Setting Up Shots Based on Story Beats and Figuring Out the Right Angles

Cars, Disney/Pixar’s seventh animated feature, opens aggressively. A blur of color slashes across the screen and then resolves into blazingly fast stock cars racing on an oval track inside a packed stadium. It’s night. Flashbulbs pop from the stadium seats. Floodlights bounce off the hoods of the brightly colored cars. In this film, the cars are the characters. The camera zooms in on a red car: Lightning McQueen, the rookie, vying for the lead and the Piston Cup championship. His eyes slide across his windshield as he rounds a curve. The camera moves to the press box where the announcer bounces on his tires in excitement – and then we’re back in the race.

What NASCAR – and Fox Sports – Taught Pixar

“It’s hard to top NASCAR racing as it is,” says Bill Cone, co-production designer with Bob Pauley. “But we tried to make our version bigger and make the cars go faster.” Pauley designed the tracks, and director of photography Jeremy Lasky designed the camera moves.

“We modeled a lot of our camera designs on things Artie Kempner taught us,” says Lasky, referring to the Fox Sports lead director who masterminds NASCAR broadcasts. “He taught us the cinematic language of a race, how he gets television audiences interested, where he places his cameras, and how he makes them dynamic.”

But, although Lasky and the Cars layout crew grounded the camera moves in live-action film grammar, they still took advantage of the virtual race’s freedom. “We mixed in extra things that television cameras can’t do like driving the cameras through the track to pick up on characters,” he says.

The race ends in a three-way tie – a tongue-tie, in fact, as McQueen stretches for the photo finish. That sets up the through-line for the story – the racers must travel from North Carolina to California to break the tie at the next Piston Cup Championship race. But an incident along the way causes McQueen to roll alone into Radiator Springs, a dilapidated town on Route 66. He stays long enough to fix a damaged road and learn that life is a highway, not a destination.

What Cameras Do

Lasky joined the pre-production Cars crew soon after winding up Finding Nemo, for which he handled cinematography with Sharon Calahan. “Pre-production was all about how to get the racing feel and how to make the audience feel like they’re in the town,” he says. “Audiences know what cameras do and don’t do. So we ground our camera in live-action film grammar to make it feel like you’re in Radiator Springs or in the middle of the Piston Cup race track, not in a CG environment – or in a video game, which is the worst case.”

For locations that encompass many sequences – the racetracks and especially the town – modelers built the entire environments so that the camera could move anywhere. For the life-is-a-highway sequences with McQueen traveling west, they built only the sections of the set that the camera could see.

“We worked in Maya as the sets were being created,” says Lasky. “But as soon as we knew where the road was and the buildings were, we moved into our own software.”

For the opening race sequence, they started with the storyboards, production designs, and notes from director John Lasseter. Then they began deconstructing the scene with the layout team. “We look for the story points and break the sequence into sections – shots that reflect what the story should be,” says Lasky. “We’re filming based on story beats.”

Typically, the team of between 12 and 15 layout artists, the editor, Lasky and director John Lasseter blocked out the action for the characters in each shot – where and how fast they would drive – and designed the camera moves. “Based on the action the layout artists have blocked out for every shot, we look for the best angles to cover the action,” says Lasky. “Then we hand that template to the animators.”

“One of the benefits of having John Lasseter as a director,” he adds, “is that he sees the whole movie in his head from the beginning. He’ll know where the shadows fall and what he expects to be dark or not. So as we’re doing the camera work and layout on the shots, he’s already seeing ahead to where it’s animated, lit, rendered – the whole thing.”

For a 42-car crash in the opening sequence, though, animator John Kahrs blocked out the shot. “There was so much going on that we wanted an animator to get in there,” says Lasky. “Based on that, we found camera angles that would support the story.”

A Virtual Follow Car

The cars, modeled in Maya with subdivision surfaces, all had identical rigs that provided adjustable physical simulations for everything a suspension would handle ‘ swaying, bouncing over bumps, and so forth. Animators could also create paths that the cars would automatically follow. In addition, the camera crew ordered a special car – one with the same rig, but that could also follow a character.

“We had them give us a car without a body,” says Lasky. “It had four wheels and the suspension system, so when the camera moves over rough terrain we get the feeling of wheels going over bumps.” Lasky could modify the car’s suspension to make it stiffer or springier for the camera in the same way the animators might change the suspension to match a particular car’s personality. “There were times where we had to smooth out the camera or it would be like you were on a bus ride you didn’t want to be on,” he says.

