If you’ve seen the trailers for Disney-Pixar’s Cars 3, then you’ve no doubt seen the down-and-dirty world of demolition derby on display. But this isn’t any demo – it’s “Crazy 8’s,” and like many things in Pixar films, face value isn’t always what it seems. “Have you ever been at a crossroads in life where you feel really out of place?” asks Supervising Animator Bobby Podesta during a presentation on Pixar’s Production Pipeline, held during a media event at California’s Sonoma Raceway. “That’s the point of this scene,” he says. “The audience ends up feeling out of their element, just like McQueen does.” Much of Cars 3 is focused on that those crossroads, and how to move beyond them. For the production, that was mirrored by how intertwined the technical team was on bringing this new story to the screen, moving well beyond everything that they’d pulled off in the past.
Searching for new levels of realism in a story that’s emotionally grounded, the crew had to adjust their approach. “We had to look at what we learned from the first two Cars films and decided what worked, and what we could make better,” explained Directing Animator Jude Brownbill. “We pulled back from cartoony movement, and started to respect the physics of the cars so that they would move as they should.”
Michael Fong, Supervising Technical Director noted that the team was going for “directed realism,” and not “photo realism,” allowing for when reality isn’t necessarily the most aesthetically pleasing in terms of the animation on the screen. The ultimate goal is to serve the story, and that means creating tangible scenarios set in a world that feels as if “the viewer could reach out and touch it.”
For Cars 3, much focus was placed on the three leads – Lightning McQueen and two newcomers, Cruz Ramirez and Jackson Storm. More than a decade into Cars, this meant making sure that the new characters reflected the next generation of racers – a generation that’s already here. Production Designer Jay Shuster points out that while McQueen was “the next gen” in 2006, “Storm is the next gen in 2017,” but Ramirez is somewhere between the two.
Working in clay like real automakers, each character got hundreds of iterations between sketch, physical media, and the digital end result. With McQueen curvy and upright, Storm needed to be sharp, and low to the ground – but Shuster says he wanted to “add some of that NASCAR DNA back into the design — to give it the mass and muscle that we see out on the track today.” From a personality standpoint, McQueen has his iconic lightning bolt, and for storm it’s an “S” that reflects a hurricane.
Ramirez needed to be able to hang with a modern racer like Storm, but also be relatable to McQueen. “Not a race car, but a strong female character that can meet the next gen at their level.” In bridging the gap, she has creases and sharp lines, but what Shuster calls “more elegant, flowing edges.”
Since there’s so much layering in place, Character Supervisor Michael Comet points out that the software has evolved to such an advanced state of realism that the crew actually has to animate things that are happening off-screen. The reason? The cars are so shiny and reflective, they need to show what’s surrounding them.
And to further that, Effects Supervisor Jon Reisch (who started as an intern on the first Cars film) is responsible for adding things like smoke, fire and water into the mix. So what was the hardest element to get on-screen for Cars 3? Surprisingly, it was the mud from the Crazy 8’s sequence. “It’s not liquid or solid all the time,” he says. “We had to talk to the shading department and to lighting — to make sure it reflected properly. You get stuck in mud, and Brian (director) wanted it to look like chunky oatmeal soup. That was our starting off point.”
With the production pipeline at Pixar created to allow constant changes in the story as the film is developed to see what works best, there’s a flex that could be considered one of the studio’s greatest strengths: “Story influences technical, and technical influences story,” says Fong. “The fact that the story is always changing is something that has to be absorbed by each department. It’s a great challenge, but a great accomplishment, and it all benefits engaging the viewer in the story. And story is King.”
Disney Pixar’s Cars 3 will race into theaters on June 16, 2017.