IF Mattel thought that its "Cars" Hot Wheels line was good enough, John Lasseter, the animated film's director, had a different message for the toy line's designers: At Pixar Animation Studios, good enough doesn't quite cut it.
On a July morning last year, Lasseter was in the thick of finishing "Cars" (due June 9) -- reviewing scores of partially completed animation sequences, recording a new line of dialogue with pet Pixar actor John Ratzenberger, collaborating with an art director on the look of the film's recreational vehicles and engaging an animator in a long discussion of exactly what a Southern California palm tree should look like.
In the middle of a session with his computerized shading and lighting team, Lasseter received a message saying Mattel was ready to present its Hot Wheels prototypes in a Pixar conference room. Already running hours behind on his day's schedule of nine filmmaking meetings, Lasseter sent "Cars" co-production designer Bob Pauley to inspect the mock-ups. Pauley promptly sounded an alarm.
To any adult, and certainly almost every kid, the 20 or so toys looked pretty much exactly like the movie characters on which they were based. But Lasseter, a fervent toy collector, spotted two problems as soon as he approached the prototypes. The lifts on the forklift Guido (voiced in "Cars" by Pixar animation scientist Guido Quaroni) were splayed out like a bowlegged cowboy. And the chrome was missing from the spotlights on a 1949 Mercury Police Cruiser called Sheriff (performed by Route 66 historian Michael Wallis), making his lights look like oversized side-view mirrors. Even a larger, talking race car with dialogue recorded by the film's star, Owen Wilson, sounded wrong.
"That's Owen? Really?" Lasseter asked. "If you went to the trouble of getting him, you might as well make it sound like him."
The voice could be fixed, perhaps, but the Mattel team countered that to redesign the forklift, it would have to rebuild its molds at some expense. In order to repaint the police cruiser with chrome-colored trim, its production costs on the vehicle would rise. Lasseter's voice didn't rise, his face didn't turn red and he didn't gesticulate wildly. But for someone given to wearing Hawaiian shirts and hugging colleagues, he clearly interpreted what Mattel had to say as fighting words.
"He's a forklift," Lasseter said of Guido. "He has to have those things parallel."
The director was less patient discussing Sheriff's paint job. "Seriously, why don't you cut your profit margins on this and get it right?" Lasseter said, his irritation growing. "I am fighting for my characters here."
Soon enough, the Mattel team said it would try to fix all of the problems.
Lasseter came back to the lighting session a few minutes later like a boxer returning to his corner. "Just enough time to kick some Mattel ass," he said as the gathering with the several dozen Pixar artists resumed. "I mean, if we made movies like that, we wouldn't be here."
THE STATE OF HIS ART
HE'S to computer animation what Walt Disney was to hand-drawn storytelling, the key figure in Disney's $7.4 billion Pixar purchase this January. Along with George Lucas and "Shrek's" Andrew Adamson, he owns the most impressive box-office track record in contemporary Hollywood -- a better average gross than Steven Spielberg, Peter Jackson or James Cameron. His filmmaking skills inform not only the hit movies he's directed ("Toy Story," "Toy Story 2," "A Bug's Life") but also, as Pixar's executive vice president for creative, every other release carrying the studio's name: "Finding Nemo," "The Incredibles" and "Monsters, Inc." Amazingly, Pixar has never had a flop, or even an underachiever.
So how does John Lasseter actually construct his films? The glib answer: very carefully.
The makers of animated movies tend to work in obscurity, entombed in darkened offices, not strutting about brightly-lighted sound stages teeming with visitors. Their films don't showcase the colorful cliches of moviemaking: There are no elaborate sets, no mansion-sized star trailers, no hordes of extras. If watching production on a live-action film's 60 days of shooting can be tedious, imagine the pace on a Pixar movie, which, in the case of "Cars," took more than four years to complete.
Unlike live-action filmmaking, though, where a director is basically limited to what was captured during principal photography, anything is possible in animation, especially given Pixar's proprietary software, which Disney says is five years ahead of its own computer animation programs. With a few mouse clicks, camera angles can be switched 180 degrees, props can turn from red to green, "actors" can appear or vanish, day can turn to night -- all months, if not years, after the scenes were first conceived by Lasseter and his "Cars" team of more than 240 people.
