- The Washington Times - Friday, November 2, 2001

LOS ANGELES "Everything is driven by story," says John Lasseter, the creator of Pixar Animation Studios and its executive vice president in charge of creative affairs.
"Monsters, Inc.," the latest Pixar feature, opens today.
"Generally, these films take four years to make, and at least two years of that process, sometimes more, is consumed in story development," Mr. Lasseter says. "We take pains to get the story right."
Pixar debuted triumphantly in 1995 with the industry's first computer-animation feature, "Toy Story," and has maintained a consistent excellence at two-year intervals. It added "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2" and now "Monsters, Inc."
The jovial and authoritative Mr. Lasseter, who directed or co-directed the initial trio of Pixar hits, is accompanied by Pete Docter, chosen to direct "Monsters, Inc." Mr. Docter is the first of many younger animators who probably will be entrusted with directing responsibilities during the next decade or two.
WaltDisney Pictures, which astutely agreed to distribute at least the first sevenfeatures made byPixar, hosts the press gathering at the St. Regis Hotel in Century City. Pixar itself is based in the San Francisco Bay Area, at a custom-made studio facility in Emeryville, wedged between Oakland and Berkeley.
The movie's vocal co-stars, John Goodman and Billy Crystal, cast as hulking and runty monster sidekicks named James P. Sullivan and Mike Wazowski, also attend the promotional kickoff.
Mr. Docter, 33, began to work for Pixar in 1990, soon after graduating from the California Institute for the Arts, also Mr. Lasseter's alma mater. Mr. Lasseter had won national Student Academy Awards for the animated shorts "Lady and the Lamp" and "Nitemare." Mr. Docter took the same annual competition with a short titled "Next Door." These titles seemed to anticipate their work at Pixar, even their collaboration on "Monsters, Inc."
The new picture envisions an industry town called Monstropolis where professional monsters, known as Scarers, provoke the screams of little children during hit-and-run nocturnal incursions. Childish screams are the city's esoteric and somewhat disreputable power source, collected in cylinders. The points of entry into susceptible kiddie imaginations are the closet doors in bedrooms. Millions of replicas of these magic portals are stored in the Monsters, Inc. factory and conveyed to the Scare Floor when another visitation is due.
Mr. Goodman's Sullivan, or Sulley, is a good-natured, bearish type with a spiffy set of horns and pastel fur (aquamarine streaked with lavender). He has been the industry's No. 1 Scarer for some time. Mr. Crystal's Mike is a one-eyed, green-hued spheroid, part chatterbox and part bon vivant, infatuated with a serpent-tressed receptionist called Celia (dubbed by Jennifer Tilly). On the floor, Mike serves as Sulley's scare assistant; off duty, they share an apartment and are best pals.
Mr. Goodman and Mr. Crystal were early favorites for their roles, although the former started off as part of a longer list than the latter, whose services had been solicited by Pixar when "Toy Story" was in its early stages.
"As we're writing, we often have specific actors in mind," Mr. Docter says. "Then as we get closer and closer to casting, we'll strip the audio from films with the actors we're interested in and put it underneath drawings of the characters." That matching process usually narrows the range of suitable contenders.
Mr. Lasseter suggests a test that moviegoers could try at home. "The physical sound of the voice means a lot," he says. "We began with Kodiak bears as a reference point for Sulley big, powerful things, but ultimately big things with tender hearts. Take any movie with an actor you like. Turn your head and just listen to the performance. In some cases, the physical presence remains as strong when you can't see the actor, when it's just the voice. That's what we're always listening for."
Mr. Goodman did not require prodigious arm-twisting to do the movie. He had done an extended animation role for the Disney farce "The Emperor's New Groove." However, Pixar Chairman Steve Jobs placed a strategic call to Mr. Goodman's agent. "He doesn't get involved that often in casting matters, but we like to use every tool in our tool chest to achieve a desired result," Mr. Lasseter says. "Steve is nice enough to do favors for us sometimes."
Mr. Lasseter recalls that he had approached Mr. Crystal about doing one of the leads in "Toy Story" but had failed to make a persuasive pitch. "We were looking at Buzz Lightyear for him even before we had a name for the character," he says. "When we approached him for ["Monsters, Inc."], we got an enthusiastic 'Yes.' We put together an early version of Mike with a piece of dialogue from one of Billy's movies, matched with some character sketches. He just loved that."
Mr. Crystal emphasizes that he would prefer to forget about the "Toy Story" matter. "A deal couldn't be worked out because of some business dispute whose details I can't even remember," he says.
"When we started working on 'Monsters,'" Mr. Crystal says, "John showed me a Buzz Lightyear test he had done years ago using my voice. It was hilarious but being very honest, I don't think I was right for that. Tim [Allen] was the guy. Buzz needed that beautiful dense and resonant voice."
For Mike, Mr. Crystal found that he needed to play around with his voice "I did this character on 'Saturday Night Live' called Willie the Masochist," he says. "His tag line was, 'I hate when that happens.' So I took that and edged him up. Gave him some espresso and made him nuts. He's like Jiminy Cricket on speed. He's Burgess Meredith to John Goodman's Rocky."
Mr. Crystal also insisted on mutual recording sessions with Mr. Goodman. As a rule, the actors in animated films work alone. "Before we started recording together, Pete would ask for different line readings, and I'd say, 'I don't know what John's going to do. It doesn't feel right.' Traditionally, they depend on the sound editor to select the best match for line readings that cover all the emotions. John agreed to come in, and it was heaven. Then you're really acting and improvising together, really relating to each other. That's why I think the work is so good on the screen."
Mr. Crystal likes that Mike resembles him so closely. "I always do a lot of talking with my hands, and the animators picked up on that," he says. "I would stretch and stuff, and that's in the movie, too. My wife, who knows me better than anyone, thinks Mike is a dead ringer. They just nailed a lot of the expressions on my face. It's weird. One eye and no profile, but it's me."
Mr. Goodman, asked about the "key" to Sulley's character, replies facetiously: "It was a long and complicated process: Me show up, me read. Seriously, I don't want to take too much credit for anything. There's something very confident and proud that permeates from the top down at Pixar.
"They're loose, and they're fun. They videotape you while you're reading. When you come back two or three months later, they'll have rewritten the scenes, incorporating aspects of your personality and facial expressions and bodily movements. Each session kind of feeds on the last and keeps growing into its own monster."

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