the dysfunctional ramblings of a rambly kind of gal
Growing up, I was always a huge fan of everything that Pixar did. As a grown-up, I’m still a huge fan of pretty well everything that Pixar has done and continues to do. There are a ton of reasons that I can think of off the top of my head that make Pixar stand out from every other studio out there, with the first and most foremost reason being everyone that works there cares. Not in the sense that they care about getting a paycheck and potentially getting recognized by the rest of the world because of their work. They care because they want their family and friends to enjoy the type of quality cinema that seems to be dying out very quickly.
Pixar Studios is indeed, a closed studio, so unless Pixar invites you or you know someone who works there, the chances of getting a tour of the grounds and the studio are pretty slim. So when I was asked to visit the studio to learn more about CARS 2, I was thrilled. On October 17, 2011, I got to be one of the privileged members of the press to take a tour of Emeryville, California’s Pixar Studios. Immediately as we turned into the studio and the big giant PIXAR gate welcomed us in, I was giddy like a kid on Christmas morning. Practically flying off the bus, I couldn’t contain myself as we continued from the parking lot to the studio.
Right off the bat, even before we got into the studio, there was a bombardment of amazing, including a giant iconic replica Pixar Luxo lamp along with a big yellow and blue ball, complete with a red star. As if that wasn’t amazing enough, upon entering the studio itself, we were greeted by life-sized statues of Mike and Sulley from Monsters Inc, characters from Cars, a giant Lego Buzz and Woody from Toy Story and from the first floor, we could see life-sized figures from The Incredibles and Bruce and the gang from Finding Nemo on the second floor. And there, in a beautiful display cabinet to the right of the entrance was a wonderfully shiny sight; all of the awards that Pixar films have won over the years, including the Oscars. Needless to say, it’s the closest I will ever come to an actual Oscar and I was (and still am) absolutely in awe.
I’ve already mentioned just how brilliant and overwhelming everything was right off the bat and I wasn’t even 15 minutes into my visit. The first thing that happened was an extensive tour of the gorgeous modern studio. As you can imagine, it’s completely filled with art from Pixar movies, including concept sketches, lighting tests, 3D models and more. One half of the studio is dedicated to a specific Pixar movie, in this case CARS 2, while the other side is currently dedicated to exhibiting a charity project called Sketchtravel. I won’t go into too much detail on that, but basically illustrators and designers contributed to one big sketchbook with their original ideas (legendary filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki contributed a piece) and they auctioned the original off for charity. A published version of the book is available from Amazon France.
The reason that I was visiting Pixar Studios though was not to fulfill some childhood desire to see the studio and the people who made some of my favourite movies of all time, but to learn more about CARS 2, a current favourite among kids these days. Once the tour was complete and we were given a bite to eat, things got started in one of Pixar’s screening rooms where Harley Jessup, Sharon Calahan and Galyn Sussman each did a presentation for us. Jessup went into detail about how the staff went about researching for movie and discussed what movies help inspire CARS 2. The movie definitely and obviously takes inspiration from James Bond but other credited inspirations according to Jessup include the original Italian Job (specifically the car chase scene through Torino), a 1976 short film called Rendezvous, the Bourne movies and most surprisingly The Red Balloon (because of the contrast of colours in the film). Jessup also discussed creating the sort of parallel Earth where CARS 2 takes place and how their process of “Cars-ification” helped them build the world. Look closely at Big Bentley in London to see the grill of a Bentley in the CARS take on the famous clock tower and the Eiffel Tower portrayed in the movie each have slight modifications that make them specifically suited to the movie (look out for others as well!).
Sharon Calahan continued the discussion by explaining how she came up with the lighting for the entire movie. Call me ignorant, but I had never even really put any thought into the lighting in an animated movie before, I always just assumed that the computer automatically did the lighting. After listening to Calahan speak though, you can immediately understand just how much work is put into that one aspect alone and how much she herself does as the Director of Photography/Lighting. Bad lighting can really throw off the mood of the entire movie so it’s a vital thing to get right.
From here, I then had the chance to sit down with several other key members from the team behind CARS 2. These incredible people included Denise Ream (Producer), Jon Reisch (Effects Developer) and Gary Bruins (Effects Supervisor), Jay Shuster (Art Director) and Dave Mullins (Supervising Animator) and Shawn Krause (Supervising Animator).
Denise Ream was absolutely wonderful and went over a bunch of things with us from the process of funding the film to what it’s like to work with John Lasseter and she addressed a question regarding just how much of the character of Mater is based on him, “There’s a little bit of John in a lot of the characters. He’s such a car enthusiast and the Cars world is something that is very dear to him because of his father’s work at the Chevrolet dealership,” said Ream “John is a very loyal person so I don’t think he [Mater] was consciously written to reflect John but I just think it’s kind of a happy coincidence that there’s a lovability to both people – And that’s the funny thing, at the end of the day I always forget that these are cars.”
Jon Reisch and Gary Bruins went into great detail about the difficulties behind creating the opening sequence and the what’s it like trying to animate water. They even showed us the software they use to create the water special effects and took us step by step through the process. For those of you who have yet to see CARS 2, the opening sequence of the movie all takes place in the Pacific Ocean, thus the discussion on how the water was made in the film. I never knew that creating water for an animated movie was so difficult, but Bruins explained why that is, “We’re all experts on how water moves whether we know it or not. We see it all the time, we’ve grown up with water interactions, so we’re very tuned in to when it’s not looking right even if we can’t pinpoint why it’s not looking right.” Bruins continued by adding in, “It’s a very high bar artistically that the artists had to reach for such that they didn’t draw anybody out of the story because the water behaviour wasn’t feeling correct.”
Jay Shuster took us through his concept art for the film and discussed how challenging it was to create 150 all-new characters 1050 variants of those characters for CARS 2 (which Shuster believes to be an unofficial record). Shuster also disclosed that his favourite character to design was the Italian Formula One racecar Francesco Bernoulli.
Dave Mullins and Shawn Krause discussed just how tedious putting together an animated film can be. These guys obviously have a lot of fun doing their job, but you can tell that, while working at Pixar will always be a dream job for many, it’s still work and every now and again it can take its toll (like in the form of not wanting to see the movie you just finished working on for at least a few years).
After a long and exciting day, I can honestly say that my life is slightly more on the fulfilled side after visiting Pixar Studios. I got the opportunity to speak to so many wonderfully brilliant people and I think that Denise Ream pretty well sums up the overall vibe I got from everyone while I was there, “I care about carrying on a pretty amazing filmmaking tradition that exists here – this is why I’m here,” Ream said of her job at Pixar, “The reason I’m here is because people care about making great movies,” And there you have it.