Arts interview

Overcoming failure to succeed, Pixar-style

The Tech talks to the producer of Monsters University

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Kori Rae, the Pixar producer of Monsters University.
Courtesy of Disney Pixar

Last Friday, I had the opportunity to interview Kori Rae, a producer from Pixar, about the upcoming DVD and Blu-ray release of Monsters University. Rae has been working at Pixar since 1993, and has contributed to films such as A Bug’s Life, Toy Story 2, Monsters Inc., Up, The Incredibles and Monsters University.

When asked “what exactly does a producer do?”, Rae provided insight into the role of a producer in an animation studio. She spends most of her days going to meetings, solving creative problems, and making sure that the director’s vision is translated and incorporated into the film. She says that sometimes even the directors don’t know exactly what they want, and it is her job to help them figure it out. Before her time at Pixar, Rae wanted to play basketball and eventually coach, but her dream fell out of reach when she got injured in college. However, she never lost her love for the game and was able to keep her dream of coaching alive, just not in the way she expected — instead of managing a dozen basketball players, she directs a crew of more than 250 members, and she says the same skills are required for both. She has to get everyone to work together, honing individuals’ skills to accomplish a greater goal: a successful animation film.

You may be wondering, “What exactly is Monsters University about?” In a more obvious sense, Monsters University is the prequel to 2001’s hit movie Monsters Inc. Upon my first viewing of the movie, it never occurred to me that creating a prequel would be too difficult, but Rae went on to say that this was not the case. Creating a story when the ending is already known (Mike and Sully go on to be best friends working at Monsters Inc.) is actually quite a challenge. Pixar had the task of formulating a story that wouldn’t be predictable or redundant, but that would add to the life of the characters, helping to further flesh them out. In order to best do this, Pixar chose to tell the story through Mike. Rae mentioned that it is typical for studios to start out by making several versions of a movie, so in this case, maybe a couple of versions from Mike’s perspective that diverge in the middle, and a few told in Sully’s perspective that have different endings. Only by doing this can the team make a final selection and get a true feel for how the story is supposed to be told, “it had to be Mike’s story” Rae stated.

On a deeper thematic level, Monsters University is about having goals, doing everything you can, and everything “right”, to achieve these goals, but ultimately not being able to. For Mike, this means devoting his life to studying and learning as much as possible about “Scare Theory” and “Scare Techniques” so that he can become the world’s best “Scarer”. He gets into the one of the most elite colleges, Monsters University, but unfortunately his luck takes a turn for the worse when he is quickly removed from the scare program because he simply isn’t scary. Monsters University shows Mike’s journey as he experiences defeat and major setbacks, and has to change his plans. This movie is about figuring out who you are, who your friends are, and what you are meant to do. It shows us that even when we experience what seems like crushing defeat, new doors open to us, and new destinies reveal themselves. In fact, this theme was quite personal to Rae, and similar to the situation she faced when her basketball dreams could no longer become a reality. Mike wants to be a Scarer, he ends up an incredibly successful asset to Sully and Monsters Inc. in a role as “Scare Support”. Similarly, Kori Rae wanted to play basketball, but she ended up at Pixar as an incredibly successful producer. Which goes to show, as one door closes, you never know what kind of opportunities await through another door.

In all, Monsters University is a great film, and Pixar delivered an excellent story and message. If that doesn’t convince you to go and watch it, maybe this will — when searching for inspiration for the campus of Monsters University, the Pixar team headed to New England to tour MIT and Harvard. The elements from Harvard were apparent, but I couldn’t quite tell what inspiration the team gleaned from good old TFP, so I asked Rae what was incorporated from MIT, to which she responded, “the disgusting frat bedrooms.” So maybe watch the movie and keep your eye out for elements of MIT in Mike and Sully’s bedroom…