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Breaking Down ‘Cars 3’

Pixar’s animation team reflects on the challenges and triumphs of making their latest feature film offering, ‘Cars 3.’

Opening June 16, Disney•Pixar’s Cars 3 pits aging racecar champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) against a new generation of high-tech race cars, in a classic “comeback” story. Recovering from a terrible crash, McQueen’s friends help him train to take on rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) in the Florida 500.

Directed by Brian Fee, the film brings together the work of a small army of artists at Pixar who plied their trade to create the unique art-directed realism of the Cars 3 universe.

According to Fee, “As a first-time director, I had all these other departments downstream in production. They're magicians. I don't know how they do what they do. I had to learn the aspects of that on the job. Luckily though, I was able to rely on my leads and on the fact that everyone that's doing those jobs is an expert. They are better at that than I'll ever know.”

Animation World recently had a chance to sit down with some of Pixar’s key department heads to discuss their tools and techniques as well as the unique challenges they faced bringing the film to the screen.

Production Designer Jay Shuster

The look of the characters and environments all started in the art department with 2D sketches create while the script was still being developed.

“It's up to us to achieve the spirit of the character in 2D before we get the green light to go to clay or go to a rough model,” explains production designer Jay Shuster. “And the way we get there is we provide the modeling team with orthographic drawings – the side, the top, the front and back view of a vehicle - to the best of our 2D translating abilities and drawing abilities. Then, they'll layer that side view image in the computer and start placing those splines.”

Shuster joined Pixar Animation Studios in September 2002 as a concept designer on the original Cars film. He went on to work as a character designer on WALL•E (2009), winning a VES Award for outstanding animated character in an animated feature motion picture, and Cars 2 (2011), which earned him an Annie Award nomination. He launched his career as a concept artist at Lucasfilm, designing a variety of vehicles and environments for Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) and Star Wars:  Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002).

Shuster noted that the sketches go through many iterations before everyone involved arrives at a consensus. “On a weekly basis, Brian Fee was coming into the art room looking at the wallpaper of drawings, sometimes twice a week early on, and giving us direction constantly on where to take these characters and environments,” he says.

In addition, executive producer John Lasseter, who wrote and co-directed the original Cars film, took an active role from the very beginning. “Sometimes he was the final gate in the decision-making process for a character or an environment, but it always went through Brian first because it's his film and that's who we are in service to,” Shuster adds.

“We've got to pay close attention to clearances and tolerances,” Shuster states. “For Jackson Storm, we really wanted to push the wheel and tire size right into the wheel well to make him look brutally strong. You see that in a lot of concept cars these days -- they just push those shapes right out to the wheel well to fill that void. It is a design thing, but it also interferes with animations because they want the body to move around on these wheels as well. You need some movement inside the wheel wells, so we really had to pay attention to what animation needed, and reduce that size slightly, even though it killed me inside.”

One key challenge for Shuster was the number of new characters in the film, with roughly new 35 “Next Gen Racers” and 25 “Legends” to design.

Overall, Shuster says the biggest challenge was designing the eyes and the mouths of the various automotive characters. “Those two things – eyes and mouth – have to work together,” he notes. Plus, they all have different facial expressions, “from Storm’s dead-pan eyebrows to Cruz' vibrant and open eyebrow shapes.”

“There are a lot of hoops to jump through, but it's just part of the process,” he adds.

Character Supervisor Michael Comet

Character supervisor Michael Comet, who joined Pixar in 2006 and has worked on such films as Up (2009), Brave (2012) and The Good Dinosaur (2015), explained that after the initial designs are approved, clay models are made for all of the main characters, giving the artists a hands-on opportunity to tweak and finesse the designs in the real world. “The clay really is the first version of it [the character] in 3D,” he says. “With the characters, we are generally trying to get them into the computer as soon as we can, but we definitely have to wait for director approval of the basic designs.”

Comet continues, “It allows us a little bit more interactivity with the art department to really play with proportions -- Where is the wheel located? How tall is the character? How wide is the character? – and things like that. We can make adjustments very quickly on what is basically just a simplified model. What we are trying to do is still keep things very rough. It is all about working from rough to fine. You don't want to go putting in door creases and all that detail work until you really have landed the basic shape and proportions of the character.”

He adds that the hero characters get a lot more scrutiny and go through many more iterations. “For characters like the Crazy 8s, we had fairly rough drawings and we pretty much went right into the computer, and in some cases, we allowed our artists to even improvise and build up and add their own ideas to the design and in the model while it was in the computer. So, it became a little more collaborative in that way. We're trying to move that way, at Pixar, even more so in the future, just trying to get that collaborative spirit between all of the departments.”

