THE LOOK OF "CARS": PIXAR'S PRODUCTION DESIGNERS GO TO THE RACES AND GETS THEIR KICKS ON ROUTE 66
From the thrilling opening nighttime race, to the dusty, faded facades of Radiator Springs' Main Street, and revving up to a climax with the action-packed daytime race in California, Pixar's production designers and artistic team went into overdrive to capture the diverse moods and settings of "CARS" in a stylish way.
A great believer in research and first-hand experience, Lasseter took his key creative team on a road trip along Route 66 in 2001 to help them prepare for their assignment. Nine people, nine days, four white Cadillacs. For good measure, Route 66 expert Michael Wallis led the expedition and provided a running narrative via walky-talkies along the way.
Production designer Bob Pauley, a Detroit native and lifetime car enthusiast, who oversaw the design of the car characters and the two racetrack environments, recalls, "Michael told us at the very start of the trip, 'you don't know what's going to happen out there. All sorts of new things and experiences are going to happen, and you just have to roll with it and enjoy it, and be open to it.' And it was true. Typically, we'd go into a town, and we'd hear all these wonderful stories from the locals. We'd soak it all in while getting a haircut at the barbershop, or enjoying a sno-cone, or taking the challenge to eat a 72-ounce steak at the Big Texan. We even took soil samples. It was unbelievable - purple, red, orange, ochre. So many wonderful colors!
"One of the most meaningful moments for all of us occurred at a stop somewhere in Arizona," continues Pauley. "We were on the side of a road close to the big highway. It was a beautiful road that wound perfectly around the environment. It turns and goes right through this gorgeous butte. As we were sitting there, a truck pulled up with an older Native American and his grandchild. He asked us 'How do you like our land?' We told him how beautiful it was, and he told us that he was out here when they blasted the cutaway for the big highway through his ancestor's sacred land. It was a powerful moment being there on a road that works so well with the environment, and seeing the interstate that slices through it without any care or respect at all. It was amazing to hear these great stories first-hand from a person whose family had been there for generations."
Associate producer Tom Porter recalls, "When John and his team came back from their Route 66 trip, there was a lot of talk about wanting to capture the patina of the Southwest. They wanted everything in the film to be shaded so that it had the authenticity of that old 40s, 50s, 60s stuff that was faded and weathered after fifty years. John wanted the full complexity of a Southwestern town looking authentic, and then a similar set of challenges in the racing world."
Bill Cone, the production designer who was responsible for creating the look of the film's environments and building a five-mile stretch of road that leads in and out of the town of Radiator Springs, recalls, "I think of the style for this film as cartoon realism. You have talking cars, so you've already taken a step away from reality in that regard. The forms are a little whimsical. You'll see these car shapes on the cliffs, and the clouds are stylized. I reached the conclusion that humans in a human universe would see their own forms in nature, which they often do. They name things like Indian Head Rock. So, in a car universe, they would have car-based metaphors for forms. Suddenly, you could see these cliffs that looked very much like the hoods of cars, or an ornament. Great American artists like Maynard Dixon also had a big influence on us with their landscapes of the Southwest and the clouds that they painted."
Sophie Vincelette, sets supervisor for the film, was responsible for creating the film's mountain range that pays homage to the famous Cadillacs planted in the ground along Route 66. Other mountains are shaped like wheelwells, and bumpers.
In every aspect, "CARS" represents a new level of attention to detail for Pixar. With its crumbly bits of concrete, accumulated dust, and layers of faded advertisements painted on brick walls, Radiator Springs feels like a real place audiences could visit.
According to Vincelette, "Our challenge was to give the buildings in town the appearance of having a sense of history. We worked closely with the shading and modeling teams to give them a weathered look, and to make sure that things were not always straight. There are weeds growing out of cracks in the cement on the sidewalk."
Adding to the authenticity of the desert location, modelers in the Sets department were able to dot the landscape with thousands of pieces of vegetation, including cactus, sagebrush (in brown, green, yellow and tan varieties), and grass. Rocks of varying formations also added interest to the scenery.
