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DVD Talk's Cars DVD Road Trip

Waking up
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment
unusually early to stand in line at the DMV isn't how I'd normally prefer to start a Monday morning, but this was thankfully just the first leg of a press event at Pixar's corporate headquarters to ring in the November 7th DVD release of Cars [review]. The test kicked off with an eye exam to pick out the movie's extended cast of characters from a chart: everyone from hotshot racer Lightning McQueen to Fillmore, George Carlin's slow-burning hippie VW van. The written exam — a handful of trivia questions — and the Xbox 360-powered driving exam quickly followed. After I snagged a thumbs-up and was approved for my license, I spent the rest of the afternoon at Pixar screening extras on the Cars DVD and attending a series of Q&A sessions and roundtables to get filled in on just some of what went into this five year long labor of love.

In between Q&A sessions and a marathon of press interviews, Cars creator John Lasseter set aside a few minutes for a one-on-one interview for DVD Talk. (Well, more or less one-on-one; I offered to share a little of this time with my pal Alex Weitzman from Toon Zone News who closes out the chat.) With an HDV camcorder and a tripod three sizes too small in hand, I spoke with the movie's co-director about some of the creative building blocks he helped piece together.

DVD Talk: One of the things I immediately thought of when watching Cars was that cars themselves have such personality.

John Lasseter: Yeah, don't they?

DT: When you're breaking the story, do you have a rough idea of what a character's going to be like, come up with the car, and then build the personality from there? Or do you have everything fleshed out in your mind and find the make and model that's the closest match?

JL: Actually, both. Being a car nut like I am — my dad was the parts manager at a
©2006 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
Chevrolet dealership, and I always loved cars; I grew up in L.A. — there were certain cars I just loved and wanted to have in the film. There are certain cars that I didn't really know about but as I did research, I was so impressed by the car's history that it kind of became a character and it became the character's backstory. Doc Hudson...the Hudson Hornet: that character really grew out of my interest in that car. Then there were also cars where we developed the character and the personality and then kind of created the car around it. Sometimes we found an existing car but other times we just sort of created a car: Lightning McQueen...Mater. Flo is kind of made after the Motorama showcars like General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford had that toured around in the '50s. We thought those cars were a lot like showgirls because they were flashy and gorgeous and made men drool.

DT: Did you have any characters that went through iterations as different models of cars?

Flo, actually. What's interesting is at first we had a need for a character that was the owner of a gas station. We wanted to make the world believable that cars are alive and decided to look at "what does a car need, and what does a human need?" To find those parallels. We thought the obvious one was that a gas station to a car is like a restaurant to a human. So, we tried to make the little town gas station become the little town diner. Inevitably, it's like the meeting place where everyone from the town comes to get breakfast. It's just the center of the town, so we thought we wanted to make this into a drive-in restaurant. So, at first we were looking at Flo, and we explored her as a pick-up truck, a station wagon, being a motherly type, and all that stuff. Then we really settled on the idea of this showgirl falling in love with Ramone and deciding to stay in the town...become the owner of Flo's V8 Café.

DT: One of the things I noticed on the deleted scenes is how closely the scratch voices wound up sounding like the characters in the finished film. When you're breaking all this out, do you have an image in your head of what these characters should sound like?

JL: Here at Pixar, when we create our films, we don't just go from script straight to animation. We create a version of the movie using storyboard drawings — we call it the story reel — and we add the scratch voices to that. We have a collection of people here at Pixar that are really quite good actors, and we'll give them a cast so we're consistent through the movie with a certain scratch voice for a character. We'll work with
©2006 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
them and kind of perform it the way we see it in developing the story reel. But when I go to do the final recording with the actors, I don't insist on doing it exactly this way. We hire really good actors, and I want them to make the part their own. Owen Wilson as Lightning McQueen: only he can do the part like that. Bonnie Hunt was just brilliant. She's one of the great ad-lib comediennes of our time, and it's so important that we let her do her thing. And, of course, Larry the Cable Guy as Mater.

DT: One of the things I noticed too is that a lot of the people you cast aren't just actors, but filmmakers in their own right. Owen Wilson, obviously...