For consistency, the layout artists worked with a set of lenses designated for specific angles, types of shots and characters. “It was like renting a kit from a warehouse,” says Lasky. “Getting the characters to look right was tricky. A lot depends on the lens.”

Truth to Materials

Character designers put the cars’ eyes on the windshield and used the strip of metal between the windshield and the roof as a combination eyebrow and eyelid. They created mouths where a grill might be. Because Lasseter’s edict, “Truth to Materials,” meant the cars would never rear up on their back tires or squash and stretch like a cartoon character, animators moved the cars’ mouths and eyes to create facial expressions. They created performances by pivoting the back axles, steering with the front tires, and tipping the cars. “We turned the whole car into a head,” says Scott Clark, supervising animator. “If you angle the camera the right way, you get a face.”

But, if the camera didn’t shoot the action with the right lens at the right angle, that illusion could disappear. In a three-quarters shot with a wide lens, say, the eyes could look like they’re four or five feet behind the mouth. Shot wrong, the car could look like it had big cheeks, a clown mouth, and tiny eyes. It might even change the car model. The wrong lens, for example, could compress the 2002 Porsche 911 who runs Radiator Springs’ Cozy Cone motel, into a VW Beetle.

“When you’re working with humans, even the characters in The Incredibles, you have a range of shooting choices,” says Lasky. “Whether you’re doing heads, head-and-shoulders, medium or wide, you have great compositional range. But we couldn’t zoom into the eyes and mouth. If the camera was too low, the eyes disappeared. If it was too high, it accentuated the difference between the eyes and the mouth and we got an anteater look. Every car had a sweet spot that we tried to find.”

Fighting Parking-Lot Syndrome

As the camera moved away from the characters, though, the problems lessened ‘ wider shots with a few cars were easier. But there were other considerations. Profile shots didn’t work well when two cars talked to each other because the cars’ expressions depended on seeing the heads from the front or in a three-quarters view. “We ended up changing some of the scenes in which the cars were standing around to have them driving around,” says Lasky.
In one sequence, for example, a lost minivan couple happens upon Radiator Springs. Initially, the scene called for the vans to stop in the center of town and then the residents, hungry for tourist traffic rerouted by the Interstate highway, would encircle the couple and advertise their shops and services. “The scene was flat,” says Lasky. “It didn’t take advantage of seeing the town, of things moving.” Instead, the dialog took place as the cars drove past the surplus store, garage, and Luigi’s tire shop.

Shots in the town, in general contrast with the racing sequences and the road trip. “Everything slows down in Radiator Springs,” Lasky says. “Shots are more locked. There’s less movement in frame. The shots take longer. But you have interesting things to look at.”

Animators helped the film avoid what Lasky calls the “parking lot-syndrome.” “It’s amazing what the animators did to make the cars expressive,” he says. “A little twitch of a front tire, the eyes, the mouth. I knew there was always that. When they had to stop, the characters would still read.”

The town, based on research the production design team did during trips down Route 66, to small towns in eastern California, and to silver mining towns in the Nevada desert, looks old and rusty. A car metaphor drives the architecture: the Cozy Cone Motel is designed after traffic cones, the cafà© is a V8 engine block, and a restaurant is a gas station. Cars metaphors enhance the southwestern landscape outside the town as well, where a terra cotta mountain range shaped like tailfins rises from dun-colored and sagebrush covered desert.

But even though the landscape is beautiful, the cars needed to keep moving. “In one shot, Sally takes McQueen to the Wheelwell Motel,” says Lasky. “Originally, when they got there they stopped and talked to each other and we had a big vista shot. When we showed it to an audience, we lost the kids. The dialog wasn’t enough to carry a five-year-old. So we kept them driving.”

New shaders for rendering aerosol fluids, which worked with Pixar’s PRMan renderer, helped the lighting crew achieve the illuminated atmosphere, golden dust clouds behind cars driving on dirt roads, and majestic clouds inspired by Maynard Dixon paintings. Ray tracing within the renderer added ambient and radiance diffusion throughout the environment. But lighting happened after the shots were animated. “Unfortunately, we light the film; we don’t film the light,” Lasky says.

Although viewers often evaluate the story, the quality of the animation, the character design, the effects, sometimes even the lighting and rendering in CG films, the work of the camera crew is rarely noticed. That suits Lasky. “No one says, ‘The camera moved fluidly.’ We lead the audience where we want them to go, but our goal is to have them not be aware that we’re doing anything. We want the audience in the story 100 percent of the time.”