The Cars 3 Animation and Effects Teams Breathe Life into the Next Generation of Cars

©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

It happens to the best of them. Michael Jordon. Tiger Woods. Mickey Mantle. Joe Montana. The superstars of yesteryear face the end of their careers, as the brash, young newcomers take centerstage. Why would we expect anything different from the star of Cars 3: Lightning McQueen?

Harken back to the first Cars film, and you may remember a fairly cocky #95 not really caring to hear anyone else’s advice. He was young and a bit brash himself. Now more than 10 years later, Lightning McQueen is back in the third Cars installment, and this time, he’s literally racing for his life. Well, more like his career. But to a racing addict like McQueen, career and life are one and the same.

Cars 3 hits theaters on June 16 and sees McQueen attempt to mount the ultimate comeback as he takes on the newest batch of young racers, with the overconfident (yet, rightly so) Jackson Storm the odds-on favorite. How does a company like Pixar Animation bring a new generation of cars to life? How do the animators breathe life into simple 2D drawings? That’s exactly what I was determined to find out.

On my recent #Cars3Event press trip to San Francisco, I joined a few dozen bloggers as we sat with some of the key players behind Pixar’s Cars 3. Over a 90-minute period, we sat down with animators, designers, tech directors and effects supervisors to get a behind-the-scenes look at just how Pixar can add that spark of life to Lightning McQueen and company.

A Cars 3 art review, including Bob Pauley, John Lasseter and Director Brian Fee at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

The Next Generation of Cars

When you sit there in the theater (Hopefully on June 16!) and watch Lightning McQueen and company zip across the screen, chances are you’re completely immersed in the story and the characters. You’re not thinking about who was involved in creating this film, nor exactly how an anthropomorphic automobile came to life. But there are a ton of steps involved before McQueen even takes his first lap.

Our first session was all about the “Next Generation” of cars and we learned the full process of how a character goes from idea to full-on animation.

Character Creation

“We start with a blank sheet of paper,” explains Production Designer Jay Shuster. What follows is a literal frenzy of drawing as pencils race across the page, sketching out line after line to bring these creations to life. Pixar has an iterative design process, so everyone just creates hundreds of sketches that are then tossed up on the wall. Review sessions help move the designs along, and more sketches soon follow.

All along the way, however, one key point is constantly drilled through everyone’s mind. “We are constantly reminding ourselves with these designs that it’s characters first and vehicles second,” says Shuster. “We have to pay attention to things like the eyes and the mouth relationship. We can’t angle that windshield too far or it looks like the eyes are staring up into space constantly. We need to be very attentive to that angle of the windshield.”

Clay models are then created to give a full 3D feel to the character. Photos are taken and then the team would overlay sketches to help push the design forward. Shuster is quick to point out the importance of every single piece of the design. “Every line has to say something about the characte,” he reveals. “Here it’s saying Jackson Storm is a weapon on wheels. We’re really pushing the creasing and stealth fighter like quality of this design.”

One thing you may not notice at first is the iconic “S” on Jackson Storm’s side. Similar to Lightning McQueen’s iconic lightning bolt, the team wanted to give Storm his own icon. In this case, they took the international symbol for hurricane and transformed it into Storm’s iconic “S” logo.

Suddenly McQueen had a rival that completely defined the next generation of cars. A class that lets its appearance do most of the talking. Storm’s low profile and aggressive shape proved a perfect contrast to McQueen’s friendlier, curvier style.

And there’s there’s newcomer Cruz Ramirez. This strong female character falls right in between McQueen and Storm when it comes to looks. An American Muscle Car influenced by European Sports Car stylings, Ramirez features just enough creases and edges to look modern, but with a lot more flowing and elegant shapes.

When Shuster and his team have finalized the overall looks, they put all the designs together and create a clean set of plans. These are called a final model packet and its ultimately what’s given to the teams building the computer models. Consider them an instruction manual of sorts.

Production Designer Jay Shuster (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Going Digital

Once the plans are put together, the next team in the assembly line takes those plans and creates digital models of each character. The Character Department is essentially responsible for taking the concept art out of the art department and bringing it into the computer, explains Characters Supervisor Michael Comet. They then provide those digital models to other departments such as animation.

These guys really start bringing the vehicles (and characters) to life. They’ll take the models they’ve been given and spice them up a bit by adding shading, painting, shininess, reflections and more. Through the use of some super-powered software, the team pretty much builds every piece of a car, whether you see it or not.

“Our rendering software is so realistic,” says Comet. “Take Cruz’s headlight. You can see we actually modeled a lens, a bulb and a reflector. That’s because with the new film if we don’t do that, the light won’t bounce around the right way. And in some cases, we had to animate cars that were offscreen. That’s just because you could see them in the reflection, since these cars are so shiny.”

Think about that for a minute. The Pixar Team actually creates a digital car from the inside out. When you see Jackson Storm racing past Lightning McQueen on the track, it’s not just an empty shell of a sketch. There are real digital car parts underneath. Every muffler, engine, bolt and lug nut are built into the digital model.

Once the shading and remodeling is finished for all the characters, they’re then set up to be animated. Characters are put through a number of basic, regularly used animated poses in a process called character rigging. By creating a “virtual puppet” of each character, these guys are adding in controls for the face, body and even wheels.

