We are delighted to have a chance to chat with director and animator Stephen Anderson today at Rotoscopers. He is the esteemed co-director of films like Winnie the Pooh and Meet the Robinsons, and his new project Monsters at Work can be seen starting this week on Disney+.
Why don’t you introduce yourself, and tell us how did you get inspired to become an animator and director?
My name is Steve Anderson, and I’ve been in the animation business for around 30 years. Mainly at Disney for about 26 years.
I’ve often thought about the answer to that question of why I became interested in animation, because I feel like it’s just always been there, and it’s always been a thing that I’ve been passionate about. I know for a fact, my parents… I grew up on a strict diet of Disney movies for many, many years, until Star Wars. That was my first PG movie.
Prior to that, I was only allowed to see G-rated movies. And of course, that meant Disney. So I saw lots of Disney animation, and of course, watched Looney Tunes and The Flintstones on TV. And there was something about it that just made me wanna pick up a pencil or a magic maker and draw. I’m not quite sure why, but something about the shapes, colors of animation, just sort of the graphic nature. Obviously before computers, everything was sort of line and shape-based since it was all, for the most part, two-dimensional.
And something about it just really made me wanna do that. I love to draw, that made me wanna be an animator. Then later, when I became a teenager, I started reading about screenwriting and directing, and that made me interested in a little more of the bigger picture stuff as well like being behind the scenes and shepherding. I always loved doing leadership roles in life, like in Boy Scouts and school projects, things like that, so the idea of leading a team to make a movie seemed really inspiring to me as well. So pursued those things, moved away from actually being an animator, more into being a storyboard artist. Particularly, when I started at Disney in ’95 on Tarzan, I was a storyboard artist on that movie and then got into more leadership roles on Emperor’s New Groove and Brother Bear. I was the story supervisor on that and then got a chance to direct on Meet the Robinsons and then also the 2011 Winnie the Pooh. And that’s where we are today. That led me to Monsters.
It seems you’ve done a little bit of everything in animation. What do you think is the hardest job in animation?
All the jobs have challenges, obviously. That’s a good question. I can only talk from my own experience, and certainly as a director, I find it the most rewarding thing I’ve ever done when I direct projects but also full of challenges. To bring a team together, to be the person that determines like, “Okay, here’s the goal. Here’s the end point of our journey. Here’s what we’re gonna do. Here’s the vision that I have for this thing.” How can you rally everybody around that goal and keep everyone positive, keep everyone motivated, keep everyone inspired. And first and foremost, what can you do to eliminate fear from the process? I find that’s my number one job as a director, is to make sure that whatever rooms we’re in, whoever happens to be in those rooms, whatever decisions we’re trying to make, that everybody feels safe, and that everybody can contribute and be part of shaping the piece. It’s not just my ideas and everybody else has to execute those, it’s… The only way you’re gonna get something really great is if everybody’s invested and contributing. I find that rewarding, also, a really big challenge.
I know that’s a big priority at Pixar is that, with the brain trust and everything, that everybody is safe to express their feelings on a project. And so that must be very liberating?
It really is, and we have the same process down at Disney Feature Animation here in Burbank. Same kind of story trust, brain trust way of working. And then on Monsters at Work, which I moved over to TV Animation to do that, Bobs Gannaway, our EP, ran the show very much like that kind of feature process, the Pixar Disney Features process. We would put our episodes up on reels, and we would get back in the room, and we would tear them apart, and we would all throw out ideas and how can we make it better? And then iterate on those episodes, as much as we could. We obviously didn’t have as much time, as a feature, to iterate, but it was great that he brought that process to Monsters at Work. It really helped us craft the episodes and more than I think if it was on more of a typical TV way of working.
What was it like co-directing Winnie the Pooh? It’s such a beloved property. That must have been kind of intimidating?
It kinda was. It’s funny ’cause when… At the time it was John Lasseter, when he talked to me about working on Winnie the Pooh, I kind of thought, “Oh, that’d be cute, that’d be fun.” I don’t think I really have much of a connection to Winnie the Pooh from my childhood, but yeah, that’d be fun. And then the more I thought about it, the more I realized, “Oh, I remember I had Winnie the Pooh jammies, and I had a Winnie the Pooh record that I listened to when I would fall asleep.” And I saw those shorts on TV on The Wonderful World of Disney all the time and suddenly I realized, “Oh.” Oh, and my parents, we had the whole set of the original Milne books on our bookshelf at home. And I realized, “Oh, this is a bigger deal than I thought.” So suddenly it became, yeah, like you said, it became a bit more daunting. We really have a lot to live up to, and we have to honor something that has a very classic feel, but we have to make it somehow relevant to an audience of today without ruining it, without changing it to where it isn’t what it’s supposed to be anymore, or what it’s supposed to feel like anymore.
That was a really tricky balance of staying and making it feel like a classic but also making it feel like something that anybody today would be entertained watching. Yeah. But at the end of the day, it was a blast, [chuckle] it was one of the most fun projects I think I’ve ever worked on because how can you not have fun hanging out with Pooh and Piglet in the 100 Acre Wood. They’re just such great characters.
I really enjoyed it. I think it’s a really sweet movie, and it’s so nice to see 2D animation from Disney. It’s one of the last ones that we got.
