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'Cars': Hitting the Mother Road — Part 2

In part two of AWNs in-depth Cars coverage, Bill Desowitz discovers the roots of Route 66 in creating the highly detailed, luscious and complex world.

Read about Pixars character and lighting innovations in the first part of AWNsCars coverage.

Route 66 served as the catalyst and inspiration for the setting of Cars. The Pixar teams research trips became life altering journeys for the filmmakers too. All images © Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved. 

Route 66 served as the catalyst and inspiration for the setting of Cars. The Pixar teams research trips became life altering journeys for the filmmakers too. All images © Disney/Pixar. All rights reserved. 

John Lasseter likes to point to his family RV trip along Route 66 as the catalyst for Cars (opening June 9 from Disney), with its rich history and the way the modern world had bypassed it in order to save a few minutes of driving time The spirit of Route 66 is in the details: every scratch on a fender, every curl of paint on a weathered billboard, every blade of grass growing up through a cracked street...

So naturally the Pixar team wound up doing more research for Cars than on any previous movie. But the various research trips along Route 66 comprised their own journeys that were as life altering for the filmmakers as they were for their characters.

When I went into it, I thought it would be fun, but when I was done, it became an important part of my life, recalls production designer Bob Pauley, a car enthusiast who concentrated on the cars while production designer Bill Cone focused on the majority of the environments and the color script. It goes back to Johns mantra, do the research and do it properly. We had to be in our world and the Route 66 trip was all about the environment. On the first Route 66 trip, back in 2001, there were 10 of us, three cars in nine days. We saw so much Monument Valley, which became Ornament Valley, Cadillac Ranch, which became Cadillac Range but to be within that environment was key for us everything from the road to the soil to rock to the trees to the color of the sky. Bill and I focused on what a small town was like: old cars, the buildings, how long the streets are, how its laid out all the big features from road signs to the Portland cement of Route 66. Looking back, a lot of what we saw on that trip ended up in the movie. That southwest, hot, rust patina, where everything is baked in. Beautiful textures of rust and what remains of the paint job are merit badges. Theyve earned this weathered patina. The story has a lot to do with what they had [on Route 66] and trying to get back to it. They serviced the country and the world passed by their doorstep.

Radiator Springs, a composite of several small towns the Pixar team encountered on Route 66, all had similar diners, gas stations and stores. 

Radiator Springs, a composite of several small towns the Pixar team encountered on Route 66, all had similar diners, gas stations and stores. 

Radiator Springs, of course, is a composite of several small towns they encountered on Route 66, which were about a half-mile long, each containing one main street and a few supporting streets. Often the towns were there for a reason, Pauley continues, whether you just crossed the desert or you were about to go into the hills, you would end at a place where you could refill or tap off your radiator. They all had diners and gas stations and we could blend the two worlds by having aspects of one combined with the other. So I think every time that we went through these towns we saw similarities and consistent themes. The signs going into town, the layout, one stoplight, symbolically, which only flashes yellow now.

Even more than in previous Pixar movies, color and light are used to convey certain emotions. For example, Radiator Springs appears pale and dusty when Lightning McQueen first shows up. But as he becomes more intimately involved with the residents, the town becomes more vibrant. One of the highlights thats pure eye candy, discussed in part one, is the neon sequence in which Radiator Springs returns to its glistening heyday and Pixar is at its best in combining shadowing with occlusion.

Thousands of pieces of vegetation and rocks not only created interesting scenery, but also added to the authenticity of the desert location. 

Thousands of pieces of vegetation and rocks not only created interesting scenery, but also added to the authenticity of the desert location. 

Associate producer Tom Porter, who served as supervising td on Monsters, Inc., fondly recalls taking his two teenage boys with him on one trip from Tulsa to Albuquerque. I think we all got caught up in the details and understood what John wanted to see. It was important that we had a common language to talk about throughout. He wanted visual complexity up there on the screen. It was so obvious that with the reflective cars that we needed ray tracing and given how John wanted to portray this southwestern town, we knew that we needed to allocate a lot of time, a lot of care and a lot of detailing just to design everything, especially on the shading and painting side.

I headed up shading way back in the dark ages of Toy Story. Back then we were lucky to get away with a plastic shader. With each show we have added to our repertoire and on this one it was more and more integration with painters getting them in on the process so that if we needed more visual complexity, you could take any old object or set of objects, set it up in front of the painters and by accommodating more and more hand-painted texture, we were able to achieve the visual complexity that John wanted. Beyond that, when it came to lighting everything, now the major advancement was to be able to do occlusion: a sort of a pre-process step where we understood the dark spots on any object. Now were able to get a nice softening and preprocess a lot of objects to get a soft shadowing to capture the way light gets occluded within the object. We probably have 200 times the computing power since Toy Story and are computing images no faster than we did back then. In other words, with all the advancements in computer hardware and software, were still taking hours. Ray tracing and occlusion take a lot of extra passes.

Anthropomorphism was key to the style for this film. Bill Cone, production designer, described it as cartoon realism. In this world, cars talk and the forms are whimsical. 

Anthropomorphism was key to the style for this film. Bill Cone, production designer, described it as cartoon realism. In this world, cars talk and the forms are whimsical. 

As sets supervisor Sophie Vincelette describes in the production notes, Our challenge was to give the buildings in town the appearance of having a sense of history. We worked closely with the shading and modeling teams to give them a weathered look, and to make sure that things were not always straight. There are weeds growing out of cracks in the cement on the sidewalk.

Adding to the authenticity of the desert location, modelers in the sets department were able to dot the landscape with thousands of pieces of vegetation, including cactus, sagebrush (in brown, green, yellow and tan varieties) and grass. Rocks of varying formations also added interest to the scenery.

Obviously anthropomorphism was key. I think of the style for this film as cartoon realism, remarks Cone in the production notes. You have talking cars, so youve already taken a step away from reality in that regard. The forms are a little whimsical. Youll 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. Suddenly, you could see these cliffs that looked very much like the hoods of cars, or an ornament. Great American artists like Maynard Dixon also had a big influence on us with their landscapes of the southwest and the clouds that they painted.

There was a big effort to make the sets as detailed, as luscious and as complex as possible. The research trips provided the filmmakers with a common language to talk about throughout. 

There was a big effort to make the sets as detailed, as luscious and as complex as possible. The research trips provided the filmmakers with a common language to talk about throughout. 

Pauley says it goes back to the logic of human features they found in rocks. Even in town, the butte looks like a radiator tap. And the little racetrack that they go around is a hood ornament designed in rock. We also learned about different strata of soil and layers. We didnt go into Grand Staircase, but understanding how that stratification level is part of that environment became important in constructing Ornament Valley. Maybe the top of it is a little more gray, just like a hood ornament, but the rest of it is warmed color rock.

Porter adds, On this show youre in a lot less sets than in The Incredibles. But there was much more of an effort to make those sets as detailed, as luscious and as complex as possible. It was always good to sit down with John after one of his trips about specific ideas for what he wanted. And when he came back from Route 66, he would talk about the peeled paint, the old time look of something that was vibrant in the 40s and 50 but lost its luster over time. He was vocal to make sure we stayed true to the world that he had seen out there.

In other words, that sense of history, that sadness and beauty, we found visually on the road, Lasseter relates.

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.