Recently we were invited to spend the day at Pixar to celebrate the upcoming release of the Cars DVD on November 7. There are a some special places people say that you should visit before you die, stadiums or halls that one might want to see before they are torn down, but I think that as long as we're making lists, traveling to Emeryville, California and visiting Pixar should be on there. Makers of such hits as Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, this place looks more like an artist's paradise as opposed to the movie hit machine that it is. People cruise around on scooters, pieces of art from various movies hang on the walls, there are life-size characters and props from their movies greeting you at the front door, and everything else one might expect from a company that has created some of the most seminal modern day fairy tales.
I began my Cars press day by taking a "Driver's Test." I had to answer questions about the film starting with an eye chart that asked me to name various characters. After passing this I was then given a written test, and upon breezing through that, I was asked to play the Cars Xbox 360 video game. Once this was over, I then had my picture taken for a driver's license that I would be given at the end of my day. We were then taken to a plush screening room where we saw a new short on the DVD titled Mater and the Ghostlight, and after that we watched the Inspiration for Cars featurette.
Shortly thereafter, we were joined by John Lasseter who proceeded to talk about the film itself. He said that Cars "is really about the idea that the journey is the reward." Apparently, after the success of some of the early Pixar films (during which time Lasseter had had 4 of his 5 children), his wife mentioned to him that although he had been successful, he was working very hard and that had taken him away from his family. This, as I would come to find out over the course of the day, would be how many of the Pixar films were made, as it is this theme of slowing down and looking at life that pervades Cars. When discussing why this DVD wasn't released in a more elaborate fashion, Lasseter says that the "focus was really on the research." Apparently, putting this film together had been such a time consuming process, he really wanted to focus on that work that went into making it as opposed to looking at the final product like most DVDs do.
He then went on to discuss how the cars made it into the film. "They find their way in there in all different kinds of ways," he laughed as he went on to explain how his Dad had a Chevy when he was younger so of course there was one in the movie, "I grew up in Southern California where there were a lot of low riders, so those are in there." As for a character like the immensely popular Mater, he says that "they were inspired by old, rusty tow trucks." All of this he states went on to "create the world of Cars."
In closing he says that he "loves the DVD" and is happy that people are now going to be able to watch it for a second, third or fourth time. "There's so much detail... now people can pause it and see all the work that went into it."
After an Italian themed lunch we were paired off into groups where we got to speak with a bevy of behind the scenes people for both the movie and the DVD. First up was Roger Gould and Sara Maher who took us through a DVD Demonstration of Cars. They showed us the One Man Band short that is on the DVD, as well as some of the deleted scenes. Having served as the DVD's Creative Directors, they broke down why the DVD is set up the way that it is, how they tried to put John Lasseter's themes and vision into the disc, and overall what they were trying to accomplish with this release. As we would go through certain segments, Roger would pause the DVD here and there pointing out where certain hidden things were. What is very interesting is that it seems that anyone who works on a Pixar film is allowed to put a piece of themselves in it. Even if only they know that it is there, the point is that the movie becomes a cohesive whole that everyone has contributed to.
We then were escorted upstairs to speak with Tia Kratter and Thomas Jordan who were responsible for Art Direction and Shading on Cars. They explained that a big portion of their job was to bring out the "character's of the cars." In fact, things got so meticulous as they compiled information in which to create the Cars world, that John Lasseter pointed out "two kinds of rust" were going to represented in the film (for your information they were East Coast and West Coast). Tia and Thomas videotaped how lighting shines off cars care of a local car shop near Pixar. They showed us some of the footage, and then showed us an animated version and they looked identical. Thomas than informed us that in order to speed up "rendering" times, they cheated some of the reflections on the cars in the film.
After this Thomas told us about a process called Ray Tracing which he described as "intense mathematically" and that "you don't notice it unless it's not there." Even though Cars was created on many computers Tia went on to say that "they don't make it faster than drawing" the movie. For example, something like Ray Tracing was used to shade how light reflected off the cars, but having the computers do this process doesn't make the creation of the film go any quicker. "Most of the software is written here." Thomas stated as he went on to explain how they'll tell the programmers what they need years before they need it, just so they can employ these tools when the situation calls for it. Lastly, were they worried about other people using something like their RenderMan software to make better Pixar films than Pixar?
"It's good for us to have people doing stuff." Tia stated emphatically. "It pushes us."
Next, we visited the office of Production Designers Bob Pauley and Bill Cone who stated that a big part of their job is "noticing patterns." They also described the work they do on films like Cars, which consists of taking a lot of pictures of surroundings they will have to duplicate on screen, as a "form of archaeology." They find that it's "useful for storytelling... the little things." They then went on discuss how first and foremost it's "important to establish a structure" and that one of John Lasseter's mantras throughout the film was "true to the materials." According to Bob and Bill there was some initial talk of making the cars more malleable to their environments, being able to bend and such in certain areas, but those ideas were scrubbed because of viewers expectations of exactly what cars can do.
Lastly we asked them if there was anything they wanted to do that they couldn't do and Bob just said, "You fight so many battles..." on the road to bringing a film to the screen, "I would have liked more car shows, but I'm very pleased with it."
Our fourth and final stop was with Lighting and Effects guys Jean-Claude Kalache and Steve May. These guys walked us through the challenges of lighting one sequence in the film that utilized 11,000 lights. They showed a scene on repeat and pointed out things a casual viewer would never notice, such as how many lights were operational within this sequence. Then you have to factor in that different colored lights are used for different cars, and suddenly it becomes clear just how painstaking and meticulous their work is. According to Jean-Claude and Steve, the hardest parts were when "Doc was moving in slow motion... racing with all the dust coming up behind him; turning sideways." They then showed us the many stages that sequence went through before it was put in the film.
Once this was done, we all gathered downstairs to be given a 30 minute tour of Pixar. We were informed that the artwork on the walls of the production offices is for whatever movie they were currently working on. For now it was still in the Cars phase, but below these production offices one could already see the large Ratatouille sign beginning to emerge (that film is slated for release on June 29, 2007). After seeing a lot of sketches and drawings for Cars, we were taken to another part of the building where we saw images from other Pixar classics like Finding Nemo and A Bug's Life.
Then we walked the perimeter of the building where we got to see the Pixar volleyball court as well as the Pixar swimming pool. The tour rapped up with a return to the front area of Pixar that we had been in earlier that morning when the tour started. As I started to walk to the shuttle and head for SFO airport a thought hit me. Steve Jobs as CEO Pixar often talked about the idea that "the journey is the reward." Considering that that is not only the title of Jeffrey S. Young's book on the Apple founder, but the ultimate theme of Pixar's Cars (and the company itself for that matter), there seemed to be something genuinely perfect about ending this day at Pixar exactly where we had begun.
Cars hits the ground running on DVD November 7 from Buena Vista Home Entertainment.
Dont't forget to also check out: Cars