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Ruminations: Gentlemen, start your engines!

Ruminations: Gentlemen, start your engines!

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The afternoon of Saturday the 11th at Wondercon, there was plenty to keep folks in the main event room. There were three topics that seemed to draw folks into seats for a good four plus hours. Starting with fan favorite Kevin Smith sharing everything from his take on comics to a preview of "Clerks II," which looks to be every bit as funny and biting as the original, and ending with a look at "Superman Returns" from director Bryan Singer and a surprise appearance from star Brandon Routh, not many people left the room.

But it was the middle part of the afternoon that may have been the quiet surprise. That was a panel discussion billed as a 20th anniversary look at Pixar. What the audience actually got, was a discussion moderated by behind-the-scenes author Mark Cotta Vaz ("The Art of Finding Nemo" and "The Art of The Incredibles") with a quartet of Pixar folks sharing some thoughts on working on the studio's latest project, "Cars." The four were production designer Bob Pauley, directing animator Scott Clark, concept artist Jay Shuster and production manager Jonas Rivera.

Now you won't have to worry about any spoilers here. I'm not going to give away any secrets or taunt you with any of the story. You all want to wait until June and see this movie for yourselves, right? Of course you do! But I did find some of the things these gentlemen had to say worth sharing with you here today.

For example, among the opening remarks from Mark Vaz was a comment that if one were to take blood samples from John Lasseter, one arm would give Disney blood and the other would give motor oil.

Why? Well, the Disney part we know. But the motor oil? John's father owned a Chevrolet dealership, and he grew up in the time of the classic muscle cars, and has always loved them ever since. Back in the days when the studio was located in Point Richmond, Pixar held its first company car show. And of course, John participated, bringing his own "Toy Story II" NASCAR race car to show off. So after sharing his love of toys, his passion for automobiles brings us this new film.

Jonas Rivera shared that "Cars" has an ancestor already in the Disney lexicon. 1952's "Susie The Little Blue Coupe" was always one of John Lasseter's favorite Disney animated short subjects. Written by Bill Peet, it offers the story of the little blue car purchased from the showroom floor. Her first owner takes good care of her, but she is eventually traded in for a newer model. Her later owners aren't too kind and she eventually winds up abandoned in a junk yard. But there she finds new life at the hands of young man willing to tinker and bring her back to the road as a classic Fifties hot rod. (Fans of this short and more like it will be happy to learn that it will be released on May 16 as part of new two-disc set entitled, "Walt Disney's It's A Small World of Fun," at $14.95 for each disc.)

Interestingly enough, 1952's "One Cab's Family" from MGM and Tex Avery also featured anthropomorphic automobiles with the story of a small car that wants to be a hot rod, only to meet his fate while trying to beat a train at a crossing. Warner Brothers told a similar story in 1937 with "Streamlined Greta Green" directed by Friz Freeling offering the story of a small car who wants to grow up to be a taxi cab, only to stray from the right path under the influence of hi-test gasoline and ends up at the garage, worse for wear after he tried to beat a train at a crossing.

All in all, it certainly will be nice to see how things come full circle with "Cars" bringing us back to the animated automotive world under the new Disney/Pixar banner. How that world came to be was another part of the panel's presentation. We heard how teams of artists traveled Route 66 (on one trip, it was ten people in three Cadillacs over nine days) to take in the character (as well as some of the characters) to be found along the way. Reference materials even included taking soil samples!

Jay Shuster shared that he had come from a background in industrial design in Detroit. He knew how to build a car, what the materials were, how it might act because of the weight. All of these things helped to bring the car to life and contributed to how it was animated. That was a challenge at times as cars have limitations such as no hands, arms or legs to act with. Characters had to be brought to life within the limitations of a world of nothing but cars.

They also spent a lot of time at car shows and even traveled to one of the NASCAR race tracks during a big race weekend to get all the proper references. Part of the crew also visited one of the best race car restoration shops in the country, just to get a close-up look at a Hudson Hornet, which became one of the key characters in the story.

A quote attributed to John Lasseter about the look of the production sums up a great deal of what will make this film another success:

"We're not in the business of making things look real or recreating reality. Our goal is to make things feel believable through animation or design."

Looking back over all of the Pixar films, this is an attitude that certainly has not hurt any of the stories. And from what the people in the room at Wondercon got to see, it looks like they have succeeded once again at that goal. Those clips included a look at the film's opening sequence (which could have come right out of last weekend's television coverage of the Daytona 500), a sequence that offered a glimpse into the town and towns-cars(?) of Radiator Springs and finally the theatrical trailer.

Personally, it is going to be one long wait until June 9th...

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