JL: He's a great, great writer. In fact, he helped with some scenes. There was one recording session where we had Owen Wilson and Paul Newman together. It was in New York, it was them doing all the scenes that they had together, and it was really great because Owen is a fantastic actor. Also, he's really quite a good story man. We're talking with Paul Newman about these scenes and Owen had some very good suggestions. I'm very collaborative, and I like to open the door for all the creative input we can get.

"For this DVD, instead of doing the making of the movie, we wanted to focus on the research and inspiration." That was one of John Lasseter's first comments in an open Q&A session following the screening of the lone featurette on this DVD, the aptly-titled "Inspiration for Cars". Quite a bit of its sixteen minute runtime revolves around two road trips that Lasseter took, the first of which came about after several years of grueling work establishing Pixar as a feature film studio. While Lasseter was busy helming Toy Story, Toy Story 2, and A Bug's Life, four of his five sons were born. Fearful that he was spending so much time at the studio that he'd miss his sons growing up, Lasseter and his family piled into a motorhome and headed from one coast to the other, taking care to travel backroads and highways instead of sticking to the more familiar interstate. This had a profound impact on him, inspiring the basic theme of Cars as well as prompting the research trip that Lasseter and a small army of Pixar artists would later take along Route 66.

Cars co-director Joe Ranft was interviewed for "Inspiration for Cars" before his tragic passing in August 2005. Lasseter spoke about his late colleague and friend in a conversation that's not just about what Ranft contributed to Cars (and specifically the character of Mater) but what he meant to Pixar as a whole.

On a lighter note, seemingly everyone in our group at one time or another halfway-jokingly asked where we could pick up an application. When asked what advice he'd offer aspiring animators, Lasseter's response was lower-tech than you might have thought. "The most important thing while learning to do animation is not to get seduced by the software or the tools. Take time to learn the fundamentals of animation. You can learn those either in hand-drawn animation or computer animation, but it's not about the software; it's what you do with it. Learn basic design. Learn how to draw. Even with computers, it's the easiest way to get the ideas from your head so you can communicate with other people. So often I see people bypass these fundamental classes to teach you basic design, basic drawing, basic all-these-things-are-boring. 'I want to be making stuff with all of these new tools that are out there!', but the most important thing to realize is that the tools will change. They have tremendously in the time I've been working, but it's what you do with the tools that makes the difference. It's the story. It's the characters."

That nasty phrase 'test screening' usually brings to mind skittish movie executives and bean-counters intent on
©2006 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
monkeying with a director's vision. Pixar subjects its movies to just one test screening, but there's nothing nefarious behind it. This screening is just to gauge the audience's reaction when around 70% of the movie is animated and there's still some wiggle room with the story. "I like to watch the audience watch the movie because I always find that the audiences are 100% honest while they're watching the movie. Afterwards when they talk to you, they could change things. I can tell when an audience gets restless and they're not in the movie. When they're completely still and reacting, I know that we've got them. So, that's what's really important to me. We adjust pacing, timing, and if it we feel like they haven't laughed in too long, we'll add a joke here and there." Lasseter goes on to note that only minor tweaks were made for Cars.

"When you're watching for the first time in theaters, it just sort of goes by. That's one of the things I love making movies for the theater and also thinking that they'll be on DVD: there's so much detail that it's impossible to see it the first time through." Lasseter rattled off several not-so-noticeable details that many viewers may have overlooked in Cars. For one, the Chuck Berry version of "Route 66" isn't the familiar one off his greatest hits album but a rawer, more energetic, little-heard second take. After some general comments about the vehicular shapes of clouds, rock formations, flower petals, and even tiny winged VW bugs, Lasseter made one specific comparison in the sleepy little town of Radiator Springs, likening Luigi's Casa Della Tires shop to a shoe store. "One little detail a lot of people don't notice is that he's got that mirror over in the corner where people can try on tires, and he has a little patch of asphalt. You can look and see how your tire looks on that patch of asphalt."

