I have finally caught up with Cars, the new Pixar animated film. Not brand new, exactly, but it’s still playing second run on the big screen here in Madison. Good thing, too, because it would be difficult to appreciate its technical virtuosity on DVD. (It’s due out on DVD on November 7.)
For me, part of the fun of watching a Pixar’s film is to try and figure out what technical challenge the filmmakers have set themselves this time. Every film pushes the limits of computer animation in one major area, so that the studio has been perpetually on the cutting edge. In Cars, that area is light and reflections. The comic scene of Tow Mater running around backwards has a breathtakingly flashy effect, literally, when he runs into a forest and can be tracked only by the rapid bursts of light that come through the trees.
The reflections are dazzling at times. By choosing highly polished cars and trucks as characters, the filmmakers forced themselves to devise ways of showing light realistically bouncing off their painted surfaces. This happens in virtually every scene, but the moment when the refurbished town of Radiator Springs turns on its array of neon lights in the evening is a real tour de force. The vehicles parade up and down the main street, and the reflections run over their surfaces from every side. (This segment and the design of the town’s drive-in restaurant irresistibly recall the appealing look of American Graffiti.)
Cars builds on the methodical technical progress Pixar has made over the past decade.
Perhaps the greatest technical challenge in this kind of animation comes in “rendering,” or adding surface texture and color to images. In the early 1990s, Pixar invented RenderMan, a program that made a huge leap forward in the sophistication of this process. It was used for the dinosaurs in Jurassic Park (1993), which included relatively few shots because rendering was so time-consuming and complicated. RenderMan has since become one of the most basic tools for creating CGI (computer-generated imagery), and it can be seen among the technical credits of almost any big effects-heavy film, including The Lord of the Rings (2001-2003) and Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006).
Many versions of RenderMan have come out since its invention, and the studio’s animated features have been the driving force behind its progress–though its short films also provide early testing grounds for new developments. In 1995, the studio released the first feature-length movie made entirely with CGI (computer-generated imagery), Toy Story. At that point, rendering anything beyond colored, smooth surfaces was impossible. Toy Story revolved around toys precisely because they could look reasonably realistic despite such limitations. The challenge then was simply to make a full-length film with CGI and to make it an absorbing, amusing story.
Surfaces with more complicated surfaces, especially composed of many tiny objects moving independently but alongside each other, required technical innovations. In a bug’s life (1998), it was realistic grass. Monsters, Inc. (2001) went a step further and created believable fur. (Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within came out that same year, touting its creation of realistically moving human hair, but it lagged behind the sophistication of Pixar’s big fuzzy blue monster.)
Substances that move in complicated and random ways have always been tough to animate—especially water and fire. Disney’s 1940s features, which were of course drawn animation, were great partly because the studio had the resources to conjure up realistic water (for the sea scenes in Pinocchio, 1940) and fire (in Bambi, 1942). Pixar pushed RenderMan to create extraordinary water effects in Finding Nemo (2003).
The Incredibles (2004) didn’t focus on one single challenge in the way that most Pixar features do, but its main accomplishment was to create a strong 3D look to the sets and characters while finding stylized designs for the first human cast to populate one of the studio’s features.
By the way, the surface that had remained the most difficult to simulate realistically using CGI—human skin—was finally achieved by two other companies. One was ILM (George Lucas’ special-effects company Industrial Light & Magic) when it created the infamous Jar Jar Binks in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999). The other was Weta Digital, which animated Gollum in Rings.
In Cars, the reflections in the distinctive surfaces of painted cars was enabled by another upgrading of the RenderMan system, adding a ray-tracing capability—a capability that also assisted in creating realistic shadows and other tricks of lighting. (For a discussion of many aspects of the making of Cars, check here.)
Overall, of course, Pixar’s uninterrupted streak of hit features stems from the fact that all this technology is put in the service of smart, funny, well-constructed stories. I’ve seen some reviews suggesting that Cars isn’t quite as amusing or engrossing as many previous Pixar films, but I don’t think it suffers at all in comparison. There are so many puns, both verbal and visual, that one has to be very alert to notice them. There’s a running gag about a naive car being overjoyed when the famous racecars keep calling him by name—not remembering that he’s sporting a personalized license plate reading “Fred.” Every time that happens, it gets whisked over so quickly and in such action-packed compositions that it would be easy to miss.
Another thing that struck me about Cars, and this has nothing to do with the technology used, is the extraordinary stylistic differences between the two main environments in which Lightning McQueen, our hero, finds himself. The racing-world scenes are, predictably, fast and lively: very quick editing, the hero’s visions of the crowd, superimpositions, camera movements, and loud, loud sound create a hectic pace. The sweeping desert landscapes and sleepy little town, on the other hand, have gentle music and sound effects, a much slower cutting pace, and a general leisureliness. Yet the result did not bore me in the least, for the design of the surroundings and the group of eccentric vehicles that “people” Radiator Springs provide a different sort of enjoyment—and indeed a bit of relaxation after the visual and sonic bombardment of the opening. Other films have contrasted different setting by using stylistic techniques, but I can’t think of one where the gap between them is so broad.
I note that the supplements listed for the DVD being released in a month don’t include any real making-of documentaries. Presumably a special edition will come out later that will feature some, and maybe then we’ll get to witness some of the technique behind all those lights and reflections. In the meantime, if you haven’t seen Cars and live someplace where it’s still in a theater, give it a try.