Disney Pixar director, Dan Scanlon, made his animated feature directorial debut with the launch of Monsters University, released in cinemas summer 2013. Having previously worked as an animator and story artist on Toy Story 3 and Cars, Dan surely has one of the coolest jobs on campus. We chatted with Dan to get the inside scoop on top filmmaking tips, where the inspiration for those hilarious one-liners comes from and how everyone, just like young monster Mike, can find a way to conquer those inevitable life-changing challenges.
Junior: As a director for Pixar, you have a job that many kids would dream of. How do you think we can encourage children to express their creativity?
Dan: When I talk to kids that want to get into filmmaking, my advice is simply to start filming things. Nowadays you can film on a phone so it is very easy to make a simple movie. I also feel that you should pick a subject matter where you can tell the story in five seconds. Doing a lot of small, fun projects with a camera, starting to practice and figure out fun ways to tell stories and use digital effects, is a great way to practice as a budding filmmaker. That’s the way I started and technology was much more terrifying back then! You can even shoot animation on your phone now; there is no end to the possibilities. I started by practicing live action and animation. I think the best way is just to stop thinking and start doing.
What kind of films did you enjoy watching as a child?
I loved films by the animation director Chuck Jones and animators that did a lot of the Warner Brothers films. I also loved the classic Disney films and, as I got older, I enjoyed the shorts that Aardman and Pixar were making. I also loved the Muppets, as a small kid. They were just so creative and funny. I was also lucky to grow up in a family that was full of storytellers and people that were naturally funny. Being in that environment made me fall in love with the concept of telling stories.
How do you come up with original comedy lines, that people can relate to? Do they come from real life experience?
Yes, we tried to as much as we could. We thought about our own experiences. A lot of us went to Art College, which is very different than the big universities with fraternities and sororities like those in Monsters University, but we grew up watching those kind of all-star movies and we did a lot of 'visiting universities' research for the film. We just watched students and try to remember what it was like to be a kid away from home for the first time. Then throw the funny monster equivalent on top of that. Certainly in the case of Squishy’s mum, Mrs Squibbles, I think a lot of that came from our own mums, certainly from my mum! She is the fun-loving mum who is supportive of her child, even though her child is an adult now – but she still sees him as a child.
If you could be a monster, would you be small and cute, like Mike, or big and cuddly, like Sully?
I think I already look like Mike [laughs]. I’m bald, but luckily I have two eyes. I relate to Mike a little bit more, because going to college I had a really supportive mum who told me I was a great artist and that I could draw, which was wonderful. But then, when I got to college I realised that everyone had that mum and I was not as good as I thought and, much like Mike, I had to face some tough realities and work really hard to get where I wanted to get.
Do you think children can take lessons in friendship and relationships from the film, as well as being entertained?
Yes, absolutely. I think a big part of the film is learning abut other people that are different from you and also learning how your friends can somehow help you discover who you really are. A lot of the film deals with something that isn’t always dealt with in films - that is that sometimes when you work really hard, things still don’t work out the way you had planned. And that’s a tough message, but it is something that so many of us had been through in our lives, we wanted to make a film that was there for kids who were experiencing that for the first time. You can take an unplanned path in life and sometimes those detours can lead you to something better. And that you shouldn’t feel like you should give up, because often it leads to something wonderful – and much better than the route you had planned.
Do you have a favourite character, or would that be like picking your favourite child?
Yes, it would! I love all the characters in different ways. But I do have a soft spot for Squishy. I think he’s a sweet, nice character who is going after his dream, but is maybe a guy that gave up a little bit too soon on himself. I like the message of the film, that Oozma Kappa got a team – because it’s all about giving something another shot, even if it it isn't exactly the way you thought it would be.
Can you see there being a Monsters Babies film in the pipeline?
[Laughs] Not that I know of! We have honestly given no thought about any other Monster movies, but it was certainly fun to get a little glimpse of Mike in his younger years.
Do you think there are trends in animation, and if so, what is coming up?
Not necessarily. I know that at Pixar, one of the things we enjoy the most is to try new things. I think the fun of having new directors on board as the years go on is getting new ‘voices’, and even the directors who have worked on films before are always trying to challenge themselves. The whole studio loves taking risks and trying things that are original or unexpected. Whenever I find out what the new Pixar movie is going to be about, I always feel best when I am a little nervous about it, when I am thinking ‘hang on a minute, how is that going to work out?’ or ‘how are they going to do that?’. I love that feeling – I hope I always have that feeling when I hear what is coming next.
Also, It is nice to see that two-dimensional animation still has a place. I would love to see more of it out there. It already feels a little nostalgic, which is nice.
Are you working on Finding Dory, the sequel to Finding Nemo?
I’m not sure what is next for me. I took a little time off after Monsters University and my hope would be to be in development and to try and develop a new idea, but I’m not sure what is going to happen next!
Monsters University is released on 3D Blu-Ray™ , Blu-ray™ and DVD on 11 November, 2013.
Images: ©Disney/Pixar 2013
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