In September of 2015 I accepted a position at Pixar as a Graphic Artist, so Monica and I relocated to the Bay Area. At the time I didn't know what project I would be working on, but when I arrived at the studio I was excited to join the team working on Cars 3.
I was a fan of the Cars movies and a huge fan of Cars Land in Disneyland. It would be the first sequel I had ever worked on, and I was excited by the unique challenges that sequels offer. Also after coming off of Kubo, I was excited by the idea of working on such a different movie. It just seemed like fun. Especially fun for a graphic artist, as the Cars world is filled with graphic art. The Cars 3 art department was filled with talented artists, art directors and production designers. It all promised to be a great experience.
One of the first assignments I got on the new film was working on all of the cars that would be racing Lightning Mcqueen. Early in the film there is a race montage where we visit many race tracks back to back, and each race is filled with around 20 racers. With any new assignment I begin with research, which, for this project consisted of digging into the racers that existed within the Cars universe. Up to this point the franchise consisted of two feature films, multiple shorts, and a huge amount of toys that were all beloved by fans. Digging through the artwork from the first film was a great way to get a crash course in the Cars world. Craig Foster designed all of the racers in the original film, and having him as the graphic art director was an invaluable way to connect to the art that had been created in the past.
At the same time, I researched the world of present day Nascar design. It quickly became clear that a lot had changed in the world of car design since the first Cars film came out in 2006. The cars had become much more complex in their design and there seemed to be no limit to what they could look like. As the characters in the first film reflected Nascar at the time that movie was released, I knew that our characters would need to reflect Nascar of 2017.
In general terms, this meant adding complexity and detail to the designs of the racers while retaining the iconic brands that had been with the characters since the beginning. I dove in and set up files with top and side views of each car from the first film, and reimagined each brand, about three options per car, for all 30 plus cars. I used the colors and shapes of the original designs as a starting point. Ultimately I wanted the fans of our films to recognize the characters they know and love and be excited by their updated look.
Early on, we also came up with the idea to supplement the lineup of racers with some new cars and new sponsors that may have joined the pack since the first film. Craig and I, joined by production designers Bob Pauley and Jay Shuster, started by brainstorming a bunch of possible sponsor names. We thought it might be an opportunity to create brands that would have come into being more recently, so we focused on social media and internet related companies.
After the designs were finalized in 2D form, it was time to wrap them around the three-dimensional cars. This was a new challenge for me. The technology involved with computer animated films changes quickly, and there was a new system in place at Pixar that would allow me to send my designs into the film and render them onto a model of a car and see the results almost immediately. This ability to see how the designs wrapped each surface was invaluable to the design process. I could nudge something, change a color, redeliver the file and see the results on the character in real time.
We referred to this first batch of racers as the "Old Gen" because our story called for a new group of racers which the script referred to as "Next Gen." We devised a plan to use some of the Old Gen sponsors on the Next Gen racers which reinforced the idea that the racers were being replaced by newer, younger models. This provided us the exciting opportunity to update the brands one more time in a newer, more futuristic way. A person is able to track the three different versions of the sponsors: 2006 Cars 1 version, 2017 Cars 3 Old Gen, and 2017 Cars 3 Next Gen. Some of the design principles we set for this project were inspired by the car model designs. The Old Gens are rounder and brighter and thus friendlier looking, while the Next Gens have sharper angles and darker colors to reflect their place in the story. We also simplified the designs overall, but found opportunities to use complex, geometric patterns within them.
In the midst of our months-long work on the racers, we also needed to design the graphics for Jackson Storm. Craig was busy working on the many versions of Lightning McQueen that show up in the film, so I was tasked with the challenge of taking on Storm. Jay had already done a lot of work on the character design, but up to that point Storm was a solid grey color and his body was completely blank.
I wrote a blurb about the design of Storm's graphics for the Art of Cars 3 book, which captures the process well:
Jackson Storm, as the film’s antagonist, is in many ways the opposite of Lightning McQueen. We wanted the graphics to emphasize the difference between these two characters, as this difference is a theme throughout the film. Where McQueen’s bright red and warm yellow accents are a reflection of his personality, the dark grey and cool blue accents on Storm reflect the darker disposition of his character.
The first step in the graphic design process was to generate logo ideas for “Combustr: Liquid Adrenaline,” our fictional sponsor (which later became IGNTR.) The concept of combustion led us to think of explosions and we experimented with exploding words and letters. As we started to simplify the design it morphed into the shape of a throwing star which when further simplified started to look like the tropical storm symbol used in weather forecasting.
This storm symbol was perfect in many ways. It represented our character’s name and also happened to double as Storm’s initial. We developed the shape to share the sharp angles found in his character design. This too stands in juxtaposition to the round curves of McQueen and amplifies the difference between the two characters.
The “S” symbol is to Storm what the lightning bolt is to McQueen: an icon that is instantly recognizable, and an insight into the character’s true persona.
I spent much of the first 6 months of Cars 3 working only on characters. So, I was excited for the opportunity to start working on some of the environments. Because of the race montage in the beginning of the film, there were to be many racetracks. Our graphics team started by tracking which race track showed up in each sequence (a huge challenge on its own!) and then divided up the work of designing the race branding for each track. We had the fun job of coming up with a bunch of ridiculous race names.
The environment I was the most looking forward to working on was Thunder Hollow. This sequence was really fun in every version of the storyboards and since I'm originally from Georgia, I was familiar with the world. I was able to take a pass at designing all of the graphics for the environment at one time, which helped me hone the right tone and style. I designed the billboards that line the track with made-up local businesses, followed by other miscellaneous signage.
One of the last environments I got to work on was the Cotter Pin, a bar that is featured when McQueen visits Thomasville and meets the Legend racers. After working on designs for Thunder Hollow that were somewhat unsophisticated, Thomaville called for designs that were a little more elegant and classic in contrast. The concept art for the Cotter Pin called for the interior to be filled with graphics, so we got to work on creating metal gas signs, neon signs, and vintage music posters.
In total, I worked on Cars 3 for about a year, and had a great experience. As a newcomer working on my first film at the studio, there was a lot to learn and I couldn't have asked for a better team. I feel incredibly lucky that I got the opportunity to contribute to a classic Pixar franchise alongside some of the team that brought the original film to life. It has also been fun to experience the massive reach of a Pixar film with the marketing and consumer products that were launched surrounding the film's release. It has been a thrill to see the characters and environments I helped create appear in different ways all around the world.