A couple of months ago, Collider was invited to travel out to Emeryville, California to Pixar Animation Studios in order to take part in the Cars 2 press day. As one would expect, it was a pretty fantastic experience. We were privy to a number of presentations regarding all things Cars 2, given by the very people responsible for making the Pixar films we know and love.
In addition, we got the chance to sit down and interview quite a few of the people involved with the film including director John Lasseter, composer Michael Giacchino and actress Emily Mortimer, and we were given a tour of the Pixar building itself. Hit the jump to check out a full rundown of our visit. Cars 2 hits theaters June 24th.
We’ve been running our interviews from the press day once a week for the past couple of months, but for our last article we wanted to do a recap of sorts rounding out our visit to the studio. First up, the studio itself.
When we first arrived at the front gates of Pixar, just outside San Francisco, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonderment. I began running through all the incredible films the studio has released over the years and was a bit dumbfounded to find myself at the very place where they’re all created. When walking up to the front doors of Pixar, it’s obvious that this isn’t your typical workplace. In the middle of an outdoor lecture pavilion a group of employees were taking part in a yoga session, adjacent to a giant Luxo Jr. lamp and bouncy ball.
When you enter the front doors of the main building, you step into an enormous atrium. This area houses the café where all the employees eat, the mail room, the Pixar Studio Store and entrances to all the other areas of the studio. The building was designed to foster spontaneous meetings, so employees are encouraged to walk around throughout the hallways during the day.
Also at the front entrance is a glass trophy case housing all the awards that the studio has won. The large walls of the atrium are home to giant mattes made up of concept art from Pixar films, usually from whichever flick the studio is currently promoting. While we were there, gorgeous images from Cars 2 were on display.
While at the studio, we were also given the opportunity to take a tour of the brand new building (deemed “Phase II”) that’s currently in the final stages of construction. What’s seen as the most significant development for Pixar since the studio first moved to Emeryville, Phase II is every bit as awe-inspiring as the main building. The centerpiece of its atrium is a giant hearth in the middle of the ground floor, with a chimney extending all the way up to the ceiling. A fire was lit, and a number of super comfy-looking couches were parked in front. However, something even cooler was just around the corner.
Our tour guide took us to the backside of the hearth and proceeded to explain to us that what makes the main building so special is that the artists and employees working there began carving out secret spaces, creating hidden bars throughout the building (yes, real bars, with alcohol and such). In keeping with this tradition, a bar has been created inside the hearth. A large black steel door swings open when prompted with the correct keycard (how many lucky employees will have one of these?), unveiling an incredibly cozy bar waiting to be stocked. There are couches inside, with a flat-screen television mounted on the wall. Our guide explained to us that this television will be hooked up to a camera on the roof, so whoever’s in the bar will have a perfect view of the San Francisco skyline just over the bay.
In addition to the gorgeous hearth, the new building also features a “healthy option” café, and Pixar characters made out of metal embedded into the floor/walls/ceiling hidden throughout the structure. We also saw some workers preparing to hang a giant matte of concept are from next summer’s Brave that looked stunning. Additionally, the new building features two new screening rooms/movie theaters. Presently, the main Pixar building houses one screening room that can comfortably hold a good deal of people. In the Phase II building, they’ve built one slightly smaller screening room, and one significantly larger screening room. These theaters’ projector systems are wired to be able to project material sent from any computer on campus, so when teams are viewing and critiquing dailies or a short rendering, they don’t even have to bring their computer.
All-in-all, Pixar Animation Studios is pretty much the perfect workplace. The buildings’ designs foster creativity and fun, leading to employees actually choosing to stay late and work.
The reason we were all at Pixar in the first place was in anticipation of the studio’s 12th feature film.. We were given presentations by producer Denise Ream, production designer Harley Jessup, director of photography/lighting Sharon Calahan, composer Michael Giacchino, Cars franchise guardian Jay Ward and many more. Here are a few interesting tidbits we gleaned from these presentations:
-The idea was to do a sort of genre shift from the first Cars, intending to make the film a little more sophisticated, but still enjoyable for all audiences.
-30 car companies agreed to let Pixar use the likeness/brands in the film.