With the glut of Sarcastic Anthropomorphic Critter flicks littering theaters this year, you might be curious what one of the pioneers of feature-length computer animation thinks about having so much competition at the box office. "I love animation of all types. Not just computer animation but all types of animation. The way I look at it, there are 52 weekends in a year. Everybody's saying 'there are 14 to 16 films coming out this year. That's so many.' Yeah, but there are 52 weekends, though. The pool's great. The water's the perfect temperature. Come on in. I'd rather be in a very healthy industry than be the only player in a dead industry."

Several of Pixar's DVDs have featured shorts revisiting some of their characters, such as Mike's New Car on Monsters, Inc. and Jack Jack Attack on The Incredibles. Mater, the bucktoothed rustbucket voiced by Larry the Cable Guy, was such a hit even while Cars was still in production that John Lasseter described him as Pixar's Goofy. Mater and the Ghostlight was co-directed by Dan Scanlon, a storyboard artist who joined Cars in its earliest stages. Following a screening of the seven minute short, I had a chance to pick Dan's brain while his make-up was being retouched.

DVD Talk: So, what's it like going from drawing storyboards to having powder brushed across your face in front of a camera?

Dan Scanlon: Surprisingly not that different. I do this every morning when I storyboard anyway, so... It's really odd just having worked on the movies — well, Cars and the short — for all this time to then have this side of it where the whole world gets to see it. And you finally get to talk to people about something you couldn't have talked about for the past five years. It's great to see people's responses and see it out in the world.

DT: What's the storyboarding process like? How do you take someone's concepts and ideas and translate them like that?

DS: What usually happens is we get
©2006 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
script pages from the writer, and we're the first people to figure it out visually. It's just like a comic book or a comic strip; we go through and roughly thumbnail out some ideas. 'Well, this is how it could be staged' or 'this is how it could be figured out.' Some things are as easy as that. Some script pages will say 'Mater walks in the room, does something really funny, and everyone laughs.' Oh, well... (glances at watch and laughs) So, there's a lot of figuring out and writing. There are some times where you really have to try stuff, and you don't know how it's going to go over. You may be pitching it to the director for the first time, and it might go over terribly. It might go over well. There's a lot of performing — we literally pitch our scenes to the director, we stand in front of boards, and we act out the scene to try to sell the idea.

DT: Does having a background in pre-visualization help you as a director?

DS: I felt like it helped me in the early stages, definitely. The area I felt comfortable in was story: developing the characters, writing, and yeah, the pre-visualization. However, it felt like as it got further in the process, my comfort level gets a little... (whatever arm motions you're picturing are probably spot-on) Animation, too, that's still very similar to storyboarding. As you get into lighting and all these other departments that I honestly didn't know much about at all, I would go into the meetings and have it explained to me how it works. The process is unusual; you look at things in such different states, and if you're not familiar what you're even supposed to be commenting on...? I mean, you might be like, "I think Mater should be brown", and they're like, "we haven't gotten to that part yet." And you know they're thinking, "come on, man". What was great was having John [Lasseter] there the whole way. What better teacher and guide to explain to you: this is how it works, this is how you look at it, this is how you comment on it. It was like having a one-on-one with Lasseter, which was pretty much a dream of mine.

DT: Where did the story come from?

DS: When we went on Route 66 originally — a group of nine story artists and myself — we went on the road for the film just to get an idea of the characters and the people that are there...just the stories that are there. It was an amazing trip. We came out with a lot of things we would've loved to put in the movie, but there just wasn't time. The biggest one was the idea of the Ghostlight, which was this
©2006 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
legend of a glowing white light that would appear at night in the road. We all thought it would be great to have that in somewhere but there's just nowhere to put it. We did mention it...Mater makes mention of it in the film a few times. When the time came to make the short, Joe Ranft, who's the co-director of Cars, and I were talking... Actually, it was at one of my performance reviews. It was great because we didn't talk at all about my performance. (laughs) He said, "we gotta do a short. What if we do the Ghostlight?" And the next fifteen minutes that we were supposed to be talking about "how's he been doing?" was just working on the idea. "We could get Michael Wallace to tell this great story." It was great because it just slowly built out of that.

DT: Did you find any inspiration from specific horror movies? I swear I spotted a little Sam Raimi in the early moments of the chase.

