Interview with Kori Rae, Producer of Monsters University…
During my visit to the Monsters University campus at Pixar, my group had the chance to talk with the film’s producer, Kori Rae. Our discussion shed a lot of light on behind-the-scene processes so, despite being a bit lengthy, I’m sure you’ll find the following interview extremely interesting as did I 🙂
Q: Was a second movie planned due to the success of the first one or was it that years later it came up?
Kori Rae: I think it’s always the creative that drives the films and the ideas. It was more how much WE loved the movie. Not even the success of it but how much we loved that world of Monsters and we loved those characters so much. After the dust settled, I think Pete had always thought about revisiting and seeing if we could come up with something great…and they did.
Q: What was the thought process of making a prequel instead of a sequel?
Kori Rae: It was decided pretty early on when Pete and John and Dan and Andrew Stanton all got together and Pete wanted to throw out some ideas for another film in the Monsters, Inc. franchise. There was a two or three day offsite with them just bantering about ideas. The idea of a prequel was mostly just meeting Mike and Sully before Monsters, Inc. and getting to know them and how they ended up becoming who they were. That idea was kind of born at that time. It was kind of like “Let’s go backwards!” and then they just thought the college setting would be fantastic in a world that we hadn’t really explored before. So it came out back then.
Q: Do you think there will be a sequel to Monster’s, Inc. where they focus on the Laugh Floor?
Kori Rae: I don’t know. If a great idea comes around and Peter and somebody wants to make it, sure. But there hasn’t been any talk of it thus far.
Q: Do you feel like there’s any portion of the film that you relate to?
Kori Rae: I think that when we started to discover and really get into the story of Mike and how he overcomes the failure and not getting his dream and how he comes out of that and how Sully helps him. It’s just the story about what do you do when that one door really closes, and it closes hard. How do you kind of find what the next thing is or what you were really meant to do. Sometimes you think you’re meant to do something and then you discover that wasn’t really the thing and you find another route. That part of the story is really meaningful to me and I love that.
I’m super happy that we’re telling that story and that we’re telling a different version of the story that if you work hard enough, you can achieve anything. Sometimes that’s true and sometimes you hit that brick wall, and you have to figure out where to go from there. I just, I think that’s really, really cool. It’s happened to most of us and when we talk to our friends, and our co-workers, most of the people working here, a lot of them, had other dreams and ended up here in a circuitous way. I love that part of the story.
Q: Last night you were talking about how this is such a special film with the whole Monsters Inc. for both you and for Dan. Now, were you approached to be the producer for this or did you kind of think that you wanted to be a part of it?
Kori Rae: The latter. As soon as I knew that they were thinking about it, I said I really want to work on that movie if I can. Yeah, luckily that worked out.
Q: I really love seeing Mike as the child. Is there any way we’re going to see a series, or maybe another little movie with them as children?
Kori Rae: We’re so focused on getting this one done that not a whole lot of thought has been given to anything else. But, yes, he is adorable. We love him, too.
Q: Did you work on the original Monsters, Inc.?
Kori Rae: I did. I was the associate producer on that.
Q: Were there a lot of people that worked on the first one that worked on this one?
Kori Rae: There were a fair number. I would say it was probably at least 30 or 40 people.
Q: And how many total work on the whole process then?
Kori Rae: The crew size stars small, then it ramps up, and then it ramps back down. At our peak we’re about 260-270 working just on the movie here. Departments kind of come in and out. It’s kind of a linear process. You have story and editorial and art up front when you’re designing and creating the film, and then all of the other departments come online. So at a point, probably about five months ago, we were at our peak at about 270 or so, and then it kind of ramps down.
Q: So how close are you to having the movie ready for theaters?
Kori Rae: Very, very close. We’re working on the mix right now. We have a little bit of score left to do, we have a couple of score days the end of this month. The picture will be done this week, and then all of the assembly of those bits and pieces happen, and it will have a finished product by mid-May.
Q: We’re getting close.
Kori Rae: Always. Always.
Q: Are there just different endings you decide to do or do you change decisions? How is it that it comes right up to that month?
Kori Rae: The truth is that we back into our release date, so we’re actually right on schedule. We were scheduled to finish picture this week, everything’s on schedule. This is kind of how it goes.
Q: It seems that you had a background in education. What was that before you came?
