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Monsters University: Supervising Animator Scott Clark Interview

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Appearing at the UK premiere of Monsters University at the annual Edinburgh International Film Festival, Scott Clark has been one of the main men at Pixar since Toy Story shot the 3D animation company into the public consciousness. Work on almost every Pixar release from 1998’s A Bug Life onwards, Clark has seen the studio grow into the Disney-owned behemoth that it is today and has what many movie-buffs would consider an ideal job. With the upcoming Monsters University the cartoon giants face their third franchise (after Toy Story and Cars both spawned sequels). Thankfully, this prequel to 2001’s mega-hit Monsters, Inc is both comical and considered – with plenty of sly in-jokes for adult viewers to chew on (including a hilarious homage to the Friday the 13 th films) but nonetheless easily accessible to that all-important child audience…

Interview by: Calum Waddell

Was there ever any talk about making a sequel to Monsters, Inc or was this always going to be about “what came before”?

“I wasn’t involved in the premise for this movie, but everything I was hearing at the genesis of the project was, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be funny if we looked at Mike and Sulley’s early years in college?’ As far as I know, it all just kind of went from there…”

When do you, as a supervising animator, begin to work on a Pixar movie?

“An entire film, from the premise to it being in theatres, usually takes about five years. I typically work on them for three years. I will jump into it all at the pre-production stage – which is when we are building the character models that we think will make it into the final film. I begin working on the animation tests at that point and articulating these models onto the screen.”

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With Monsters University did you have a lot of freedom to bring in some of your own ideas?

“Sure – within my department I think there is a lot of freedom to come up with acting ideas and performance ideas. The story is definitely set before it comes to us, but in pre-production we do animation tests to explore the characters. At that point we also explore what voices would work for the characters and everyone has the freedom to come up with suggestions for that.”

How involved was John Lasseter with Monsters University ?

“John is involved in every film that Pixar makes from an executive producer standpoint and he is head of feature animation at Disney too. I don’t see him as much as I used to but he does come in and he gives us some great notes. Typically we’ll show him some sequences and he’ll give us a few tips – ‘I think you can push the humour here a bit more,’ or, ‘What exactly are you trying to say with that shot?’ – and it is really helpful and nice to have that. At heart, he is still an animator and a storyteller.”

Do you think John is the rightful heir to Walt Disney, as some animation pundits have suggested?

“Walt Disney was the pioneer of feature animation but I do feel like John understood what was good about the classic Disney films. It always made sense that we were working with Disney. Pixar films are Disney films. We are making the sort of films that Walt Disney himself would make. It feels right that we are part of the family. Even though we are a separate company I feel like we have the DNA of Disney in us.”

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When you first saw Monsters University how did you feel? I know you have to say the right thing here, but is there ever a point – especially over a five year period seeing the same scenes over and over again – where you are unsure if the completed film is going to hang together?

“I always thought that this was going to be a good movie but, yes, there is still that uncertainty. That continues until you finally sit down with people who have not seen it. To hear them laugh, and even cry, at all the right moments is verification. If I’ve seen a joke 20 times it has long ceased to be funny. But John always said to us, ‘If you laughed at it the first time, trust it – because it must have worked.’”

Do you foresee another Monsters, Inc sequel?

“There is nothing on the drawing board right now but it would be fun to work with these characters again.”

What about other sequels? Do you know of any plans to continue The Incredibles or WALL-E ?

“Not that I know of, but I wouldn’t be surprised because these are very popular movies. But it is only worth doing something if there is a story worth telling – and that is always the catch.”

Right, Toy Story 3 , for instance, concluded that mythology so perfectly that it is scary to imagine what a Toy Story 4 might be like…

“Yeah, Toy Story 3 had such a great conclusion. I’m not sure what would happen with another Toy Story either [laughs]. But I love sequels. However, a new movie with the same characters has to have a really good reason to exist. Finding Dory , our sequel to Finding Nemo , is a brilliant idea.”

Can you say anything at all about Finding Dory?

“I can’t. I can only tell you that it is a great premise [laughs]. I read the script with a big smile on my face.”

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What has it been like seeing Pixar grow to the size it is now?

“It has been like living with a family I have always loved and it has just grown bigger. We have lost some people on the way, like Jill Culton and Steve Jobs, but I was there at the early company meetings and it was just 120 people. Now we have over 1200 people so it is ten times the size it once was. But one thing that has not changed is the culture of collaboration and creativity. It still feels like that is there.”

Some quick Disney-related questions to finish off this interview: Any news of The Three Caballeros on Blu-ray?

“Funnily enough we never get told what is being planned next for Blu-ray. We get the news the same time as you do. Right now I’m anxiously awaiting an American release of 101 Dalmatians . I understand that you lucky Brits already have a Blu Ray of that [laughs].”

Should Disney finally cave in to pressure from animation buffs and release Song Of The South ? [ Note: the controversial race-relations movie from 1946 which features some dubious African-American stereotypes ).

“Uh… You know, Song Of The South has some fantastic animation but I do think there are sensitive things in there. Maybe we should just leave that movie to the animation nerds. You can still get copies of it on video but Disney is not the same company now that it was back when they released that.”

Just last year Disneyland in California opened Cars Land. I’m not a big fan of Cars . Convince me I should visit…

Cars Land is amazing [laughs]. I was the supervising animator on Cars and this looks just like the movie. The details are perfect. You walk in there and you will really believe that you are in Radiators Springs. And there are some fun rides too. Even if you are not a big fan, the attention to detail in Cars Land will blow you away.”

Finally, if you could have worked on any classic Disney movie, what would it have been?

“It has to be Dumbo . It is not the biggest or broadest of them all but I love the storytelling and how heartfelt it is.”

Monsters University is released in the UK on 12 July.

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