30 June 2021 1594 Views


by James Murphy

30 Year Animation Industry Veteran on Working as Supervising Director on Walt Disney Television’s Monsters at Work 

1: How has the last year been for you? Tough, I imagine to get all the work done, even remotely?  

Obviously, there were challenges in the early stages of the work-from-home transition but I’m pleased to say that once our team found its rhythm, we just continued making our show, like nothing had happened. It’s a testament to their dedication. Everyone was honored to be working on such a beloved property as Monsters Inc and wanted to create something that would equal the original films as well as build something new from it. 

2: So, MONSTERS. How does the animation quality change for a streaming show vs a full movie?  

I’m pleased to say that the quality is equally as high. Our animation process on Monsters at Work was the same as the way I’ve always worked with animators on the features I’ve directed. We talk through the character’s objectives and thought process, brainstorm ideas for how those would manifest in their behavior and then let the animators loose on the scenes. The animation team at ICON, our partner studio in Vancouver, is every bit as good as the animators I’ve worked with on past projects. And our animation supervisor here in LA, Steve Cunningham, worked tirelessly to insure the highest quality and to create the most collaborative environment. I couldn’t be happier with how our characters have been brought to life. 

3: The ‘look’ of animation has changed a great deal in the last decade. Do you think we will ever get a retro appetite to make things look like they did in the 90s, say? As in the Beauty and the Beast /Aladdin/Pocahontas/Hercules/Tarzan era? Or is a new aesthetic here to stay?  

I think the new aesthetic is here to stay but I also think we’ll be seeing a lot more diversity of styles and content as the pool of creative talent grows more diverse. 

When I was teaching at CalArts several years ago, I tried to impress upon the students how amazing this era is, in the history of animation. They have the tools literally in their lap to make finished, professional quality animation and they have a way to exhibit that animation right at their fingertips. Now more than ever, animation can be a tool for self-expression, and it won’t cost a fortune to make and you don’t have to enter film festivals or go to pitch meetings in order for people to see it. 

It’s an exciting time in entertainment, and especially for animation. We’ve never had this many options for exhibiting content. In the past, it was either a TV set or a movie screen. Now, with social media, the internet and streaming platforms, the need for fresh material has never been greater. We’re already seeing totally different looks in the recent batch of animation being made. I think it’s only going to expand from here. And how cool would it be to see a new animated story told in the ‘retro’ style of a hand drawn Disney animated musical? 

4: Animated and indeed, live action sequels are the way forward in the market. Which of your past properties would you most like to revisit, if given the chance?  

For me, Meet the Robinsons has lots of potential for furthering the story. I have a lot of ideas for where things might go next. While we were developing the story way back when, we talked about backstories for many of the characters and how the Robinson family formed into what we saw in the film. I’ve also thought a lot about the main character, Lewis, and where his head and heart might be after the events of the first film. I think there’s an interesting story to tell about what happens to a 12-year old kid who gets everything they want. How do they deal with that? So there’s something there, for sure. 

5: Does the actor ‘playing’ the voice help shape the look /feel of the artwork and animation? Or do those worlds simply co-exist and merge in the edit? Might you even have a say IN casting and devise character animation with actors in mind?  

There is usually a lot of storyboarding and designing that has been done to develop the character before the actor is cast but the actor’s performance will most certainly shape the animator’s choices. 

That artwork will guide the casting department to find actors who could fill the character’s shoes. Once the actor is cast, I’ll show those images to them so that we’re starting our relationship on the same page. But then, you have to be open to input from the actor and allow space for evolution to happen, based on the actor’s performance. 

I’ve been lucky to work with actors who are comfortable with improvisation. For animation, I think it’s so helpful. By the time we get to recording voices, the material has gone through so many iterations, both in the script phase as well as storyboarding. The possibility of it getting over-worked, and of us losing sight of what we have, is so high. When actor’s can come in and bring new ideas and a freshness to the characters, it’s so valuable. 

The cast of Monsters at Work is a prime example of this. Every single actor that we worked with was comfortable ad-libbing and playing around with ideas that weren’t on the page. Billy Crystal knows Mike Wazowski so well that he could tweak lines and add jokes that only he could come up with. Ben Feldman owned the character of Tylor Tuskmon 100% and was constantly adjusting lines and contributing ideas to make him someone an audience will really care about.

When I started on Monsters at Work, most of the actors had been cast but in my past experience, I’ve had a say in casting the actors. For example, on Winnie the Pooh, my fellow director Don Hall and I proposed the idea of using Craig Ferguson to play Owl. With all due respect to the actors that have portrayed him in the past, we felt that we could mine more humor out of that character. Someone like Craig Ferguson could easily pull off the expected blowhard quality of Owl but could also find more of a comedic edge to him. 

6: Disney is a corporate family of sorts. So would you ever see yourself tackling a Marvel or Star Wars product, for example?  

I grew up with Marvel superheroes as well as the original Star Wars trilogy so it’s been exciting to see how those worlds and characters have grown over the years. If the possibility arose, I’d love to work with Marvel and Lucasfilm properties for animation (in particular, with a certain well-known archaeologist). 

7: MONSTERS is now a near 20 year old brand. What do you think is key to its longevity and appeal?  

Well first off, it’s just a really fun world to be in. When I was first offered the opportunity to work on the show, I thought ‘how can I pass up the chance to work with one-eyed green monsters all day?’ What could be more fun than that? 

Beyond that, I think it’s because of the lack of cynicism at Monsters Inc. To me, they’ve all got big hearts and a real sincerity. One of my favorite of the new characters is Fritz, played by Henry Winkler. He has such a purity to him. There is nothing malicious or duplicitous about the character. I find his innocence and sincerity refreshing and, if he were a human, the kind of person I’d want to be around.


(Editor’s note: when Mr Anderson says a ‘famous archaeologist’ I suspect he means INDIANA JONES..Imagine the possibilities of an animated Indy..please make it happen, Disney/LucasFilm!) 


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