A World Of Research Aids “Cars 2” Production Design
As a production designer on Pixar’s animated feature “Cars 2,” Harley Jessup acquired the challenge of reviving the look of well-established characters and placing them in a multitude of global settings. Along with his team, he traveled the world gathering detailed information that would dictate the look of each destination, along with new car models and millions of car “extras.” Jessup and his team highlighted the smallest details on every background car, building interior and city streets, elements he excitedly predicts will be enhanced by 3-D screenings. 411 Publishing caught up with Jessup as concluded his last day on “Cars 2.”
LA 411: Stepping into the role of production designer on the second installment of an animated feature, what are some of the key concerns regarding designing for this film and remaining true to the original look?
Harley Jessup: It is a delicate transition. The original “Cars” came out in 2006. We wanted to be true to the original movie, however through technological advancements, we were able to do more fully realized details that were very difficult five years ago. The original designs are just beautiful, so it was an honor to get to use them in “Cars 2.”
411: What would be some of the ways the technology actually affected the characters themselves?
HJ: Because of those advancements in technology we were able to created more individual models. They weren’t necessarily derived from a single model. The cars in the background are as high a quality as the cars in the foreground. They have fully rendered headlights and taillights and things that were very difficult in the past especially on the scale that we were using: thousands of cars in the grandstands. The technology and the Pixar team made that possible.
411: What are some of the challenges in capturing the flare of an international style and incorporating these designs into the Car characters?
HJ: One of the things we tried to do in capturing what we called the streetscapes for each country was to incorporate classic cars that everyone loves. For instance, in Italy it’s the gorgeous sports cars from earlier periods, the Fiat 500 and the Alfa Romeos, then blending those styles into the contemporary Car models. It’s the charm and romanticism of the images from films of the 50s and 60s blended with the contemporary world.
411: Something that really interests me is the amount of research and travel you undertook in developing the film’s designs. Did you travel to every location?
HJ: We went to every country that is featured in the film except the North Pacific oil platform area; we had to rely on our research for that. We began in London then Paris, through Germany and Switzerland to a tour in Italy where we visited a Fiat factory. In Germany we went to the Porsche museum. We had major assignment stops all the way along. We went to the Monaco Grand Prix to watch that race. It was a really amazing, once-in-a-lifetime experience, I still can’t believe I got to do that! Then Sharon Calahan, the lighting director, and Bert Barry, the shading art director, and I made a quick trip to Tokyo to record the race route and specific iconic landmarks that we wanted to include in our Cars version of Tokyo. John Lasseter insists on all Pixar films that the research be very thorough. We are basing our interpretation of a city or any character on something authentic. It winds up being a very important part of getting a believable world on the screen. That authentic quality makes it so that the audience can just relax and be enveloped by this world we created and not wonder “well, that doesn’t seem right.”
411: When you go to a location, what are some of the specific things that you are actually looking for?
HJ: A big part of it is capturing the feeling of being there. It’s hard to describe, but, noticing how the smell of London might differ from the smell of Portofino, what the moss looks like between cobblestones in Paris. The sounds and atmosphere and the way the people act, we’re soaking that in. It’s stuff that you just can’t get from internet research and going to the library. We do a survey of street lights and street benches and phone booths, things that are part of the texture of a city, and part of what makes it distinctive. We look at how the color works: the Japanese approach to color in their cities is much different than in London or Paris. We’re trying to absorb that and bring that home so we can apply it to our Cars version.
411: It seems like a very complex task to try to maintain the various palettes and styles that have been chosen for the movie and incorporating the distinctive qualities of the real space. How do you mesh the flavor of the real world with the animated version?
HJ: I’ll work on rough color studies of what our version of that city might be. I was doing color script images for Tokyo and London, and trying to capture what makes those cities unique. Those thumbnail sketches get put into the mix along with the photo references. We’ll also include a lot of historical photo references because sometimes some of the most charming aspects of a city no longer exist, but we have the power to weave those back into our version of the city.
411: During the course of working on a storyline, do you develop specific palletes for scenes to compliment the action of what’s happening with the characters?