“We have to set up every single thing that can be moved with the character,” says Comet. “We open the jaw. We can move the lips. We can move the corners of the mouth. The eyelids, the eyebrows. All these things get moved.”

Concept art for Jackson Storm by Production Designer Jay Shuster. ©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Getting Animated

These digital models are then passed on to other departments at Pixar, most notably the Animation Team. Now we’re taking these characters who started on a blank sheet of paper, and bringing them to animated life. Again, story and character must always trump everything else.

“We knew that the story for Cars 3 was very emotionally grounded,” explains Directing Animator Jude Brownbill. “We were seeing these renders coming out that were very visually grounded. We knew that our animation had to live in incredible detail within the world that we created. For us, in animation terms, that meant maybe pulling back a bit from big broad cartoony movements. And instead having these several thousand pound cars feel and move like they should. Respecting their weight. Respecting physics. Truth to materials.”

Animated someone like McQueen wasn’t too challenging, as the big guy’s been around the track a number of times already. IT was the new characters that alsways present the next challenge. But for Brownbill and her team, there are always three important things that help support the uniqueness of each character:

  1.  The way they look.
  2.  The way that they move.
  3. The way that they act and behave.

Let’s take Jackson Storm as our first example. “Storm’s very angular and sharp,” says Brownbill. “So it’s up to animation to take those controls and support the design of the car and the body. For Storm, we took that angular and sharp design and tried to do just that. We created straight lines and sharp corners of the mouth. We even asked for extra controls so that we could make the top of his lip even sharper and more angular. We continued to reflect that with his eyelids.”

The same goes for Storm’s movements. He’s lower to the ground and doesn’t lean into his turns the same way Lightning McQueen does. Everything seems super strategic for him and the newcomer just makes it all look effortless.

“He’s very overconfident and arrogant” adds Brownbill. “He only really cares about himself and winning. Minimal body movement and over articulation of the mouth helped get that across. If we contrasted what his eyes were saying with what his mouth was saying, he would really come across as that type of character you’re not really sure if you should like or not.”

A Cars 3 animation walk thru review, including Director Brian Fee (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

4 Keys to Success with Pixar’s Cars 3

Be Relatable

“Have you ever been at a crossroads in life where you feel really out of place?” asks Supervising Animator Bobby Podesta. “That’s the point of this [demolition derby] scene in Cars 3. The audience feels like McQueen does – out of his element.”

In fact, all of Pixar’s films are grounded in something relatable. It dates all the way back to the beginning when John Lassiter laid down the law. That lamp you see hopping around in the Pixar logo? It was John’s desk lamp. He wanted to take something tangible and turn it into an art form. That doesn’t always mean, however, that it’s only visually tangible. It also needs to be emotionally tangible.

“It’s something that you can connect to,” continues Podesta. “The story of a bunch of lamps isn’t just a bunch of lamps, it could be a family. Whether you’re watching a lamp, a fish or a car, Pixar wants you to get down to it and say, ‘Wow I know that person!'”

Exhibit Realism

Want a burst of realism in your animation? Then get yourself a killer effects team like the one at Pixar. As Effects Supervisor Jon Reisch explains, effects can cover a wide range of things including water, fire, smoke, skid marks, tire peel outs and more.

“They’re providing believable interaction that grounds the characters in the film,” he says. “They add a visual component of the tangible object. And they can add emotions to the characters. There is something very powerful and unexpected with engine smoke.”

The biggest challenge facing the effects team for Cars 3? Mud.

“It isn’t solid or liquid all the time so it’s hard to simulate,” adds Reisch. “You’re going to get stuck in the mud.  We experimented over and over to get to the reality of it all. A lot of these experiments looked terrible – like chocolate. To get to the final images, we have to work with a lot of other departments. They took the mud puddle to the shaders (to make sure that the mud edges are wet), high resolution flashes, etc. If they effect the characters, we need to talk with the character shading department.”

“Cars 3” Effects Supervisor Jon Reisch (Photo by Deborah Coleman / Pixar)

Obey the Law

The laws of physics apply to the animated world nearly as much as they do for the real one. Using physical simulator effects software, Pixar does its best to obey the laws of motion and physics. The effects team will add a variety of inputs and then run simulations. We’re talking about things like a car’s velocity, how fast a wheel is spinning, tire smoke, skid marks, air flow… you get the picture.

These simulators take all the inputs into account and spit out a real sense of reality with the cars zipping around a track, reveals Reisch. In the end, these tools help add some real weight and balance to each effect and character.

Long Live the King

At Pixar, story is king. It always has been, and always will be. This notion of story first isn’t just for the writers, though. Uh uh. It hits every single department. “Everything that all of the departments do is affected by the story,” says Supervising Technical Director Michael Fong. “All of this is there to help the story telling – explosions, etc. Sometimes things can be too big or too dramatic and they have to tone them down.”

And no department at Pixar works in a vacuum. As the technical team begins fleshing out the world, the writers finds new things to implement. Or as Fong puts it, “Technical influences story and story influences technical.”

©2017 Disney•Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Cars 3 in theaters June 16

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