Pixar producer reveals the secrets behind studio’s monster hits

by Giovanni Fazio

Special To The Japan Times

Sitting down for an interview with Kori Rae, producer of “Monsters University” — the new animated film from Pixar Animation Studios — I notice a bit of ink poking out from under a sleeve. Rae indulges my curiosity and reveals a pastel-colored “wa” (the chinese character for “harmony”) but quickly says “this one is better”, and reveals the logo from “The Incredibles” tattooed above her ankle.

Osaka governor Toru Hashimoto would disapprove — his anti-tat campaign began after some schoolchildren were reportedly “scared” by a city employee’s tattoos — but Pixar has been charming children, not scaring them, for two decades now, and Rae has been there for the ride, working in the animation department on “A Bug’s Life” and “Toy Story 2,” before moving to the producing side of things with “Monsters Inc.” and “The Incredibles.”

Producing is a nebulous job that can involve many things, so I ask Rae — a New Jersey girl who grew up in Florida before relocating to San Francisco — what her duties involve. “Producers at Pixar in general are incredibly involved, both creatively and on the production and budget side. But I see my job as to partner with the director and get their vision on the screen. I know it sounds broad, because it is. But it means making sure that they are surrounded by the right people, that they have the right amount of collaboration with the other directors at the studio. It’s basically a ton of creative problem solving.

“I’ve been with Pixar for 20 years, but much of how we make films is the same. Back on ‘Toy Story’ or ‘A Bug’s Life,’ everybody in the studio was working on one movie, and that was great, a unifying experience. But we’re bigger now, so in order to get people to collaborate and get their input, it’s a little harder because everyone is working on various projects.”

Rae explains how work on a single feature can be a four to five year process, and how that process begins by pitching an idea to Pixar honcho John Lasseter and the “brain trust,” which also includes directors Andrew Stanton and Pete Docter. If an idea gets green-lighted, things move quickly from an outline to storyboarding, the process by which artists draw out the scenes which will eventually be digitally rendered.

“We don’t wait for a final script to begin boarding,” explains Rae. “The storyboard artists are writers as well, and they sometimes will write out a scene via their storyboards. Like on this film, (director) Dan Scanlon would say, “these are the three things that need to happen in this scene, go board it.” And they’ll go off and write it and board it together, and come back and pitch an idea.”

The storyboards allow a freedom to experiment that has to be completed before the painstaking process of animation begins. “We reiterate a ton in storyboard,” admits Rae. “I think we created over 200,000 storyboards on this film. For any scene, we’ll edit them together, fully with dialogue and sound effects and music. Then we look at it and see if it’s any good, we’ll take notes, tear it down, sometimes start all over. That’s the first two to two and a half years.”

The voiceovers, surprisingly enough, are usually done well before the film’s finished. “We mostly record the actors pretty early in the process,” says Rae. “There’s usually nothing to show them at that point except for some storyboards, and the character design. The director’s job is to give them every bit of context, to let them know where they’re supposed to be emotionally, what’s happening in the story, all that kind of stuff. We get a bunch of takes, but because we rewrite all the way up to the very end of making the film, sometimes we have to go back and rerecord a whole scene just to change a word or two.”

Pixar’s processing power needs increase with each film, and Rae mentions how the studio’s new Global Illumination system — designed to render cinematic lighting effects within the film by mapping every ray of light in a scene — required “a bit more oomph. We had to increase our render farm.” It was already at 24,500 CPUs prior to the increase; rendering can take up to 12 hours per frame.

After only one sequel in a 12-film, 15-year-span (“Toy Story 2″), Pixar has seen a flurry of sequels in the last few years, not only “Monsters University” but also “Toy Story 3″ and “Cars 2.” While some see the influence of parent company Disney here in the emphasis of franchises over original stories, Rae insists “the plan is to continue doing both. We have the luxury now of actually making more films. The studio is at the perfect size where we know we can make two to three films every three years. We have these worlds that we created that we do want to revisit, but the next few films coming up are all originals. There’s no real plan; it’s all about the ideas, when they come, how they’re scheduled out.”