But throughout the process, the animators had to try to achieve a certain level of realism. Technically, all of the cars are supposed to have the same sized wheels and lug nut patterns.

Comet explains that the character department would meet on a daily and weekly basis to discuss their designs, “looking at where the character was at, where the rig was at, and then deciding when to bring that to the animation supervisor to have a conversation. And then when we all agreed, then it went to the director, so we had a tiered system of approvals within the process.”

Overall, Comet says that the Crazy 8s sequence was the biggest challenge. “I think for me, personally, it was seeing how much work we had to do, working with all the other departments, planning out how we were going to accomplish all the new cars for the Crazy 8s sequence, how we were going to get to The Legends and some of the historical cars.”

Directing Animator Jude Brownbill

Directing animator Jude Brownbill explained that her team kept the original sketches handy as a reference throughout production. “I think when it comes to animating the characters and finding their personality, we always try and find those drawings that were done early on and make sure they're accessible to the animators so they can look back and see where this character came from and maybe capture something in there,” she says. “If it was a mouth shape or a lip shape, it is something they can spot in the process of figuring out who that character is.”

Brownbill, who is known for her work on Cars 2 (2011), Brave (2012), Monsters University (2013), Inside Out (2015) and The Good Dinosaur (2015), joined Pixar in 2010.

“We were just trying to make the best characters we could,” she says. “For those Storm tests, with Armie Hammer's voice, a bunch of animators tried different ideas and we shared them all with Brian. We responded to this mouth shape or that particular expression and pieced the performance together early on with the things we thought were successful and then ran from there.”

She noted that in the Cars universe, the characters are basically just heads, although they can pretend that the wheels are arms to a certain extent. So, animators had to focus on the mouth and eyes to deliver a performance. “All of the personality and nuance comes from how we animate and shape those,” she says.

Brownbill added that for her, the biggest challenge was “taking these new characters and trying to support how unique they were from each other with the choices made in animation, trying to get their personalities to really shine through with the acting choices that we made.”

Effects Supervisor Jon Reisch

Effects supervisor Jon Reisch explained that he plays two key roles in production. First, he is responsible for communicating his department’s needs to the other departments – upstream and downstream – working closely with supervising animator Bobby Podesta to layer effects on the animation team’s work, and with the lighting TDs to provide them with elements to integrate into the scene and light.

“And then, on the day-to-day level, I'm in charge of walk-throughs for my team, looking at the visual output that they're doing every single day, their iterations,” he adds. “I'd take a look and give them direction about where things needed to go in order to communicate the story point effectively, or if the weight and timing felt appropriate to the way that the animation was presented in the shot. Then I’d help them get ready to show that to Brian in our reviews.”

But long before that, in pre-production, he started going over the storyboards, identifying what kind of effects were called for and how many shots they were facing, in order to develop a plan of attack. In particular, what jumped out at him from those storyboards was the number of shots that his team would have to deal with that involved the characters driving through mud.

“We had an effects lead for about six months, who came on early, just designing the mud itself, and getting it ready to go into the shots,” Reisch says. “And then, we had a team of about 22 artists who worked on it all the way through. So, from the very first time we touched it, to the very last pixel that dropped, it took about a year.”

He noted that throughout production, he was talking with the other supervisors, saying, “Hey, I need to get these shots from animation first, so we can get going on those.  They're going to take a lot longer to deal with. We can get some of these other ones later. We don't even have effects in these shots, so you guys don't even need to talk with us about them.”

Reisch also explained that while the effects had to be believable and fit the shot, they could never steal the show. “If we're doing something that looks spectacularly real, but it's pulling away from where we want you to look, we're going to have to tamp that down,” he says. “It doesn't matter if we worked on that for a week or two weeks or a month. We have to give way to what it is we're trying to get across in the story in each of the shots.”

He added that, while the effects need to take a back seat to the story, the artists can save up for “big moments when you really want [the effects] to be big and kind of in your face.” However, those moments are also their biggest challenges. Overall, Reisch cited the complexity in Thunder Hollow scenes and the Crazy 8 Demolition Derby as the biggest challenges for the effects team. He concludes, “There are so many layers of dust and debris and mud and sparks and fireworks and explosions in there. But it's great, it feels like at the end of the day, we're able to get where we wanted to go with it. It feels like a really strong sequence for us. Kind of a tour de force for the department in the way that it supports the story telling.”

Reisch has won three VES awards for Ratatouille (2007), UP (2009) and The Good Dinosaur (2015). He was also nominated for his work on Monsters University (2013) and won an Annie award for his work on The Good Dinosaur (2015), along with nominations for Ratatouille (2007) and Cars 2 (2011).

