So much for the fear of sequels: Pixar's Cars 2  (opening Friday from Disney) races past its predecessor with thrilling Formula 1 racing, breathless spy action and global eye candy. And Michael Caine's Bond-like Finn McMissile more than makes up for the absence of Paul Newman's classy Doc Hudson. Meanwhile, folksy Mater, the tow truck, becomes the new hero: After a falling out with buddy Lighting McQueen, he becomes a spy let loose in Tokyo, Paris, an Italian Riviera-style town and London.
"What's intriguing about Cars  is that as an animator I want to do complex physiology, but once you pop the hood, you realize how freeing and funny it is to animate these characters," boasts Dave Mullins, animation supervisor. "It's just really refreshing."
"We've opened up the expressiveness and wackiness of the characters," adds Shawn Krause, the other animation supervisor. "You don't question it -- you just go with it. On the first one, John [Lasseter] was grounded in such a reality that we were careful to make you feel that these were cars. And I think it's only because we created such a foundation that we were able to go in different directions and embrace some other opportunities [with the spy genre]."
It turns out that Mater's a more intriguing protagonist than McQueen. He becomes the butt of jokes, but, ironically, this serves him well when teaming up with McMissile and newbie operative Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer).
Cars 2 was liberating for everyone, including Lasseter, who returns to directing after becoming chief creative officer of both Pixar and Disney. "But what's really fun about being a director is you get to work with the artists themselves and, for me, it's just getting back in touch with filmmaking that I love," he admits. "And what's interesting that I found -- and I didn't expect this -- was how many new artists come along here at Pixar. Because there had been four movies made at Pixar since Cars. And so coming to work, half of the crew were people I hadn't worked with before."
Of course, there were noteworthy technical tweaks in lighting and painting and driving performance befitting Formula 1 racing and gadget-driven action. "After the first film, we realized there were certain shortcomings with what we could do with that car paint shader," explains Apurva Shah, supervising TD. "It's such a big part of the film so we did some new filtering for the metal flakes so we can get nice sharp, flakes that react to light in the right way, and also take the specular in reflections that go on the paint and get that quality of sheen.
"One of the downsides with environmental lighting is it's not affected by what's around an object. And so we made some enhancements to our environment lighting to take into account the things that are around the surface and to factor that into the lighting you get. It's driven through ray tracing."
There were also improvements to the driving system: one of them was when cars race on a curve when it's hard to do a sharp turn. "So we devised this program (which we've actually applied a patent for) that lets you skid off the path under animated control but then get right back on," Shah continues. "The system that computes the car's movement keeps the internal idea of where the car wants to be physically but then allows it to break free. This provided more creative flexibility to how these cars drive around."
As for covering all that ground with more than 120 original sets, Pixar tried to use a more procedural approach. "Or at least get the city blocked in, and then you can work in the detail for the foreground or the landmarks," Shah offers."So we used CityEngine. The way it works is you start with a roadmap for the city and that divides it into lots. London, for example, is a very old city with odd-sized lots and sometimes you get quadrangles in the middle of buildings, so it's interesting trying to solve that problem."
Indeed, London was the hardest to capture, according to Harley Jessup, the production designer. "We had to think of new strategies for that. CityEngine was customized and tailored to meet the challenges. The variety of Georgian and Edwardian and Queen Anne style buildings. We built a collection of parts that could be recombined in different ways that always looked like a Queen Anne brick and stone building or a Georgian graystone. It also had to have the 'carified' motifs also present in the façade. For example, the pillars on a Georgian building have shock absorbers."
They also built a procedural modeling system for the vegetation and a dynamics system to animate on. "The problem was with the old system was that we had a limited palette with trees," Shah continues. "And also the motion was not very robust. We wanted to go after a much more flexible authoring approach. So we built tools where we can do some of the procedural stuff in our own software, but then you can quickly go back and forth between Maya  and Houdini  and our own toolset to keep refining the tree as you build it up."
Krause concludes that Cars 2 definitely looks more beautiful than its predecessor (to learn more check out The Art of Cars 2 by Ben Queen from Chronicle Books)."The technology advancements help the ease of what we do, he says"
Once again, it's all about the Pixar's special confluence of storytelling and artistry.
Bill Desowitz is senior editor of AWN & VFXWorld.