A Guided Tour of Pixar Animation Studios

Pixar is the animation studio behind a string of computer-generated films that already have the status of modern classics: Toy Story, A Bug’s Life, Monsters Inc, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles.

Pixar is newly part of the Disney family of companies and its latest release is Cars, a wildly funny story about a cocky hotshot racecar by the name of Lightening McQueen. The hero’s plans for glory at the biggest race of the year go badly awry when he gets stuck in Radiator Springs, a backwater desert town whose automotive inhabitants are a varied and loveable array of dreamers, eccentrics and busybodies.

Director John Lasseter (whose previous credits include A Bug’s Life and both Toy Story films) says Cars’ message is that “it’s important to pay attention to the here and now”. “It’s the journey itself that matters, not where you’re headed,” explains the amiable animator, whose sartorial trademark is a Hawaiian shirt (of which he has a vast collection) and says the idea for his new film came from a cross-country road trip he took with his family. “First and foremost however the film is just a lot of fun,” Lasseter explains, “very colorful and very entertaining.” Which are words that could equally well apply to Pixar’s bright and lively headquarters just outside San Francisco.

Equipped with areas for table tennis, pinball machines, a lap pool, soccer pitch, gym, and an all-day cafeteria where you can order an oven-baked pizza and help yourself to ice-cream, the facility has the laid-back feeling of a university whose student population is largely comprised of surfers. Casually dressed employees ride on scooters and skateboards down large hallways and notice boards offer invitations to film screenings and company-wide get-togethers and parties. There are no closed doors, offices are either open-plan or glass-walled, and desks are colorful shrines to individual enthusiasms (Lord of the Rings, Marvel comics or classic Disney animation) or current film projects (hence lots of cars).

“Most people are working one-on-one with a computer — therefore anything that gets them out of their office and away from a screen helps create a feeling of being a community and part of a collaborative project,” Lasseter explains as he begins a guided tour of Pixar that covers the entire animation process and offers a unique insight into the long and labor-intensive production of Cars.

Although computer animation has now largely taken over from yesterday’s hand-drawn films, the steps along the way in creating an animated film are largely unchanged since the distant days when Walt Disney first put pen to paper and created Mickey Mouse. First comes a script (in the case of Cars, one written by John Lasseter himself) that is then handed on to the story department, which visualizes the different elements of the narrative and creates a rough film of the initial drawings. The art and set department come up with ways to make the setting of the film look real; the character design department works on the individual look of each of the film’s protagonists and background players; experts in lighting and special effects add in the naturalistic elements of shadows, reflections and other details; and the animation department finally puts everything together into one seamless whole. “Then the film hits the cinemas,” Lasseter wryly notes.

Artists Dan Scanlon and Steve Purcell, who worked on Cars for four years with a production team of eight people, headed the story department on the film. They began by attending a car race in Las Vegas and taking a road trip on California’s famed Route 66. “We are the first people who start to figure out how the film will look visually,” Scanlon says. “We take the script and ask: How can we set up the shots? How can we set up the characters? What are the gags? What are the beats of the scene?”

“The cars have to move and show emotion,” says Steve Purcell. “We had to work out things like how a car would make a phone call given that it has no hands. We have to get to the point where you just forget that they are cars and they become characters.”

On his computer screen Purcell shows a few seconds of the very rough film that is edited together from the initial drawings. Voice tracks and music have been added, but the drawings are static images, not animated, and in black and white. “It’s pretty basic,” Scanlon says, “but it’s a great way to see if a particular sequence or the whole story is working”

Production designer Bill Cone, whose office is full of large scale, architectural drawings and detailed models of sets, says that he initially concentrated on the two different worlds he had to conjure up. Firstly, Route 66 and the run-down desert town of Radiator Springs and secondly a big city racetrack full of cheering fans, colorful flags and high-octane cars. “The racing world is loud, noisy, brash and bold,” Cone says, “it represents the polar opposite of the slow and sleepy world of Radiator Springs.”

Like most of the rest of the production team, Cone went on several journeys along Route 66. “I loved the whole look of beat-up surfaces, slouchy old buildings, wacky signs, gas pumps and peeling paint. I brought all those elements into the film.”

“We had 24 different types of vegetation and lots of rocks and sand,” says Cone’s colleague Sophie Vincelette, who among other things worked on giving a naturalistic feel to the film’s setting. “It’s simple to make perfect lines and forms with a computer but that’s not how the real world is,” explains Vincelette, who give a quick demonstration of how a peeling shop sign is “distressed” to look more authentically old. “You don’t want it to look too CG.”

