Story is King. That’s pretty much the mantra at Pixar Animation Studios, where they tell some amazing stories. From Toy Story to Finding Nemo, the Pixar team seems to flawlessly crank out success after success. But what really goes on behind those closed doors? How do these masterpieces make it to the Big Screen? That’s exactly what I got to find out on a recent #Cars3Event Blogging Trip to Pixar Studios, where we sat down with some pretty important people responsible for the upcoming Cars 3.
While spending the day at Sonoma Raceway, myself and nearly two dozen bloggers broke off into groups for a variety of presentations (such as the awesome History of Racing!). As a writer/editor, one of my favorites was “The Story of Our Story.” In a small room off of a garage, we sat down with four fabulous folks from the Pixar story side: Story Supervisor Scott Morse (Cars 2, Cars 3, Brave, Wall-E) and writers Mike Rich (Finding Forester, Secretariat), Bob Peterson (Finding Nemo) and Kiel Murray (Cars, Cars 3).
Over the next 45 minutes, the group talked us through the birth of Lightning McQueen’s newest story, and how it went from story pitch to story boards and beyond. If Story truly is King, then these guys are some of the finest soldiers you’ll ever meet.
Cars 3 – On Getting the Story Started
MIKE RICH: Approaching this story, one of the greatest challenges was to take a look at McQueen. Any time you have an iconic character to work with, you’re in a pretty good place. But the one thing we didn’t have was he didn’t have a problem. He didn’t have a dilemma.
The last race we saw, Lightning McQueen he was on top of the world. He was a champion racer. Things were going well for him and I think part of the reason why Pixar wanted me to come on board was because I had worked in films that dealt with sports in the past. Working on Secretariat was a similar feeling of you like to have something they can come back from. We knew we would have to make McQueen vulnerable and take him down a notch. So in the early exploration of how do we go about doing that, we looked at big athletes that were going through a similar thing. We visited and talked with athletes like Jeff Gordon who was only a couple of years away from his own retirement.
BOB PETERSON: We talked about Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan. These guys are on top of the world just as McQueen is but then they have to figure out when they start to become obsolete what do you do. We found that a very interesting way to go with this story. In all these films we look for a universal truth that everyone can sort of identify with whether its toys or fish or whatever as long as there is something we can all learn from. In this case, it was what do you do when you’re not as fast any more and you have people behind you that are faster. Do you crumple or do you rise up and change?
MR: When Kobe Bryant injured his achilles late in his career, he had this famous 3 a.m. post on Facebook where he basically was saying, “What do I do now?” You could tell this larger than life athlete was at a loss. He asked do I crawl under a rock, do I quit, do I rise. He was wrestling with all the things that we realized would be interesting for McQueen.
BP: And it’s an even bigger fall because these guys are at such heights you notice it a lot more.
MR: There is a line that we would put in the film because I had heard it from an athlete who was asked the question, “How do you know when things are changing? How do you realize it?” And the answer is the kids will tell you.
Cars 3 – On Jackson Storm
BP: The exciting thing for us was that Cars 3 is kind of the inverse of Cars 1. Remember when Cars first started out, McQueen was this brash, cocky rookie who just had youth on his side. He had speed to burn. He didn’t need anybody telling him about anything. He had the answers and his appreciation and respect for the sport was basically just for what about me, what’s it mean for me. Cars taught him that there is a lot more to value than just that.
MR: For us it was a great opportunity to create a kid who was kind of a mirror image of McQueen, but has much more of an edge than McQueen had in the first story but has the speed and has the technology in how the sport has changed.
BP: It’s interesting because it’s a mirror but his generation is colder. You see these older guys and they are having fun together and there’s camaraderie. Up come these new guys and it’s more about technique and winning and you sense kind of a warmth sliding out of the sport and that’s why you feel a little unnerved when all these rookies start replacing him.
MR: Stats can tell every bit of the story and sometimes we lose sight of the of the fact that stats can’t measure everything. There’s heart. So if the goal was to show that McQueen was very much at risk of losing the one thing that he cherished more than anything, we wanted to show the audience what was it about the sport that he did fall in love with.
Cars 3 – On Taking a Road Trip
BP: One of the most fun parts of this process is living in the material and really understand the emotions and history of what you’re trying to put up on the screen and have truth in the materials. We went to the South and tried to dig up as much of the deep history as we still could orally, written, walking these old ghost tracks that we could find, talking with all the veterans like Richard Petty, and people that were part of the sport like Humpy Wheeler who used to help run events, Junior Johnson who was one of the original moonshiners. Sitting with these guys, hearing their stories and just living in that world was invaluable to finding the spirit of the love of the game McQueen could not verbalize.
