Pixar CEO and Cars Director John Lasseter looks tired. For the last eight hours, he's been engaged in interviews and fielding inane questions from an assortment of entertainment, foreign and automotive press. But as soon as I ask about his inspiration for CARS 2, his eyes light up. "I just love cars," he starts off, and then begins describing the various locales he visited while doing promotion for the 2006 original, all of which would later influence the sequel.
That's just one of several clear lines of inspiration between CARS and CARS 2. The original came about after Lasseter and his family took a roadtrip across the U.S. while towing a 1962 Ford Falcon. The kids named the Falcon "Arnold" and the RV "Betty."
For the sequel – and Lasseter's overdue return to the director's chair – he and his team decided to take the crew from Radiator Springs global. That includes stop-offs in Japan, Italy and Great Britain to compete in the fictionalized World Grand Prix, pitting racers of all disciplines against each other on circuits inspired by their countries of origin. Underlying all that racing action is a classic spy caper and, after viewing 26 minutes of footage, a slightly darker side to the world of Cars.
Continue reading For the Love of Cars: An inside look at the making of Cars 2...
Fair Warning: We'll be discussing a few plot points and several characters after the jump, and while there aren't any serious spoilers, if you want to enter the theater in a blissful state of ignorance, stop here.
The inspiration for CARS 2 came about from Lasseter's (Garage: Mercedes-Benz SL55, 1952 Jaguar XK120, 1964 Messerschmidt) aforementioned trip across the world and a scene that was cut from the original feature. If you ever wondered why Pixar and Co. never used the obvious trope of a drive-in theater in CARS, they did. But the scene between Lighting McQueen and his Stuttgartian love interest, Sally, was left on the virtual cutting room floor and later rekindled for Pixar's latest feature.
The protagonist of the drive-in flick was Finn McMissle, a classic spy cut from the same cloth as Sean Connery's James Bond, and he's one in a slew of new characters in Cars 2.
McMissle (voiced by Michael Caine), joins fellow secret agent Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) to form the perfect juxtaposition between old- and new-school spies, with McMissle rendered in an understated British coupe body (there's a little Italian flare included as well) and contrasting with Shiftwell's more modern supercar aesthetic.
The movie opens in the middle of the ocean, with McMissle hunting down the feature's villain, Professor Z (Thomas Kretschmann), and within the first five minutes, it's obvious this latest flick is a far cry from the down-home atmosphere of the original. Explosions, fire fights and an honest sense of danger makes CARS 2 a real action-adventure – enough to make Michael Bay want to give up real-life actors in favor of even more over-powered computers.
When asked about the decidedly dark atmosphere of the opening scene and the imaginative deaths of several characters, Lasseter admits that while it's still a movie for kids, "There is peril. There is threat. You want the bad guys to be bad."
And they are bad.
The Lemons, as they're referred to in the film, serve as Professor Z's minions, an unloved assortment of Eastern European and American metal headed up by American Motors Corporation's own redheaded stepchildren: Grem (a Gremlin) and Acer (a Pacer). The diabolical duo were licensed by Pixar from Chrysler just as the automaker entered into the throes of bankruptcy, allowing the animators to create near-perfect representations of the two for a fraction of the licensing costs. And they play their parts to perfection.
Naturally, the rest of the Radiator Springs crew is along for the ride, with Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) traveling around the globe to compete in the World Grand Prix.
Cars-spotters will notice that McQueen has gotten a bit racier since we last saw him, with more venting, a bigger exhaust, new side skirts, spoiler, a rear diffuser and graphics penned by none other than Chip Foose. Foose, a friend of Lasseter's, came up from LA after being asked to create McQueen's new look. He flew up in the morning and was back down in So. Cal. before lunch, taking all of 52 seconds to produce the first sketch. It took Pixar's team of artists nearly three months to render the flame/lighting-bolt combo he created.
One character that won't be making an appearance in Cars 2 is Doc Hudson, voiced by the late, great Paul Newman. "When an actor passes away, you've got to find a voice replacement," Lasseter tells us, "but I just couldn't do it for Paul." Lasseter and Newman were tight, going to races and assorted auto-related events right up until the end. "I love driving and I love racing. And Newman was like a drug-pusher." But with Newman's passing in 2008, Lasseter knew that he couldn't bring Doc's character back into the sequel, so "the implication is that Doc isn't with us," Lasseter says, "So we play a deep homage to him. And that's my homage to Paul."
The depth and respect for Newman, in particular, and racing in general comes across in the variety of environments and events featured throughout the film.
Every city has been properly "Carified," with Big Ben turned into Big Bentley and completed with Latin engravings reading something to the effect of "Long Live Crown Victoria." That level of detail seeps into the vehicles flooding the roads of each city, with Pixar licensing hundreds of cars and rendering them to perfection. You'll see Audi and Renault models littering the landscape in Italy, and classic Nissan 240Zs running through the neon-lit streets of Japan. After CARS 2 hits theaters on June 24, you'll want to watch and re-watch the film, picking out all the auto-related easter eggs scattered throughout before picking up the DVD and watching it again.
And as for those races – pitting Formula One cars against rally machines and LeMans prototypes – it might be a bit of a stretch, but as Lasseter reminds us, "it's a movie."
Taking cues from the Race of Champions, the Pixar crew wanted to bring race cars of all disciplines together to find the Best of the Best. To do that, they had to create tracks that – as Jay Ward (Garage: Motoguzzi V11 Sport, 1957 Pontiac Safari Wagon, 1939 Mercury Convertible, 1929 Model A), Cars franchise manager tells us – had an equalizer. To that end, the circuits in Tokyo, Italy and London all include a dirt portion that wreaks havoc on McQueen's antagonist, open-wheeled champion Francesco Bernoulli.
Bernoulli is joined by 11 other Carified racers ranging from Carla Veloso, a sequins-covered "LeMotor Prototype" from Rio, to an impressive interpretation of the Chevrolet Corvette C6.R played by Jeff Gordon. DTM-inspired carbon-bodied sedans mix it up with dirt-bred rally machines, while Lewis Hamilton gets in on the action with his own custom-designed McLaren MP4-12C lookalike.
It's obvious that Lasseter, Ward and CARS 2 character artist Jay Shuster (Garage: Honda Element) sweated the small stuff, despite lopping off a year from the normal four-year production timeline. "I grew up in Detroit," Shuster exclaims with what sounds like just a hint of embarrassment, "My dad worked in the design department at GM for 43 years, so I've always been around it."
But the level of detail isn't just limited to the character's exteriors. Pixar's sound designers were adamant about getting the noises just right, recording not just engine sounds, but the clicking of starters to include before the characters motored away. Getting proper emotions also proved to be difficult, with Bernoulli's character in need of a new front suspension that allowed him to gesture in the most stereotypical Italian fashion. "The normal pushrod design just wouldn't work," according to Shuster, so he developed a telescoping control arm that allowed Bernoulli to emote with the kind of passion and fervor you'd expect from an Italian racing champion.
It's exactly this level of OCD detail that makes Pixar's films stand apart, and the passion that Lasseter and his team evoke while speaking about the characters and environments in CARS 2 is enough to turn even the most jaded cinema-goer into a slobbering fanboy. We're officially one of them. And you'll see us in line on opening day doing our part to celebrate Pixar's 25th anniversary the best way we know how.