Another member of Cone’s team is production designer for characters, Bob Pauley, one of whose tasks was to make sure the cars in the movie were true to the original materials and design. “We looked at everything from exhaust pipes to spoiler brakes,” he says. Pauley even tracked down original paint samples of many of the film’s classic cars and made recordings of different models’ engines and horns. He also worked on the configuration of the cars’ “faces” with windshields becoming eyes and in one instance a grill becoming a moustache. “We spent a lot of time in car lots,” Pauley says. “Chrome was a real challenge.”

Of course, at each stage of the process the production team also had to remember that the cars not only had to look like cars, but also stay true to each character’s personality traits. For example, Fillmore, the resident hippie of Radiator Springs is a 1960 VW Van who brews his own organic fuel and constantly preaches its many benefits. “I don’t think his lids ever get more than half mast,” Pauley says.

Like everyone else involved in Cars, the lighting department did some serious research before beginning their work but instead of hitting the road, they stayed in a garage. “We even shot the light reflected on the walls and we found lots of ridges, patterns and intricate details that we wanted to replicate,” says director of photography, Jean-Claude Kalache. “We needed texture in the light, not just flat color. We wanted bright beams, defused beams, patterns and semi circles,” says Kalache, deftly demonstrating different effects on a computer image of Cars’ protagonist, Lightning McQueen. “We also had to work out headlights and taillights.”

Special effects supervisor Steve May was responsible for smoke, fire, explosions, waterfalls and “bodily functions”. One of the cars, Mater, “drools and spits, ” May laughs. One of the biggest technical challenges of all was generating the huge dirt trails kicked up when the cars race each other in the desert. “There were 50,000 particles of dust and rendering them on the computer was extremely difficult,” May explains. “At one point we were just trying to transfer the data across the network and the computers actually seized up.”

Directing animators Jim Murphy and Bobby Podesta had to make sure that they had an emotional connection to the characters they’d be working on in Cars. They also both wanted to know what it would feel like to be traveling around a race track at 120 miles an hour so that’s exactly what they did before they began working on the film. “It was definitely the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” says Bobby Podesta.

To bring the film’s central character, McQueen, to life Podesta and Murphy also looked at footage of athletes. “I assembled a whole list of athletes and their traits and characteristics to use as a reference tool,” Murphy explains. “We used examples like Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, Andre Agassi, and Shaquille O’Neal.”

“Whatever it may seem like,” says Podesta, “it’s not making a car twist or turn that’s difficult. The biggest challenge for the animators is always to make people believe in the characters. It really is the hardest thing to get an audience to feel what a character is going through. You don’t want people to see the film and go ‘Oh, that’s impressive!’ You want them to feel the emotions the characters are feeling. They should laugh or cry or go, ‘Oh my God, that looks painful!’

“John Lasseter has this amazing attention to detail,” says the film’s producer Darla Anderson. “In fact a lot of what John wanted seemed impossible to be honest. What’s more, we could have done it without the reflections, and in previous films we’ve cheated a lot of reflections. We could have done it with less depth in the landscape too, less vegetation, and fewer buildings.

“But John wanted to create a highly complex world with really detail-oriented sets and even though a lot of what he asked for didn’t seem achievable, we just kept at it, we just kept pushing, until we got what he wanted. We ended up with all new computer tools for lighting the virtual sets, all new tools for rendering the effects, all new tools for everything. Day in and day out you’d hear people saying, “Oh, we’ve never done this before” and “We’ve never done that before”. It was uncharted territory.”

“Even those of us who worked on the film forget all the labor and the technical details and just get lost in this wonderfully funny and moving story,” Anderson says. “You don’t have to know which way is up with a computer. You don’t even have to be a car lover. The mantra at Pixar is always story first and story foremost, and Cars tells a universal story and the characters are so endearing. I guarantee that once people get into the theatre they’ll be blown away.”

“No one comes out of a film and says ‘Wow, the technology was amazing,'” Lasseter says, concluding the guided tour while a Pixar employee whizzes down the hallway on a scooter. “Personally I like movies that make me cry, because they’re tapping into a real emotion. And that’s what I want with Cars. I want people to laugh and have fun. I also want to tug at their heartstrings.”