Director Brian Fee, producer Kevin Reher and co-producer Andrea Warren discuss the long road to theaters for Pixar’s third ‘Cars’ franchise film.
Opening June 16, Cars 3 is the third installment in the Cars franchise and the 18th film from Pixar Animation Studios released by Walt Disney Pictures. Directed by Brian Fee, Cars 3 revisits the world of racing champion Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) as he struggles to recover from a terrible crash. With help from race technician Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) and some other friends, he begins training to attempt a comeback against a new generation of high-tech race cars, pitting him against rookie sensation Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer) in the Florida 500.
The film marks the directorial debut of Brian Fee, who worked in the art department for Cars, Cars 2 and Wall-E.
Fee explained that in the third installment, while Lightning is still the same confident, determined and fun-loving race car audiences fell in love with more than a decade ago, he has aged and his confidence is being tested by the new rookies on the track. “When we first met Lightning McQueen, he was a young rookie -- a superhero,” says Fee. “He had his whole life ahead of him. And while he’s done well since we last saw him -- really well -- winning five Piston Cups, he’s not a young hotshot racer anymore…and in Cars 3, when Lightning discovers he’s not the superhero he used to be, he gets frustrated. And after the crash, he’s pretty vulnerable.”
The filmmakers wanted to infuse Cars 3 with a nostalgia for the early days of NASCAR racing. To really develop the characters, members of the story team went to NASCAR’s Daytona 500 to soak up the atmosphere. As Lightning McQueen struggles to get back on top, his explorations lead him to a group of characters who represent the roots of stock car racing -- and provide a link to Lightning’s late coach and mentor, Doc Hudson.
“We did a lot of research,” says Fee. “We looked at athletes in other sports, but really focused on NASCAR drivers. They start at such an early age and their lives are centered around driving. We even talked to a sports psychologist who explained that many of these drivers don’t know anything else. They can’t imagine doing anything else.”
As far as the overall production, Fee explained that even though the director’s job is constantly changing, depending on where you are in the production cycle, he always has to keep his focus on the story. “Let’s just make sure we’re still telling the story, and we don’t get away from ourselves,” he says.
“Really early on, my day is spent reviewing script pages, sitting down with the writers, talking through story changes, needs, desires and working with story artists to work that up,” he describes. “Then there’s a point in the process where I spent almost all of my time in editorial, actually crafting the reels with story boards. That’s where you’re really making the bones of your movie. As that starts to lock in and some of that starts to find itself and scenes move on to production, then my day [is mostly spent] on layout. I love the layout department because…it’s an opportunity to free ourselves. Now we can get real cameras and a real set, and we can shoot this thing even better. We can find angles that we didn’t even know that we had. We can really now make a film through the language of the camera. So that becomes a huge investment of time. Then, of course, everything on from that -- the actual animation -- is all about the performance.”
He explained that the performance really starts with the voice actors. The movie has over 800 lines in it, which is a lot for an animated film. Most of the dialog sessions were done over Tieline from New York, with the director in L.A.
But after the dialog is recorded it’s up to the animators to try to translate that performance onto an automobile.
“All of the artists we work with are experts. They are fantastic,” says Fee. “One of the challenges we had on Cars 3 was to respect the fact that we have 4,000-pound automobiles and when they’re rendered, they’re going to be photorealistic. If their tires are stretching and pushing out and we’re seeing all this under carriage...it actually takes us out of the realism of the world, because we’re leaning toward a photorealistic image here. We wanted to make sure the animation backed that up and didn’t go away and do its own thing. We had to find out how to dial it back and be as expressive as possible without actually pushing metal, and stuff like that, further than we expect to see out of a 4,000-pound car. There was a new threshold we were finding.”
“We didn’t lose anything in the process,” he adds. “For the animators, I think they would tell you it was an interesting experience to realize what you can do when you really hold yourself back and think more subtle.”
Technically, the film sits on the spectrum between photorealism and cartoon much closer to the photoreal side, in a zone known as art-directed realism.
“There’s a conscious narrative to call it ‘art-directed realism’ as opposed to a ‘photorealistic’ type of rendering,” notes Fee, “even though it’s so beautifully done that you could swear this is just live-action footage. Yet you’ve got cartoon characters against, essentially, photoreal backdrops. My challenge is, knowing that you can make anything look however you want, you have to determine, how photoreal the visuals really should be.”
“Most films make decisions and lean on a certain level of stylization so that their world is all together, and their characters fit in their world,” Fee adds. “We have decided that Cars is the one franchise within Pixar that we’re going to make as real as possible. They always have. The technology only let them go so far in previous films.”
He explained that this called for a different style of animation that was somewhat more restrained, although, of course, they could still take license with the design and exaggerate certain elements, like the size of car tires.