Animated movie production, put another way, is a fine-tuning marathon, and Lasseter is clearly its strongest runner. Starting with 1995's "Toy Story," Pixar established computer animation as an art form, its movies distinguished by their originality and look. "Cars" is filled with animation so lush, including a Monument Valley-inspired vista, that it makes Fox's "Ice Age: The Meltdown" look unfinished in comparison.
That excellence springs largely from Pixar's discipline to insist that every choice supports the story and the performance of its characters, even if they're talking vehicles. Pixar films may not be realistic, but they try to be believable, as polished as allowed by time, computing power and money (Pixar won't say, but its average production budgets are believed to run around $140 million).
Lasseter allowed a reporter to follow him for two days inside Pixar's Bay Area campus while he was making "Cars," where, as the Mattel team came to learn, the quest for perfection was prominently on display.
Many of the hundreds of decisions Lasseter made involved technical terms that describe how items are moved around a frame. But the director faced countless other options about more understandable concerns: How much dust should be added to the air inside a forsaken garage, where to position running lights and air conditioners on recreational vehicles, what camera positions made for the most visceral car races.
Even the smallest decision was weighty: Lasseter and co-supervising animator Doug Sweetland spent nearly 15 minutes in a passionate debate over whether a race car's eyes should blink -- or merely squint -- in a shot lasting no more than two seconds.
"Cars" tells the story of Lightning McQueen, a race car far too cocky for his own good. "I eat losers for breakfast," he says as the film opens. But as the result of his own hubris, McQueen ends up stuck in Radiator Springs, a once booming Southwestern town on Route 66 that has turned into a ghost town after being bypassed by Interstate 40. The town is filled with an array of eccentric individuals -- a hippie 1960 VW bus named Fillmore (George Carlin); Red, a fire truck given to sobbing (Joe Ranft); the hillbilly tow truck, Mater (Larry the Cable Guy); a 2002 Porsche 911 named Sally who's a former L.A. lawyer in love with small-town life (Bonnie Hunt); and the town's mechanic and judge, a mysterious, cantankerous 1951 Hudson Hornet named Doc (Paul Newman).
If "The Incredibles" was the studio's most grown-up movie to date, the G-rated "Cars" is its most nostalgic and sentimental. While Lasseter worked to cut its running time, and says he was pleased with its final length of nearly two hours, some people at a theater owners' convention preview found "Cars" about 15 minutes too long. (One other "Cars" challenge will be attracting young girls, who generally flock to Pixar movies but may be less interested in automobiles.)
Where earlier Pixar films celebrated friendship and parenthood, "Cars" is more interested in hope, heartbreak and making the right choices in life. At one point, McQueen must make a decision during a race, and he slams to a halt. As Sweetland, one of two "Cars" supervising animators, reviewed the rough animation in a screening room, Lasseter took out his laser pointer and circled McQueen's eyes, which, like all of the film's anthropomorphic characters, are built into the windshield.
Sweetland thought McQueen was trying to figure out what to do next, and therefore needed to close his eyes and collect his thoughts, the way the scene was animated. "Isn't it about McQueen's trying to decide what he's doing?" Sweetland asked.
"I hear what you are saying. I just don't agree with you," the director told Sweetland.
Lasseter believed the character knew precisely what he was about to do next, and was only settling himself before acting. A squint, Lasseter felt, would show McQueen's resolve. Closed eyes, he believed, would read as indecision. Sweetland saw it differently, and was concerned that McQueen would come across as arrogant, rather than confident. "I don't want him to be full of his own narcissism," he said.
Lasseter wasn't buying it. "I think we are over-thinking this," said the director, whose last film was 1999's "Toy Story 2." "We want the audience to say, 'What the hell is this guy doing?' But McQueen knows what he is doing."
Sweetland still demurred. After a few minutes, the debate became, well, animated.
Michael Stocker, one of the dozen or so other animators in the room, interjected that he could change the performance of McQueen's mouth (part of the bumper), which might suggest that the character is sorting through his options.
"What if I just had him breathing?" Stocker wondered.
Again, Lasseter considered the idea, and then -- pleasantly but firmly -- dismissed it. "That's not the way the scene was conceived," he said.
