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Detailing "Cars" : How Pixar's artists & technicians turned John Lasseter's family vacation into a full-blown animated feature

Detailing "Cars" : How Pixar's artists & technicians turned John Lasseter's family vacation into a full-blown animated feature

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"Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Toy Story 2," "Monsters, Inc.," "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles," and now "Cars." Call them Pixar's magnificent seven.

Making exceptional, family-friendly movies is hard but rewarding work. Unlike live-action films that can be completed in a year or less, animated films often take four or five years to finish and employ hundreds of creative artists, technicians and storytellers.

Some critics have tried to deflate the tires of "Cars," finding fault with its "we've-seen-this-before" story and its nearly 2-hour running time. It could even be said that a certain box-office, numbers-driven curmudgeon has been trying to p--- in Lightning McQueen's gas tank after having a bad experience with his breakfast cereal. Still, even among the harshest of the critics, "Cars" has been widely praised for its glorious look and attention to detail.

Two of the artists responsible for the look of "Cars" are production designers Bob Pauley and William Cone. Both have worked at Pixar since 1993, when the upstart studio led by John Lasseter began working on its first film, "Toy Story."

For "Cars," Pauley spearheaded the design for two racetrack environments and all the vehicles. Cone led the design of the film's settings, its roadways, the scenic Ornament Valley and all the quaint, somewhat dilapidated buildings in the small Route 66 town of Radiator Springs.

Research to enhance the story has always played an important role in Pixar's films and "Cars" is no exception.

Lasseter started talking to Pixar's head of story, Joe Ranft, about doing something with cars as characters in 1998 as the work on "Toy Story 2" began to wind down.

Copyright 2006 Disney / Pixar

Actually, even before then, Lasseter would talk about the various cars on the road and their drivers during his commute to the studio with Pauley, his carpooling partner and a native of the Detroit area. Pauley also remembers the extra time they'd spend in the Hot Wheels aisle when going on shopping sprees during their research for "Toy Story" and "Toy Story 2."

The research for "Cars" began in earnest with a small team that included Lasseter, Ranft, Pauley, Cone and a few others. They watched all sorts of documentaries on various topics related to automobiles and American culture.

One of the documentaries that struck a nerve was "Divided Highways," which dealt with the interstate highway and how it affected the small towns along the way.

"We were so moved by it and began thinking about what it must have been like in these small towns that got bypassed," Lasseter said in press material for his latest production. "That's when we started really researching Route 66, but we still hadn't quite figured out what the story for the film was going to be."

The team eventually connected with Michael Wallis, the author of "Route 66, the Mother Road." In "Cars," Wallis is the voice of Sheriff, a 1949 Mercury Police Cruiser based in Radiator Springs, the gateway to Ornament Valley.

"Wallis visited Pixar and started to tell us some of the stories about Route 66 and an hour lunch meeting turned into a three-hour session," Pauley said. "Jaws dropped just listening to him."

After the theatrical release of "Toy Story 2," Lasseter's wife, Nancy, persuaded him to take a much-needed vacation.

"Nancy said to me that if I didn't slow down and start paying attention to the family, the kids would be going off to college before I knew it and I would be missing a huge part of our family life," Lasseter said. "And she was right."

Copyright 2006 Disney / Pixar

That summer, in 2001, Lasseter, his wife and their five children packed up a used motor home and set out on a two-month trip with the goal of staying off the interstate highways as much as possible. They started by dipping their toes in the Pacific Ocean and headed east with the goal of dipping their toes in the Atlantic Ocean.

Lasseter carried a video-camcorder with him to capture some of the highlights. The trip turned out to be the inspiration he was seeking for the storyline of "Cars."

"Everybody thought we would be at each other's throats the whole time," Lasseter said, "but it was the exact opposite. When I came back from the trip, I was closer to my family than ever and I reattached to what was important in life."

"Suddenly, I knew what the film needed to be about," he said. "I discovered that the journey in life is the reward. Our lead car, Lightning McQueen, is focused on being the fastest. He doesn't care about anything except winning the championship. He was the perfect character to be forced to slow down, the way I had on my motor home trip."

Once Lasseter returned to work with his batteries recharged from the family vacation, he knew that the "Cars" production team had to "get its kicks on Route 66."

Lasseter made a second trip, taking Ranft, producer Darla Anderson, Pauley, Cone, and a few other key members of the Pixar team. They flew to Oklahoma City and headed out from there in a caravan of four white Cadillacs on a nine-day trip along Route 66. They traveled from Tulsa, Okla., to Kingman, Ariz, and then back into Kansas.

Wallis led the expedition and provided a running narrative along the way via two-way walkie-talkies in each car, Cone said. Wallis introduced the Pixar team to the people and places that make the "Mother Road" so special.

