This Guy’s Job Is To Design The ‘Cars 3’ Characters From Scratch
— Updated on 30 July 2021

This Guy’s Job Is To Design The ‘Cars 3’ Characters From Scratch

— Updated on 30 July 2021
John McMahon
John McMahon

Cars 3 is unlike anything from the franchise previously. It will flip everything you ever expected from a Pixar animation feature squarely on its head.

This particular new Cars film has been fortunate enough to be rendered with an incredibly realistic new software that takes the animation quality beyond the stratosphere. Tech talk aside, the story itself is delving into the thematic narrative of the uncharted influence technology now has on the racing world.

McQueen is told that he’s reached the twilight of his racing years, as these ‘next generation’ racers prove themselves as formidable competitors for the Piston Cup. After a sharp reality check, McQueen must decide if he’ll be pushed out or fight back in a valiant effort to show that these hot-shot racers with all their bells and whistles haven’t quite won it all just yet.

To extrapolate exactly how this new technology and this revitalised story angle intersect in the design process, we sat down with chief Production Designer Jay Shuster.

Jay is the mastermind behind your Cars characters. Having been with the franchise from its beginning, Jay’s ideas and thoughts began as the roughest blueprints for the look of these characters, which have since materialised into the incredible cars you see on screen today.

We chatted to Jay at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, California on the opening day of Cars 3, which is released in Australian cinemas this Thursday, June 22nd.

Great to chat to you mate, tell us, what’s your daily drive? Are we going to see any of your cars here today [At the Pixar Motorama Car Show]?

Well I designed Storm [laughs as he refers to the life-size model of Jackson Storm parked in the lobby just below us], so he’s here. My personal drive is a 2016 Ford F150 pickup truck. It’s a king cab, the biggest car I’ve ever owned, I never saw myself as a truck owner honestly but I bought a one of those classic aluminium trailers, and I needed something to pull it with. So I went out and bought this truck.

What particular design difficulties did you encounter with the next generation cars? I mean this whole sphere of next gen cars is quite new for this film. I notice you’ve reshaped McQueen’s body slightly to match them as well.

Yeah of course. The marching order that Brian Fee [Cars 3 Director] gave me early in the design of the next generation racers was basically to contradict everything that McQueen’s style stood for. This wasn’t easy, I’ve been on this project for the past 5 years, and the design of Storm happened over the course of 3 years. As I’m designing, the story is evolving and they’re throwing new material to me constantly, so I’m kind of shifting and manoeuvring as I’m designing. Honestly I felt like the next generation were really straight forward and it made designing them a lot easier than it probably should have been. I basically just designed the opposite of what McQueen is. He’s round and flowing, so we just had to make Storm as evil, sharp and weapon-like as possible.

You’ve got a lot of weight on your shoulders. It’s your job to make these cars which are just ideas into tangible representations. Looking back 11 years since the first Cars film was released, did you realise the pressure and responsibility you had to create this universe?

My focus is to make a character that looks as best as it can on screen. I grew up Detroit, my dad was a car designer for 43 years at GM. I’ve been drawing cars from a really early age, so I also understood how to make these designs work in the real world. I think the pressure is to design a car that lived up to the truth in material that John Lasseter really pushes in these films, make it a car that fans of racing, people who admire car design, will be drawn to on screen as well as perhaps a physical state [he points to Storm parked below us].

How did you find matching the car designs with the characters and their personalities? Was there a particular car that was more enjoyable for you to match, or one that was more difficult?

I thought the design of the ‘Legends’ were the most enjoyable. I really liked emulating their characters in their shapes. River Scott for example represents a traditional racer, Wendell Scott, from the 1930’s and 40’s. You can imagine back in that day an African American man racing. He received no funding, he had very little resources to build a car, so it was all him. You can see in the photos of his car, he’s banging on this thing with a hammer, just getting those fenders where he wants them, cutting them out, and getting dirty making his car faster. I really enjoyed emoting that character into his design specifically. I thought the design of Smokey was really special because it’s a revisiting of Doc Hudson’s brother-like character. The fender shapes and the elegance in the line particularly.

Let’s talk about the new tech behind this film, the Renderman software absolutely blew me away. The landscape shots in particular (aside from the talking cars) looked real, hyperreal. Can you tell us about how the new technology has effected the way you designed the cars?

I remember when Renderman got its upgrade, John Lasseter [Pixar’s Creative Chief] came in and was like “This rendering machine we got now is gonna pump out the most beautiful metal flake and glass refracted light.” Even in the design of the environments, like the Rusteze Racing Centre and its glass arena design John was like “I want so much glass in that place, I want the light coming through it to be spread everywhere.” He was super excited about us just exploiting content to show off this render and these characters. I think specifically in Storm’s design, we had this snake-skin pattern in his ‘S’ graphic inside a bigger ‘S’ graphic that gives it this shimmering effect. The deep metal flake that we were able to achieve really does grab my attention when I see it on screen.

Surreal to look down and see your own car actually sitting there? The average viewer doesn’t realise that you guys are building complete cars, I myself never appreciated it either. It’s not just a shell, it’s a complete car. Will that end up in your garage?

It’s remote control. If you take the limiter off it, you can go up to 20 miles an hour [laughs]. I was hoping to steel the remote control later today.

I was looking for a door handle, I was wondering it some could actually get in it and drive it away.

We’re such gear heads here, from the top down, everyone he [John] hired for that first film he hired because they’re car guys and for our knowledge of car culture. He ended up with a bunch of really nerdy gear heads. Just to see that full-size model down there is incredible.

What’s your favourite feature on that car? Or perhaps your favourite feature that never quite made it to the end-product?

He [Storm] ended up looking so good, I hate to brag a little bit. I knew that we were going to see his rear-end the most throughout the film, because he’s going to be beating every other car. I really spent some time on designing a really mean, angry rear-end that you see driving off into the distance.

What would you say is the hardest part of capturing the emotion of these cars in the design process? Like you said the rear-end is going to be in the film for the majority of the shots, so do you give that the most personality?

At first the eyes and mouth are the stand out on the car for emotions, when characters have lines in the film, their front profile is almost always showing. I think the hardest part is clearing out the face so the eye to mouth ratio is as open as possible. We don’t want to crowd it with too many graphics, too many over-the-top headlight shapes. In Storm’s case I suggested these fang-like, sharp, vertical headlights that really help free space around his mouth area. Graphically speaking we really wanted to supress his visuals and make them very minimal and alien. On the background racers we don’t care so much about their emotions, so we can go to town on their graphics, with big contrasty colours.

Did I spot real headlights on McQueen in the forest sequence? They used to be stickers right, a joke from the first film?

That’s the only carry over from Cars 2. He finally got headlights in Cars 2, so we justified it by saying that he wanted to keep them. In fact, based on that drive they take out to the forest, there may be some other things in early renditions of the script that may have called for light, but that’s the only surviving thing from Cars 2.

Finally, if the situation called for it, do you think the characters in Cars would take out car insurance or life insurance?

[Laughs] And with what company? I think in their world it would be life insurance, there are no humans in the world, and to say it was car insurance would be too easy for us.

Cars 3 opens in Australian cinemas this Thursday, June 22nd.

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John McMahon
John McMahon is a founding member of the Boss Hunting team who honed his craft by managing content across website and social. Now, he's the publication's General Manager and specialises in bringing brands to life on the platform.


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