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The secrets behind Cars 3 and its new characters

Pixar's new Cars film is nearly here. Its design boss talks us through the characters

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Cars 3 is in cinemas on July 14. Days before its arrival, we speak to Jay Shuster, head of the film’s character design, about what to expect.

Top Gear: Which new characters will we see?

Jay Shuster: Lightning McQueen is still the main character, but he now has a nemesis in Jackson Storm (above, black/blue). The whole idea behind Storm is to contradict McQueen in every way possible. Back when McQueen was designed he was the next generation of his era, but Jackson is the one who will threaten his career. So he’s angular and sharp and threatening, a weapon on wheels, rather than curved like Lightning.

Cruz Ramirez (yellow) is a character that lives between the two. She’s McQueen’s trainer, and has to interact with the next generation of racer like Storm, too. So she’s equal proportions of each character, a hybrid of the two. With female car characters we add more flowing and round shapes, but we wanted to give her the next-gen creasing and sharpness, too.

A character called Sterling (silver) purchases McQueen’s racing team and builds a massive training facility. He has made his money in the sale of mudflaps, but the design himself is after J Mays from Ford came in for a few days, he contributed to Sterling’s look. It’s the classic 1970s BMW style, and is modelled on the suits that you see on a show like Mad Men, very tailored and taut. He’s supposed to be the guy at the end of the bar who you could have a chat with but he’d never talk about the millions of dollars he’s earned.

TG: Do you have a favourite?

JS: Storm is the one I worked on closest, and was most responsible for. I grew up in Detroit, and one of the jobs I had there was working for Roush Racing. Having worked on this NASCAR team, it was especially cool to essentially design a next-gen NASCAR and utilise everything I know about the sport to try and redefine the cars. It’s a difficult thing! It feels like a complete circle from where I started in Detroit.

TG: Do you design the cars around their voices?

JS: The majority of the time we design the characters without knowing who the voices will be. Even if we do know, we really don’t let that influence us, so we don’t take facial features from the voice actors. Maybe we’ll take very subtle clues from their physical features – eye colour, teeth, or maybe put their birthday on the licence plate. We want the characters to be stand alone and not so inspired by real life.

TG: Does that mean fewer characters based on real cars?

JS: Yeah, in Cars 3 we were determined to do more in-house designs, rather the ones inspired by actual models. We have more control over how we use these characters, and if we want to put them in another movie, we have free reign. Real-life cars can take a lot of legal clearance, and the companies may place constraints on how we use the characters.

We get more creative freedom when we design our own characters. I can study the world of design and put influences from all my dream cars in these characters. Working on Jackson Storm was a joy – designing the most wicked shape on wheels possible, and being able to draw from the world of supercar shapes and infusing that with a stock car logic and aesthetic.

TG: What else do you work on at Pixar?

JS: I’ve worked on Wall-E, Toy Story 3, and The Incredibles. I’ve been working on The Incredibles 2. The job here definitely requires you to be as flexible and diverse as possible. You’re contributing to a different thing almost every day.

I’ve definitely been put into a niche of designing cars, robots and hard surface characters, though. It’s not too different to how you would approach a human design. It might be easier for me because of the constraints of having to have four wheels, sheet metal. I don’t have to do hand gestures. But it takes two years to design a primary character, which is about the same time that goes into a human character.

The animators like the simplicity of the car characters, there’s no muscle structure and movement to worry about! We use a digital Botox to freeze areas around the ‘face’ to avoid headlights moving weirdly while they’re talking. It’s a similar art to the design and animation of human characters, it’s just in a whole different language.

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