In Disney-Pixar’s Monsters University, the titular institution’s School of Scaring is overseen by an imperious and imposing figure named Dean Hardscrabble. Pictured above (at the far right), Hardscrabble is particularly hard on MU freshman Mike Wazowski (voiced by Billy Crystal), and their confrontation ultimately affects the lives of both Mike and his (eventual) best friend, Sulley (voiced by John Goodman).
For a character this consequential, director Dan Scanlon and his team spent a full year working on the design, including creating full, physical, three-dimensional models, and the complex CG “rigging” of how the character would move through space.
So how did Hardscrabble change from a sleepy-eyed, alligator-y man to a commanding, arthropod-y woman?
Four weeks before the movie was set to transition into physical production — meaning all designs had to be finished and locked into place so the animation team could begin working with them — Scanlon realized Hardscrabble needed to be a woman instead.
“Dan likes to play things against type,” says Jason Deamer, the distractingly handsome art director for Monster University’s character design. “He felt a male dean as an antagonist [in a college movie] was just well-trod territory, and it would just be more interesting and different to do a female version.” The fact that the character had changed within the story itself also contributed to the decision. “He used to just be a professor, and then became the dean, the most powerful character in the school,” says Daniela Strijleva, the distractingly beautiful character artist for Hardscrabble. (Oh the irony of people this gorgeous spending their days creating monsters!) “If you look at the alligator version of Hardscrabble, he had a lot of power — like sheer power, just physically. That’s what a lot of the jocks [and] Sulley already have. I think that they wanted to achieve something a little more subtle [with the character].” (It’s also worth noting that, had Hardscrabble not become a woman, the film would have had zero major female characters.)
A 16-year Pixar veteran, Deamer is well aware of the studio’s long history of tearing up a well-developed idea that isn’t working and starting over, even as hard deadlines loom precariously overhead. But still, how did he and his team feel about scrapping work on they’d already spent a year on?
“We were not exactly initially thrilled,” he says. At first, they even tried to save their original design by feminizing it, but that fell flat quickly. “It was like lipstick on a pig, a little bit. Just didn’t quite work out. We realized that we needed to go back to the drawing board.”
And they did — with just four weeks left to do a year’s worth of work.
“Sorry, but this isn’t really working for us.”
First, Deamer pulled together every artist still at Pixar who had worked on the original Monsters, Inc. from 2001, as well as some of the character artists who’d helped create the first version of Hardscrabble — including Strijleva, who had already moved onto a different movie. Together, Team Hardscrabble turned out reams of character sketches, referencing everything from a butterfly to a bat to a crab to an owl. “We were going all over the place,” says Deamer. “We would pin [the concepts] up all on the wall and bring the director in. I think even we knew that we hadn’t exactly hit it yet, but he would come in and sort of was like, ‘Yeah, sorry, you guys, but this isn’t really working for us.’”
The problem? “The idea was that she was the best scarer of all time and then she became an educator later in life,” he says. “Those two ideas don’t necessarily reconcile [visually].”
A great example of that issue are the two subtly different sketches Strijleva created that are pictured above. The design on the left, notes Deamer, “works as one of the most terrifying monsters, potentially, but not necessarily the dean of a school.” The design on the right, meanwhile, “works as maybe the dean of the college, but not so much believable as the most terrifying monster that ever lived.”
What finally cracked the code? One day, Scanlon suggested the team try elongating her body, which led them to the creature it’s likely your eyes are already trying to avoid looking at it below: Scolopendra gigantea.
Sometimes the grossest thing in the world is precisely what you need
Known colloquially as either the Peruvian giant yellow-leg centipede, or the Amazonian giant centipede, it’s probably best described as the most disgusting giant insect ever in the history of ever.
And it’s exactly what Pixar needed.
“As terrifying as it is,” says Deamer, “the movement of the centipede, its legs, just has this elegant beauty to it. We were like, ‘That’s perfect.’”
So they got one.
“One of our coordinators went looking online and found this insect dealer that worked down in the [Bay Area] peninsula somewhere,” says Deamer. “He brought it back in this Tupperware container with scotch tape on it, and it sat in his office for two months. We eventually gave it to one of our modelers. He opened the top, and it just lunged for him. We’re like, ‘We better get an expert in.’”
Let’s pause here for everyone to recover from the image of this thing lunging at them, because it gets worse.
“So we asked this expert to come on,” Deamer continues, “and talk to us about it. This guy’s an expert in dealing with venomous animals, and he’s putting on these leather mittens that went up to [his elbow], and he had these tongs to pull the thing out. He’s like, ‘This is one of the most vicious species I’ve ever encountered. If this thing bites you, you won’t die, but you’ll wish you were dead.’ We were like, ‘Oh my god, we let this poor guy have it in his office for two months.’”
Never let it be said that animation can’t be a dangerous profession.
(For the tens of you wondering what happened to the centipede, as a thank you — and as a way to get rid of it — Deamer donated the giant insect to their expert, who runs an establishment called, appropriately, the East Bay Vivarium. “I think he was thrilled to have it,” Deamer says with an uneasy chuckle. “I hope.”)
Building a better monster
Once the team had found their initial inspiration, the rest of the design began to fall into place. For Hardscrabble’s head, they drew from the crowns of various horned lizards. For her wings and hands, they turned to bats. (They even found a reference photograph of one of those giant centipedes eating a bat. Alas, the bat was not also eating the head of a horned lizard.)
The male Hardscrabble also had wings, but Strijleva was never quite sure about them. “It was a little bit of an afterthought at the time,” she says. “We already had the alligator guy, and the idea was that he would move slower and would kill you with his intellect more than his might and his power. But then Dan really wanted a scary introduction to the character where he would fly in, and it would be kind of mysterious, so that’s when we added the wings.”
For the female Hardscrabble, however, painter and fellow Pixar art director Dice Tsutsumi developed a special texture that made the wings look almost like tweed. “So it would disappear into her jacket,” says Deamer.
The final element, of course, was casting Helen Mirren to play Hardscrabble. Deamer and Strijleva had no role in that decision (and neither believe a male actor had been cast for the role before its gender changed), but they could not have been happier.
“We were already feeling great about the solution we came up with on a visual level,” says Deamer, “and animation was excited about it even though they were like, ‘You bastards,’ because having to animate all those legs was going to be a big pain in the ass, but we were really excited about it. And then having Helen Mirren come on, too, all the stars aligned and made this great character.”