Before the characters of Cars 3 reached the computers where the movie is made, they need to be certain of their look and purpose. That’s the purview of directing animator Jude Brownbill, production designer Jay Shuster, and characters supervisor Michael Comet.
When it comes to designing the characters of the Cars franchise, Shuster said it was a matter of nailing the physical aspects of the vehicles while remembering they are characters first. For example, no matter the car design can interfere with the eye-mouth relationships on-screen.
One of the biggest design challenges of Cars 3, according to Shuster, was designing McQueen’s new nemesis, Jackson Storm, a young, sleek, and sharp racer voiced by Armie Hammer. I couldn’t help but notice how much of a classical evil counterpart, in the grand tradition of the Jokers, the Lokis, the Reverse-Flashes, villains meant to deliberately mirror the heroes. As director Brian Fee said at the press conference, though Storm is an antagonist, he is not necessarily evil, but more an entitled jerk. Every part of Storm’s design is meant to reflect that personality and refract McQueen’s.
Comet, one of two character supervisors on the film, takes Shuster’s concept art, brings it into the computer, and provides the final model to animation. But before all that, where does Pixar start? Research. The design team visited the Black Hawk Auto Museum and the San Francisco Auto Show to get up-close-and-personal with the basis for the characters they were responsible for creating.
“Our process is kind of an assembly line,” Comet said. “We have to make our own car. First, we digitally sculpt them. Then digitally paint them. And finally get them animation ready.”
Finally, the process Brownbill, who finally gives the characters life and personality. She focuses on movement and further incorporating the defining elements of each character, not just how they look but how they move. They have the most latitude on new characters and for Storm, for example, focusing on his angularity allowed Brownbill to hone in on his “precision.” In another instance, she zeroed in on what his eyes are saying versus what his mouth is saying. Cruz, by contrast, shares Storm’s next-gen sleekness but lacks his sharpness, offering a more powerful contrast to him and connection to McQueen.
“We asked ourselves at the beginning of Cars 3: what have we already learned about animation and what kind of challenges are we going to face going forward?” Brownbill said.
At Pixar, even three movies into a franchise, they never stop innovating.
Cars 3 races into theaters June 16.