Sweetland and Stocker finally conceded the point, and Lasseter came over to hug Sweetland. "Good discussion," he said, patting him on the back. Over lunch during Pixar's annual classic car show and company picnic a few hours later, Lasseter recalled that when he began working at Disney in the early 1980s (his credits included "Mickey's Christmas Carol"), he approached an older animator about how a scene might be improved. The animator cut him off, saying he hadn't put in enough time to hold a worthwhile opinion.
"If you want my job, go do in-betweening for 20 years," the animator said, referring to of one of the field's less-prestigious drawing jobs.
More than 20 years later, Lasseter remembered that dressing-down vividly. "When I came to Pixar, I said, 'I will never say to any of the employees what that guy told me at Disney.' " Creative quarrels such as the one with Sweetland and Stocker, he said, are what he relishes. All Pixar animators are invited to give notes on a colleague's work. Even though Lasseter's opinion eventually trumps all others, he has the confidence to encourage dissent.
Reflecting that open dialogue, the "Cars" screenplay, which went through 19 drafts, is credited to Lasseter and five other people, including co-director Ranft, who died in a 2005 automobile accident.
"It doesn't matter whose idea it is, but the best idea gets in the film," Lasseter said. "We have always had this belief that you should be able to support your idea in a way that can convince everybody. If you can't, maybe it's not worked out thoroughly. The one thing that doesn't work with us is, 'Do it that way because I want it that way' or 'Do it that way because I like it that way.' "
THE MICRO METHOD
"LET'S call it a final."
Dozens of times over the course of a day, this is how Lasseter approved every "Cars" item up for judgment -- a character design, roughly animated background action, a completed scene. When he issued the words, there was inevitable applause from the young and mostly male crew presenting their work.
While other directors wear headphones, Lasseter's filmmaking tool of choice is a laser pointer, which he aimed at the screen if anything's amiss. Not all of Lasseter's decisions, though, are based on digital renderings. Before a character or a car or even a palm tree is input into a computer, its look is reworked on paper, in clay, by watercolor or pastels.
"This is looking fantastic," he said, studying unfinished animation of flags waving in the wind. "But I want you to take these three flag samples and push it too far. Break it, and you will learn."
When the film's special effects team showed a nearly completed rendering of how rust flakes off the corroded jalopy Fred (Andrew Stanton, the co-director of "Finding Nemo"), like dandruff, the director was giddy.
"Oh my God. That's great, great," he told the team. Lasseter's only note was to change how Fred shakes. "It's like a Trekkie with Shatner in the room," he said. "Not your grandma's shaking."
From all over Pixar's campus, Lasseter summoned his creative team, including producer Darla K. Anderson and supervising animator Sweetland, to see the shot. The shot was replayed again and again to cheers. Before long, there were no seats left in the screening room.
"What you have to realize," Anderson said, "is that this scene for a lot of people has only been a storyboard for four years."
As with McQueen's blinking eyes, some of the filmmaking touches are scarcely noticeable. When McQueen first arrives in Radiator Springs, the city looks washed out, rusty and gray, devoid of warm tints and hues. As Radiator Springs starts to grow on McQueen, its shades intensify, its hues brighten until, at the conclusion of a key road trip for McQueen and Sally, the landscape explodes in color.
For a related "Cars" flashback sequence set in the town, co-production designer William Cone studied how 1950s color film deteriorates, so that the flashback looks like an old home movie, washed out, overly pink.
"Kids won't get it," Lasseter said, reviewing sketches for the flashback's color palette. "But it will have emotional resonance for people my age," the 49-year-old director said.
At another point, a Japanese TV reporter is reporting on a race car's disappearance. Lasseter and designer Pauley decided her face should parrot anime-style animation, especially in her eyes and how light reflects off her face.
"There is a logic and a science to the multiple highlights," Pauley said, as he and Lasseter puzzled out her appearance.
Lasseter pulled out a pen and sketched what the reporter's face should look like. "It's not even five seconds long," he said of a scene that when completed is not even half that long.
"But it's so worth it," Pauley said.
"We put so much stuff in our movies that are just jokes for ourselves," Lasseter said, finishing up the sketch and handing it to Pauley. "There. That's what she should look like."
