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An Inside Look at Pixar's "Cars"

Toon Zone was recently given the opportunity to talk with a variety of folks who worked on Pixar’s latest movie, Cars. Often the director is the most well known name associated with a film, but it takes the hard work of many people to truly make a great movie. The following will look at not only John Lasseter’s inspiration for Cars, but also the work of the Production Designers, Art Director, Effects Supervisor and others, including those behind the brand new Pixar short, “Mater and the Ghostlight.”

Ten Thousand Points of LightJean-Claude Kalache – Director of Photography-Lighting

According to JC, “the look of Cars is more realism heavy than anything we’ve (Pixar) done in the past.” As Director of Photography-Lighting, one of the more challenging aspects he faced was in dealing with the cars’ headlights. He started by photographing a real headlight, nothing that its glass is designed to spread light using various concave and convex shapes. In the actual animating of the film the designs of the headlights were played with depending on the individual characters and the setting in which the headlights were used. For instance, headlights were dimmed when pointed at the camera or the color warmth of the lights would be altered as needed for comedy, realism, etc.

The issue of headlights became especially complex when many were on the screen at one time. This can best be seen in the birds eye view “trek to California” shot used when Lightning McQueen is heading out west, leaving the race featured in the film’s opening. 10,000 lights were used in the shot, which had to be rendered in layers. Otherwise the computer couldn’t handle it. The key was to portray a busy highway system while not losing sight of where the animators wanted the viewer’s eyes to be. The solution ended up being to play with color contrasts. By focusing on a two color scheme they were able to fight the complexity of the shot. Green was used to designate the road out of town, on which we follow Lightning McQueen, while yellow was used to designate the busy roads taken up by cars staying in town. This single, complex shot took six months to complete.

Steve May – Effects Supervisor

As Effects Supervisor, Steve May was in charge of things like dust, smoke, skid marks, water falls, the molten asphalt spewing from Bessie and even Mater’s spit bubble. Because Radiator Springs is located in a rather barren area, dust was featured prominently in the film, whether kicked up by tires or simply blown by the wind. Not only was there a lot of dust in Cars, but it was also especially hard to animate due to the fine detail of dust combined with the large scale it covered. Translating the dust effects from concept art to film ultimately involved a lot of modeling, taking into car speed, wind direction and many other factors.

Sarah MaherRoger Gould – Cars DVD Creative Director, Sarah Maher – Production Manager

With modern day films the planning for the DVD often begins as soon as the film itself starts shooting, and Cars was no exception. Toon Zone had a chance to talk with Pixar’s Roger Gould and Sarah Maher not only about the production and design of the DVD, but also about the included short, “One Man Band.”

“One Man Band,” also seen before Cars in theaters, was a collaboration between Mark Andrews and Andrew Jimenez, who had both recently completed work on The Incredibles. For those unfamiliar with the short, it features dueling musicians, each with an increasingly elaborate assortment of instruments, vying for a little girls attention, each hoping to receive the one coin she has. Music being an integral part of the short, the score, by The Incredibles’ Michael Giacchino, had to be created from the beginning of production as opposed to most films where the score is one of the last things to be completed. As Roger Gould put it, “here the music was a character.” Not only is music used instead of speech throughout the short, but the music also influenced the character designs, especially the various instruments each trots out. The short also includes a few hidden touches. For instance, the Art Director was a big fan of the Pixar short “Boundin”” and the main character from that short can be seen embroidered on the little girl’s tunic. Additionally, Mark and Andy themselves make an appearance on the highly sought after coin the little girl holds.

Mark and AndyOne of the DVD features viewers often most look forward to are the deleted scenes, and Cars includes four. In the case of Cars these are scenes that were originally story boarded, but that didn’t make it into the final plan for the film itself for one reason or another. The script for the film becomes more of a jumping off point and the film evolves from the story boards, voices and other factors. In the process some scenes get left behind. As one might guess, the deleted scenes are found in the “Bonus Features” section of the DVD. This section, which also includes a short documentary on the film and a creditless version of the film’s epilogue, is Radiator Springs themed. This was intentional in that just as Radiator Springs was the town where Lightning McQueen was forced to slow down and take a closer look at things, this is the area where viewers can take a closer look at the film. In contrast, the main menu which gets you quickly into the film, is designed after the fast paced raceway sections of the film.