A short time later, Ranft led a second trip, revisiting some of the sites with Wallis and a new team of story artists from Pixar.

Copyright 2006 Disney / Pixar

Those trips became important to the film and were a bonding experience for all the participants.

"At the beginning of our trip, Wallis tried to prepare us by saying 'you never know what's going to happen on the open road,' " Pauley said. "You kind of say, 'yeah, it's going to be fun' but then things change and it becomes this kind of magical experience ... It was a great trip that I'll never forget."

Pauley and Cone gathered artistic design reference material and used the trip to determine where along Route 66 to set the fictional town of Radiator Springs. They split off from Lasseter, Ranft, Anderson and the others, who went to meet people who worked, lived or traveled along the Mother Road.

The production designers photographed and sketched details like weeds, peeling paint, the architecture of old civic brick buildings, the look of advertisements that had been painted over and over to where there was this collage-type layering. Careful studies were made of rock and cloud formations, the color of the soil, and the variety of vegetation along the way.

Cone said Ranft found inspiration for the character of Mater after seeing this abandoned tow truck along the side of a road in Kansas. Ranft gave Mater the oddball talent of being the best backwards driver after meeting a man along Route 66 who could turn his legs around 180 degrees and walk.

Ranft was the also the storyman who came up with the idea of Mack making faces seeing his reflection in the tanker truck, Cone added. "That's what a truck would do looking at himself in a mirror during a long journey.''

That gag is part of Cone's favorite section of the film. While many critics and film-goers have talked about the "drive with Sally" section for its sheer beauty, Cone really enjoyed mapping out the drive across country to the point Lightning McQueen enters Radiator Springs.

"Working all that out was fun," Cone said. "We all got together and talked about the things we enjoyed about road trips as kids, the rolling hills and the telephone lines, the vast flat expanse and a horizon that seemed to go on forever."

Copyright 2006 Disney / Pixar

One of Pauley's favorite sections of "Cars" is the "Life Would Be A Dream" cruise enjoyed by all the characters after McQueen finishes fixing the road and the moment when Lizzie tells her long-departed husband Stanley: "I wish you could see this."

Pauley also enjoyed the story in tying to figure out how to get McQueen to connect with everyone in Radiator Springs and their services.

In addition to the Route 66 trip, Cone found inspiration for Radiator Springs on additional journeys to the desert and to Sedona, Ariz., visiting old silver mining towns in Nevada with a few other artists.

All the buildings in "Cars" are inspired by real places, Cone said. For example, the Cozy Cone motor lodge was inspired by a motel in Arizona where the units were shaped like teepees.

"I think of the style for this film as cartoon realism." Cone said. "You have talking cars, so you've already taken a step away from reality in that regard. The forms are a little whimsical. You'll see these car shapes on the cliffs, and the clouds are stylized.

"I reached the conclusion that humans in a human universe would see their own forms in nature, which they often do. They name things like Indian Head Rock. So, in a car universe, they would have car-based metaphors for forms," he continued. "Suddenly, you could see these cliffs that looked very much like the hoods of cars, or an ornament."

While Cone was coming up with Flo's V-8 Cafe, Luigi's tire shop and other settings, Pauley had his own challenges designing the cars, keeping them somewhat realistic and believable. During a recent interview, he displayed a scale model of Lightning McQueen alongside a real NASCAR model.

"Our wheels are huge relative to a what a real NASCAR has," Pauley said, admitting the artists at Pixar did some tinkering on proportions to bring the illusion of life to the characters. For example, the windshields of many of the vehicles were altered to accommodate its character's eyes.

Copyright 2006 Disney / Pixar

"Doc Hudson's grill was also challenging," he continued. "There's 100 pounds of chrome out there. How do you get it to move without it becoming distracting?"

Lasseter's mandate to have the car characters look as real as possible posed some daunting new challenges for Pixar's technical team. Having a film where characters are metallic and heavily contoured meant coming up with resourceful ways to accurately show reflections. Ray tracing allowed the car stars to credibly reflect their environments.

Pauley took what he learned on the Route 66 road trip and added it to the materials he collected from auto designers and manufacturers in Detroit, visits to long-closed factories in the Motor City, experiences at car shows and NASCAR events and his team's extensive study of the materials used to make cars.

It was important to Pauley and to director Lasseter to get some well-known car designs into the film as characters.

"We got the Model T in. We got the 1942 WWII Army Jeep in and the 1960 VW bus. We got some really good icons," Pauley said. "What's nice about the Jeep and the VW bus, Sarge and Fillmore, is that they bring with them all that cool baggage of their history -- the military guy and the hippie. Sarge is all hard angles and his top is flat like a crew cut and Fillmore is softer with rounded edges."