ALL IN THE FAMILY
IN addition to being Pixar's most highly compensated employee (making more than $3 million last year), Lasseter is in the middle of a 10-year employment contract that grants him a fortune in stock options. He recently purchased the former Vintage Lane winery in Glen Ellen, and when he's not sampling the Lasseter Family Winery's cabernet, he might be racing his own stock car. It's been quite a journey from middle-class Southern California.
Lasseter grew up loving cars -- his father was a parts manager at a Chevrolet dealership in Whittier, and the director worked as a stock boy there when he turned 16. While the original idea for "Cars" dates to 1998, the core of the story was inspired by a family trip the director took in 2000.
His wife, Nancy, had commented that Lasseter was working so hard he'd come home one day to find all of his five children were grown. So everyone dipped their toes in the Pacific Ocean, climbed into a rented RV, and spent the summer slowly working east, where they could repeat the toe-dipping ritual in the Atlantic, and then turn their rig around and drive back west.
The family encountered scenery that informed the film's look, but Lasseter also realized the trip's more important souvenir was a lesson: Life's journeys are its greatest rewards.
Translating that broad idea into "Cars" wasn't easy. Lasseter likes to say that at one point every Pixar film "is the worst movie ever made," and that was the case with "Cars" too.
"We had two periods [when 'Cars'] was a disaster," Lasseter said. One failed plot point, abandoned in late 2003, had Lightning McQueen staging a charity race in Radiator Springs. In order to become street legal, McQueen had to attend traffic school, which was taught by Sally ... and the thing became a miniseries. "It had its fun moments, but it was very long."
As late as December 2004, almost yesterday in animated moviemaking time, the current story, even without the charity race, "wasn't playing at all," Lasseter said.
"There was too much there. We kind of took too long to do everything. We had more worked out for all the side characters, and all sorts of other stuff going on. None of the emotion was landing," he said. "So I came back from Christmas in January 2005 and cut about 15 minutes out of the movie. 'Sacrificing your children' is the term we use. There were things that you love and are extremely entertaining. But if they weren't supporting the story, it was brutal -- chop, chop, chop, chop, chop."
A HEAVY LOAD
ORIGINALLY scheduled to come out last November, "Cars" was moved to this summer to maximize its potential box office. By last July, Lasseter should have been breathing easier, but even with the eight-month extension, he was working until 10:30 p.m., meaning he didn't have time to drive home to see his wife and sons, spending the night instead at a local hotel.
Unlike most of his filmmaking peers 300 miles south in Los Angeles, Lasseter didn't spend a minute over those two July days chatting on a cellphone or checking e-mails. He and producer Anderson didn't read the trade newspapers. Rather, Lasseter and Anderson sat down for a quick bite of some takeout barbecue, and went back to work on their movie.
The next morning, Lasseter was in Pixar's recording studio, directing a new line of dialogue for Ratzenberger, who has performed a voice in all seven Pixar features (a fact lampooned in the film's epilogue).
A test screening and some feedback from NASCAR prompted the new lines for Ratzenberger's truck during an important race. The original "Cars" dialogue was recorded more than two years earlier, and Ratzenberger needed a refresher on what was happening.
"You're almost panicked," Lasseter told the actor he calls his "good-luck charm."
"Am I with a group of people?" Ratzenberger asked.
"You're in the pit. And [the car] is coming down pit lane. This sets up the stakes for how much the pit stop means."
In about five takes, Ratzenberger nailed it.
Lasseter then reviewed a sequence from the film's climactic race with animator Steve Mason. In the scene, McQueen isn't really focused on the race, and nearly crashes. But the animation didn't quite convey that.
"He's too pouty," Lasseter said. "You need to keep the energy level up."
"So, he's frustrated?" Mason asked.
"He's shaken up. 'Why can't I keep my head in the game?' " Lasseter said of McQueen's thinking. "That's what needs to be going through his mind."
"Sure," Mason said, heading off to his cubicle to tweak the scene.
Lasseter departed to review some computerized trees, a session that turned into a lecture on the difference between palm species.
"We get nothing for free," Lasseter said as he finished his palm talk. "Every bit of dirt on a car has to be put there, every blade of grass."
Contact John Horn at email@example.com.