Supervising Animator Bobby Podesta

Supervising animator Bobby Podesta, who is known for his work on Toy Story 2 (1999), Monsters, Inc. (2001) and Finding Nemo (2003), was nominated for an Annie award in 2006 for his work on the original Cars film. That legacy helped guide and shape his role on Cars 3.

“One of the things I helped to shepherd was how we animated cars, and the history of that work,” he explains. “And a lot of that came from my own history of being one of the animation leads on that first film.”

In many ways, the original film defined the language of movement and acting for the cars. Podesta noted that he had to teach a lot of the younger animators how to animate in the Cars world, “to set up a jumping off point for them, to not try to recycle animation they'd seen, but stand on its shoulders. So, that meant talking to the animators and saying, ‘Okay, this is how we're going to approach animation. This is how we approach giving a car weight, and this is how we approach how to translate your acting choices as a performer into a car and how to get that to come across.’”

Podesta’s team included over 70 animators at its peak, with over 200 models to deal with. He added that the core and foundation of their work was “making choices [designed to] keep you in that suspension of disbelief, so you're pulled along emotionally. It always comes down to the story.” They were always striving for a tone that was “grounded” to suit the story, “because this story is grounded in real stakes, and real emotional tangibility.”

Podesta used the analogy of an orchestra conductor. “If everybody was playing like they were all doing a solo at once, it'd be a mess,” he says. “Sometimes you want someone to have a solo, and sometimes you want them to play with the entire ensemble. And then, the director, and in some ways, the supervisors, in smaller parts, are trying to say, bring this up, put that down, play together as a group, fade into the background, come forward a little bit.”

Podesta credits animator Jim Brown with carrying a key “solo” during McQueen’s fateful crash scene. “He just kind of owned that whole thing,” says Podesta. “He just poured his all into it. And I was thankful. When we were casting him on that sequence, my hope was that we would have someone who would just own it like that, and he did a fantastic job. And it took a lot of back and forth, trying to get the physics right, because it's a really impactful moment.”

Supervising Technical Director Michael Fong

Supervising technical director Michael Fong explained that he has three key roles on a film. First, he has to work with a lot of different departments making sure they’re all technically supported. “I have to make sure that they have the resources they need and the appropriate budgets and time to get their projects done,” he says. “The second thing is to make sure that we're all focused on the same vision. We all have to be thinking about what we're going to be working at any particular time, and we're just trying to focus everybody and try to get everybody targeted the right way,” he continues.

“And then, the last bit of my job is thinking about new technology,” he adds. “So, not only am I a gatekeeper, but I'm the guy who, to some degree, has to think about whether or not we are going to take on new technology to solve any particular problem, or are we actually going to stick with what we've had -- are we going to build upon what Finding Dory did, or do we think we ought to throw that out, and build something brand new.”

Fong won a VES award for Ratatouille (2007) and was nominated for his work on Toy Story 3 (2010). His credits also include Finding Nemo (2003) and Inside Out (2015).

Fong described how on Finding Dory (2016), Pixar switched over to an RIS Path Tracing rendering system, “and now, what we're doing is we're figuring out where the photons of light are actually traveling, calculating what's happening to them as they're moving through some volume, and calculating what happens when they hit the surfaces and bounce around. Every time they hit, we're setting out 10 more examples. It's a different level for us.”

He added that while they had to buy a lot more CPUs to deal with the rendering, “you suddenly get a world where master lighting becomes a little bit easier, because now you don't have to fake things quite as much anymore. Now, you just put the sun there and it does its thing. It costs a little more rending-wise, but you can actually get pictures that look pretty good right out of the box.”

Fong quipped that much of his time “is spent breaking physics… Yeah, they might look hyper-real, but is it too distracting, because it's too shiny or reflective? That kind of thing.”

Overall Fong says that his biggest challenge was a scene set in Radiator Springs’ Rust-eze Racing Center. “You’ve got a building that's made entirely of glass. Then you go inside and it’s being lit up by skies, and then you go down below, and you're going to go into this training area where all the partitions are made out of glass, and there are walls made out of glass, and there are hallways made out of glass.”

“And while the new renderer and global illumination make everything a little bit easier, there's a cost to all of that that you have to deal with,” he explains. “They've got hundreds of practical lines that we have to tone down because they're too shiny sometimes, or too distracting. There's a bunch of noise that you have to deal with, when you're doing path tracing. It's just a lot to work with, and so, there was some pain there.”

Scott Lehane's picture

Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.