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Pixar creates new creatures

by MEKADO MURPHY New York Times News Service on June 18, 2013 11:00 AM

For the 2001 comedy “Monsters, Inc.” Pixar Animation Studios devised all manner of squishy, creepy, cuddly, fuzzy, wobbly creatures to populate that tale of monsters who harness the energy of human screams to power their city. Now, the film’s prequel, “Monsters University,” opening Friday, takes its familiar lead characters — the short, green, one-eyed Mike and his tall, furry sidekick, Sully — back to school.

Several new colorful characters attend the college, but one of the most curious additions is Art, a purple longhaired hippie-esque monster majoring in new-age philosophy. He’s one of the misfits of Oozma Kappa (“We’re OK!”), a fraternity Mike and Sully join.

With his wide, rainbow-shaped stance, he’s the kind of student who keeps a dream journal and is excited to “laugh with you and cry with you.” From his shape, to his no-worries personality, to the way he moves (and scares), Art proved to be a design challenge for the filmmakers and animators.

The filmmakers and animators were trying to base characters on college types, like jocks, cool kids and nerds. But, “And then there’s Art,” the film’s director, Dan Scanlon, said by phone from Pixar’s headquarters in Emeryville, Calif.: “We didn’t know what Art was. He was this mystery. And in a weird, kind of wonderful way, that became who Art was. We realized that that itself is a college type.”

Here is a look at the visual evolution of Art, as explained by Scanlon, sketch artist Chris Sasaki and production designer Ricky Nierva.

STRETCHING A CONCEPT

Scanlon initially proposed making Art a theater major. So Sasaki began with drawings in which he looks more alligator-like and sports a scarf.

“We were playing around with this longer-shaped, chest-out character, where he’s more theatrical and over the top,” Sasaki said.

But the story went in a different direction, and Art became more mysterious.

“With the design, I went through a lot of frustration because I didn’t know where to take it,” he said. “I remember as a joke I drew this letter A and put two dots for eyes in the middle. I thought, hey that’s kind of funny. Maybe he’s just all legs.”

“I thought, with these legs he could do some really funny walks and would be funny for the audience to see.”

SOFT PENCIL, ELASTIC FEEL

Pencil sketches by Scanlon were an attempt to better flesh out Art’s movement, which became more versatile, and his purpose. They helped the creative team visualize some possibilities.

In one scene, he wraps himself in a circle and rolls like a tire. In another, he stretches himself out into a long line so he can roll under a bed.

“A big part of my job is to go to a guy like Chris or Ricky and explain who the character is and their purpose in the story,” Scanlon said. “I’m the guy who knows the most about what the story needs. We have great artists who can design appealing characters. I let them know what they need to create and inspire them to create it.”

OUTSIDE THE LINES

When the Oozma Kappa members are under threat of arrest, Art screams out, “I can’t go back to jail!” One-liners like that abound, further complicating this character and what the audience does or doesn’t know about him.

A rough sketch, which Nierva drew by marker, was an early pass at trying to capture Art’s wacky but elusive nature.

“I thought that he would be shedding all the time,” Nierva said, but added: “We went away from it because you don’t want him leaving this trail of hair everywhere. It’s technically a challenge.”

He said the technical department got a little nervous when that drawing came up.

“Also, I was playing around with the hair tuft on his head, really pushing that even further.”

FINAL SHAPE TAKES FORM

A painting by art director Dice Tsutsumi is what the designers call a “color rough.” It is a pass at the final look of the character after it is fully sculptured in clay as a maquette.

“Here, you would explore color and fur,” Nierva said.

It was Tsutsumi’s idea to make Art purple, while the stripes came from Sasaki.

“I remember wanting to do the striping to kind of feel like tube socks in a way,” Sasaki said. “So I incorporated that into his fur pattern.”

One feature that remained throughout the evolution of the design was Art’s giant mouth, which takes up much of his face. The team didn’t want the teeth to be sharp.

“We wanted them to feel a little less threatening and kind of inviting,” Sasaki said, explaining the rounded look they went with. “And we wanted to make them kind of offset, so he doesn’t have that divide of where the center teeth would be.”

A MONSTER ON THE MOVE

In the movie, Art is heavy on fur, especially at the feet, with small mangled speckles of different colors in that fur. His stance, movement and arms had three inspirations.

One was the whimsical performance troupe Mummenschanz.

“I showed Dan some YouTube videos, and there was this particular performance with a person inside of a gigantic coiled tube,” Nierva said. “The tube was a character playing with a big ball.”

Another was the Muppets. Like those characters, Pixar wanted to make Art and the other monsters appealing, approachable and not too scary.

The third was a “Saturday Night Live” sketch, featuring Chris Farley as the motivational speaker Matt Foley who lives “in a van down by the river.”

“It’s the way that Chris Farley stood,” Nierva said. “He would spread his legs wide and put his arms between his legs as he’s making his point. And we loved how that look felt.”

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June 18, 2013 10:50 AM
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