‘Cars 3’: Lead Animators On Muddy Innovation In Pixar Sequel

The lead animators and effects technicians on Cars 3 gave Heroic Hollywood a peek at how the sausage is made behind the scenes at Pixar.

If one thing was clear from meeting the lead animators on Cars 3, it’s that an animators work both messy and never truly done. That’s particularly true at Pixar, where the mantra is “story is king” and the artistic side and technical side of filmmaking are constantly feeding each other.

Supervising animator Bobby Podesta, supervising technical director Michael Fong, and effects supervisor Jon Reisch dove deep into the challenges of Cars 3, particularly the demolition derby sequence at Thunder Hollow that was screened for Heroic Hollywood and other outlets the day before. Their jobs entail putting everything together in the computer and making it sure it both consistent and realistic (but, as the would explain, not too realistic).

As with everything at Pixar, it began with research. Podesta, who started as an intern in the effects department alongside Reisch on the first Cars, explained how their team brainstormed the beats and gags they could think of. Remaining grounded and visceral meant putting the audience in the character’s shoes, in the middle of the chaos. According to Podesta, their job is two-pronged. There’s technical research into natural effects like dust and water to create digital simulations. And there’s the narrative side where they use that information to  build sequences out of character moments. But it all comes back to something “grounded” and “tangible.”

Reisch, said  the effects team deals with all the natural phenomena, from fire to smoke to sand, using physical simulation software to design everything down to (for the first time ever) the air currents. But every film has its challenges and Cars 3‘s was mud. The viscous, not-quite-solid, not-quite-liquid nature of it required innovation on their part to achieve, according to Reisch. Fortunately the research involved literally filming themselves playing in the mud to discover what aspects of it they wanted to recreate in animation

“The way we tackle it is lot of experiments. And they’re terrible for a really long time,” Reisch explained. “One looks like chocolate frosting or liquid chocolate, but we start to get an idea of what brings truth to the material.”

Fong explained the cohesive philosophy and the striving for constant innovation. Whether its an animator pitching a scene or a writer scripting a new one, “story is king” at Pixar, he said. Whether a film is in layout, animation, FX, lighting, or rendering, the story is constantly being tweaked, added to, and retrofitted.

“As the story group and the animation group start seeing out assets, they say ‘Hey, those can really solve a problem in my story point by what I’m learning from the set,’” Fong said. Later, he added, “We’ve built our entire production pipeline around the idea that story must be constantly improving and in order for it to do so, all departments have to be ready to discard work and absorb changes at almost any time. We design our tools, our workflows and schedules to account for this.”

What most impressed me about the animators reflects back well on Pixar in general, which is that they have a unifying themes. “Authenticity.” “Story is king.” “Research.” These areas of focus shape not only the plotting of the narrative, but the animation itself.

“Through our effects work, we provide the believable interaction that really grounds the characters to the world,” Reisch said. “What we do is create emotional stakes for these characters. They can be put in danger or hurt. And there is something really visceral and unexpected about seeing our hero McQueen turning end-over-end, sparks flying.”

Cars 3 races into theaters June 16.

Sam Flynn

Sam Flynn

Sam is a writer and journalist whose passion for pop culture burns with the fire of a thousand suns and at least three LED lamps.