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Director Brian Fee and Producer Kevin Reher: The Cars 3 Interview

Thank you to Disney and Pixar for hosting me during the Cars 3 Event. All interview photos courtesy of Lousie Bishop/

One of my favorite parts of any animated feature is learning about the process it takes to get from the literal drawing board onto the big screen. That’s why it was so much fun to talk with Director Brian Fee and Producer Kevin Reher about making Cars 3!

How did they make the background animations so realistic?

Brian:  We have a new renderer. I don’t know if that means anything to you but we can do things that we couldn’t do on the first film. We can go wholeheartedly into a sense of realism, we try not to say photo realism because I think photo realism-that would actually be kind of boring. We almost want a hyper realism. We want to be able to control how you feel but we want you to feel like you can smell the air. I remember sitting with the production designer and that was one of the main things I kept saying because he’d be like, “How about this?” I want to make sure you can smell the air. I mean we can’t smell anything, but make me think I can. So we went for a lot of atmosphere. You’ll see a lot of fog and things that are at a distance, are so faded- just like the atmosphere between you and the thing that’s miles away. We just kind of dove into those things. And we can now, because we can do these things. And our movie, being a Cars film, more than maybe other Pixar movies, lends itself to that. You kind of have to be careful with other movies, because they’re cartoon characters, and we have talking cars. I don’t know if you can get any more cartoon character than that, but we want them to look real, we want the car to look like it’s four thousand pounds. Because everyone sees cars every day. Everybody knows in your brain, you know there’s reflections on cars. You don’t necessarily look at these things when you’re on the road but you expect to see it, and we wanted to just lean into what we can take advantage of, and really go for it.
Kevin: We sent the two production designers on a really wintery week, in a convertible Camaro, because they insisted on a convertible-I’m like, “Hey you’re going to freeze your a**es off!”-all the way from Daytona up through the Carolinas. So that it wasn’t just internet research. And then we also went to two different-I don’t want to say abandoned tracks-but two tracks that are no longer operable, one which was Occoneechee, which was legendary at the beginnings of stock car, and then Wilkesboro, which was very influential in terms of the grass. The caretaker, we got there and he said, “I’ve mowed the track for you.”  There was so much grass!

©2017 Disney•Pixar

Do they have to pull back from making things look too realistic?

Kevin: The animators get a little jumpy. They only have eyes and mouths to animate, in terms of getting an emotion across. And so sometimes they get a little bouncy on the suspension…
Brian: Well yeah we did, because we knew how this was going to look when it was all done, we did go back in at times if things initially had been over animated, which was not uncommon. The animators were just coming off of a show where they were doing fish, very expressive fish. Or emotions that are at their heart extremely cartoony characters. And with everybody I think coming onto this show, there’s a learning curve to the tone of this movie
Kevin: Sort of the rules of Cars animation.
Brian: And so knowing that these things are going to look real, we need to tone down certain things because you can’t have [cars]  jumping around and doing this…
Kevin: They are steel, you know, so you have to remember that they’re steel and they’re not rubbery character that can do all that kind of movement.
Brian: And less was always more. For me it’s whenever you don’t see a character’s face, because as soon as you see a character’s face you kind of know, oh, these are characters. They are characters and that’s what I want you to recognize the most. But it happened to get these shots every now and then where the camera is behind the characters and you don’t see their eyes and you don’t see their mouth. And then we can do things with the camera that we wouldn’t do if we were on their face, we can lower it. There’s a language to the film to these characters, if you lower the camera too much, if you lower the camera on their face, their mouth gets really long and their eyes disappear, because the hood starts coming up and the eyes start coming down. And then their mouth is really far away from that. There are all these things that we start to lose appeal on. So we have rules that we set up for ourselves when we’re shooting the front of them, but from behind, we’ll lower that camera and we’ll get those shots that you kind of feel are more like car commercial shots or just like really cool automotive language of a cool car movie. So I think that also helps the certain shots feel more real because certain things just kind of start to line up.
Kevin: We did back off on some of the lighting because it. We have a new renderer which is so powerful that at one point like this guy had four eyes, because there’s eyes on his hood and eyes in his windshield and we had to be like okay dial it back a little bit.
Brian: Yeah the reflections that we get, on the first Cars film everything had to be-
Kevin: Hand-done-
Brian: -faked, so in order to get a reflection on the side of a car, you had to basically project what should be over there, let’s cast that onto the car. And now we just now we can just have it actually a real reflection that’s generated, which means we now have to animate the reflection, so there’s got to be characters, you’ll never see them upstream but we expect characters are moving over there. We have to build a set, we wouldn’t have built any set that you can’t see because that would be a waste of time, however it’s going to be reflected into the character, so we have to extend beyond what you’ll see. But then we have to pull back on our reflections because they can be so busy that you’re just staring at reflections and you’re not staring at their eyes. You’re not staring at their mouth. You’re not seeing them as characters, and so if anyone is ever lost in staring at their reflections, then I worry we’ve lost them because we’re trying to tell a story.

