EXCLUSIVE: Scott Clark and Doug Sweetland Animate Cars
The two supervising animators on what it was like to work on this film and what's the future of animation
With all the Pixar films, I've been amazed at what computers can do in the movies. I thought nothing could top The Incredibles in terms of animation. Then, I saw Cars! From the opening scene to the closing credits, the animation in this film is spectacular.
With a crowd of 20,000 cars in the stands for the final Piston Cup race to the exteriors of Radiator Springs, the town where Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) gets stranded, nothing has impressed me more than the crispness of this movie.
It was my last sit down interview of the day; as I waited for them in the Carolina Medical Center suite at the Lowe's Motor Speedway in Charlotte, North Carolina, the first thing I told supervising animators, Scott Clark and Doug Sweetland, was how impressed I was with this film. Half the time I was watching, I couldn't tell some scenes were actually animated. And it's true, you sometimes think what you're watching is real life.
Just to give you a little background on Scott and Doug, both have been working at Pixar since their first feature film, Toy Story. Scott was in intern, while Doug was an animator - so needless to say, they have the experience. A funny thing about Doug was he went to school for animation and his mom convinced him to go into computer animation - his first job was working on Toy Story.
We talked about sinking their teeth into Cars and about the future of hand-drawn, 2D animation. Here's what they had to say:
What's the first thing you do when you get the final script?
Scott Clark: There are so many layers to what you saw, and we're just one of them. But before us comes the layout department, and they're kind of like the choreographers or the cinematographers; they come up with the story board. The art department designs the world and we get an actual scene already cut.
Doug Sweetland: So when we get it, the dialogue has already been read; they read their own lines so they can get the mouth to move correctly. And then you have to come up with your own physical acting choices. It's not a radio show, so you're there to see the characters move so you try to figure out what the body language is. And that's what we end up studying a lot on movies just to see how people move around their bodies.
Do you think hand-drawn animation is in the past?
Scott Clark: I think hand-drawn animation is just another way to tell a story as is computer animation; computer animation is just more popular right now. I'm a huge fan of hand-drawn animation the same way I still love painting, but people still paint, and even though photography has been invented, there's still things being done. Right now, it's in a lull, but it's not dead; there are still stories that can be told in 2D animation.
Doug Sweetland: Yeah, look at Japanese animation; they're primarily 2D animation, so I really think what is the story, what is the content.
Scott Clark: I think another way to describe it is computer animation is more immersive today; but there are things in The Jungle Book that we can't touch. There are things we look at as animators and say, 'Oh, if only we could get that much appeal and life' out of a scene they got there. There are things in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the very first one, that I still think that are very special to that one that are still reasons to do 2D animation over 3D.
Doug Sweetland: And one of the strengths of Cars I think is that it actually plays to its own medium really well, which when you're working in a specific medium, you have to know what the specific strengths and weaknesses are. Obviously, photo-realism is something computer animation can do far beyond the hand of a draft person - perspective, reflection, natural light effects, amazing quantity of characters like for instance the cars that populate the racing stadium would be overwhelming for any one person to do. It's kind of tailored for the computer and I think that Cars really is the most computer animated movie I've ever worked on.
Scott Clark: It takes advantage of the situation.
What have you seen has been the change over the last 10 years at Pixar?
Scott Clark: I think I can still watch Toy Story and the story is still good characters are still lovable and that is the test. In our department, we challenge each other in such a positive way every day; and we're always pushing farther. The animation gets better and better all the time. It's like when we get something like The Incredibles and Brad Bird comes along and says, 'We're going to do humans.' I think that we have such a strong crew because everyone helps each other.
Doug Sweetland: It's not so much a linear progression, but it's a branching out; you think that everything you've learned in the last picture, you're going to be able to apply to the next one. But they're all different, and you don't have to reinvent the wheel; but you have to look at what the different circumstances are and what are the animation solutions that we can put out. The nature of the shows have been varied - cars, humans, fish, monsters. And with Monsters, there were hundreds of different types of bodies; it keeps you on your toes.
Scott Clark: And if you look at Cars, to compare it to The Incredibles, the human body is the most complex thing you can do. And as we found it, animators want to push it and we made it very cartoony; we did that at first and saw as we got more into the car physics, we could tell we had to be more subtle and pull back. It became more about a 'less is more' animation philosophy; it became about you weren't moving so you didn't over animating it. It's easier to move stuff around, it's harder to pull back and see you don't have to move stuff.
Doug Sweetland: It's hard to say that the animation is better in one from another. It's almost like you want to compensate for not having arms, you want the car to wiggle, jiggle. That's not like accepting the offer that this is a car, you have to accept that this is a 3000 pound metallic object that isn't just this gummy creature. So as soon as you accept the given parameters, and not out due it, that's when you can get something that sings.
What would you say was your favorite part of doing this film?
Scott Clark: I'm really happy, being in a supervising position, with the opening race, cause it's just so full of energy. There were so many layers, and so many departments, there were so many people working on top of each other; when I see it, just seeing McQueen dance his way through the other cars is really fun for me. As an animator, I really enjoy the dream sequence of McQueen's nightmare; it's nice to have a chunk of the movie that's mine.
Doug Sweetland: I just liked a lot of the scenes with Hud (Hudson, Paul Newman), there's a lot of pensive kind of moments he's in. We were pulling back with all the cars, but we had to pull back the most with him. His mouth is incredibly minimal, most of his acting is in his eyes, and the way he holds himself. It's amazing how you get so much impact out of so little.
Scott Clark: And that's to the credit of Paul Newman, who knew just how to play him; it was an acting lesson. Animation isn't just moving something around; it's bringing something to life. This character was alive and he wasn't moving that much.
What's it like seeing the real cars out there?
Doug Sweetland: It's really a trip; they pulled Sally (Bonnie Hunt) into Pixar one day and to see her, it just kind of messes with you a little.
Scott Clark: We've been seeing her rendered and she looks so believable, but to see the real car there, it's like 'there she is.'
Doug Sweetland: It's so true, because a large part of the appeal of the movie is just how ingrained we are with cars; we either have one or drive in one constantly, but you just don't notice it. And this takes all of that and brings it up to the surface.
It's one of the best movies you'll see all year, and the best animated film you may see in a long time - Cars! It races into theaters today; it's rated G.