How I Learned to Scare

As producer of Monsters University, Kori Rae ’85 drew upon her experiences during—and after—college.

(Photo by Disney•Pixar) (Photo by Disney•Pixar) “What happens when a single-focused dream doesn’t work out? How do you get to the thing you’re actually really great at?”

These are the central questions underlying not just Kori Rae ’85’s career arc over the last 25 years, but also her latest project, Pixar’s summer-animation blockbuster Monsters University—the prequel to the 2001 smash hit Monsters Inc., which grossed over $562 million worldwide. Rae is the producer of Monsters University.

But in the mid-80s, when the New Jersey native attended Rollins, majoring in English, she had aspirations, in hindsight unrealistic, of an athletic career. She was a three-sport athlete here—volleyball, basketball, softball—and imagined that after that was all done she’d go into coaching.

Then she graduated, and reality hit.

Her student teaching position was just down the road at Glenridge Junior High (now Glenridge Middle School). For whatever reason, it just felt wrong. “I wasn’t sure I wanted to go into that right away,” Rae says. 

Instead, she wandered, bouncing through a string of different starts and stops and potential careers: mortgage broker, journalist, editor. “I knew I wanted to find out what my real skills were,” she says. For the next five years or so, she trekked all over the country, eventually ending up in California, where she landed a job as project manager for an audio/visual company.

Then, in 1993 her break came—“almost as a fluke,” she says. As these things happen, her break came through a friend, who was working in Pixar’s Shorts Division, which produced the company’s animated commercials. She had just turned 30.

On paper, the job didn’t carry a lot of weight. She was assistant to the executive producer, a nebulous term to be sure. But it was a small division, only a dozen or so people, and they all did everything. So Rae found herself wrangling with the technical director and dealing with ad agencies and all sorts of other things you might not think would come with her job title.

“I learned a ton even in that first year,” she says.

Then came Toy Story, Pixar’s first blockbuster, in 1995. Pixar revamped its team to focus on features, and the commercial division was shuttered. Rae moved over to the movie production team and began working on A Bug’s Life, for which she was animation director. Then came Toy Story 2 (animation director); Monsters Inc. and The Incredibles (associate producer); Up (pre-production producer); the animated TV show Mater’s Tall Tales (producer and later executive producer); and now Monsters University.

The original Monsters tells the story of two monsters—the giant top scarer Sulley (voiced by John Goodman) and his one-eyed partner, Mike (Billy Crystal)—who generate power for their city by scaring children. Eventually, you’ll recall—you saw the movie, right? Of course you did—Sulley discovered that laughter was a more effective power generator than fear, and so reoriented the monsters’ mission.

This movie goes back in time, to when Mike and Sulley met in college. “It’s really the story about Mike,” Rae says. “We knew we wanted to focus on Mike’s story.” The problem was, since everyone who saw the original knew what the ultimate ending would be, how to make this one fresh. In Rae’s words, “how to get the audience behind Mike even though we know he doesn’t become a scarer.”

Mike, like Rae, wasn’t necessarily cut out for his original ambition. He, like her, had to find another way.

“It rang true for me,” Rae says. “The theme of the film really resonated with me.”

Monsters University opens Friday.