Gibbs & Navone Rev Up 'Cars Toons'

Bill Desowitz gets under the hood of the new Pixar interstitial series with co-directors Rob Gibbs and Victor Navone.

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Cars Toons came about when John Lasseter had a group of Pixar story guys come up with story ideas for the Cars characters. All images © Disney/Pixar. 

This week marks the premiere of Disney•Pixar's Cars Toons, a new animated short series on Toon Disney, directed by John Lasseter (Cars), chief creative officer of the Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar Animation Studios. The first trio of shorts, dubbed "Mater's Tall Tales," focuses on lovable tow truck Mater and his hero fantasies as a firefighter, daredevil and matador in, respectively, Rescue Squad Mater (aired on Monday), Mater the Greater (aired on Tuesday) and El Materdor (airs tonight at 6:57 p.m.). Disney Channel will present all three shorts throughout the day on Nov. 1. ABC Family will present the shorts beginning Dec. 23, during the network's annual "25 Days of Christmas" slot.

AWN went under the hood of Cars Toons, so to speak, with co-directors Victor Navone (animator on Cars, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo and Monsters, Inc.) and Rob Gibbs (story artist on Cars, Finding Nemo, Monsters, Inc. and Toy Story 2).

Bill Desowitz: So how did Cars Toons come about?

Rob Gibbs: I started on it last summer with a small group of story guys and basically the marching orders from John Lasseter were to come up with some ideas for Cars characters. And out of that one of our animators, Bobby Podesta, pitched the idea of "Mater's Tall Tales," where Mater tells a story of his past. And from the ideas that we had, we incorporated some of those, like the Rescue Squad one -- we had the idea to change Mater to the rescue truck instead of Red. And it grew from there. We had six months for development and we narrowed it down to the three that we produced.

Victor Navone: And we have another dozen or so other ideas. But we thought these were the strongest.

BD: How did the development process work?

RG: We have a Cars collective group here that involves some of the guys that worked on the movie. And we involved them early on and pitched them on direction.

BD: Who are some of the collective?

RG: Early on, besides John Lasseter, [writer] Dan Scanlon, who directed the Mater and the Ghostlight short, [and writer] Steve Purcell pitched in here and there. And then us.

VN: We both have a lot of experience with those characters.

RG: And early this year, when it became clear that this was going to happen, Kori Rae came aboard as producer and put us in the co-directing roles.

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BD: Let's talk about Lasseter's role.

VN: He's been really great as a mentor for us and definitely comes in and has strong opinions with his notes.

BD: Can you think of a specific contribution?

RG: Early on, when we decided to make these "Mater's Tall Tales," John came in and said, "I want to keep McQueen and Mater together. Let's involve McQueen in the story." So we came up with the old tag line where we always cut back and McQueen says, "Mater, that didn't happen!" And Mater says, "Oh yeah, you were there too." And so that was one of the key structural things.

VN: And that always upped the ante to find a funny way to hurt McQueen or have something happen to him.

BD: Let's talk more about the production.

VN: The production time for all three was about eight or nine months. So probably about a year from first drawing to final render frame to make all three of these. Not as much time as we would've liked, but it turned out pretty good and I'm blessed.

RG: About six months of that was really trying to find out what ideas we were going to do and figuring out the format. And so it wasn't really until early this year around February that we really got started.

BD: And how large a crew did you have?

RG: It got as big as 60 people. But we lost some and got some new people so...

VN: ... Overall, around 100 people went through the door.

RG: We were kind of the bottom-dwellers of the studio: begging and borrowing and stealing whatever we could from productions.

VN: Anybody who had downtime would come and help us out.

The production time for the three shorts was about eight or nine months. About six months of that was used to find ideas and to figure out the format.

The production time for the three shorts was about eight or nine months. About six months of that was used to find ideas and to figure out the format.

BD: How much of the original assets are you able to use?

RG: Not as much as we were hoping. At first, the idea was to use all existing characters and sets so we didn't have to build anything new. But as the ideas developed, we had to build some new stuff. There are some sets, like the Grand Prix stadium from the movie, and, of course, Mater and McQueen, that are repurposed.

VN: But luckily we had standardized character rigs from the film that applied to any new car that we needed. And a lot of time you just have Mater with a new paint job or a new costume on, so that saves a lot of time.

RG: But then we dressed Mater up for Mater the Greater, where he wears helmets and swimming mask and snorkel, and those are all added on to him. But for El Materdor, we built the bulldozers from scratch, including the stadium. And in Rescue Squad Mater, the streets of San Francisco.

BD: What have been the particular demands of this project?

RG: You don't have to worry about character arcs and story, but one of the challenges I find is that you have to have a really quick intro and you have to tie up the ending in a humorous way. So one of the hardest things is: How do we end these? How do we get out of them?

VN: Without just doing a nod and a wink and that's it. So a really satisfying ending. And then just from a technical side, despite a really compressed schedule and a small team and limited resources, it's great because people get to wear more than one hat and have more creative input.

RG: It has been a good opportunity for a lot of people to step up into new roles. For instance, Victor and I getting to co-direct, and [Effects Supervisor] Apurva Shah is the lead TD. And Tony Christov, who has done a lot of set design, had his first opportunity to do characters.

VN: And Rob learned how to code.

Cars Toons reaped benefits from Ratatouille and WALL•E in terms of lighting, but the original software from Cars is used so that the show can share its assets.

Cars Toons reaped benefits from Ratatouille and WALL•E in terms of lighting, but the original software from Cars is used so that the show can share its assets.

RG: Did I? I come from a story background and just recently learned Photoshop.

VN: Now we make him sit in lighting reviews and give notes on lighting.

RG: Unfortunately, I haven't learned all the technical tricks yet.

VN: But he knows what we didn't like.

BD: Were you able to take advantage of some of the new lighting techniques?

VN: Yes, we've actually reaped some of the benefits of Ratatouille and WALL•E as far as lighting goes, but as far as the rest of the software, we went back to the version we used on Cars to make sure that all of our assets still hold up. The Cars rigs don't work in the most current version of our software.

BD: And it's obviously worked out well so far.

RG: It's a good format and we can get away with a lot.

VN: Yeah, it's so loose because it's all conjecture. It's been a real good formula for us so far. But in the future the Cars Toons could be other characters too.

RG: Maybe "Luigi's Small Stories."

VN: Or "Luigi's Machinations."

Bill Desowitz is editor of VFXWorld.

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