Whenever I think about how animated films get made, I think of an iceberg. There’s the tip poking out of the water’s surface but it always obscures the massive foundation floating beneath the waves. What we see on screen in animated films is what they want us to see; we miss out on the kind of technical details it takes to construct an entire world from scratch, from paper to computer to screen.
At the Cars 3 press day in late March, Heroic Hollywood was lucky enough to sit down with three animators – Jon Reisch the effects supervisor, Bobby Podesta the supervising animator on Cars 3, and Michael Fong the supervising technical director – and talk about working for the premiere animation studio in Hollywood, Pixar. We also dove into how they got their start in the industry, the kind of challenges they faced making the third film in the Cars franchise, and how Pixar’s success can be traced back to a certain mantra of the company’s head honcho John Lasseter.
“Star Wars was one of the touchstones I kept coming back to,” Reisch said, regarding where his passion for visual effects stemmed from. “I learned more about how the optical effects were done back then and that was a huge influence on me. I remember going to see Dennis Muren, who was the effects supervisor. I got to see all the films back-to-back-to-back with my dad and ask him questions.”
For Podesta and Fong, their inspirations for pursuing their careers were different, but no less cinematic.
“I grew up watching cartoons, mostly television because we weren’t able to go to the movies often, after-school, Sunday mornings, everything,” Podesta said. “And then when I was about fourteen, I saw The Little Mermaid and I loved it. It was the first time I realized that you could do this for a living. I was always drawing growing up but for animation. I wrote a letter literally addressed to the Walt Disney Company right after and I got a nice letter back with one typed line that said we get a lot of students from this school called CalArts and I started looking into it, eventually went to college there, and that’s how it started for me.”
Fong, supervising technical director, it was Jurassic Park that motivated him to research and discover the world of computer science and visual effects. “It had me “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe what they can make these things do.’ Computer science is the way I wanted to head after that. You play a lot of games and you think I want to program games, you’re drawing comics, and you wonder ‘How can I combine these things?’ You sort of fall into it.”
As the trio previously explained, the biggest challenge they faced on Cars 3 was animating a demolition derby (nicknamed “the Crazy-8” sequence) that takes place in a mud pit. Getting the mud right required innovation on their part, but Reisch said it was the story that determined what challenges they rose to, not the other way around.
“It’s always motivated by what the story demands are for the individual show. I can’t speak to Coco and their challenges but I would be willing to bet that whatever it is they’re tackling is so critical to the story that needs to be told there. Same for us, with the mud and other effects work in the show. We wanted to give the characters a groundedness and believable interaction with the world because it helps the storytelling Brian was bringing to bear. That’s what we’re always striving for. It’s not necessarily technology for technology’s sake or pushing on effects for effects’ sake. It’s how can we bring what we do to support that story.”
Podesta referred back to Lasseter’s mantra for Pixar, which is that art drives technology and vice versa. “It creates a kind of fly wheel effect which picks up speed. We’ll come up with a story or something to do with art and we’ll say this is what we want to do and why. We’re fortunate to be surrounded by artists who can rise to that challenge and invent new things in many cases so we can tell these stories.”
What Podesta describes is a palpable emotion coursing throughout the whole company, one that is apparent from when you walk into their headquarters and meet the people inside. There’s a unity of purpose as well as a fluidity of process that coalesces into the most highly-anticipated animated films on the market. Reisch remembered working at a separate visual effects company in 2004 that didn’t have the same “sense of strong driving principle of story coming first.”
“You know, you’re contracted to do work on other peoples’ films. For us, these stories are so part of the place and the culture and ourselves is that it’s really unique.”
Podesta agreed. “I think what you’re feeling is the thing that we’re all striving for at Pixar. It’s to really do the best possible job, to make something of excellence and visual depth. But more so emotionally depth and complexity because we know and have seen what happens when we make films that connect with people in a way that transcends whether it’s a toy, or a fish or a car. It can sometimes be hard to see where you fit into the history of the industry but we’re able to be a part of these films and tell these stories that we’ll tell our grand kids about.”