What do they want families to take away from the film?

Brian: You know, I originally came at this film-and for me it still is the most important part for me personally-as a parent. My mother passed away, my father is getting older and I looked at McQueen’s and Doc’s relationship as a father and son relationship. You could see it as a mentor/mentee, however people plug into it in their own personal lives. And I have that moment- middle of my life my mom’s passing away and you kind of feel that safety net that you’ve always had. That moment where you get just a little scared that everything you’ve ever known is kind of dropping. And then but I have two daughters and I realized I’m their safety net, like they look up to me. I’m playing that role for them and it’s kind of- it kind of erased the fear I had of losing my parents. Not that I want to see them go, but it gave me new strength that a sense of purpose in life. So to me I look at McQueen on that same transition and that there’s something-you may think you’re losing something, but the best thing is still in front of you- has yet to come. I also tell the story, you try to do an art lesson. I went to art school and have an illustration degree and my daughter has been drawing these little sketches with her crayons and stuff like that, but they don’t have very-their patience is short, to say the least. And they would look at professional illustrations in books and stuff and I didn’t want them-I wanted to demystify that. I wanted them to [know] that’s just a person, a person just did that, the only difference between those and their little doodles is that they took longer at it. They went to school and learned how to do it and they spent more time on it. So I set upone of their American Girl dolls and I was going to paint it, I’m going to paint this girl’s portrait and I want you to see all that goes into it and it takes a while, you’ve got to put some time in. And, you know, I don’t know after about twenty minutes, they’re gone. And I was going to stick it out, I’m going to stick it out, and I’m going to show them that a little perseverance and a little time… So I spent hours on a Saturday on that. Spent hours doing this, I didn’t get quite done but I got almost done. And I showed them and they just went, “Yeah that’s cool. Yeah.” And I had this moment where I just thought, “Oh, if I was going to paint something on a Saturday afternoon I didn’t think it would be an American Girl doll.” There’s a lot of things I could do, I mean I don’t have a lot of personal time anymore. And I kind of walked away and that was a failure it didn’t work out the way I wanted it to, but a week later, I come in on my older daughter Lucia. I go in her room-and she’s eleven now, so this would have been several years ago-and she had these papers on the floor and they were her stuffed animals and she had set them up-sorry I can’t tell the story without getting emotional-she set them up and she was drawing their portrait and it was-sorry, pull it together… And in that moment, I felt like that might just have been one of the most important paintings I’d ever done. Well, more important than anything I would have done for myself. And so that was the kind of thing I was trying to communicate, I wanted McQueen to feel that when he spends most of the film trying to do service to his own career, the thing that he thinks he’s most passionate about, and terrified of losing actually. Actually terrified of losing the one thing that brings him the most joy. And then I wanted him to see that helping someone else do it is actually not only just as powerful but can be more powerful.
Kevin: For me it was the Doc Hudson McQueen relationship. And my dad died and I was the car kid, my brother was the sports kid. And he never got to see even Cars 1, and so the whole McQueen Doc stuff just slays me.

How did they bring Doc Hudson back to Cars 3 with the passing of Paul Newman?