To ensure authenticity in their car designs, the production design team conducted research at auto shows, spent time in Detroit with auto designers and manufacturers, went to car races, and made extensive studies of car materials.
"Research is a big thing for John," says Pauley. "It's also the most fun part of the job because we got to go to car shows and races, and other neat stuff. One of the things we did was to visit Manuel's Body Shop right near the Studio. He gave us a lot of detail and helped us understand how they apply layers and coats of paint on a car."
Characters shading supervisor Thomas Jordan explains, "Chrome and car paint were our two main challenges on this film. We started out by learning as much as we could. At the local body shop, we watched them paint a car, and we saw the way they mixed the paint and applied the various coats.
"We tried to dissect what goes into the real paint and recreated it in the computer," he continues. "We figured out that we needed a base paint, which is where the color comes from, and the clearcoat, which provides the reflection. We were then able to add in things like metallic flake to give it a glittery sparkle, a pearlescent quality the might change color depending on the angle, and even a layer of pin-striping for characters like Ramone."
Shading art director Tia Krater adds, "While we were at Manuel's one day we found this old beat-up chrome bumper and we asked if we could have it. He started to clean it up, and we said 'No! No! Don't clean it!' It was exactly what we were looking for. We loved how dirty it was and the patina. It had a little bit of everything we were looking for - pitting, scratches, milky blurriness, rust, and blistering. All in one bumper! One of our technical guys, who ended up shading Mater, took it out in the sun, and spent a lot of time staring at it and taking lots of pictures to analyze the textures and surfaces."
THE ULTIMATE ROAD TRIP SOUNDTRACK: RANDY NEWMAN'S SCORE AND PERFORMANCES BY TOP ARTISTS TAKE "CARS" IN NEW MUSICAL DIRECTIONS
A film that celebrates our universal love affair with cars, and the joys of taking the road less traveled, called for the world's best road trip soundtrack, and Lasseter enlisted his longtime collaborator Randy Newman (a 2002 Oscar®-winner for his song, "If I Didn't Have You" from "Monsters, Inc.") and a host of top recording artists to add to the fun and excitement. Taking Pixar in whole new musical direction, the songs integrate with Newman's score (and great new song performed by James Taylor), and showcase a variety of styles and performances. The combination of Newman's musical genius with the contributions of these other great artists makes for a rousing musical experience and represents a first for Pixar.
Lasseter got a friend and a longtime collaborator in Randy Newman when he began working with the acclaimed composer/songwriter back on the original "Toy Story." The two have been making beautiful music ever since with their subsequent collaborations on "A Bug's Life" and "Toy Story 2." Newman received Oscar® nominations for his scores for "Toy Story" and "A Bug's Life," plus nominations for the songs, "You've Got a Friend in Me" ("Toy Story") and "When She Loved Me" (from "Toy Story 2," sung in the film by Sarah McLachlan).
"Every Randy Newman score is unlike the one before it," observes Lasseter. "He can write the most heartfelt emotional songs, and he can write some of most humorous songs you've ever heard. He's incredibly funny and smart. Randy's score for 'CARS' reflects the two distinct worlds - the modern world where it's all about being fast; and Radiator Springs, where the one commodity they have is time. Everything is slower there, and Randy uses a combination of bluegrass, jazz, and pure Americana to capture that. The racing world has a heavy dose of rock 'n' roll. His score for this film is one of the absolute best he's ever done."
Darla Anderson adds, "Working with Randy feels like working with family. He is family. He and John have such a mutual trust. John talks to Randy, tells him what he's looking for, and he leaves Randy alone. He always comes back with music that blows us away. Randy's music for the parts of the movie that take place in Radiator Springs has almost a kind of Copeland-like quality to it. He worked with a 110-piece orchestra to get this amazing score. And then he did a lot of side sessions that had a bluegrass quality with mandolin, guitar and a harmonica."
Among the four new songs written for the film is a Randy Newman composition called "Our Town." Sung by Grammy® winning recording legend James Taylor, the lyrics powerfully tell the tale of a once thriving town that no one seems to need anymore and of a place where "Main Street isn't Main Street anymore."
