"Monsters University" — the new prequel to the 2001 hit "Monsters, Inc." — tells the story of how Mike (voiced by Billy Crystal) and Sully (voiced by John Goodman) met at college.
Pixar executives hired Dan Scanlon — a story artist on "Cars" and "Toy Story 3" and director of the short film "Mater and the Ghostlight" — to direct the film, his first full-length feature for the classy Emeryville-based studio.
"I don't think you ever feel totally ready, but I felt ready to jump off the cliff," Scanlon said during an an interview in Pixar's offices.
While he calls working alongside veterans John Lasseter and Lee Unkrich "a great school," he had another calling card: his own live-action movie, "Tracy," shot on weekends with Pixar employees helping out.
"I was shooting for humor and heart, but on my own dime. If it fails, it's nobody else's problem. I think that made them feel comfortable making the decision to let me try," he says.
Still, he adds: "All of the Pixar movies are tough. Every one of them is terrible at some point, and this was no exception."
One of his biggest challenges was with the prequel idea — that the audience would know the outcome of the story, that Mike is not destined to become the great scarer many monsters strive to be.
"It was a while before we realized, 'Why don't we own the predictability, and create a story about failure?'" Scanlon says.
So he concentrated on making Mike a great underdog: "I think you just feel it emotionally, when this kid shows up on the bus, alone, he's got giant bags, and he's got a huge smile on his face. He's got a tough road ahead of him."
Scanlon did not direct Crystal and Goodman, playing younger characters than they did in "Monsters, Inc." 13 years ago, to alter their voices: "They're monsters, so they can have deeper voices. And then it was just their performances. I just had them be more energetic."
Preferring to record together, a rarity in animated films, added a level of enthusiasm.
"They'd make each other laugh, and they could improvise," Scanlon says.
In addition to a terrific cast, Scanlon credits success to talent surrounding him in every department.
"It is oftentimes my job just to get out of the way [and say], 'It's a great idea! Go!'" he says.