From the thrilling opening night race to the dusty, faded facades of Main Street, Pixar's production designers and artistic team went into overdrive to capture the various moods and settings of "Cars" in a stylish way. The "Cars" landscape is dubbed "cartoon realism" by production designer Bill Cone, who created the look of the film's environments, including the five-mile stretch of road that leads in and out of the town of Radiator Springs.
"The forms are a little whimsical," he says. "You see 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. So in a car universe, they would have car-based metaphors for forms. So the cliffs look very much like the hoods of cars, or a hood 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."
To add to the authenticity of the desert location, modelers in the sets department dotted the landscape with thousands of pieces of vegetation, including cactus, sagebrush (in browns, greens, yellows and tans), and grass. Rocks of varying formations complemented the scenery. 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.
"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 technical director Lisa 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 fact that so much attention is put on the skies speaks to the visual level of the film."
How Pixar Brought "Cars" to Life
For "Cars," more than 100 unique car characters were created, and director John Lasseter insisted that they look as real as possible. Having a film in which the characters are metallic and heavily contoured meant coming up with resourceful ways to accurately show reflections. As a result, "Cars" was the first Pixar film to use "ray tracing," a technique that allows the car stars to credibly reflect their environments.
The addition of reflections in practically every shot of the film added tremendous render time to the project. The average time to render a single frame of film for "Cars" was 17 hours. Even with a sophisticated network of 3,000 computers and state-of-the-art, lightning-fast processors that operated up to four times faster than they did on "The Incredibles," it still took several days to render a single second of finished film.
"It took many months of trial and error, and test animation, to figure out how each car moves and how their world works," says Lasseter. Supervising animators Doug Sweetland and Scott Clark, and the directing animators, Bobby Podesta and James Ford Murphy, worked with the animation team to determine the unique movements for each character based on his or her age and car type. "We also wanted the animators to put some of themselves in each character and give it their own spin."
One of the biggest decisions affecting the design and animation of the car characters was the placement of the eyes. "From the very beginning, we knew the eyes would be in the windshield," says production designer Bob Pauley, who oversaw the design of the car characters. "It separates our characters from the more common approach, where you have little cartoon eyes in the headlights, and having the eyes down near the mouth at the front end would make the character feel more like a snake. With the eyes set in the windshield, the point of view is more human-like."
For the design of "Cars'" central character Lightning McQueen, the team used a standard stock car as its starting point then studied what made racing cars so cool. "We pared down all our ideas and did a bunch of drawings that we felt were good," says Pauley. "From there, a clay sculpt was made just like they would do in Detroit, and our star modeler Andrew Schmidt took it from there. McQueen was a blast to do. It was also a major challenge to make a car that reads as a character and has a strong face on screen, yet doesn't look derivative."
Animating car characters had its share of challenges for the team. Supervising animator Scott Clark explains, "Getting a full range of performance and emotion from these characters and making them still seem like cars was a tough assignment, but that's what animation does best. You use your imagination, and you make the movements and gestures fit with the design. Our car characters may not have arms and legs, but we can lean the tires in or out to suggest hands opening up or closing in. We can use steering to point a certain direction. We also designed a special eyelid and an eyebrow for the windshield that lets us communicate an expressiveness that cars don't have."
The director had some very specific words for the designers, modelers, and animators who were responsible for creating the film's car stars: "Truth to materials." Starting with pencil and paper designs and continuing through the modeling, articulation, character shading, and animation, the production team worked hard to have the car characters remain true to their origins.
Characters department manager Jay Ward says, "John didn't want the cars to seem clay-like or mushy. He told us that steel needs to feel like steel. Glass should feel like glass. These cars need to feel heavy -- when they move they need to feel as if they weigh three or four thousand pounds -- not light and bouncy like rubber toys."
Although the Pixar car models were built so they could be moved into any position, Lasseter kept reminding the team that the characters were made of metal and therefore couldn't stretch. He even showed them examples of very loose animation to illustrate what not to do.
To ensure authenticity in its 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 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."
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."
In the next section, we'll talk about some of the technical hurdles the Pixar team had to jump over in order to make the movie come to life.