Tia Kratter – Art Director, Thomas Jordan – Character Shading Supervisor

Tia Kratter and Thomas JordanIn designing the look of Cars Pixar started in its own backyard. A trip to the Pixar parking lot provided a wide variety of cars and additional inspiration was found in a classic car showroom (Fantasy Junction) just down the street (where John Lasseter is known to spend a significant amount of time). Especially important was not only the variety, but also the conditions of the various cars such as whether they were clean, dirty or rusty and whether the paint was in good shape, peeling or chipping. Careful consideration was given to the type of paint used on each car. For instance, a modern Porche like Sally is going to be different in her paint job from a classic like Doc Hudson, whose enamel paint is going to have a differing look and luster. Translating the look of the various paints into animation was a challenge, but important for accurate representation of the cars and the time periods each came from.

In addition to paint, the different styles of the cars each caused them to react to reflections differently. Reflections were important for accuracy and lighting purposes, but too much reflection could be overwhelming. Thus, they had to figure out what to put in and leave out reflection-wise, which involved a lot of playing with angles. Just as Doc Hudson’s classic paint job provided a special challenge, his classic chrome was also harder to work with. It didn’t take a lot of movement in the very reflective chrome to cause issues so they turned to Paul Newman’s voice acting for inspiration. They discovered that he doesn’t talk a lot and doesn’t move his mouth much. By modeling some of Doc Hudson’s traits after Paul Newman himself they were able to cut down on the chrome’s reflection issues.

CharactersThe reason reflections were so important to Pixar is because they wanted the cars to truly look like cars. Each Pixar film provides technical innovations for Pixar as a company and for the industry as a whole and this is the area where the technical growth really came into play for Cars. To achieve “accurate reflections” they used a technique known as ray tracing. Ray tracing isn’t new to the industry, but Pixar hadn’t used it in the past because it had been very slow. Thus, their challenge was to incorporate ray tracing while working to make it faster and better. Similarly, all the shiny materials in the film caused Cars to be the most computationally intensive Pixar film yet. However, this is par for the course for a Pixar as they say they are always in competition with themselves.

Finally, while the Jedi masters at Pixar refused to reveal any details about upcoming films past Ratatouille, they did give an idea of just how long Pixar films are in development. The next film Thomas Jordan is working on won’t be released until 2009 and the next project Tia Kratter’s is involved with won’t be released until 2011 or 12.

Bill ConeBob Pauley – Production Designer (of the cars), Bill Cone – Production Designer (of the environment)

Bob Pauley and Bill Cone were the Production Designers for Cars and responsible for the look of the film. Specifically they were in charge of the cars and the environment respectively. Their journey began on the trip John Lasseter took some of the Pixar folks on down Route 66 back in 2001. By the second day of the trip they were really moved by the world they were seeing and this had a large influence on the look of Cars.

It especially led to great attention to detail regarding objects in the environment. For instance, Bill Cone noted that each era has its own styles of gas pumps, each with differing type face, colors and architecture, and each of these talks a certain language. Besides the types of objects that would be used in a world populated solely be vehicles, the landscape was also influenced by the cars themselves. Just as humans see themselves in our world, from the “man in the moon” to numerous other examples, they noted “cars would see their own forms in nature.” This can be seen from the car shaped rock formations to the vehicle inspired cloud designs.

Bob PauleyOn the character design side of things, Bob Pauley discussed how each car has a personality conveyed through their body language and other factors. Some of the traits of the voice actors were infused into their characters. Besides the Paul Newman story mentioned earlier, Lightning McQueen’s smile was influenced by Owen Wilson’s own unique grin. While Pixar strived to make the cars look real, there had to be compromise between reality and designs that would not only work well in animation, but also be true to the characters. For instance, while Sheriff is modeled after a police car, the body of the car was bloated for the needs of the character. As Bob Pauley puts it, it makes Sheriff look like he is “two donuts away from a heart attack.”

Scott Clark, Dan Scanlan, James Ford Murphy, Bobby PodestaMater and the Ghostlight: Dan Scanlan – Co-Director, Supervising Animators: Scott Clark, James Ford Murphy, Bobby Podesta

Brand new animated shorts based on their respective feature films have become a standard feature on Pixar DVDs. Past releases have given us “Mike’s New Car” (Monster’s Inc.) and “Jack-Jack Attack” (The Incredibles). The DVD release of Cars brings us the all new short “Mater and the Ghostlight,” co-directed by Dan Scanlan and John Lasseter. The reason for the shorts in Pixar’s view is to help create a great experience for the audience. When someone buys a Pixar film on DVD they have often already seen it in theaters and Pixar wants to make sure something they haven’t seen is included in their purchase. Because Pixar shorts are generally only seen before their films in theaters or as extra features on Pixar DVDs, there isn’t really a specific market for the shorts (outside of being purchased on iTunes). Despite this, Pixar says they have a big commitment to making shorts and to make them with the same level of detail as any feature film.