“It’s not a painterly look,” says Fee. “We’re not controlling the landscape in a fantasy world or with painterly aspect. We are controlling the image. Everything you see was controlled. The light, the color of that light, was very controlled. That’s what we don’t want the audience to think about. We want the audience just to think, ‘I have gone to this part of the country and it looks just like this.’”
Modern animation takes a small army of artists working in unison, and producers play a key role in managing the logistics and keeping everyone on the same page and working together.
Co-producer Andrea Warren explained that, “A lot happens at once. You have to start up all these aspects of the film. The music, the consumer products have started up. All these things are in motion as you’re making the film, so it’s just trying to keep all those things moving at the appropriate clip. Some of that can move along kind of slowly, because it just needs to catch up later. Other things are kind of behind, and you need to make sure they’re good. I think the challenge is just tracking all those different threads keeping them all going.”
Warren worked closely with production manager Pam Darrow, in terms of scheduling and interfacing with the finance department. “We have limited resources we can use at any given moment from the studio, based on the other projects that are going on,” says Warren. “You are advocating for the director. You want the director to get everything that he wants up on the screen. You’re also advocating for the budget and the studio and everything to fit in the spot that you have, and make people aware of what those limitations are. I felt like in some ways, the job is to always make sure that the director knows his options before it’s too late.”
Producer Kevin Reher explained that his job revolved around answering a lot of questions, for a lot of people, in a timely manner.
“There’s the Disney part of our world, and the corporate side of Pixar who want answers to things. Our team wants answers to things. I feel like that’s kind of what my responsibility is: to get people answers on a regular, daily basis,” says Reher.
He notes that the producers would hold weekly meetings with the various department heads and animation teams, “so that we felt their pain or their happiness, or how they were doing. ‘Is there a problem?’ ‘Are you getting what you need from Brian?’ ‘Are you getting what you need from your supervisor?’”
Warren adds that these meetings also helped ensure that everyone understood the priorities. “Everybody takes such pride and loves to make everything amazing, but we all have to always keep our focus on what really is going to be on the screen, what matters in every scene, and connecting that to what Brian sees as important, and not getting lost in the weeds on stuff.”
Reher explained that the scarcest resource was the director’s time, which they jokingly referred to as “Brian Time.”
“Since we were so backloaded in story, a lot of Brian’s time was spent with the story team and with our writers,” he notes. “So the animation department was asking, ‘Well, can we have more Brian Time?’ and I had to tell them, ‘You’ll get your time. Trust that you’ll get your time, but not right now.’”
“For me, again, it’s about supporting a crew in a way that they feel heard and they feel respected,” says Reher. “Even though they may say, ‘I’m sorry, we’re coming in over budget,’ in the amount of time it’s going to take to do the mud, or do the beach scene, or whatever, it’s saying, ‘Okay, well, it’s worth it, because those are money shots.’ People are going to walk out of the movie and say, ‘I loved that figure-8 race. That was unbelievable.’ We want to make sure we’re investing the right amount of time and effort into those sequences that we feel strongly about and supporting that vision.”
Reher admits that, “Brian doesn’t really need us. He’s got a lot of people talking to him. He’s got a whole story team; he has a brain trust. He has his head of story; he has his writers. He’s got enough people talking to him about the creative. He just needs us to make sure the ship is moving forward and getting the movie made, which I don’t have a problem with. I don’t fashion myself as a creative producer. I never have. I’m more of a nuts-and-bolts producer.”
“We got a lot of nice compliments about the fact that one of the things we did as producers was let people do their job and not second guess them, or look over their shoulders,” he adds. “Bobby Podesta, [supervising animator] said, ‘This was one of the more pleasurable shows, just because you just let us do our job. Like, ‘Okay, great. Go ahead. Do it.’’”
“As far as working with Kevin and Andrea, I think we have a good thing where they trust me,” says the director. “They trust that I’m going to tell the story, and I trust that they’re going to do what they need to do. We don’t overlap a lot. They don’t tell me how I should be directing. When we have a problem, they understand. They’re wonderful at saying, ‘This is going to impact the schedule. I understand that.’ Or, ‘Well, and it’s going to cost us more money. We’re probably going to have to find other places in the budget to pay for that, but if it’s right for the movie, we’ll do it.’ That’s the stance they always take. I feel honored to have such partners with me that give me that freedom.”
Overall, Fee reported that the biggest challenge was the story. “I think that’s always the hardest thing because that’s the most important thing,” he says. “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 rely on the fact that all of the people doing those jobs are experts. They are better than I’ll ever know.”
He concludes, “My job is not to make sure they do a good job. They’ll do a good job. My job is just to make sure we’re all doing the right thing to help tell the story.”
Scott Lehane is a Toronto-based journalist who has covered the film and TV industry for 30 years. He recently launched VRNation.tv -- an online community for VR enthusiasts.