Grammy® Award-winning superstar Sheryl Crow captures the excitement of the film's opening race with "Real Gone," a new song that she wrote with producer John Shanks. Lyrically and emotionally, it reflects the thrill of the competition and the crowd's anticipation.
Country music favorite Brad Paisley contributes two new songs to the film -- "Find Yourself" and "Behind the Clouds." The latter was co-written with his long-time producer and collaborator, Frank Rogers (who also produced both tracks).
In addition to the songs written expressly for the film, there are also new recordings of two favorites. Popular country recording group Rascal Flatts provides a new version of the Tom Cochran song, "Life is a Highway." Multiple Grammy® Award-winning singer/guitarist John Mayer offers some new kicks with his lively and distinctive rendition of the classic 1946 Bobby Troup standard, "Route 66." The film's impressive soundtrack also includes recordings by Hank Williams, Chuck Berry ("Route 66"), and The Chords ("Sh-Boom").
PIXAR'S SHINING ACHIEVEMENTS: TECHNICAL INNOVATIONS AND ADVANCES ON "CARS"
Over the past 20 years, Pixar Animation Studios has pushed the limits of computer-animation to exciting new heights, and continued to harness the medium to showcase their stories and characters in exciting new ways. From their earliest Oscar®-winning and nominated short films to the industry's first full-length CG feature, "Toy Story," Pixar has never been content to rest on their laurels. Each film has challenged them in new ways whether it was the blades of grass and crowd scenes in "A Bug's Life," the caricatured-but-realistic humans in "Toy Story 2," the hairy characters and simulated clothing of "Monsters, Inc.," the vibrant underwater world of "Finding Nemo," or the action-packed environments and human characters in "The Incredibles." Their latest undertaking, "CARS," posed some of the greatest challenges to date.
Under the supervision of associate producer Tom Porter, supervising technical director Eben Ostby, and Pixar's resident group of technical wizards, "CARS" got off to a fast start and scored some impressive achievements along the way.
Perhaps the biggest challenge for the "CARS" technical team was creating the metallic and painted surfaces of the car characters, and the reflections that those surfaces generate. An algorithmic rendering technique known as "ray tracing" was used for the first time at Pixar to give the filmmakers the look and effect that they wanted.
Ostby explains, "Given that the stars of our film are made of metal, John had a real desire to see realistic reflections, and more beautiful lighting than we've seen in any of our previous films. In the past, we've mostly used environment maps and other matte-based technology to cheat reflections, but for 'CARS' we added a ray-tracing capability to our existing Renderman program to raise the bar for Pixar."
Ray tracing has been around for many years, but it was up to Pixar's rendering team to introduce it into nearly every shot in "CARS." Rendering lead Jessica McMackin was responsible for rendering the film's final images, while rendering optimization lead Tony Apodaca had to figure out how to minimize the rendering time.
McMackin notes, "In addition to creating accurate reflections, we used ray tracing to achieve other effects. We were able to use this approach to create accurate shadows, like when there are multiple light sources and you want to get a feathering of shadows at the edges. Or occlusion, which is the absence of ambient light between two surfaces, like a crease in a shirt. A fourth use is irradiance. An example of this would be if you had a piece of red paper and held it up to a white wall, the light would be colored by the paper and cast a red glow on the wall."
"Our computers are now a thousand times faster than they were on 'Toy Story,'" adds Apodaca, "but even though they're faster, our appetites have gotten bigger and we challenge ourselves more. Because of ray tracing and all the reflections, the average time to render a single frame of film on 'CARS' was seventeen hours. Some frames took as much as a week. On this film, we've made larger and more beautiful images with more subtle lighting and ray tracing."
Among the film's other major accomplishments is a ground-locking system that kept the car firmly planted on the road, unless the story called for some exception to this rule. Characters supervisor Tim Milliron, who managed the group in charge of modeling, rigging and shading the characters, wrote the code for this program.