Creating a short based on an existing film does have its benefits as the characters have already been designed, developed and created. In the case of “Mater and the Ghostlight,” this allowed most of the residents of Radiator Springs to be featured, even if some only appear briefly. Of course the star of the short is the beloved Mater himself as the Ghostlight gives him a taste of his own medicine. Larry the Cable Guy once again voices Mater and actually all the other original voice actors return for their roles as well.

EnvironmentsInterestingly, Larry the Cable Guy was cast before he was ever a nationwide household name. He has such an odd yet specific way of speaking that he became a great influence on the character of Mater. Pixar has a history of hiring actors who are good improvisers and Larry continued that successful trend. In recording for both Cars and “Mater and the Ghostlight” they would just sort of let Larry go, bouncing ideas off of him and he’d generate lines that the animators would be excited to animate.

Mater does meet one character in the short not found in Cars. The creation of a new character just for a short creates additional challenge, but often due to a short’s inherently shorter running time, the animators don’t have to worry about the character design needing to be able to handle a large variety of actions. This allowed the new character to be cobbled together from many other things in the film and is sort of, as Pixar put it, “Mack and Bessie’s love child.” Despite being cobbled together from multiple sources, it became very important for the new character to look just as good as everything created for the feature film. I won’t say anything more about the character, but it should be easy to spot when you get a chance to view “Mater and the Ghostlight.”

John LasseterJohn Lasseter – Director

One of the things John Lasseter is adamant about when it comes to Pixar films is that you should be able to not only bring your whole family to a film, but that your whole family should be able to enjoy it. Family is something very important to John Lasseter and the idea for Cars came about while he was learning how to achieve balance in his life, which especially included spending more time with his own family. As John puts it, modern life moves at a very fast pace and he found himself getting caught up in it, losing sight of his family. These days he finds balance to be a more satisfying way of life.

John Lasseter has been into cars all his life, but he didn’t quite know how to approach a film about the subject until taking a cross-country road trip with his family after finishing Toy Story 2. On the return leg of the trip they spend a significant amount of time on the old Route 66 and subsequently he took some of the Pixar staff on their own trip down the historic road. One town that stuck out to John during his trip was a Texas/New Mexico border town by the name of Glen Rio. He described it as a modern day ghost town that “for the sake of ‘progress'” died overnight due to the creation of the Interstate. Emotional experiences in town such as Glen Rio were the catalyst for a large part of what Cars would come to be about.

Lightning McQueenCars is longer and slower that most Pixar films, but that is due to the setting and the subject matter. In describing Radiator Springs, John Lasseter notes, “The only commodity this town has is time.” Thus, the slower pace of the film is intentional, and quite a change from earlier Pixar works. When making the original Toy Story the Pixar crew would receive lots of notes from Disney complaining that the film wasn’t super fast paced. However, this isn’t John Lasseter’s style. He says Hayao Miyazaki is the guy who has really inspired him the most, especially in regards to how Miyazaki always celebrates the quiet moments in his films. Cars worked to accentuate the quieter moments by contrasting the race sections of the film with the Radiator Springs scenes. Everything early on in the film features a lot of quick cuts, quick camera movements and a lot of energy while in Radiator Springs the shots are intentionally longer and slower.

John Lasseter also spoke about the real life Mater. In preparation for the film John and the crew headed to the South to see a real southern NASCAR race. At the race itself, after the area where the lines of campers end, is a place where there are just tents. This area, known as “Redneck Hill,” has a a self-appointed mayor known as “Mater.” He’s been camping there for 20 years and loves NASCAR racing. A construction foreman by day, on Redneck Hill he’s a character everyone knows. John Lasseter kept in touch with him after his NASCAR trip and he became definite inspiration for the character of Mater, right down to the “like tamater without the ‘ta.'”

Goodbye Pixar!Whereas many films are rushed through production these days, most Pixar films take at least four to five years to complete. Pixar has a great track record with most audiences and some of that success can probably be attributed to spending so much time on each film and spending the time needed to do it right. John Lasseter notes that if you have four years to make a movie and you don’t get it right then you shouldn’t be in this business. For him, “it’s about the passion for making movies,” a culture based on invention and pioneering, and simply trusting their instincts.

Toon Zone would like to thank Pixar for the opportunity to talk with the people who worked on Cars as well as Buena Vista Home Entertainment and all the other people who made our trip possible. We hope you have enjoyed the chance to slow down and take a closer look behind the scenes of the film.

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