How Pixar Designed Lightning McQueen’s Ultimate Nemesis

Cars 2 focused heavily on the fan-favorite comedic sidekick Mater and less on racing but for Cars 3, the story is going back to its racing roots and on the story of Lightning McQueen. Where in the first film, McQueen was the rookie, the new hotness and next generation of racer going head-to-head against veterans and getting some mentorship from Doc Hudson, Cars 3 sees number 95 undergo a role rehearsal.

The very first Cars 3 teaser trailer made it clear that this latest entry is the third act in Lightning's story and that he's the veteran now, racing against more advanced opponents. This meant Pixar had to put a lot of design work in creating the next generation of cars and most especially in designing the ultimate nemesis for McQueen: Jackson Storm, a rival "who can push McQueen to the brink of extinction."

This was the theme of one of the presentations at the Cars 3 press day at Sonoma Raceway several weeks ago hosted by Jude Brownbill (Directing Animator), Jay Shuster (Production Designer) & Michael Comet (Characters Supervisor). Storm is voiced by Armie Hammer and his casting influenced the design and animation quite a bit, but before Pixar could think about that they had to start with a blank sheet of paper.

"The goal is to use paint, shape, and graphic to create a character that contradicts McQueen in every possible way."

And what does a car in McQueen's league look like 20 years into the future? They wallpapered walls with all sorts of design sketches, hundreds of them, getting feedback from director Brian Fee all along the way. They even consulted with people like J Mays, former head of design at Ford. This is what they all agreed on:

  1. McQueen is round and flowing so Jackson Storm needs to be sharp and angled
  2. Aggressive shape, stealthy and deadly looking
  3. Super low profile, low to the ground

And it was important for the creatives to keep reminding themselves that these are "characters first, vehicles second." With that in mind, they had to be very aware of the eye to mouth read so Storm still looks like a character who can emote correctly. Other key factors are the original rules established by John Lasseter (director of Cars 1 & 2 and COO of Pixar) - first that the entire vehicle is the character, and second that there's a "truth to the materials."

They wanted to keep it true to Nascar as well so Jay Shuster (Production Designer) added more mass and muscle up front, and then brought design sketches to Daytona 500 in 2015 to get blessing from people in business like Ray Evernham (Former Crew Chief for Hendrick Motorsports) who was also at the Cars 3 event giving a presentation on the history of Nascar. He approved and helped push these designs forward.

Before this all goes digital on the computer, the designers must understand the shapes and what it actually looks like in physical 3D space so they use sculpts. Clay is very important in process of developing these characters. And then they take sculpt photos and put into photoshop, iterating on them.

Cars 3 - Jackson Storm

"Jackson Is A Weapon On Wheels"

On computers the teams can put Jackson Storm's design right against McQueen and adjust scale and proportions. The scale matters so all racers can be identified easily at a distance.

But when you think of modern design Nascar racing, there's too much going on with graphics with crazy ads all over the cars. In Cars 3, they keep that minimalistic. Where Lightning McQueen has the iconic lightning bolt, for Storm's graphics they wanted to be different and as bold possible. They took the international symbol for a hurricane and transformed it into the iconic "S" shape.

Michael Comet (Characters Supervisor) spoke about the next step in the assembly line, of making the digital models, perfecting the materials and textures, and then including all the internal bits (driving system, suspension, etc.) to make sure each character functions correctly for the animation team, in addition to lighting/shading. There's even an engine inside just in case there's an angle through the wheel well where part of it can be seen.

CARS 3 - Lightning McQueen in Cruz Ramirez's Training Simulator
Tech-savvy trainer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) is armed with cutting-edge tools—like a racing simulator—to help turn racers-in-training into champions. But Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) isn’t a fan of Cruz's high-tech techniques and decides instead to return to his roots—bringing his skeptical trainer along for the ride.

For Jackson Storm, a concern was how low his mouth and chin were to the ground given the shape and profile of the car. They had to cheat a bit to ensure the chin doesn't fall too low. On the textures of the car, you'd be surprised how comparable to real world cars Pixar's digital models are. They attended auto shows and checked out real tracks like Sonoma and built in their learnings in how they handle materials and shading - so they can do things like adjust how shiny the clear coat is separately from paint or choose how many metal flakes are in each color, etc.

All of this comes into play in the built-from-scratch design of Jackson Storm, and they apply decals and logos as one would on a model or real vehicle.

The Final Step: Animation

Pixar Directing Animator Jude Brownbill explains how they bring Cars 3's characters to life

The animation department has to work closely with the story department to ensure that the characters are "acting" as intended and delivering the appropriate emotion and personality, while also obeying the physics of the world and the "truth to materials" mantra. If everything works perfectly, Jude Brownbill explains that no one questions that there's a car talking to you.

For Jackson Storm’s mouth animation, they stuck to the sharp angles and flat edges aesthetic. Because of his modern next-gen design, he animates differently as well with stiffer suspension and less of a lean on turns. Brownbill:

"In terms of his personality, Storm as a character is very overconfident, arrogant. We want him to intimidate McQueen. He only really cares about himself and winning. He doesn't have much regard for the history of the sport or even his opponents."

This is where Armie Hammer's voice comes in and Brownbill's team pushed on those character traits (confidence, arrogance, and egotism) to bring Jackson Storm to life. They conducted animation tests early on using clips of Armie Hammer and they found it worked best when not moving Storm's body very much. Brownbill explains that this is commonly the case for high-status characters, that they don't need to move as much.

"But what we did notice is that Armie Hammer tends to over-enunciate his lines so when we over-articulated Storm's mouth we contrasted that over-articulated mouth with the stillness of his body, it really added to the feeling that we wanted to create."

They also played with Jackson Storm's eye movement, contrasting it with the mouth movement. His eyelids would tell a very different story from his mouth, making the audience (and McQueen) question what Storm is really saying.

More: Watch The New Cars 3 Trailer!

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!

Key Release Dates
  • Cars 3 (2017) release date: Jun 16, 2017
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