Photo Credit: Mom Start
Photo Credit: Mom Start

I love learning about what goes on behind the scenes and we got to do that a few weeks ago when we interviewed Director Brian Fee & Producer Kevin Reher. We found out stuff about the animators, characters, easter eggs and some personal information that really touched all of us.

It’s not everyday that you get to ask a director and producer questions to get the real scoop behind the scenes so this was a great opportunity to get some details out in the open.

Photo Credit: Mom Start
Photo Credit: Mom Start

The animation of Cars 3 is amazing as there are some scenes that are just too real. Hint: check out the scenery and the look of the old race track and you will see what I mean. We asked them to discuss the realness of the scenes and how far they let the animators go with it.

Q : I’d like to kick things off with a question about the animation, there’s a scene where they’re coming down the hill and reach the sign, that seems so real. It looks like Max really drove, the grass you can touch, talk about that scene.

Brian : Well just the graphics themselves. 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 make things look- we can go wholeheartedly into a sense of realism, you know, we try not to say photo realism because I think photo realism, that would actually be kind of boring, we almost want like 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 mean that was- I remember sitting with the production designer and that was kind of like one of the main things I kept saying because he’d be like how about this how about this I’d just- 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 know, like 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, you know, 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 [LAUGHTER] but we want them to look real, we want the car to look like it’s four thousand pounds. We want it to look, 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 : When we went, we spent 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 asses off [LAUGHTER] all the way from Daytona up through the Carolinas, and so that it wasn’t just, you know, internet research, it was like they really- 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 [INAUDIBLE] which was legendary at the beginnings of stock car and then [SOUNDS LIKE] Wilkesbourogh, which was very influential in terms of- the grass the guy the caretaker, we got there and he said, I’ve mowed the track for you [LAUGHTER] there was so much grass- we’ll send you some DVDs, he goes what’s that. [LAUGHTER]

Q : Do you ever have to pull it back like the animators go too far it gets too real?

Kevin: The animators get a little jumpy. You know, they get a little- they only have eyes and mouths to animate, I mean in terms of getting an emotion across. And so sometimes they get a little bouncy on the suspension you go okay we’re not watching the shit in this car bounce around.

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, at times if things initially had been over animated, which was not uncommon, you know, 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 kind of a 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 I mean jumping around and doing this-

Kevin : They are steel, you know, so you have to remember that they’re steel and they’re not- and four thousand pounds and they’re not rubbery character that can do all that kind of movement.

Brian : And less was always more.

Q : Did you do that for realism too, one scene, a couple of scenes I felt like I was in the Smokey Mountains. Does that part ever get too real where it’s distracting to it being an animated movie?

Brian: For me it doesn’t, for this film, because we were trying to lean into that as much as possible. For me it’s whatever, 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.

Which is- 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. We just 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 would be- 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 [LAUGHS] because we’re trying to tell a story.

Kevin & Brian 3
Photo Credit: Mom Start

We all know that there are special messages in each Disney film so we had to ask if they could tell what special messages they added into the film to share with others.

Q : What do you and families walk away with, there are so many messages in 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 don’t 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’s 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- have 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- you know, 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, you 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 up their- one 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- [LAUGHTER] 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 [LAUGHTER] spent hours doing this, I didn’t get quite done but I got almost done.

And I showed them and ah ah and they just went, yeah that’s cool [LAUGHTER] [OVERLAPPING] yeah and I had this moment where I just thought oh if I was going to paint something on a something afternoon- [LAUGHTER] 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.

Photo Credit: Mom Start
Photo Credit: Mom Start

Towards the end of the interview they got a little personal talking about parenting and their kids. Since we are all moms they opened up to all of us with their stores.

Brian : Yes right [LAUGHTER] 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 [OVERLAPPING] she set them up and she was drawing their portrait and it was- sorry- pull it together [LAUGHTER]

Brian : And in that moment, I felt like that might just have been one of the most important paintings I’d ever done. And 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, right, service, 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 there’s helping someone else do it is actually not only just as powerful but can be more powerful.

Q : You convey that message.

Brian : Thank you.

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 One, and so the whole McQueen Doc stuff just slays me.

Q : Speaking of Doc he had such a presence in the film and of course Paul Newman is no longer with us so I’m curious about the process and I know you used old recordings, how did that come together?

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 One. 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 it just- and then we decided all right, we have to find the lines, cross our fingers [LAUGHS] 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.

Brian : Don’t drive like my brother don’t.

Kevin: Actually came from those Click and Clack tapes that we were allowed to use.

Photo Credit: Mom Start
Photo Credit: Mom Start

Making a movie takes a village and quite some time to do. They have been working on the Cars films for quite some time and it has been 10 years since the first Cars movie came out to Cars 3. To find out the process of the film was fascinating.
Q : But it also seemed like that was part of the story, how McQueen got to where he was and it took a village, so did that motivate you when you were making the film did you think about that in the process?

Brian : I don’t know if we thought about it.

Kevin : Like we just have an amazing group of people- I mean when the Story is small, Art is small, Editorial is small, but then the whole Animation and T D 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 or their 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 is acting studio is the only place you can do that in animation, to get lines off the cuff that- 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 [LAUGHTER] 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, but 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 [LAUGHTER] 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 Miracles.

So he was the king of the sports comeback story, so I called him about the Long Leaf 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.

Brian: And 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: -has left the station [LAUGHTER] and so I said what’s the note and he- 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, and okay no problem and that shot actually is- 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

Q : When did you start working on the movie?

Brian : Six years ago.

Kevin: And I actually have emails back to two thousand eleven. I’m almost tired.

So there you have it the secrets behind the scenes of Cars 3. Be sure to take the entire family to see it now playing in theaters everywhere.