All of Pixar’s greatest movies rest on how beloved the characters are. From Mickey Mouse all the way to Lightning McQueen, the Disney’s history in animation has a legacy entwined with Pixar, based on iconic characters drawn up by designers. On Cars 3, that team is responsible for bringing a slew of new characters to the venerable franchise. Heroic Hollywood was fortunate enough to sit down with three of the design team to talk about creating newcomers like the plucky trainer Cruz Ramirez, arrogant rival Jackson Storm, and the derby-romping school bus Miss Fritter.
Speaking with Michael Comet, the character supervisor, Jay Shuster, the production designer for characters, and Jude Brownbill, one of the animation directors, I asked about how the fluid production process at Pixar – where “story is king” and is always impacting the development of a particular film – affects character creation (spoiler alert: I did not ask this question as eloquently as I was able to write it).
“There’s a pretty close interaction early one between art and story,” Shuster said. “When they’re writing and story boarding, we could be outside doing artwork that will bounce off of them or inform their story. Or we could draw something that will inform the characters. Ultimately, it’s Brian Fee say who these characters are. They launch us and we then give form and life to the character through the shape, paint, and graphic. Any other kind of tool we can pull in.”
The voice actors also have an effect on how the character looks. “On Fritter, we had Lea DeLaria doing the voice acting so we thickened the windshield trim to mimic the glasses she always wears,” Comet said. “Again, that process is very collaborative so for example her metal is supposed to look hand-cut, like it’s rough because she’s out of the Crazy 8s. So we put that same design language into her lips. It was a conversation between the rigging artist and the animator to play with those ideas.”
Brownbill said the team likes to slip in little details they adore and see if they survive the process. “Once we inherited the character design and rig of, for example, Cruz. It’s a fairly blank slate in how we can make her look, in terms of the things we control. So with her personality and the personality of Cristela [Alonzo, voice of Cruz] is how animation can put its stamp on the character. Jay’s drawings included a little chip on Cruz’s tooth that was very endearing. So when modeling, the artist and I were wondering whether to keep it. We did a little experiment and it stayed in. We tried to showcase it as much as possible, with her smiles and smirks.”
On Jackson Storm, the latest rival for hero Lightning McQueen in Cars 3, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Batman/Joker dynamic his design has with McQueen, making him an “evil counterpart” like the famous DC Comics hero and villain. Shuster agreed that their designers were deliberately in contrast but their rivalry wasn’t based on hate and Storm is less a villain than an antagonist.
“In a way, it was kinda obvious what we had to do, which is design the opposite of McQueen, which meant hard, sharp, and angular. At the same time, Brian’s initial pitch was that yes, Storm is McQueen’s rival but he’s not necessarily evil. He’s kinda like McQueen, when he started out. He’s got the cockiness, he’s got the ego. He’s got a different way of presenting himself. He’s not a jerk or out to kill McQueen or whatever. He’s out for his own personal gain and doesn’t care what anyone else feels. Of course, then we paint him black and make him a weapon on wheels so he hopefully travels that line between ‘evil’ and ‘jerk.’”
Each had a personal favorite moment working on Cars 3. For Comet, it was the “Crazy-8” sequence, a nickname for the mud pit scene that gave the animators such a challenge. “We had a lot of creative freedom there because they were mostly background characters but they all had these unique moments that are cool in the film. Some of our artists added their own style of characters.”
Shuster’s favorites are the racing sequences, where, at any given time, they had five graphic designers “designing beautiful racing graphics for the cars, arenas, and tracks. Just seeing all the racers coming down the track, each with their own personality and design and color. For them to produce this and to have this field, it feels like an actual NASCAR race.”
Brownbill didn’t animate her favorite scene, but it stands out to her due to the introduction of a character poised to be a breakout star of the picture, Cruz Ramirez.
“Just to be a part of watching it come to life, where Cruz is this bad-ass trainer and McQueen is still in his ‘I’m ready to just do this’ mode and she comes out and says ‘You’re old, you’re my senior project’ and suddenly we have this moment where we realize it’s going to be interesting. She’s going to speak her mind and tell the truth. McQueen has never heard that before. Her unconventional training methods were a lot of to bring to life.”
We’ll get to meet Cruz, Storm, and Fritter alongside all the other returning favorites when Cars 3 races into theaters June 16.