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How a Pixar Movie is Made: Behind the Scenes of ‘Monsters University’ With Story Supervisor Kelsey Mann

Monsters University
Disney-Pixar

Pixar makes a lot of movies. A lot of great movies. So how do they do it? And more importantly, how do they keep doing it? We were invited to visit the Pixar campus in Emeryville, California to watch the ‘Monsters University‘ team work and try to answer that very question.

First up is Story Supervisor, Kelsey Mann. He is responsible for all the storyboards for ‘Monsters University,’ which serve as the framework for the film, while it is being animated. We met Mann inside a plush movie theater with a workstation at the center hooked directly into the screen. He took out a digital pen and a drawing board and immediately began sketching out a scene from the film when Mike Wazowski enters his dorm room and turns on the lights. It’s a drawing that would take you or I about three hours to finish but he completed three storyboards (and had them animated) in about three minutes.

We spoke to Mann about what it’s really like to work at Pixar (a lot harder than you’d think), the true story behind that “Pixar’s Rules of Storytelling” post that went viral (it’s not actually from Pixar) and what ‘Star Wars‘ movie he wishes Pixar could make.

How many people are on your team?

It varies from year-to-year, really. Early on it’ll be like three people. And then it grows to about 10 or 12 people. A big push before a screening or something. An average amount is 8 people.

By screening, you mean the storyboard presentations?

Yes. Exactly. We call it the story reels. It’s basically the storyboards cut in editorial to temp the music, sound effects and dialogue. We screen those every couple months. And hopefully we have the whole movie. It’s a great, great tool. Being able to watch the movie to see if it’s horrible. Or not! But if it is, where did it fall apart? And then we fix it. I always compare what we’re doing to being like test pilots. There’s this airplane and they toss us the keys and are like, “OK, take it for a flight.” And we see if it flies. Sometimes we go down in flames and crash in a field. But then you see where the problem is.

I saw how much fun you were having as you were pitching that scene. Is it really that much fun to work at Pixar?

Like an actor, you really kinda put emotions in when you’re pitching something. I would have been very different if it wasn’t a funny scene. I’m trying to live that emotion in myself. If you’re storyboarding an emotional scene, you need to get emotional yourself. It’s heavy stuff.

But most of the time, our movies have an entertaining value of them, but also have a little substance. It’s all based on something real. So for the most part, we are having a lot of fun here. Maybe not as much as people think. People think when they come here –-

– “There’s a swimming pool!”

Exactly! “There’s a swimming pool! A foosball table! A cereal bar!” And all that’s great. But it’s still hard, hard work. There are still deadlines. There’s still overtime. It all exists here just like any other job. The only difference is, you definitely do get to have more fun. I’ve never done anything else though. It’s definitely a lot of fun but maybe not as much fun as people think.

[Director] Dan [Scanlon] was saying before it’s 50-60 hour work weeks. And you’ve been working on this movie for four years?

Yeah. You’re so focused on one things. That’s why we’re so passionate about making it great. Because you’re putting in so much time on one thing, you want that one thing to be worth it.

Is it heartbreaking when you put a lot of hard work into something you really felt worked and get some negative feedback or criticism during these story reels.

Yeah. There’s stuff on this film that you feel, in theory, is the right thing to do. And then when you actually try it and see it for real, it just doesn’t click the way you thought it did. Or you pour your heart and soul in a scene and you’re happy with it and the scene works on its own but when you put it in context with the rest of the film, it does nothing for the movie. Everything needs to be working as one giant piece and not 20 individual pieces. It can be very heartbreaking because you’re putting a lot of work into it but ultimately you want the movie to be good. If the movie didn’t work, that’d be more heartbreaking than having your scene cut.

Have you seen that “22 Rules of Storytelling” that supposedly came from Pixar?

Yeah…Have you read that?

I have, but I wasn’t sure if it was legit or just some urban legend. Is that actually a Pixar thing?

No. That comes from one of our story artists who left us and went to work in Los Angeles to make a live-action film. But there is no list we have up in our story room. Every movie is different. If we had that list and were like, “We got it figured out now!,” we’d move on to the next movie and you’d be like, “I don’t know anything!” People got fired up about that list and there’s good stuff on that list but you can get it anywhere. There’s all kinds of books on storytelling and filmmaking. There is no “Pixar list” or anything like that. That was just something she felt from her own personal experience. And writers are all different. Stanley Kubrick is going to make a completely different movie than George Lucas. And they believe different things.

Do you see yourself toward directing your own project one day?

When I came here – and I so badly wanted to come here – I thought, “I just want to be a story artist for the rest of my life!” If you asked me at the beginning of this movie, I would say no way but I did this and that totally surprised me so I can’t even predict what the future is. It’s more of a possibility than ever before. I just want to stay at Pixar and do whatever is needed of me. I don’t care what it is.

Now that ‘Star Wars’ has entered the Disney fold –-

(laughs)

–If you could work on a ‘Star Wars’ movie at Pixar, who would you want that movie to be about?

My own spinoff?

Yeah.

I guess it would be Han Solo. I was initially gonna say – even though this isn’t a character in the films – the Millennium Falcon. It feels like a character in those movies! You care whether that ship lives or dies! So I would love to do a movie involving the Millenium Falcon.

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