Kevin: Well the Newman Foundation was very generous with us and we told them- we let them know that this wasn’t just a marketing trick, that this was really integral to the story, and we had all these recordings of open mic kind of thing that John had recording when he was doing Cars 1. And so we had a transcript of all this and tried to fashion the story, what was the story, what would serve the story, what line could help us serve the story. And it’s pretty emotional when you hear it. And then we used the old Doc line, “You think I quit? They quit on me,” which mirrored what had happened to McQueen.
Brian: Yeah we originally tried a sound-alike because you kind of want to write whatever you want to write, right? It just wasn’t working. It just was no magic. And then we decided all right, we have to find the lines, cross our fingers that we’ve got the right lines to help us tell the story. And so it was just spending a lot of time and finding when we can give Doc something to say.
Kevin: We also did the same thing with Tom Magliozzi with Click and Clack. And we actually went back to the producer of-strangely randomly his producer lives in Berkeley. And so he helped us go back to the original Car Talk tapes and…
Brian: Don’t drive like my brother…
Kevin: …actually came from those Click and Clack tapes that we were allowed to use.

What was the team like who brought Cars 3 to the big screen?

Kevin: We just have an amazing group of people.I mean when Story is small, Art is small, Editorial is small, but then the whole Animation and TD [Technical Director] world-there are huge numbers. I mean, our crew got to be over two hundred fifty people, and so that sort of enterprise that they can make the movie but it’s up to him what story are we telling. And we knew we had a terrific writer who set us up very well with structure. So we knew something was going to happen in all these things. We didn’t know what they were going to say or when they were going to say it, but we knew and because the team could…just tell us what you want, we’ll build it, even in mud, which was hard.
Brian: And we were able to rely on the fact that they’re so good, the team is so good that we continued to change things throughout the process. So whenever the story is locked, and they’re going to now make that part of the story, you’re going to shoot it and you’re going to start animating it, we would continue to change, evolve. Because we’d get input from that group, they’re experts. And so we’d just kind of keep an open mind every step of the process even in recording actors. Any opportunity to get a sense of improvisation in the film, which the acting studio is the only place you can do that in animation, to get lines off the cuff. I remember workshopping stuff with Owen where he would, “I don’t know if he’d really say it like that, do you think he’d say it like that?” And it seemed like and we’d talk and we’d talk about the purpose of the scene. And like, “Okay let me try something, mind if I try something?” And whenever an actor says, “Can I try something?” the answer is always yes, it may not work, or it may just be the best thing. And those surprises, when stuff got better than I would have ever expected… So we try to look for those opportunities from everybody on the crew.
Kevin: We joke about that the movies never get finished, they just come out. And a good example of this is our writer Mike Rich is such a deep thinker and a wonderful super… He did Secretariat. He did The Rookie. Miracle. So he was the king of the sports comeback story, so I called him about long lead press and are you up to doing it and he said, sure, and he said, can I see the reel, so we sent him a copy of the reel…
Brian: He’d been off the movie for a year. It had a few changes.
Kevin: So the whole mentorship and the flip of Cruz and everything was different and he said, “I have a note.” and I’m like oh no…
Brian: This is the point where it’s probably a little too…
Kevin: The train has left the station. And so I said, “What’s the note?” That wonderful moment at the end of the race, where Cruz looks at McQueen and McQueen looks at Cruz. And there’s no dialogue, it’s just acting, that sort of recognition of thank you for what you did, thank you for what you achieved, that was his note. And so we went back into Animation and said, “We’ve got another shot.” Because then the craziness starts with Sterling, and all the other stuff, so it was exactly the right moment that we needed in the movie and he added it.

© 2017 Disney•Pixar

What was the casting process like?