Kori Rae: I majored in secondary education in English. I taught and coached right out of school for a little bit and then decided to change directions and do other things and that led me here, to Pixar, after a few years. Producing is definitely a lot like teaching and coaching, I think.
Q: What did you teach in English?
Kori Rae: It was eighth grade English. Then I coached volleyball, softball, and basketball.
Q: What made you change directions?
Kori Rae: I wanted to go explore a little bit. I had been an athlete all my life, I’d been involved in sports and everything. I wanted to travel a little bit and to explore other things. I did editing for a while and journalism and stuff like that. There was a period where I just did a whole bunch of things, and it was fantastic. It was really great – I just wanted to discover more, I wanted to see what else was out there, and ended up here. So that worked out…
Q: I’ve always been curious at what point the voices of the actors come together with the animation and do they come here to do the recording, or do they do that elsewhere .
Kori Rae: Good question. So, the last part first. We record both at the studio, we have a recording studio over in the other building. Sometimes talent comes here if they can. A lot of it is dictated by schedule, honestly. Sometimes if we’re really jammed and we can’t afford to fly to New York or LA, wherever the town is, we ask them to come here. Sometimes they can swing by on their way to LA. A lot of the actors travel for their own career.
So, sometimes it works out. It worked out a lot. We had a lot of the talent record here, which was fantastic. But, generally, a lot of our talent on this film was based in LA. So we did the bulk of our recording in LA and we went to New York a couple times and then the rest here. It was really quite easy.
Q: So do you do the voices and then put it to the animation, or do you do the animation first and then say, “Okay, guys, try to match this”?
Kori Rae: We cast the film even when it’s just in story reel form. That’s when we start thinking about casting the characters. As soon as we cast them and record them, we cut it in and we start working. Sometimes it’s still in the storyboard phase, and sometimes it’s in the layout stage, which is where we’re just laying out the camera. Then we have to get it all in and locked before it goes to animation. All of the voices are in and final, and edited in before animation. They use that to animate to. They have to have those voices in there to animate to.
Q: So they can add facial features?
Kori Rae: Yeah, and kind of just get the emotion and get the character through the animation, the intonations that they use. It’s amazing how much you can see coming through, not even just in the facial expressions, but even in their body and their movements all comes through the voice, and kind of what the emotion of the character is for a certain scene.
Q: Do you ever try to match the actors’ expressions?
Kori Rae: No, not really. If they’re laughing, they’re laughing, but it’s not something the animator tries to. They very seldom even look at the footage of the actor. We record it but they usually are just listening to it and that voice is the character that they’re animating.
Q: In the whole process, is there a department you like working with more than another?
Kori Rae: Um, probably not necessarily more. Again, the good thing is that, because our process is fairly linear, you get to spend a good amount of time in each department. It’s totally satisfying in that way. For this film, we were in story a lot – I think the challenges of doing a prequel were so intense. I really loved being in story on this film and we had an incredible team dealing with really challenging problems and it was also a little bit new for me. As a first-time producer, it was the first time that I had really been in the story room every single day, all day. I really loved that part of the film.
But I always love animation. My first gig on A Bug’s Life was managing the animation department, so my heart is always with the animators. I love that department – it’s where the film really comes to life. It’s always great to go to dailies and see what people are doing when they animate a scene and how much they ‘plus’ it and make it its own thing. That’s always great.
Q: But you love all your kids equally…
Kori Rae: Exactly.
Q: Pixar has been so consistent about producing a high quality experience, an emotional, a story-based experience. Film industry is typically sort of up and down, like a studio will put out something that will do well and then it will flop. What would you attribute this to? Is it personnel? Is it a dedication to a specific part of the process that allows you to do something so consistently well?
Kori Rae: I think it’s both. I think it’s personnel. We do have incredibly talented people here. John Lassiter kind of brought in Andrew and Pete to begin with and has continued to bring in really talented people. I do think it’s also a lot about the process and the fact that we are willing, the directors and the filmmakers, are willing to put something up, have it torn down completely, go back to the drawing board, put it back up, have it torn down. That’s the thing you have to be willing to do, in my mind.
Especially with story, you have to be willing to let go. You have to be willing to throw stuff away, and not get too attached to it. You have to do that over and over again in order to get to the right place. The things that you’ve loved at one point that got picked out often make their way back in. It’s the willingness of the directors to do that, in a collaboration and the fact that it’s done in a collaborative spirit. It’s not done in a mean-spirited way. It’s like, hey, everybody here wants to make the best film. The filmmakers that are working on that and then every other person who’s involved, the whole studio, wants to make it a great film.
