Today Monster’s Inc is 15 years old. I celebrated the anniversary by watching both films recently (Inc and University) to see how animation has changed in the past 15 years.
The technology has of course improved. Pixar are using vastly more advanced computers and software now, their render farm will have no doubt quadrupled in size and their overall experience and knowledge will have developed a great deal as their staff stay hungry and keep learning.
The ‘graphics’, as most people would say, have improved. Most notably the fur generation is way more advanced today. From having around 1 million strands of hair in 2001, in Monster's University Sully had up to 5.5 million strands of hair.
The rigs were clearly a limitation back in 2001. If you look carefully (and I do!) you can see that Pixar’s skin weighting was limited by the poly-count their computers could handle. It also wouldn't surprise me if they hadn't quite perfected the ideal model topology for a clean, flexible mesh that deforms beautifully when bound to a rig. Put that together with the fact that interactive paint weighting, dual quaternion weights and heat map binding weren't around and you start to appreciate how well they did with the 'state of the art' technology they had in the day. Mr Waternoose stood out in particularly, because he had such a jowly face that really would have benefitted from today's rigging advancements.
Even the animation performance has improved. Back then, Toy Story was only 6 years old and computer animation was still considered ‘clunky’ in comparison to traditional animation. It certainly wasn’t an art form like stop motion can be. But the guys at pixar we’re seriously improving their performance skills shot by shot. They knew the essence of a great film was story and emotion and they did everything they could to make their characters stand up as actors. The likes of Doug Sweetland, Glenn McQueen, Scott Clark were pushing the boundaries of their CGI medium, looking at the principles left by Disney’s Nine old men in traditional animation and battled with the rigs to make them work. You can see they used a layered approach on a lot of their shots, the stark character poses of the ‘Pose-to-Pose’ work flow method are not always there. They probably weren't using video reference material very much either (like they did on Finding Nemo), so the essence of acting wasn’t as potent in every shot as it would have been today. I’m not saying it wasn’t good animation, though -it was! The scene near the end where Boo is terrified by Sully's scare demonstration, almost makes me cry every time.
Something I find interesting is the fact that Mike and Sully are the iconic characters of the film and are the first thing you think of when somebody say’s ‘Monsters Inc’. Why isn’t Boo the first thing you think of? Normally baby characters are hugely popular in animation, they often outshine the adults, even if they arent lead characters - but not in this case. Is it because boo is only ‘human’ and we prefer/ expect exciting characters in animation? That's another blog topic.
Anyway, despite officially being an older film now, Monsters Inc is still one of my Pixar favourites. Peter Doctor made sure the most important ingredients, the story and the characters, were the best that they could be. Stories and emotions are timeless, technology doesn’t play a part in those areas.
Twenty years from now people may look back at Monsters University and realise how dated the render and animation looks, but I bet they enjoy Mike, Sully and the story just as much then as I did last night.