-The character of Finn McMissile (voiced by Michael Caine) was originally supposed to appear in Cars. During the drive-in sequence in that film, the movie that was going to be showing was first imagined as a spy movie, with a car named Finn McMissile as the hero. The movie-within-a-movie was eventually changed, but they liked the McMissile character so much that they revisited the idea when developing Cars 2.
-Some of the films that directly influenced Cars 2 were the Bourne series, Christine, The Italian Job, Rendezvous, and The Red Balloon.
-All the cars in Cars were based on NASCAR designs, so for Cars 2 which deals with international racing, they had to tackle completely different designs.
-Lightning McQueen’s design was updated for the new film. They changed his spoiler, added an exhaust, diffuser plate and new wheels.
-A multitude of different countries are represented in the film. When Cars 2 is released internationally, some countries will have a short added scene in their version of the film featuring a “drive-on” role of a famous racing personality or car from their country. This amounts to little more than a cameo, but it’s Pixar’s way of personalizing the film for international audiences.
Cars 2 Interviews
As I said, we’ve been running our interviews from the press day for the past couple of months. However, some of you might have missed them, and they’ve really got some great stuff on not only Cars 2 but also what the day-to-day work at Pixar is like. I’ve included some excerpts below from each interview, along with the links to read the full interviews if you’re so inclined.
On choosing the voice-cast:
“I mean sometimes a director will have a voice in his head when they’re creating characters. But we have a casting department here, and once we get far enough along with a story idea and some of the characters, and we start looking at some artwork, we’ll just start brainstorming who we think would be right for the job. There’s a lot of time and consideration given to the casting of the characters, I think that we really do work to find people that are gonna bring authenticity and intelligence to the roles.”
On the heart of the film:
“Primarily I would say, at the heart of the film it is really about Lightning McQueen and Mater’s friendship, and how it is tested. Mater is really put in the position throughout the film, he’s deciding whether he helps his friend or helps these spies solve what appears to be a pretty big conspiracy.”
On deciding to go for a British Surf music feel for the score:
“When I first saw the film I just thought, ‘Okay this would be so much fun to do this with.’ I loved that music as a kid and whenever I listened to it I always felt like I was in the middle of something important or big or something adventurous, and when I saw this movie I said, ‘Oh my God, that could be a perfect fit!’ I’ve always wanted to do that sort of score”
On how the film evolves over time:
“I’ve watched the film go through different phases, you know it changes, it evolves. It’s one of those things where the first version you make of the film isn’t the one that you end up seeing, I mean you go through several versions of it to try and get to the best possible version of the story. So I’ve seen like four iterations of it as it goes. It’s a great process because you’re constantly building it, you’re putting it up, you look at it and you critique it, you pull it back down, you re-build it, you put it back up, ‘Okay that’s better but we now gotta change this.’ It’s a really great process as opposed to just shooting what you have, and then putting it out there.”
On deciding whether to acknowledge Randy Newman’s score for the first film in his work or creating something completely different:
“I didn’t have any preconceptions because I figured, ‘I’m gonna just watch it, and then decide what the answer to that question is,’ because that was a question in my head. But ultimately I said well there’s no point in thinking about it, just wait until you see it and then decide what you wanna do. And the first time I saw it I said, ‘Oh, this is something completely different. This is a completely different idea.’”
On what the title of Story Supervisor entails:
“I’ve been here at Pixar for about 15 years, and I’ve storyboarded on 7 films, but the head of story for Cars 2 is the first time I’ve done that. Basically that’s the guy that sort of supervises the other storyboard people, and there’s anywhere from 6-10 people in a storyboard group for each film, and they tend to be on the film for anywhere from 2-3 years, sometimes longer. So I’m not so much storyboarding per se, but I’m looking at all the sequences that those story people are doing, and then I’m giving notes and the director is looking at all of their sequences…my job is to sort of keep track of the whole movie as it’s changing, because it’s always changing, and then keep my team informed about what’s going on and keep them moving.”
