Cinematic Monsters and the Power of Characterization

Curator's Note

Building a character in computer animation can be more like building a three-dimensional puppet than drawing a character in cel animation. Pixar has managed to build impressive humanoid, robot, rodent, fish, and monster bodies that present a semblance of physicality, texture, and coordination. But this scene from Monsters, Inc. demonstrates how Pixar simulates cinematographic conventions to develop characters full of personality, empathy, and ideology.

In this scene, the character Sulley performs a scaring simulation for an audience of co-workers and then views himself on a series of monitors that recorded the simulation. Upset that he has frightened Boo, an escaped child who befriended him, Sulley looks to the monitors and sees himself as a scary monster from Boo’s point of view. Here, Sulley begins to understand the perspective of the children exploited by Monsters Incorporated. The scene itself demonstrates the cinematographic practice of suturing together the gaze of a spectator with that of characters through shot sequencing. More specifically, the monitors show a sequence of recorded images of a roaring Sulley juxtaposed against Boo’s terrified face. The diegetic veracity of the images as indexical record and the alignment of reciprocal looks provide Sulley with an interpretable representation of reality. For audiences of the film, the monitors can be understood as representing how cinema extends an ideologically informed gaze, but then the specific subject-position of a given spectator interacts with that gaze to generate a unique interpretation. Sulley’s reading of the monitors severs his identification with the corporate monster community and connects it with the film’s constructed audience—ideally, viewers disinclined toward scaring children. The monitors certainly frame a sequence of shots, but Boo’s presence frames Sulley’s reading of the monitors, and by extension his identity.

The process of constructing the self through the gaze of the other pervades Monsters, Inc. and its character development. The fearful looks and screams of children affirm the corporate-monster identity. But this economy of affectively-charged looks is not simply about convincing characterization; it is also about power. For the corporation, human-monster encounters are monitored, rehearsed, and controlled; in part because the monsters believe that children are toxic. Monsters, Inc. can be thought of as a fantastic rehearsal of this logic of power and characterization. It presents how we cope with our fears by watching our fears cope with us.

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