Watch Two Impressive Animated Films ‘Monsters University’ Director Dan Scanlon Made in High School

By  · Published on June 16th, 2013

This is another edition of Short Starts, where we present a weekly short film(s) from the start of a filmmaker or actor’s career.

Dan Scanlon has worked at Pixar for almost twelve years (he started the day before 9/11), and it’s taken this long for him to direct his first solo effort for the studio, Monsters University. Actually, though, that’s not a very long time to wait, especially considering he’s the youngest person there to helm a feature (he turns 37 two days after the movie hits theaters). Prior to this, he co-directed the 2006 Cars short Mater and the Ghostlight with John Lasseter and had been a storyboard artist on Cars, Toy Story 3 and Disney DVD sequels The Little Mermaid II and 101 Dalmatians II and was on the senior creative team for Brave. In 2009, Scanlon put out his award-winning feature debut, a non-Pixar-based live-action mockumentary he stars in titled Tracy, which you can watch as a web serial here.

That’s not all the past works of his you can watch online. Much like Jordan Vogt-Roberts, who got the Short Starts treatment a few weeks back, Scanlon has been quite generous and not at all shy about his early work. He’s personally uploaded a handful of films he made in high school and at Columbus College of Art and Design, many of which he appears in or voiced characters for (in The Chase he plays a guy who likes to be peed on, which hopefully isn’t a sign of what to expect in the Monsters Inc. sequel). One of these is a surreal live-action short from 1994 he co-directed called Die Fingen in Mein Apfelsope (Fingers in My Applesauce) that kind of reminds me of the old pre-Muppets shorts by Jim Henson (watch it here). The same year he made two Plympton-esque animated films while studying at the William D. Ford Career-Technical Center in Westland, Michigan, and these are what I’d like to showcase.

On the Front Lawn

This minute and a half black and white film was done with pen and colored pencil on typing paper. It’s a sort of creepy tale of a bird who witnesses his fellow feathered friends sucked into the ground while looking for worms to eat. And then go through a terrifying transformation. It’s basically what you’d imagine birds’ nightmares to look like. There’s so much camera movement here for a young amateur to be working with, especially with basic, rudimentary supplies. I don’t know for sure, but I assume this is the earlier of the two shorts here, as it’s colorless and dialogue-less.


Scanlon doesn’t indicate what tools he used for the drawings on this one, but given the fully painted stationary backgrounds, I’m going to guess he went with a whole different technique here than with On the Front Lawn. In addition to that change, this five-minute Halloween-set short also has some dialogue (Scanlon voiced the guy in the bear with boobs costume) and more of a narrative, though again it’s basically just a nightmare scenario. I think one of his voice actors, Matt Cantu, is the Michigan-based horror filmmaker of the same name (co-director of 2005’s Silent Scream).

Bonus: Rocket Boy pencil test

Continuing his impressive animation work at CCAD, Scanlon’s final project there was a short film called Rocket Boy. I don’t know why he doesn’t have a finished copy to share, but here’s the rough pencil test version, which is still really great. The filmmaker was really into non-kid-friendly material.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.