"Now, for McQueen," he continued, "we didn't want to use a regular car that exists because then we'd have to deal with whatever the history is of that vehicle. But, he's a rookie, so he could be new."

Still, not every car made it. At one time there was a Packard in the film, but it was dropped. Pauley wasn't able to get in his own beloved Volvo into the cast and Lasseter never really found a spot for a classic American hot road, a 1932 roadster.

During a research trip to Detroit, Pauley learned a lot about the Hudson Hornet and how perfect it would be for Paul Newman's character of Doc Hudson, the judge in Radiator Springs.

Copyright 2006 Disney / Pixar

He found some Super 8 footage that his father took at auto races in the 1950s. "Here's these old home movies and there's the Hudson Hornet winning races," Pauley said. "It was really great reference material."

Pauley also talked about how one Pixar team member's family ran a gas station that was devastated by the construction of a nearby interstate, although it wasn't one located along Route 66.

The Pixar staff also learned John Ratzenberger's dad was a Mack truck driver so they assigned the former "Cheers" star and their "lucky charm" the voice of Mack.

"It's kind of cool how these personal things -- these histories -- kind of formulate themselves and get used for the film," Pauley said. "One of the unique things about Pixar films is that the stories come from our hearts. They come from things that are personal to us, and that move us.

"That gives special emotion and meaning to our films."
  • Now THIS is the type of "Cars" story I like seeing- something about the film itself, not about the box office returns.
  • (Or, if we *must* bring box-office Jim politics into it:)
    We'll still be watching it in August.  THIS is why.  :)
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  • While i do plan on seeing the movie while its still in the theatres, this makes me want to see DVD bonus features even more.

    This article renewed the warm fuzzy feeling that the movie brought me.  
  • I agree, moose. I felt the same way.

    In fact, I was toying with the idea of going to see the movie again this weekend. Now I know I'm going to!
  • I haven't seen the movie, but based on the preview, I always thought the inspiration was making the movie, Doc Hollywood, with cars.
  • I take exception to those who call "CARS" a total rip-off of "Doc Hollywood." They're very different films and the racing sequences, the tractor-tipping scene and the two driving sequences in "Cars" are better than anything in "Doc Hollywood."

    I remember a classic "Andy Griffith" episode with many of the same story points. "Cars," like Steven Spielberg's "E.T." and other films, is a basic fish out of water story, excellently executed.

    In "Cars," all the residents of "Radiator Springs" are changed by Lightning McQueen's appearance even as Mater, Sally, Doc Hudson and The King tinker with the engine (the emotional heart) of the hotshot rookie racer.

    "Cars" has a beautiful look, a sweet, charming story and the best soundtrack of any Pixar film. It's a film, like most of the others made by Pixar, that will age well and entertain children and adults for many years to come.
  • mnmears said:
    "I take exception to those who call 'CARS' a total rip-off of 'Doc Hollywood.' They're very different films and the racing sequences, the tractor-tipping scene and the two driving sequences in 'Cars' are better than anything in 'Doc Hollywood.'"
    I agree, Paul Newman is a *much* better "Canny old judge who sentences our selfish hero to community service" than David Ogden Stiers ever was...  :)

    (Although, would Woody Harrelson have made a better Mater than LtCG?--Hard to say, but on voice quality, think this one still wins out....And Bonnie Hunt over Julie Warner on the "Falling for the girl who cares about the town" front, any day.)
  • Well, first off, I never said "total rip-off", and second of all, I prefaced it by saying I only saw the preview, not the movie... Based on the preview, they have a bit in common. Then again, I am sure Doc Hollywood had a bit in common with some older movie (the whole Pyramus & Thisbe/Romeo & Juliette/West Side Story thing).
  • Did I say you said "total rip-off," but an Associated Press critic did. All I was saying is that "Cars" shares thematic elements with several movies, including "E.T,," "Doc Hollywood," old episodes of the Andy Griffith show and The Twilight Zone, as well as the musical "State Fair," which also involves a big race.
  • I read something once a long time ago (maybe in a high school English Lit. class) that said there are really only four basic stories that have ever been told.

    Every single story, movie, T.V. show, etc. is just some level of derivation from one of these four basic themes.

    Wish I could remember what they were ...
  • "Every single story, movie, T.V. show, etc. is just some level of derivation from one of these four basic themes."

    Do you mean the whole man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. machine, man vs. supernatural/God story themes?  Because I've heard of those (and seen them broken down further to more than 4 themes)...
  • As to "Selfish man vs. community-service and frustrating-but-ultimately-benign small-town hicks", however, it's not usually broken down to *those* specifics...  ;)
  • "Do you mean the whole man vs. nature, man vs. man, man vs. self, man vs. machine, man vs. supernatural/God story themes?"

    Yeah, those are the ones I was thinking of.
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