Pixar has obviously come a long way technologically since Monsters, Inc., so the design challenge with the Monsters University prequel was to expand the world through creative engineering while maintaining consistency. They call it "Monsterfication," and I went deeper into the process with production designer Ricky Nierva and sets art director Robert Kondo.
"I dived into the look of Monsters, Inc. like a research paper," Kondo suggests. "I never worked on it. But we saw certain things, like faces, tentacles, and eyeballs showing up as motifs. I wanted more of that. The Scare Floor set was also like archaeology, digging up those sets and flying around in them. I realized that the technology has changed a lot but the design work was really cool: how the whole door system was figured out and the technology behind the harvesting of screams. These are fossils from our digital backlot. But just like looking at cell phones over time, we thought it would be fun to backward engineer what the door stations would be. And if you look at the leader board, even that is rethought to be a little older."
Nierva, who worked in the art department on Monsters, Inc. when he first came to Pixar, adds that they have faces everywhere, expanding on the production design from the original movie. In fact, he's been doodles monsters in his spare time ever since. "But we were very careful that it wasn't too obvious with each building being a monster face that you enter," Nierva says. "It's a secondary impression. We put tapered shapes to accommodate different sizes and weights of the monsters. Everything is thicker and chunkier." For example, buildings have a trapezoidal shape to complement the monsters.
Researching various universities around the country helped inform their unique composite for Monsters U, which contains both an Ivy League and West Coast vibe. Judging by the intensity of the colors, though, this is clearly an East Coast autumn. The school became a central character with its own history. "I always loved the conceit that the campus was built during different periods in architectural time," Nierva recalls. "It lends to the believability." Additionally, the campus has a lot of vegetation, which allowed them to hide horns and spikes in trees and also weave ivy around the facades of buildings like tentacles.