DS: Yeah. Sam Raimi: he's amazing. He's the horror guy. We definitely wanted that feel.

DT: Cameras flinging around...

DS: If we're gonna make this feel like a horror movie, let's go the whole way.

DT: You mentioned that you started on Mater and the Ghostlight while Cars was winding down production. How long does it take to produce something like this?

DS: That's a good question. It's a few months...like, eight months. It's funny: the whole thing takes so long that you kind of lose track of when it starts and when it ends. It never really ends; just one day, it's done. People were still kind of ramping off the movie. There were a lot of very busy people going onto this project, and we were very lucky to have their help.

DT: Of those eight months, how was the time divided up in terms of coming up with the story, recording the actors, and doing the rendering?

DS: It's all just split up, almost
©2006 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.
per month it seemed like. At least on our films, the story's almost never done. You're always tinkering with it. You get it 'boarded and you just begin. You put things into production that are safe — that probably aren't going to change much — but you're always kind of thinking "this would be this much better if..." It's a hard thing to say at the time because we're all thinking "this is going to be tricky", but it's worth it.

DT: How does working on a short differ from a feature?

DS: Besides the obvious — simpler! — you're telling one joke rather than an overall story. It can be trickier because there isn't a cross-balance: I'm setting this up for this reason and this for that. It's more of a one-note joke. It can be more freeing in that regard, but it can also be a little trickier. Again, it's such a fast-paced schedule too. In the case of the voice recording, I think it was more fun. A lot of the time with a movie, you're just recording sections and parts. The actor knows the context because it's been pitched to them, but what's great about a short is that it's all in one sitting. They can really get a feel for what they're doing as far as the overall joke of the film.

DT: Do you find it creative but restricting building a short around existing assets? Instead of building a completely new story in a completely new setting, taking what you have and making the most of it?

DS: I like that. It's hard if someone says "come up with a great idea!" Okay, umm... But if it's "come up with a great idea, but here are your limitations: has to be here, has to be this, has to be that." Challenge yourself. It gets you started faster. Okay, I know my setting. I know who I want to be in it. I know that character. I know what I've always wanted to do with that character. So for me, I loved it. I'd be actually kind of mortified if I had to do one of the ones from scratch. It could be anything.

Pixar also had four roundtables set up that covered nearly every aspect of production. First, Bob Pauley and Bill
Production designer Bill Cone
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment
Cone ran through the production design of Cars, describing the thought and logic behind the look of the movie. Why are Lightning McQueen's eyes on his windshield instead of in place of headlights? In a world without people, there really isn't anyone who needs to peer through a windshield. They noted how the cars see themselves reflected in nature, such as the rock formations that are a nod to the Cadillac Ranch in Amarillo, and updating Route 66 mainstays like teepee hotels and the infamous "Here it is!" sign to fit into Cars' world.

Steve May supervised the effects for Cars or, as he quipped, manned the "Smoke, Dust, and Bodily Function Department". A briefly glimpsed waterfall consists of millions of tiny particles, so many that it...oops!...brought down the render farm at one point. One of the most manic sequences in the movie has Lightning McQueen dragging a statue post through an asphalt road, leaving a trail of destruction in his wake. May delved in-depth as to how that effect was meticulously designed and executed, carving out a path beforehand and shaping a realistic look for the jagged, fist-sized chunks of asphalt that Lightning scattered across the Mother Road.

As simple and straightforward as a headlight may seem, lighting D.P. Jean-Claude Kalache described how it took a tremendous amount of time and energy to get them to look perfect in Cars. After a great deal of experimentation, the winning solution was a combination of twenty different lights to make each headlight work convincingly, and one extremely complex overhead shot of heavy traffic used a grand total of 11,000 lights. A shot that may only be on-screen for a matter of moments could still have six months of work and an indescribable amount of thought behind it.

