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Pixar's "Road to the Races" tour allows event attendees to get an up-close look at how "Cars 3" characters were designed

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Pixar's "Road to the Races" tour allows event attendees to get an up-close look at how "Cars 3" characters were designed

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This past weekend, thousands of "Cars" fans made their way to Sylvester Baxter Riverfront Park in Somerville, MA. Eager to get a peek at Pixar Animation Studios' upcoming release as the "Road to the Races" tour made its one & only pit stop in the New England area.

And it wasn't just getting the chance to have their picture taken with a life-size look-alike of Lighting McQueen that brought out the crowds to Assembly Row. People also wanted to check the two new characters from "Cars 3" that were on display there: Jackson Storm and Cruz Ramirez.

Photo by Jim Hill

Of course, whenever you get the chance to get this close to life-sized versions of the "Cars" characters, it's hard not to appreciate all of the craft that goes into their creation. How Lightning, Jackson & Cruz work as both characters AND real vehicles. Which - according to "Cars 3" production designer Jay Shuster - is an extremely tough Venn diagram to pull off.

"Here at Pixar, we're very big into truth-in-materials. Meaning that -- whenever we do a new film or a short that's set in the 'Cars' universe - the cars actually have to look and move like real cars. But at the same time, John Lasseter is always reminding us that these are characters first and vehicles second. So it's kind of a tough balancing act," Shuster said during a recent interview. "That's why we pay such close attention to the eye & mouth relationship on these characters. You can't have a windshield that's too raked back or angled. The angle has to be just right if the eyes & mouth on that character are going to work the way they should. Make it possible for that 'Cars' character to deliver an authentic performance, one that can then emotionally connect with an audience."

Mind you, some of the design decisions that Shuster & his team made on "Cars 3" were deliberately done to make certain aspects of this Brian Fee film easier for audience members to follow. Take - for example - how Cruz is colored bright yellow and Jackson is gun-metal grey & blue. That's so - when these characters are racing against red & yellow Lightning at speeds upwards of 200 MPH - their distinctly different color schemes make them far easier to determine which car is in what position on the track at any given time. Which then lends a sense of ease & clarity to this movie's racing scenes.

Copyright Disney Pixar. All rights reserved

But then there are those design choices that were made on "Cars 3" that aren't quite as obvious / in-your-face as McQueen, Cruz and Storm's paint jobs. Take - for example - all of the story-driven decisions that went into determining Jackson's final look. Given that Storm is supposed to be this next generation racer who legitimately threatens McQueen's place in the Piston Cup world, Jay and his design team at Pixar used every trick in the book - from Jackson's coloration to this car's shape, right down to the graphics that cover his chassis - to get that idea across visually.

"As 'Cars 3' is getting underway, while Lightning is still a five-time Piston Cup winner and a veteran of the circuit, the racing game is changing, "Jay explained. "And McQueen now finds himself dealing with all these next generation racers. Cars with a lot more mass & muscle upfront. And the one that seems ready - eager even - to push Lightning right to the brink of extinction is Jackson Storm."

And Shuster & his associates ... They wanted moviegoers to know - from the very second that they first lay eyes on Storm -- that this "Cars 3" character is a real threat to McQueen. Basically a weapon on wheels. So the design team used the very shape language of these two vehicles to quickly communicate the difference between these characters.

Copyright Disney / Pixar. All rights reserved

"Which is why - while Lightning's shape language is round & flowing - Jackson's design is all sharp angles & flat edges. That makes this next gen racer look aggressive even when he's standing still," Jay continued. "And then when Storm actually gets out on the track ... Well, because we gave this race car a super-low profile, that means he has a far lower center of gravity than McQueen does. That means that Jackson doesn't have to lean into a turn as much as Lightning does, allowing this character to move with greater precision & calculation whenever he's out on the track. That's another way that Storm threatens & intimidates McQueen. With his aggressive & overly-precise driving style."

So given that this Piston Cup veteran now find himself challenged by this next generation racer, how does Lightning combat this threat? He (through his old pals / sponsors at Rust-eze, Rusty & Dusty) connects with Cruz. Who's this hi-tech trainer that McQueen hopes will help him get his edge back.

"Ramirez was a different design challenge all together. Because she's the one who's training all of these next generation racers, Cruz had to look like she'd actually be capable of showing them how it was done. So to make sure that the audience immediately saw her as a strong female character, that Rameriz would be able to meet the next generation of racers at their level, her shape language is a mix of an American muscle car and a little European sports car," Shuster stated.

Photo by Jim Hill

Just so you know: During the early development of "Cars 3," the Cruz Rameriz character was originally envisioned as being male. But as soon as comedian Cristela Alonzo was hired to voice this tech-savvy trainer, that then meant that Jay & his team had to make some changes to the design of this character.

"Given what a passionate & energetic performer Cristela is ... Well, we obviously wanted the character she was voicing in 'Cars 3' to reflect that, have Cruz's design be as dynamic as she is," Shuster said. "So after we watched Cristela record her lines from the booth, we then made some small changes to the way Rameriz smiled & talked. That way, this character could better reflect Cristela's actual facial expressions. Which meant that this 'Cars 3' character could then give a more authentic performance in this movie."

And it wasn't just Cristela Alonzo that the animation team at Pixar observed closely when she went into the booth. Once Armie Hammer started recording Jackson Storm's dialogue, directing animator Jude Brownbill decided to make a significant change to the way that the chief antagonist of "Cars 3" was animated.

Photo by Jim Hill

"What we noticed when Armie was in the booth was that he tended to over-enunciate his lines. And what we found when we carried this trait over to his character and gave Jackson an over-articulated mouth during our test animation was ... Well, that visually reinforced the idea that Storm was this character who was all about precision," Brownbill explained. "We also found that - if we didn't move Jackson's body when he talked - that stillness then gave this character a sense of extra power & menace."

Which isn't to say that Jackson Storm (who is so confident when it comes to his abilities that John Lasseter suggested that his racing icon be a slightly tweaked version of the international symbol for hurricane) is completely undefeatable. This character's extreme precision, arrogance & over-confidence could actually prove to be his undoing.

"Strictly going on visuals, Storm intimidates McQueen. And then going by what Jackson had under the hood, he has what it takes to defeat Lightning," Jay reveals. "But Storm's key character flaw is that he only cares about himself and winning. More importantly, he has little regard for the history of this sport and his opponents."

Photo by Jim Hill

And how's all that going to impact Storm's ability to defeat McQueen? For the answer to that question, you're going to have to wait 'til June 16th. Which is when "Cars 3" opens in theaters nationwide.

But if you just can't wait 'til then to meet Cruz Ramirez & Jackson Storm, Pixar's "Road to the Races" continues rolling on across America. With this promotional tour making a brief stop at the Mack Customer Center in Allentown, PA on May 4th before it then begins a three day stand at Citi Field - NY Mets Stadium May 5th - 7th. 

This article was originally published by the Huffington Post on Tuesday, May 2, 2017

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  • Gotta say I'm a little disappointed in the lack of publicity this tour has gotten so far... it's already come and gone in our area (Chicago/St Louis) and I'd heard nothing about it until now. Maybe they're trying to avoid drawing too many people from outside the immediate vicinity of their stops?

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