How Pixar Designed The New Star of Cars 3

Pixar reveals how Cars 3's new lead character Cruz Ramirez was designed, her role and importance in the film and to Lightning McQueen.

Pixar’s Cars 3 introduces the next generation of anthropomorphic vehicles, who all shake up the life of Lighting McQueen. Formerly the world’s number one race car, McQueen is beginning to struggle as the effects of ageing take their toll on his track performance.

With Cars 3 heavily focused on racing once again, as opposed to the espionage we had in Cars 2, it’s only a matter of time before the sleeker, slicker, faster race cars are snapping at McQueen’s heels, and he needs to up his game to stay in the race. It’s safe to say that McQueen has some tough life lessons to learn, and his greatest teacher comes in the form of Cruz Ramirez. Voiced by Cristela Alonzo, Cruz becomes McQueen’s trainer, though she harbors failed dreams of her own; she wanted to be a race car but wasn’t brave enough.

Screen Rant attended the Cars 3 press day at Sonoma Raceway, hosted by various team leads at Pixar who each held presentations to cover the development of the film, the history of Nascar, and the new story and characters. Cruz's character changed the most since work on Cars 3 first began. During the early days of writing, Cruz "wasn't really working" as a character in the story by the time Bob Peterson and Kiel Murray joined the writing team and she went from a crew person, a super fan, etc. until becoming the trainer who always wanted to be a racer. McQueen needed to hear that he’s old and Cruz is the character who can deliver that, while also bring heart to the movie with her own story.

Cruz Ramirez, Cars 3

Ramirez is young, smart, and bright, and that’s reflected in her design. She’s a next gen car, and Pixar based her design on an American muscle car proportion, but added a European sports car elegance to her shape. Production Designer Jay Shuster describes Ramirez as “A unique design challenge, because she’s not a race car, but she is a strong female character who has to meet the next generation of race cars on their own level.”

Ramirez was designed as a cross between the rounded aesthetic of McQueen and the new edgier next-gen models like the film's antagonist Jackson Storm, meaning she has just enough creases and hard edges to look modern, yet with more flowing, elegant shapes than both of the male vehicles. To that end, she also has a paisley shaped mouth and more bowed lids, which also helps to reflect her character’s personality.

In fact, the personality of the character plays a huge part in designing the vehicle. As Pixar reminded us, these are characters first and not just vehicles so they must be individually expressive and different to one another in order that an audience will connect with them and their story.

Cars 3 Lightning McQueen Teaser

Directing animator, Jude Brownbill, explained that a lot of the animation of Ramirez to make her act was based on Cristela Alonzo herself. The team watched her work, both her stand-up and acting roles, to get a sense of her comedic skills and timing, as well as her personality. Picking up on all of Alonzo’s little traits, they decided to have Ramirez move her body much more than McQueen or Storm does. Then, when she is feeling vulnerable or exposed, she remains still and relies on facial expressions and words to get her point across. This contrasting dynamic makes it easy for a young audience to recognize how the character is feeling at any given time.

Brownbill describes Alonzo as someone who's “smart, funny, and came from humble beginnings,” similar to Cruz Ramirez’s backstory so it was a perfect match. In addition, Ramirez always reacts with honesty and humor to situations in an effort to mask her own vulnerability. She is direct, honest, and blunt.

Of course, all of this hides the true nature of her character; Cruz gave up on her dream of becoming a race driver because she felt she was too different to the other cars. They were all bigger, stronger, more confident, and she reveals that her mom always used to tell her to “dream small or not at all.” In one particularly poignant scene, she questions Lightning McQueen on why he’s always so confident:

Ramirez: How did you know you could do it?

McQueen: I don’t know. I just never thought I couldn’t

Ramirez: I wish I knew what that felt like.

The animators revealed that the character of Ramirez wasn’t working at first, and she went through many iterations before her final design and personality was decided upon. Her character is needed to push the dejected McQueen to where he needs to be, forcing him to accept that his age means he is past his peak. However, that doesn’t mean his racing days are over.

When he blows up at Cruz, she then admits her dreams, telling him that she wanted to be a race driver “since forever” because of him. It’s only then that he realizes she’s a person. All of this; the depth of feeling, the poignant discussion, the dashed dreams, has to be reflected in the animation of the vehicles. This time, as well, Lightning McQueen needs to look older up against the new generation of Cars.

To do this, Jackson Storm is animated to look sharp, edgy, and sleek, while Cruz Ramirez is bright, shiny, and much more moveable than McQueen. In fact, she’s so shiny that animators often had to animate cars that were off-screen, which were reflected in her surface.

Pixar hopes that in Cars 3, Cruz Ramirez will be a breath of fresh air, and serve as an inspiration like real-life racing stars Danica Patrick and Julia Landauer, particularly to girls watching this bright young car making her way in such a male-dominated industry. Together, Cruz and Lightning will deliver on the theme of racing smarter, not just faster, and maybe young Cruz will get her chance on the track.

More: How Pixar Designed Lightning McQueen’s Ultimate Nemesis

Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Lightning McQueen (voice of Owen Wilson) is suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. To get back in the game, he will need the help of an eager young race technician, Cruz Ramirez (voice of Cristela Alonzo), with her own plan to win, plus inspiration from the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet and a few unexpected turns. Proving that #95 isn’t through yet will test the heart of a champion on Piston Cup Racing’s biggest stage!

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