Brian:  After we have a pretty good idea of the character, we know what we’re looking for, we just we start casting.
Kevin: [ Natalie and I-I got two credits on this one, I love that-so Natalie Lyon and I worked together and so we needed a really smart actress that-you know, one of the things about the side characters also is you have to get it right away. So when Kerry Washington opens her mouth as Natalie Certain, you have to get that she’s smart, accomplished, knows what she’s talking about and no bulls**t. And you have to get that because you don’t have the screen time to do a backstory for her or how she got there and all kinds of things. And Armie Hammer, who is the nicest man in the world, could channel his inner jerk and he’s so terrific at being sarcastic and everything else. And yet if you talk to him in person, besides being very handsome, he’s super charming and really nice. And Nathan Fillion. They immediately got what that character was going to be based on a character description that we were given. We usually come up with probably three actors that we like, you have to kind of be okay with Plan B or Plan C and then we go to John Lasseter, who still approves all casting, and we take a picture of the character, who he’s going to be talking to. So Jackson Storm talking to McQueen and we do kind of nonsensical theater. And we have lines from the Lone Ranger or lines from Social Network talking to McQueen, talking to Owen and see how it’s going to play off so that you don’t end up with voices that are too similar.
Brian: And part of it is there is the aspect of you just want the quality of the voice to match the image. Wouldn’t Jackson have a strong voice. Deeper. You couldn’t have a thin voice. We wanted him to be a powerful car, so there needed to be broadness to his vocal range. Other times, I think for Fritter we only put one voice in the crowd, wasn’t Lea the only one we did?
Kevin: We had one other one but Lea. I’m a big Lea fan I have all of her albums.
Brian: We could not find the clips from her for whatever reason because we were-
Kevin: We couldn’t have obscenities. It’s really funny when you see animation swearing but we just…
Brian: We were so excited about her, and then we pulled the clips and we would listen to it from Orange Is the New Black and then put her on and it just wasn’t… It wasn’t who Fritter needed to be. But she’s actually, when you think about taking her visual off and you just listen to the voice, which is another thing we do, we don’t try to watch their facial acting. A lot of actors get a lot of it out of their being and their facial expressions. We’re looking for the actors that do it with just their voice, or at least it jumps out. And we weren’t, for whatever reasons. She’s really mild, her vocal performance in Orange Is the New Black, is milder than you would think when you take her face and her presence out of it, so they weren’t going to work and we knew if we put this in front of John, he was going to say no.
Kevin: But some of her standup so we pulled up some of her standup
Brian: Her standup is great, so she did her own audition, because we didn’t want to let it go. We wanted her to be in the movie. So we sent her some script pages, she read the script pages at home in her iPhone and did her own audition and so that’s what we used
Kevin: And she’s actually on the soundtrack during Riding on the Freeway of Love with horns and backup singers because she’s a singer. And then again Easter eggs and little eggs, she is Boo in Orange is the New Black, so her first moment is when she goes, “Boo!” And then when she says, “You’re going to feel the wrath of the Belleville Unified School District.” She actually went to Belleville High school and even then we get crazy like even license plates. Like the license plate on Natalie Certain is Kerry Washington’s birthday and New York where she was born and we have production babies, and we have Kerry Washington’s son and Armie Hammer’s son in the production babies at the end.
Brian: And Cristela actually informed how we wrote that character… When we cast Cruz, we spent a lot of time. Cruz might have been the hardest character. Because we wanted to get it right, we spent a lot of time on her for casting too. But Cristela had that voice, you know, it’s kind of like you line up a bunch of people in a room that are going to audition and they’re all wearing gray sweaters, Cristela was the one who’s voice was like the bright red sweater. And we went to her standup act, and we were already in love with her humor and her liveliness and her-she’s just got this infectious laugh, and she just she starts talking and you want to hang out with her. And there’s a part in her comedy act where she stops telling jokes and she gets really serious and she talks about her mother, very touching stuff for her.
Kevin: Who passed away-
Brian: And there’s such a soul in her voice when she stops telling jokes, and that’s when we knew, “Oh this is…she’s got to be the right one.” And then we ended up rewriting the character because Cristela had a story about growing up wanting to be a comedian in a border town in Texas and her mother told her, “We don’t do that, we clean houses.” And she was trying to protect her, but just the fact that she had to break through that barrier, that actually informed…after we cast her we went back and, because we’re always tweaking and evolving characters as much as we can, and we rewrote Cruz’s backstory with that in mind.
Kevin: We also have to make sure that the voice, you’re sending ostensibly a young Latina on a road trip with McQueen…we never got any notes like, “Are they dating? Are they in love?” We never got any of that, because you really got that they were mentor/mentee or that they were going on this journey together, but it wasn’t about love or romance or any of that stuff.

© 2017 Disney•Pixar

There’s plenty of Cars 3 Event Coverage to catch up on. Cars 3 is in theaters now!

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!

As The Bunny Hops®