Q: Everybody’s so passionate that I’m sure at some point they’ll fight for their ideas, and things like that.
Kori Rae: Yeah, and then the filmmakers have to make those choices when it comes down to that, because you have to.
Q: No room for egos!
Kori Rae: No, and that’s the real beauty of it. I think that is why we’re successful because it’s not about that. It’s really about putting the best thing up on that screen.
Q: You’ve been alluding to some of the challenges. Can you identify a few of the challenges? Just going backwards basically to do a prequel?
Kori Rae: Yeah. Story, definitely, again – just trying to make a prequel, without being predictable. That is the challenge when you know how a movie ends, how do you make it interesting enough for an audience to sit through 90 minutes of the film and still be surprised, and still even root, for something that they know isn’t necessarily going to pan out. One of the other challenging things on this film was just the scope of the film and the sheer number of characters. We knew, being set on a college campus, we were going need a ton of characters for this film.
So, one of the first things we did in production was we started with the background characters before even a lot of the primary characters were designed. We started, creating, designing, and making the background characters. The volume and the number of characters goes all the way into animation. Animating a shot with seven primary characters, when it’s the misfits of Mike and Sully and it’s the whole group, and then you have background characters behind them. It’s incredibly challenging, just scene after scene, to have that many characters in all the shots. Animation-wise it took us a little bit longer and was a little more challenging than we anticipated. Well worth it but it definitely was one of the things because it’s well populated, this college.
Q: Do you have to set hard, fast deadlines for all of your teams? How do they see you?
Kori Rae: We really, really collaborate on that because in production you set deadlines, you set milestones and schedules, and then they change. The minute you make a schedule for any department on a film, the next day, within 24 hours, things have changed. You have to be able to roll with that. Again, it’s really, really collaborative. We meet with departments a few times a week and talk about what inventory is and what their deadlines are, what their schedules are, and just how to help them stay on track.
But it’s never, like, “Oh, here’s your deadline and you have to stick to it”. It’s not tenable. It’s really just figuring out, it’s problem solving every single day. Just how to deal with the changes because, not only is the story iterative, but every single department, animation, the characters, shading, all of those departments are iterative. So some things are easy, some things are hard in different departments, and so they never line up. You’re constantly just trying to figure out how to make the puzzle work for that particular day or week. In the heat of production when all departments are going, as far out as you can look is a week or maybe two. Everything else after that is just too impossible to tell what’s going happen. So you have milestones, you have goals, and you know what the brick wall is. But within that, it changes, and is fluid the entire time.
Q: I’m a very impatient person and I like to see results instantly, so I can’t imagine working on a project that takes this long. Do you ever get really antsy and eager for it to be finished so you can see it all come together?
Kori Rae: Even if you have those proclivities it’s like, at every step, it changes. So you’ll have one shot, and you see it in the story board and then a month later, a week later, you’ll see the the rough characters with camera. And then a week after that, you’ll see a more advanced version of that. Then you’ll hear it with the character voice.
It’s always layering on top of each other, it’s never the same. You’re really never looking at the same thing. It’s always evolving. And then you get to see it animated and then you get to see it lit, and then you get to see it lit with effects. It’s kind of the thing that keeps the director and everybody sane. It’s always moving but it’s totally exciting. The middle part, and seeing it in all of those different forms, that’s the fun part. We’re privileged to be able to see all that.
Q: Super quick – who’s your favorite character?
Kori Rae: Uh, I, oh… I don’t really have a favorite character – I love them all. No, you know who I do really love is Dean Hardscrabble. As a character and as a character design, I just love that she’s this strong, powerful character and that Sully and Mike cause her to shift a little bit her way of thinking.
Q: Can we expect to see bloopers at the end of this one?
Kori Rae: I don’t think so.
Q: Who came up with the Dean’s name?
Kori Rae: It was probably a collaboration of Dan, the director, Kelsey, the head of story, and the writers, Dan Garson and Rob Barrett. A lot of the naming kind of happened at various times within the story process. I don’t even know who was responsible for which name, even the names are a collaboration, to be honest.
Monsters University will be in theaters on June 21st! For more info check the social links below:
All-expense paid press trip provided by Disney/Pixar. No other compensation is being/was provided. All opinions are 100% my own.