Art director Tia Kratter and character shading supervisor Thomas Jordan
Tia Kratter and Thomas Jordan
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment
tackled the paint and body of these cars. A classic car showroom is conveniently located across the street from Pixar's offices, and a good bit of their research consisted of making the leisurely few hundred foot stroll with a video camera in hand as well as skulking around the Pixar parking lot. Shooting some of these cars with a DV camera gave Jordan an idea of how light played with the surface quality of paint, and the shader work in Cars reflects how the sheen and luster of automotive paint has changed from the '50s to the present day. In fact, it was an early animation test based on this that would inspire the logo of the film.

DVD gurus Sarah Maher and Roger Gould steered us through the menu design and the rest of the disc's extras. Each menu has its own animated theme, such as the frantic pit stop setup screen and the slower, more relaxed feel of Radiator Springs that lazes through the extras submenu. Keep an eye out for a couple of hidden winks that are scattered around the menus, including a postmark with John Lasseter's birthday-slash-time and a hidden Easter Egg one of the animators put together for a laugh. Some Pixar fans were understandably disappointed that so few extras were piled onto this DVD compared to the studio's other titles, but Gould teased that more may show up on one of the next-gen home video formats. Unless I really botched my notes, I believe I heard that an audio commentary has already been recorded.

Pixar University's Liz Greenberg capped the day off with a tour of the offices. One of the most instantly striking aspects of Pixar's central building — well, aside from the couple dozen members of the press shuffling around with notepads and digital cameras — is how bright and open everything is. A far cry from the dark, dank dungeons in college where I was introduced to 3-D rendering, sunlight pours in from almost every
Photo courtesy of Buena Vista Home Entertainment
direction, and there's a strong sense of friendship and camaraderie. Nearly all of the doors I strolled by were open, revealing a tremendous amount of artwork and elaborate decorations. Between the flyers for a 35mm screening of Evil Dead 2 plastered across the lobby and the framed original pages from "Scud: The Disposable Assassin" and Dave Sim's "Cerebus" that I spotted in one office, I felt awfully comfortable in Pixar's offices.

It's also striking how passionate the staff at Pixar is about what they do. Pretty much all of the speakers in the roundtable discussions seemed disappointed when their allotted half-hours were up, not coming close to enough time to share everything they'd spent the past few years of their lives creating. There were eight small groups of reporters roving around to each of the scheduled roundtables, so for some of Pixar's best and brightest to wade through nearly four hours' worth of presentations in one day and still be that enthusiastic...? It takes a lot more than a nice paycheck to inspire that. That sense of openness and accessibility extends to John Lasseter as well, and even though he's inarguably one of the most powerful people in the entertainment industry, he doesn't isolate himself in some sort of remote ivory tower while watching over his kingdom from afar. My first glimpse of Lasseter wasn't in a Q&A or a media interview but glimpsing him chat with his staff at Pixar's in-house café.

The staff was understandably tightlipped about the specifics of what Pixar has in the pipeline, but it was revealed that the studio has an ambitious release slate of a movie a year with five features in various stages of completion right now. Roving around the heart of Pixar's campus, Cars is still dominant throughout the walls and halls. The second floor of the main building is curated like a museum, overflowing with clay sculptures, conceptual art, pastel work, and background production art. Some of it wouldn't look the least bit out of place in a modern art museum, particularly a colossal frame with an array of the eyeballs of each of Cars' characters. These exhibits are swapped out two or three months before each of Pixar's feature film releases. The studio's past achievements are highlighted as well, including a set of storyboards from Finding Nemo and a set of character designs charting the evolution (or de-evolution, depending on how you look at it) of Nemo's nemesis Darla. There's a plaque nearby commemorating how many storyboards were produced for each of their films, and they number in the tens of thousands. Pixar also takes care to highlight some of the art its employees create off the clock. There's a strong sense of how much Pixar cares about its employees, and if the multi-billion dollar box office and near-universal acclaim of the films they produce are any indication, its talented staff has proven to be a worthy investment.

Disney and Pixar's Cars arrives on home video on November 7th, 2006, and a full write-up of the DVD can be found in DVD Talk's review archive.

©2006 Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Many thanks to Mac McLean and a long, long list of folks at Buena Vista Home Entertainment and Pixar for putting all of this together and being such gracious hosts.

- Adam Tyner (e-mail)


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