News Column

Former metro Detroiter at the helm of 'Monsters University'

June 20, 2013

YellowBrix

June 20--In a local TV clip from the early 1990s, Elliot Wilhelm of the Detroit Film Theatre introduces a short animated film titled "Andy" from an area student film festival.

"The people who made this are going to be professional animators, I can tell you that," raves Wilhelm.

Twenty years later, Dan Scanlon has more than fulfilled that prediction. The Disney Pixar veteran, who grew up in Clawson fascinated by cartoons, is making his feature animated film directing debut with "Monsters University," the charming prequel that opens Friday and takes the classic "Monsters Inc." characters back in time to their college days.

-- Review: 'Monsters University' partially redeems Pixar

In "Monsters University," big blue furry Sulley (John Goodman) and green, one-eyed ball of energy Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) are together again, this time as students enrolled in the Monsters University school of scaring.

Their adventures lead to encounters with a cast of new creatures that includes an intimidating dean (Helen Mirren) and members of the underdog Oozma Kappa fraternity. One of the frat brothers, Don Carlton (Joel Murray), a middle-aged salesman with big dreams who's looking for a fresh career start, is a shout-out to Scanlon's metro Detroit roots.

"Don is very much based on friends I grew up with around Michigan. He's a Midwestern monster. That's why he has the accent," says Scanlon. "He's every kind of dad and friend's dad that I knew in Michigan."

Scanlon, who will turn 37 on the day "Monsters University" hits theaters, is taking on a daunting task as a first-time feature animation director, particularly since "Monsters Inc." earned more than $250 million domestically.

He approached the task knowing he was part of the collaborative environment of Pixar. The culture there encourages staffers to support each other to make each film as good as possible, according to Scanlon, and the emphasis is on staying true to the story line.

"I had one boss in the process, and it's that story," says Scanlon, who is also the co-screenwriter. "It's the baby you're raising."

He was hired by Pixar Animation Studios back in 2001, the same year "Monsters Inc." was released. He was a storyboard artist for "Cars" and "Toy Story 3" and co-directed the original short film "Mater and the Ghostlight," a bonus feature on the "Cars" DVD, with his Pixar mentor, Oscar-winning director John Lasseter.

"I was lucky that John was a supporter of mine from the beginning days on 'Cars.' He's really kind of taken me under his wing and it's been great," says Scanlon.

Helming "Monsters University" involved a lot of directing traffic in creative terms, Scanlon explains. "It's not really your job to say how to do something so much as why to do something. You're the one person who knows the story better than anyone else. You have all these great talented people. They know how to make something be funny or look great. A big part of my job is to just make sure they're doing it in a way that supports the story."

Drawn to drawing

Much like the scrappy Mike Wazowski, Scanlon seemed destined for his career. An early fan of Warner Bros. cartoons, he was always good at drawing, according to his mother, Betty Zych, 67, who lives in Rochester Hills. By age 2, she remembers, he was scribbling things she could recognize. By 12, he was working at parties drawing caricatures.

A budding filmmaker even before high school, Scanlon won several awards over the years for his entries at the Michigan Student Film and Video Festival, an event put on by Digital Arts, Film & Television (DAFT), a Michigan group that promotes media literacy through the creative use of film and video.

"Part of the prize was that your film was shown at the DIA theater. So my terrible-looking, eight-millimeter movie was projected on this enormous screen in this beautiful theater. It was an amazing experience to have at a young age, to have an audience like that see it," he says.

"He stood out immediately," says John Prusak, a DAFT board member, cinematographer and teacher who first met Scanlon, then 9, at the festival. "I could tell back then that he had the skills. What grew for him was his sensitivity and creativity."

When Scanlon reached high school, he and his mother would make the hour-long trip to Westland for evening classes taught by Prusak at the William D. Ford Career-Technical Center. While his mom waited patiently, Scanlon would spend three or four hours in hands-on media production, focused on the art of animation.

"It was mostly adults. He'd be in there with graduates from high school or maybe a parent going back for training," says Prusak, recalling how Scanlon would do hundreds and hundreds of drawings required for short films in the old-school cell animation method. "I would watch him and you'd see the lightbulb go on many times. He'd learn shortcuts or figure out new ways to move his characters."

Those classes, along with DAFT workshops, gave Scanlon, a graduate of the Columbus College of Art and Design in Ohio, an early jump on his craft. Both in college and afterward, "people were amazed when I described these classes to them, because a lot of them said the film schools they were going to in college didn't have access to the same kind of equipment," he recalls.

After working for a few years at Character Builders, an animation company in Ohio, Scanlon had his heart set on working for Pixar, the Disney-owned studio known for films like "Finding Nemo" and the "Toy Story" series. "Amazingly, I got in," he says, noting that the Emeryville, Calif.-based Pixar headquarters is home to other metro Detroiters, including Bob Pauley ("Toy Story") and Jay Shuster ("Wall-E").

"It's nice to see fellow Detroiters there. It's comforting and it's exciting and it's promising," he says.

A proud debut

For "Monsters University," Scanlon helped choose and direct the impressive voice cast that includes Goodman, Crystal and, yes, "The Queen" star Helen Mirren. And how was that? "Terrifying at first because she's such an icon," he says with a laugh. "And then the moment I met her, she was such a delight. She came with ideas on who the character could be. We spent the whole first hour trying things together, as to what that character would sound like. And then, when it was done, she said, 'If you didn't like any of that, I'm available on Thursday to do it again.' "

In late May, Scanlon returned to Oakland County for a charity screening of "Monsters University" at Emagine Royal Oak that benefited the southeast Michigan chapter of the Assistance League, which helps children and families in need and where his mom, Zych, has volunteered for more than a decade. "My mom was so supportive of me," he says. "I'm so happy that in her retirement, she's giving that energy to kids who really need it."

For Zych, the benefit was the ultimate proud parental moment. "I was just beaming. People were saying that night, 'Betty, I've never seen you smile that much.' "

The event also helped two other groups important to Scanlon: DAFT and Friends of Detroit Film Theatre.

Scanlon, who describes himself as a fan of the original "Monsters Inc.," says he wanted to do something that other fans would like, but that also stands on its own as a movie, "something that would live up to the humor and specifically the heart that I've grown to love in Pixar films."

And how does the grown-up prodigy think he did? "I'm happy with it," he says with quiet pride. "Very much so."

To find out more about DAFT programs for young filmmakers, go to www.daftonline.org .

'Monsters University'

Rated G; frightening scenes

1 hour, 42 minutes

Opens Thursday with some evening screenings; opens wide Friday

See review at freep.com today and in Friday's Movies + Life section

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(c)2013 the Detroit Free Press

Visit the Detroit Free Press at www.freep.com

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