Thanks. I’m glad to hear that. That was it. The 2D aspect of it, too, was another thing that was really fun, because not only is it done in hand-drawn animation, the way the Disney Studios back in the ’60s treated the material was, these are illustrations that are coming to life. You actually see the book open up, and you see the illustrations on the page start to move and the characters interact with the words on the page. That was such a neat thing that they brought, that the Disney artists brought to the telling of those stories. And we certainly wanted to do more of that, and really embrace that idea of what we’re looking at. Embrace the 2D of the whole thing. Embrace the hand-drawn feel of it, see brushstrokes, see the pencil strokes in the backgrounds, see the… It’s a rougher kind of line around the characters, too. There’s some chattering that goes on there. And not be afraid of saying, “Hey these are… This is drawing, this is artwork, this is… ” That’s what you’re seeing up on screen, and that was really, really fun to do.
So Monsters at Work, why don’t you tell us a little bit about the concept for the show, what we can look forward to.
Monsters at Work takes place literally the day after the end of Monsters Inc. Mike and Sully are now in charge of Monsters Inc. The world now of Monsters Inc. is switching… It’s a time of transition, so they’re switching from scare power from the first movie to laugh power.. That’s what Mike and Sully wanna do is, particularly Sully after his adventure with Boo, find a new way of powering Monstropolis. Problem is laugh power isn’t quite as strong as scare power. The other problem is, they’ve got a company full of monsters that scare and that don’t know how to be funny. Mike Wazowski is teaching comedy classes, how to be funny, teaching the monsters how to be funny. Into that walks this character named Tylor Tuskmon, who is top scarer at Monster’s University, He just got a job offer from Monsters Inc. as a scarer, Then he walks in that first day and gets the news that, “Oh, we’re no longer hiring scarers. We only want jokesters.”
And Tylor has no idea how to be funny. So while he takes Mike Wazowski’s comedy classes to try to learn to be funny, he’s placed in the Monsters Inc. Facilities Team or MIFT, as we call them, that were all the way down to the basement and made up of some kooky office comedy type characters. And so Tylor has to having just come from the top of his game, he’s been put all the way down to the bottom, and now he has to work his way up to being number one again.
It’s a very clever idea for a show; I think it’s gonna be a lot of fun. I was curious though, how much of Mike and Sully are we going to see? Are they gonna be kind of minor, or are they in every episode?
They definitely have a presence throughout. They kind of carry the world stakes of the show because they are in charge of Monsters Inc., and they are in charge of powering Monstropolis, and they are in charge of getting more monsters trained to be scarers, excuse me, jokesters, and they are in charge of fixing the power outages when their laugh power isn’t strong enough. Then Tylor’s story is the heart of the show. It’s the emotional story. This character trying to find himself again, someone who was on top and now is… Doesn’t really know who he is anymore and doesn’t know how he fits into the world. So those two stories run parallel, you have that, the heart with being Tylor, and then you have the world stakes being Mike and Sully, very much a mix of those two things. So Mike and Sully are… Absolutely, their presence is felt throughout all 10 episodes.
So you have a new cast with people like Mindy Kaling, Bonnie Hunt, Gabriel Iglesias; that must have been really fun to work with the new characters and new voice actors to the world of Monsters Inc.?
Yeah, I can’t speak enough good words about our voice cast, between Ben Feldman and Mindy Kaling, Henry Winkler, Lucas Neff, Alanna Ubach, Gabriel Iglesias, for sure. Everybody was just so enthusiastic about being part of the show, and they’re all such great collaborators, and it makes our job that much easier when you have actors that come in and just… They’re open to play, they’re open to reading what’s on the page, but then they’re also open to tossing that page into the corner and playing with stuff, the ad-libbing and improvising and making stuff up in the moment. Anything we throw at them, they would just grab the ball and run with it, so… All amazing performers and amazing collaborators.
One thing I’ve always wondered about with the animation, ’cause it does take so long, obviously more for feature film, but do you start to get insecure about your jokes because now, you’ve heard them so many times that you’re like, is this still funny?
Oh, my gosh, yes! At a certain point, you go, “Do we even have like… Is this just a mix of movement and color and noise on the screen, and is it gonna make any sense?” It’s very easy to start second-guessing yourself, which is why it’s helpful at sort of regular intervals to bring at least one set of fresh eyes into the process, if not multiple sets, so that you can get somebody looking at it who does not have the weight of that baggage that you have, to be able to say, “Oh yeah, that makes sense,” or, “I didn’t get that joke. What were you going for there?” or, “Was I supposed to feel something here? ‘Cause I didn’t really….” That’s really the most helpful thing. And then at a certain point, you just cross your fingers and believe in what you did and put it out there. [chuckle]
So what do you think people will like the most about Monsters at Work?
I think the MIFT characters, our new cast. Obviously, people are gonna love seeing Mike and Sully and seeing Miss Flint and Celia Mae and all of the characters from the first movie being back in that very familiar location of the Scare Floors, which are now Laugh Floors, just all that familiarity. But I really think the new cast is a very special collection of characters, and I think people are really gonna enjoy them. They’re quirky, they’ve got their idiosyncrasies, but they’re also… They’ve got really big hearts, and Tylor really bonds with this group of characters, and they become his family. And I think there’s a real sweetness to it, but obviously there’s lots of humor as well. But that’s my hope, is that people are gonna just fall in love with Val and Fritz and Cutter and Duncan.
We’re really looking forward to it, and when does it premiere on Disney+?
Premieres on Disney Plus tomorrow, July 7th.
And it will be weekly or bingeable?
Yes, it will be weekly. Tomorrow, they’re dropping the first two episodes, so there’s a little bit more of a story that will… You’ll get a complete 2-episode story tomorrow, and then it will be one episode a week after that.
Thanks so much for coming on talking with us!
Thank you. It was a blast. I’m really excited for Monsters at Work. Hope you like it.
For the audio of this interview:
Edited by: Kelly Conley