"The ground-locking system is one of the things I'm most proud of on this film," says Milliron. "In the past, characters have never known about their environment in any way. A simulation pass was required if you wanted to make something like that happen. On 'CARS,' this system is built into the models themselves, and as you move the car around, the vehicle sticks to the ground. It was one of those things that we do at Pixar where we knew going in that it had to be done, but we had no idea how to do it."
Another major accomplishment for the Characters team was to come up with a universal rig that would work for practically every character. This means the same animation controls (or avars) could be applied to each of the nearly 100 unique car characters without creating new articulation components. The same basic chassis was also fitted to the geometry of each individual car, but the suspension was customized for each vehicle.
"We topped out at around 1200 avars that the animators would touch," explains Milliron. "Some characters, like Mater with his tow rig, obviously had more. More than ever, the avars were designed to work together. For example, there are four big avars for the mouth. There's an avar that moves the mouth to the left, and to the right, something that moves the corner of the mouth up and down, a jaw up-down avar, and an avar that moves the corner of the mouth in and out."
Milliron's group was also responsible for the crowds of cars that inhabit the stands at the film's opening and ending race sequences. With 120,000 cars in the stands, and an additional 2000 in the infield, this easily qualifies as the biggest crowd scenes ever done at Pixar (far surpassing the milling ants in "A Bug's Life"). Complicating the situation, all of the vehicles in this crowd have some animation on them.
To help capture the thrills and excitement of the film's racing scenes, Jeremy Lasky, the director of photography responsible for camera and layout, and his team visited many car races, and had extensive talks with the camera experts who photographed such events. Veteran Fox Sports director Artie Kemper, a pioneer in televising car races, proved to be a great source of information.
According to Lasky, "Artie gave us really great notes about where he would typically place his cameras on the track. He also talked about shots that he wished he could get. We were able to do a lot of things that were impossible for him to do. We could put a camera under the car, place one on the middle of the track, set up a crane shot that comes down and have the cars race right over the top of the cameras. Artie told us that he wished he had those toys. The camera placement in 'CARS' allowed us to put the audiences right in the middle of the excitement. We put them into a world they were familiar with, and then we hit them with shots that they've never seen. The film has these spectacular moments where the cars are ripping two millimeters past the camera lens, which is impossible in live-action, and we set it up for them to believe it's possible."
Even in the more calm and serene setting of Radiator Springs, some impressive achievements were accomplished.
One of the film's most stellar and complex moments occurs at the end of Act II, where the neon lights are turned on again, as the town is revitalized and a parade of cars cruise down Main Street. With its bright, bold, brilliant lights coming from numerous sources and accompanying reflections, this sequence proved to be enormously complicated but one of the film's most rewarding and luminous moments.
To enhance the richness and beauty of the desert landscapes surrounding Radiator Springs, the filmmakers created a department responsible for matte paintings and sky flats. Technical director Lisa Forsell and her team worked their magic in this area.
"Digital matte paintings are a way to get a lot of visual complexity without necessarily having to build complex geometry, and write complex shaders," says Forsell. "We spent a lot time working on the clouds and their different formations. They tend to be on several layers and they move relative to each other. The clouds do in fact have some character and personality. The notion was that just as people see themselves in the clouds, cars see various car-shaped clouds. It's subtle, but there are definitely some that are shaped like a sedan. And if you look closely, you'll see some that look like tire treads.
"The fact that so much attention is put on the skies speaks to the visual level of the film," she adds. "Is there a story point? Not really. There is no pixel on the screen that does not have an extraordinary level of scrutiny and care applied to it. There is nothing that is just throw-away."
Steve May, the effects supervisor for "CARS" brought that same level of scrutiny to nearly ½ of the film's 2000 shots. Among the numerous effects created for the film were dust clouds trailing behind cars, tire tracks, skid marks, water, smoke, and drool (from Mater's front end).
TRUSTING THE PROCESS: THE STORYTELLING LEGACY OF JOE RANFT
THE FILMMAKERS: JOHN LASSETER (Director)
RANDY NEWMAN (Composer, Song & Score)