On changing the film after the passing of Paul Newman:
“We felt, after really tooling around with the idea of him being in the film and how do we properly use him, it just felt right that we should have his character have passed away also. And he is a bit of a father figure for both these guys. That is something we explored quite a bit actually as the emotionally throughline, we just could never make it work, was the loss of this father figure and how it affected Mater and McQueen. We ultimately sort of abandoned it, just to focus on their friendship.”
On the difficulty of making an original film now that there are so many other studios making animated feature films:
“The hardest thing now is that there’s so many other studios making animated films, so you never wanna do something that somebody else has done. And that does happen, where you think, “Oh shoot, it’s too bad those guys did that because we really wanted to make a movie about that,” whatever it is, but they might not have done it great or they did it amazing and you just don’t wanna copy that.”
On the difficulty of making design changes when the story is altered:
“I think the [hardest part] is as you’re finding the story. And if anything ever needs to change while you’re in production—and it happens every show, things change while you’re in production—and rolling with that and making sure that everybody’s feeling good about that, it’s like ‘Okay we’re making a change, but we’re making it for the better.’ That’s usually kinda the hardest stuff to deal with, because you never wanna ever have to go back on work but we have to do it at times to make the film better. There’s just moments in the film where you really just have to go back on some of the work you’ve done, re-do it and overhaul to make the film stronger.”
On their field research for Cars 2, visiting a racecourse:
“We really went out there [to the racelines], and they let us do two things: they let us takes these cars around first like a slalom course, and then we did one where we took basically a U-turn as fast as we could. And so that was one aspect where we were actually driving, and then another one is that they took us to a professional racecourse with actual drivers.”
On what the preparation process for voice-recording at Pixar entails:
“It’s basically someone telling you what the character is. I mean they give you a script, but it’s really hard to read the script actually because it’s so, it’s a different kind of—in fact out of the whole experience the script is the most different from anything I’ve ever known, like on a live-action movie. It just doesn’t really make sense to the untrained eye. If you’re lucky you get it the night before, but very often you don’t get it until the day of the recording, and actually there wouldn’t be much point in having it for a long time before that anyway because it’s so sort of dense with the technical details of what’s going on, especially with this one because it’s so technical, the whole thing [with] the chases and stuff.”
On working with John Lasseter:
“He himself is just totally energizing and makes you so inspired and I just couldn’t get over him from the moment that we met, and just talking to him about it all and seeing his little eyes light up—like he’s so obsessed by the world of this movie, and I’m sure any movie that he makes, and it’s just catching. You get completely drawn into it. He loves the details of it, and loves just allowing his imagination to run wild. And so that’s just exciting, from the moment you’re in there you feel like ‘This is cool, I’m so pleased to be a a part of this. This man is amazing!’ And then he conjures up each scene and tells you what’s going on.”
On what they were looking for in their villain character:
“The specific influences on villains to me is, I love the villains who are really hyper-smart. When at the end of the movie you find out what they were about, and it makes absolutely perfect sense from their point of view. There’s a term that you use it’s called ‘the center of good,’ they’re doing the right thing, sometimes just for pure greed, but it’s like they’re so far ahead of everybody else. And that’s what the spy, the good guys, is always trying to figure out this game that’s been set up, and get deeper and deeper and deeper.”
On the technological advances and larger scope of Cars 2:
“The technology is always there in the service of telling these stories, and every story we tell has requirements that we just don’t know how to do. In the case of Cars 2, the whole notion of the movie and the genre of going to all these places, but we just don’t go to one location within that place. You feel like you’ve seen all of Tokyo, you see all of Paris, you see all of the Italian Riviera, you go to London and drive all over London, fly all over London. It’s just remarkable, the vast scale of this film. But also it’s things like the water, it’s all new technology. That is brand new, water’s never looked like that in a computer-animated film. And we’ve got this amazing lighting that just takes it to another level. It’s very exciting. The level of detail in this film is probably 10-times more than any Pixar film, and the more you look the more stuff you’ll see.”
The people at Pixar are some of the most hardworking and imaginative minds you’ll find. Every person there loves their job, and their commitment to telling the best story possible with each film is evident in their unparalleled track record of success. Thankfully the studio shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon
Cars 2 hits theaters on June 24th.