Four years ago, I got the incredible opportunity to visit Pixar in Emeryville, Calif. for the first time, to do interviews for Monsters University, and the thing that most stood out to me when I was there was just how much inspiration you feel, surrounded by all of the artistic creativity going on within its walls. Saying that I was excited to return, this time to get an early look at nearly 45 minutes of Cars 3, is a massive understatement.
As part of the experience, Collider got to spend the day at the Sonoma Raceway, participating in presentations about how the story, production design, animation and effects all came together to create what we’ll get to see in theaters on June 16th, as well as getting the opportunity to take a lap around the racetrack and go through pit stop training. We were also able to sit down with directing animator Jude Brownbill, characters supervisor Michael Comet and production designer Jay Shuster to chat about their specific involvement with Cars 3, the challenges in giving personality and humanity to cars, the fun of creating new characters, making the technology work to their advantages, the evolution of Cruz from a male character to a female character, and how cool it is to get to see merchandise and life-size versions for characters they have a hand in creating.
Collider: How did you come to be a part of Cars 3, and what was your involvement with the project?
JUDE BROWNBILL: I came to the project just over a year ago, and I’m a directing animator. I worked on Cars 2, and a bunch of other films, before this one. On Cars 2, I was an animator. On this one, as a directing animator, there’s probably between 60 and 70 animators that work on the whole film. With that many people and that many hands on each of the characters, the directing animators are there to make sure that the animators have all the information they need to animate those characters in the way that keeps that on model, so that they don’t change shape throughout. I try to be a voice for what we learn from Brian [Fee], to help them get their voice on the screen for him.
JAY SHUSTER: I got my job at Pixar on the first Cars film, and I worked on Cars 2, so it just made sense that I worked on Cars 3. I came into Pixar with a skill set of designing hard surface characters, like cars or robots and such. Being the third time out, I was able to step up into the production design role, which is the highest tier of the art department, where you’re actually running an art department. I actually shared the production design role with another guy, named Bill Cone, and his group was responsible for all of the environments while my group was responsible for all of the characters. It was definitely a step up in responsibility.
MICHAEL COMET: I was character supervisor with a cohort of mine. My primary focus was more on the modeling and rigging side, rather than on the shading side. For me, it was all about working with art and animation. We have a rigging lead and a model lead that helps to develop a lot of the technology. We talk with them and help to guide the department, as far as how we’re gonna solve problems on the film, the kind of technology we’re going to need, and what our process is going to be. And then, we schedule how things are actually going to line up, so that we can deliver our models and characters to the departments for layouts and animation.
There are people who really love their car and who name them, essentially giving them their own personality, but what are the challenges in giving personality and humanity to cars in an animated film?
SHUSTER: Good question!
BROWNBILL: The hardest thing is to make it believable. You don’t want people to be watching a film and be like, “That’s a talking car!,” or “Why are his eyes in his windshield instead of his headlights?” But all of the decisions that are made in service of the story are just to try to be convincing, believable and relatable, so that the cars just read like another character, and like a human being could be in that situation.
SHUSTER: It does start with story and the people who are actually writing the dialogue. It’s written as if it’s a human character, first and foremost, and then we just apply the facade of a car. There are moments in the first Cars film, when I was watching the interaction between McQueen and Sally and Sally was saying, “Are you really gonna do that for Mater?,” and was calling McQueen out, and you’re engaged in this moment. And then, you realize that it’s cars talking to each other. First and foremost, you’re drawn in by who the characters are. The fact that they’re cars should just disappear. It really shouldn’t matter.
COMET: It’s about the mannerisms and the acting that’s coming forth. That’s what you’re really looking at. On the other side, you make sure that there’s nothing that’s going to detract. Nothing should be too shiny, too reflective, or move in a funny way, so that you’re not distracted, as you’re watching.
Is it easier when there were two other movies that came before the movie you’re working on, or is it more challenging because there are two other movies?
COMET: In some ways, it helps. In our case, for the model rigging, we have characters that we can bring over already. We have those models that are done. We also know how we have to rig them because we have a lot of that history. So, it’s really just a matter of converting them over to the new software. That allows us to really work on the new characters and do the new development, and really focus on that.
SHUSTER: With designing the environments and the characters, alike, it does help to have these two movies preceding us, really making up the instruction manual for what to do, going forward.
BROWNBILL: There were a lot of discoveries made on Cars, in terms of how to treat them. When you put two eyes in a windshield and you need to have lids, so that they can blink, and a brow, so that they can have emotions, but if you just do that with the top part of a car and have a twisted brow, it breaks the illusion that it’s a vehicle because, true to the materials, it looks wobbly and wrong. We figured out that we could treat the lids like brows and do that with the lids. There were rules that were already in place, that were discovered in Cars and used again in Cars 2. For the animators, it’s great when you have those rules ‘cause you can just play within those rules.