When the Kelly family of Chelmsford ate at the local Friendly’s, Dean Kelly was the kid more interested in drawing pictures on his placemat than in eating fries or ice cream.
“As long as I can remember, I wanted to draw, and I wanted to draw for Disney,” says Kelly, now a storyboard artist for Disney-Pixar. His first feature, “Monsters University,” opens Friday.
A family vacation to Disney World when Kelly was 5 sealed the deal. “He expressed that someday he would like to draw for Disney and that’s when the doodling began,” says Anita Kelly, his mother, who still lives in Chelmsford along with much of the Kelly clan. “Dean’s love of drawing just surprised our family. He was constantly doodling with sticks in the sand, on sheets of paper with either a pencil or crayon, in the car.”
It paid off. After graduating from Chelmsford High School, in 1994, and the Rhode Island School of Design, in 1998, Kelly moved to Los Angeles, in 2000, and worked for Nickelodeon and “The Simpsons.” But as a kid who couldn’t get enough of “Pinocchio” and “The Lion King,” animated features were his goal. He moved to Oakland in 2009 to work at Pixar Animation Studios in nearby Emeryville, Calif., and has spent the past three years working on “Monsters University.”
“It’s a more collaborative environment on big projects that will have a big audience,” says Kelly. “Drawing is just 50 percent of it. Story artists need good ideas and problem-solving skills. The director tells us what the characters need to do, then we brainstorm and pitch ideas. We lay the foundation. The animators don’t come in until later.”
As one of 12 storyboard artists on “Monsters University,” it was Kelly’s job to help the director come up with ideas, then translate those ideas into the film’s earliest visuals. Each artist gets “cast” to work on sequences that suit each artist’s strengths, Kelly says. “I had a hand in five of six sequences in the film. It’s when everything is up in the air that it’s really fun. The story artists brainstorm together in a room. We get bullet points from the director and we try to hammer out problems and solve them in a creative, entertaining way.”
“Dean was known for staging action sequences and coming up with dynamic camera angles,” says “Monsters University” director Dan Scanlon. “He’s a phenomenal artist. I relied on him to bring passion and excitement to key moments, especially in the third act. He was a big part of the team.” Scanlon, an 11-year Pixar veteran, makes his animated-feature directorial debut with “Monsters University.” It's a prequel, Pixar’s first, to the 2001 “Monsters, Inc.”
In “Monsters University,” one-eyed Mike Wazowski (Billy Crystal) and fuzzy James P. “Sulley” Sullivan (John Goodman) start out as rivals while college students. Cast out of the prestigious and competitive scare program at Monsters U., they team up with a group of misfits to try to prove their mettle. Along the way, Sulley and Mike not only become friends, but learn that they possess talents that surprise even them.
“Sequels are hard. And prequels are harder,” says Scanlon. “Everyone knows the ending. Our whole story team watched ‘Monsters, Inc.’ many, many times. I had it on my phone and I was always checking it. We had to create the early chemistry between Sulley and Mike. The film has to stand on its own but still do justice to the original.”
Kelly credits his formal art training with providing him with skills required of the storyboard artist. Many of his Disney-Pixar colleagues learned animation at California Institute of the Arts. But Kelly stands by his more classical training, where he learned painting and portraiture as well as illustration. “What I got at RISD was a well-rounded education that helped me become better prepared. As a storyboard artist, you have to do a lot of mental problem-solving and execution of ideas. You have to be able to draw, but you also have to be able to convince the director of what you can do. I’d go to bed thinking about [the film] and wake up thinking about it. During our brainstorming sessions, we’re drawing on Post-its with a Sharpie. Dan picks his favorites, and you go to your desk and draw it out.”
Some of the ideas, especially for the finale, came from Kelly’s interactions with his own kids. He has a daughter who’s 6 and two sons, 11 and 4. He met his wife, Andrea Kelly, a graphic designer, while at RISD. Kelly also looked to his brothers back home for stories about their own college experiences.
“We wanted to keep Mike and Sulley’s college experience real,” he says. “We tried not to over-complicate things. The core of the film is the relationship between Sulley and Mike. They’re best friends; they’re like brothers. The rest is bells and whistles on top.”
As with any elaborate production with a massive creative team, Kelly didn’t even see the finished film until he went to a studio screening with his two youngest kids. “It was very cool to be able to show it to them,” he says. “[The movie] was more high tech than drawing with crayons at Friendly’s. But it was coming full circle.”