MR: We went to the Daytona 500 and one of the great things about McQueen is just the connection with the fans that he has of the sport. They love him and he loves them. We made a point of sitting in the grandstands, hundred rows up in the bleachers because we wanted to surround ourselves with what was the equivalent of McQueen’s fans. We saw people wearing Lightening McQueen shirts at the Daytona 500.
BP: it was really special because you can see what it’s like modern day. There are these big hunks of steel going two hundred miles an hour around the track. But the surprise was seeing how human it was, hearing stories in the garage, hearing the drivers talk about why they got into racing. There’s so much heart in it. It’s not about glory for them. Its about competition. It’s about rebellion and all of these other really human things.
MR: Its about the history of the sport. We went to the Daytona 500 museum and library. There are these old yellow newspapers and photographs and file cabinets. It was refreshing because it was an analog thing. Actual files. That’s where we learned about characters like Wendell Scott and Louise Smith who had obstacles, societal obstacles, just to get on the track but they did it because of the love of the sport. These trips and these brainstorming sessions were really kind of creating the puzzle. We had most of the pieces, now we just had to get started.
Cars 3 – On Convincing John Lassetter
MR: We finally got back and we had to sit down with John Lasseter and pitch the story that we had come up with at the time. I remember we had put together this four page document.
BP: So you read it out loud to the group, playing all the characters. John knew some of the inklings that we were going to put into the movie, what we were hoping to get in there.
MR: I started reading the story. John doesn’t usually tip his hand. He just takes it in. I was telling the story and I got to the third page. All of sudden I looked up and a tear, a single tear rolled down John Lasseter’s face. For me I’ve been fortunate enough to have a really wonderful career. I thought afterwards, that’s the closest I’ll ever get to reading a script to Walt Disney.
BP: John cares. He cares about these stories and the ideas. That gave us the boost to move forward.
Cars 3 – On Cruz Ramirez
BP: All of these films exist in a vacuum if its just the main character. You have to have side characters. We went through a lot of variations and we settled on Cruz Ramirez. And Cruz Ramirez was a difficult character to crack. We knew we wanted her to push McQueen. We knew he didn’t want to grow old. He wanted to stay viable so who would push him there? What we settled on was someone who would really push him and that was a trainer. A trainer who herself wanted to be a racer but had fears as a young car that she couldn’t make it. So the nice thing about Cruz being a trainer is that she refuses to let McQueen forget that he’s old.
KIEL MURRAY: We initially crafted Cruz out of what McQueen needed her to be, but once you know that, what’s her own story? [Actress] Cristella Alonzo’s own life was inspirational. She talked about trying to break into comedy, feeling different, looking different and sounding different. She grew up in a small town. We looked at our own lives. I have a daughter and two boys so I am keenly aware of their different levels of confidence and how my daughter, even though she may be an extremely successful woman, may undercut or under estimate herself and my sons will overestimate. That was interesting to me knowing that McQueen is such a confident character that he would be great to pair with someone who needed a little bit of his confidence.
I read a lot on the confidence gap and the new recent evidence about why girls are less confident. Its not true for every woman but there’s a lot of evidence and reasons why. We had a great story artist on our team named Louise that did the scratch voice for Cruz and also drew her a lot. She had a similar sort of story to Cruz when she arrived at Pixar. I spent a lot of time talking with her and saying, “Does this feel right to you?”
SCOTT MORSE: Louise is so much fun to work with mostly because of her personality. Because she’s new, she brings a lot of enthusiasm. But she secretly told us that she suffers from imposter syndrome at Pixar, where she is like the small fish in a big pond. She finally got her dream of working at Pixar. And in her mind, would she measure up? Does she have the goods? Can she do what everyone else can? She’s challenging herself. As we looked at the sequence [with Cruz] we said lets put Louise on it and see what she can bring to it. Louise had these great ideas.
Cars 3 – On Putting it All Together
SM: At the end of the day, you’re making a movie. You have to make it visual and use that film language that is going to live in your hearts and your minds. That’s really tricky with human characters, let alone talking cars. We have a sizable story team that we work with, an amazing group, all ages, all different backgrounds. We try different artists on different sequences throughout the movie and try to challenge them with an action scene or a comedy scene to make everybody grow.
We hand out script pages and we read through them with the script artists and a lot of times they go back and forth with the writer and the board artists get their input in the writing phase that way. And then we start thumbnailing. The first visuals may be on a napkin, or the back of an envelope. An Eskimo pie wrapper. We tend to keep our trash and draw on it.
Storyboards are great because as you’re looking at emotion and comedy, sometimes you land it at the end of the day like you need to but sometimes you go down the wrong path. But like 90% of everything we do, we toss it and we just keep workshopping until we find something that works.