HJ: Yes. I’m always trying to establish a set that is full of interesting lighting possibilities. I work very closely with our lighting director of photography Sharon Calahan as we’re assigning colors to the sets. It’s always with an eye as to how those sets are going to react under lighting. Sharon and I will watch a lot of live action movies done by great cinematographers together, and we’ll exchange ideas. I’ll show her the first sketches of a set we’re developing so we can get the most out of it as far as mood and lighting to ensure sculpturally that the set will take light beautifully. We’re trying to keep on the same wavelength and I’ve worked with her twice now and she’s just brilliant. Sharon painted over 200 gorgeous master-lighting studies that show her lighting plan for “Cars 2.”
411: Talking about lighting, I’m curious how something like the colors in a neon sign becomes so vibrant and realistic in an animated project.
HJ: Well, there are two stages involved. First, we’ll assign colors and textures to each character and each setting, and then that basic setup can be put under any number of different kinds of lighting situations. We knew we wanted to replicate the richly colored look of the Ginza area of Tokyo at night with the wet street. The fact that the cars are gorgeously reflective, all of the signs and lights that we are seeing on the buildings get reflected into the cars and it winds up being a very pleasing affect. Sharon’s always finding the essence of what needs to be reflected on the shiny surfaces. The audience doesn’t quite realize that they are seeing the surrounding world reflected in McQueen as he is rolling along on the street. In the street itself you are seeing a blurry, wet asphalt version of the characters reflected boldly. It’s just like in real life where people aren’t necessarily conscious of why it looks so beautiful when they are standing on a wet street at night but the fact is all those colored lights are reflected everywhere they look. It’s very pretty.
411: Now it makes a lot of sense, that it really is all of those details that help you perceive something.
HJ: Yes, that is really the case. I was talking with a landscape architect and he said that part of his job was to understand what makes an outdoor space really pleasant and inviting for people. He said that people don’t realize the sculptural contribution a tree is making. The shadows cast by the leaves make a very bold pattern and it is very pleasing to humans and we just want to be in that environment. That’s part of what the production designer needs to do. How can we create this mood, and how can we create a setting that is very sculptural and inviting to the audience. We are working at that all the time
411: As you are coming up with different ideas and contributions for the design elements of the film, how do you work with and share those ideas with the various departments? Are there specific programs that you build a model in, and then pass it along?
HJ: Well, you are correct, the art department needs to be sharing and trading information between all the different departments. I think we have the most intense job that way. At the beginning we are gathering references and doing concept drawings and trading them with the story department. Once the director chooses the way to go, we’ll start building sketch-up models. It’s a kind of quick and dirty way that the folks in the art department that aren’t technical directors can ensure the volumes of the space are right, that there is enough room for the characters to perform the action required in the script. For instance, in “Cars 2” we have a scene inside a Monte Carlo-style casino. The cars need a lot of room to move in, it’s a very different problem that designing a space for humans. It also needs to relate to spaces that the audience has seen, so we took advantage of the fact that European casinos and palaces are built on a very grand scale. The room itself is 80 feet tall, and it all winds up feeling natural. We are able to work those bold spatial ideas in the sketch up model early on. Often times we’ll get a note “We need to extend this area of the room or shorten this or make the ceiling taller.” In the 20 and 30s sketch-up artists would make a cardboard and plaster model that the director could take a viewfinder through. Now we can do that in the computer very simply, it is a great tool where the director can move the camera and accurately record what the whole scene will look like. And then we’ll take all that information back and design the final set.
411: In “Ratatouille”, you mentioned one of your favorite scenes was Remy making it to the roof of the building and realizing he was in Paris. That scene pulled all the elements together for you. Is there a scene in “Cars 2” that gives you the same feeling?
HJ: There are several sequences that give me chills. One I really like and it came about kind of late in the processes is at Porta Corsa. We designed, very completely, the whole little town and the race course through it. We didn’t know where we were going to be shooting, and so we put most of our design emphasize around the finish line area and the pit area where a lot of action takes place. I’m really proud and excited – when John saw the Porto Corsa set, he just kept finding new places where he wanted to shoot. He said “Oh, we’ve got to feature the set.” So there’s this whole sort of television intro into that race that gives me chills when I see it, and the way they did the camera work, the lighting, the models, the way the shading turned out , the matte painting work, it just all came together. There are so many scenes and it keeps changing, but I love the way that came out.