Pixar animator Scott Clark on Monsters University

We spoke to Scott Clark, a supervising animator at celebrated animation house Pixar, about their latest feature film, Monsters University

Feature by Nathanael Smith | 04 Jul 2013

The first thing you notice about Scott Clark, Pixar veteran and the supervising animator on the animation house’s latest, Monsters University, is his hat. Sitting comfortably on the genial American’s head is a faded blue, dog-eared cap with MU emblazoned across the front. This isn’t any old merchandise to be flogged to kids wanting to boast membership of Mike Wazowski and James P. 'Sulley' Sullivan's alma mater, though. A closer inspection reveals the cloth on the peak is torn in exactly the same spot as Mike's is when he first goes to the titular educational establishment. It's a live action replica of an animated prop. This is the kind of love for their craft and attention to detail that has characterised Pixar's work ever since Toy Story, and the sight of it still there on the animator’s head after a full day of interviews with journalists at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, where Monsters University is having its UK premiere, is a wonderful symbol of pride he feel for the project. 

The one thing that becomes clear when talking to Clark is that animators are like actors, performing with their characters. “The designing of the characters is the job of the Art Department,” Clark explains. “Animation [Clark’s speciality] is the team that brings these characters to life. My job is to support my crew of about 60 or 70 animators, helping them to get the performance we need for the director,” he explains. “If I do my job right I'm giving them work that inspires them to give good performances as animators.” Clearly, then, the animation team are more than talented code writers – they are as big a part of the film as the star vocal talent provided by Billy Crystal and John Goodman.

This idea of the animator as the performer informs every element of the film, whether it is in creating some of the film’s myriad jokes – “I've been asked to pitch in if it is a very animated gag, like Art [a new character voiced by Charlie Day] flipping down the steps like a slinky” – or in landing the big emotional punches for which Pixar are famous – “[our characters] should go to the core of emotion,” he says. This double-headed approach of humour and pathos is something that, when balanced well, characterises the best of the studio’s output – think of the opening act of Wall-E, which manages to be both hilarious and heart-warming. One of Monsters University’s standout sequences comes in the final act when – without spoiling anything – the two heroes have their biggest scaring challenge yet, forcing them to confront their insecurities. It’s funny and thrilling at the same time and, as Clark explains, “there’s an appeal to the adults watching that, knowing that we are parodying a certain genre of film, while kids are enjoying it at a dramatic level.”

“I would hope that we are able to make you cry one moment, then laugh in relief, then really laugh at something really funny" – Scott Clark

To Clark, achieving the right tension between comedy and drama comes down to the animation team. “I would hope that we are able to make you cry one moment, then laugh in relief, then really laugh at something really funny,” he says. “I think that contrast gives it greater depth.” Even with a world as surreal and alien as that of Monsters University, the key to eliciting such emotion is to give the characters appeal – to make them relatable. To do this, every monster has some real world reference point: “Sullivan is human, but he is also a bear, but he's also an ape, with simian arms – the hair is like a dog or a bear. Mike is definitely very human, only with one eye. With Billy Crystal’s performance in the first movie, he was the sidekick. This one, being the main character, he had to emote more. We had to feel really sad for him when he discovers he’s not really that good at being a scary monster, you know?” They may look totally unreal to us, but every creature that Pixar animates feels like someone we know.

As ever with Pixar, having fun – for both the audience and the filmmakers – seems to be the highest priority, and on Monsters University there seem to be more opportunities for this than on most films. The animation team had more scope than ever to capture this sense of fun, given the variety of creatures they had to animate. “With Brave, last year’s Pixar film, that had more naturalistic physics,” Clark explains. “It’s still caricature, but it’s humans, bears and horses. So it’s stuff that we see in real life and are familiar with. In the Monsters world we get to push it a little further and we get to go ‘well what about this guy with five eyes’ or ‘this monster who's just a noodle-y U-shape.’ I do think we get to be a little cartoonier.” The best example of this is aforementioned Art, a long tube with tiny arms, who Clark describes as “a noodle” and Squishy, “the grey kid with the green sweater and loads of eyes.” “He's very squishy, literally!” say Clark. “So we could really be very pliable with a character like that.” This what makes Monsters University so funny – everywhere you look there’s something silly and unexpected, and you sense that the animators had a riot working on this film and making it visually unique.

As for how the crew had fun, they “invented some scare games where we divided the whole animation department into different fraternities and sororities – and a guy or a girl could be in a fraternity or a sorority – and we had contests. At our animation wrap party we awarded the championships.” That’s the Pixar modus operandi: having fun and caring about your story, whether inventing silly games to play, or wearing dog eared caps to show your pride.

Scott Clark was visiting Edinburgh for the family gala screening of Monsters University at the Edinburgh International Film Festival

Monsters University is releases 12 Jul by Disney/Pixar