disney Family Museum. This Museum is one of the treasures of the Bay Area. If you have not been you must take the trek out to the Presidio. They offer classes and events every weekend, film screenings, a terrific museum, and the staff is delightful.

Andreas Deja, Carol Kieffer Police, Women in Animation San Francisco
Carol Kieffer Police, Andreas Deja, myself, and several of the great members of the WIA-SF.

I wrote about the event for the Women in Animation San Francisco blog. You can read about their entertaining talk here.