McQueen is back on the big screen, but he’s not a rookie anymore!
Lightning McQueen raced into moviegoers’ hearts more than 10 years ago and remains an iconic character today in Cars 3 that pays homage to NASCAR with four characters based on real-life stock car racing legends.
Directed by Fee (storyboard artist Cars, Cars 2), produced by Reher (A Bug’s Life, “La Luna” short) and co-produced by Warren (LAVA short), Cars 3 is executive produced by John Lasseter, who directed the first two films in the franchise. With a story by Fee, Ben Queen (TV’s Powerless), Eyal Podell (actor Code Black) & Jonathon E. Stewart (Doing Time short), the screenplay was penned by Kiel Murray (Cars), Bob Peterson (Up, Finding Nemo”) and Mike Rich (“Secretariat, The Rookie).
Blindsided by a new generation of blazing-fast racers, the legendary Piston-Cup champion finds himself suddenly pushed out of the sport he loves. “The next-gen racers are cool,” says director Brian Fee. “You can see instantly that cars like Jackson Storm are effortlessly fast. We designed these younger, faster cars to be sleek and aerodynamic—and they’re a sharp contrast to Lightning McQueen.”
Producer Kevin Reher says the story is reflective of real-life champions. “Lightning McQueen has been racing for more than a decade,” says Reher. “He’s struggling with the kind of issues a lot of athletes face later in their careers. Do you go out on top or fight till the end?”
While Lightning is still the same self-assured, determined and fun-loving race car audiences fell in love with, his confidence is being tested by the new cars on the track. “When we first met Lightning McQueen, he was a young rookie—a superhero,” says Fee. “He had his whole life ahead of him. And while he’s done well since we last saw him, he’s not a young hotshot racer anymore. We kept circling the idea of what happens when an athlete like Lightning is in the twilight of his career.”
Enter Cruz Ramirez. Tasked with getting Lightning McQueen back on track after a devastating setback, Cruz isn’t shy. Her training style is high-tech, enthusiastic and steadfast—she’s not afraid to apply a little tough love. But there’s more to Cruz than meets the eye. “I love Cruz’s story,” says co-producer Andrea Warren. “She’s such an admirable, likable character. She’s so passionate about racing and her role to create champions. The movie isn’t just about Lightning McQueen—it’s Cruz’s story, in many ways.”
Cars 3 pays homage to NASCAR with four characters based on real-life stock car racing legends. Chris Cooper (“Adaptation,” “American Beauty”) voices Doc Hudson’s crew chief Smokey; team owner and NASCAR racing legend Junior Johnson lends his voice to Junior “Midnight” Moon; three-time Emmy® winner Margo Martindale (FX’s “The Americans,” FX’s “Justified,” Amazon’s “Sneaky Pete”) provides the voice of Louise “Barnstormer” Nash; and Isiah Whitlock Jr. (HBO’s “The Wire,” “Cedar Rapids,” HBO’s “Veep”) is the voice of River Scott. The film also features NASCAR drivers and the voices behind the sport, as well as a host of returning characters from Radiator Springs and the “Cars” racing world.
Says screenwriter Kiel Murray, “I think what will really resonate with audiences—especially adults—is this idea of finding meaning as we age, finding a way to be valuable in every phase of our lives, and giving back to the next generation in a way we don’t ever think about when we’re just getting started.”
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Filmmakers consulted NASCAR veterans, including four-time NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon and Ray Evernham, who served as Gordon’s crew chief for three of his championships. Gordon proved to be a key resource. “He talked a lot about how young racers are full of energy,” says co-producer Andrea Warren. “They like to go fast and hard, while a more experienced driver knows he doesn’t have to do that. They get to know the game well enough that they can play it in a different way.”
“We did a lot of research,” says director Brian Fee. “We looked at athletes in other sports, but really focused on NASCAR drivers. They start at such an early age and their lives are centered around driving. We even talked to a sports psychologist who explained that many of these drivers can’t imagine doing anything else.”
The ideas resonated, and became the motivation for Lightning McQueen’s journey as he faces newer, younger racers. “It’s kind of a timeless story in sports,” says screenwriter Mike Rich, who’s behind movies like “Secretariat” and “The Rookie.” “We’ve seen it with so many athletes—whether it’s Michael Jordon or Peyton Manning, Wayne Gretzky or Misty May-Treanor. The thing that’s unique to athletes is that they’re thirty-something years old when they retire. They still have the rest of their lives to think about. We asked Jeff Gordon about it and he said, ‘I was just afraid that I would never find anything else that I could do as well.’ They feel this gaping hole.”
Lightning McQueen, threatened by the next-gen racers, makes a major misstep, culminating in a dramatic crash and a lot of time for self-reflection. “Lightning’s first reaction is that he wants to do whatever the next-gen racers are doing,” says Fee. “If they’re training on simulators, he’s going to train on simulators. If they’re using wind tunnels, he’ll use wind tunnels.”
He turns to a tech-savvy trainer at the all-new Rust-eze Racing Center to get back in the game. “Cruz Ramirez is a top trainer in racing,” says screenwriter Bob Peterson. “She takes on Lightning as her ‘Senior Project’ and calls it like she sees it: he’s older now, which he doesn’t want to hear, but certainly needs to hear.”
Cruz is all about technology and knows how to create winners on cutting-edge simulated racetracks. But Lightning isn’t part of the next generation, and things don’t go as planned at the slick and fancy high-tech racing center. Sterling, the brilliant new owner of Rust-eze, isn’t interested in watching his star racer plummet. “So they make a deal,” says producer Kevin Reher. “Sterling will let Lightning race in the season opener at the Florida International Super Speedway. If he wins, great, he can decide when he retires. But if he loses, he’ll have to hang it up and become a brand for the businesscar, promoting Lightning McQueen merchandise to his fans worldwide.”
“That triggers a life-changing journey in which Lightning and Cruz hit the road,” adds Fee. “Lightning is on a mission to win. If technology isn’t the answer, he’s determined to figure out what is.”
Lightning decides to return to his roots—recalling the wisdom imparted on him by his beloved mentor, the late Fabulous Hudson Hornet. Says Fee, “He’s chasing his youth, thinking if he can just harness what Doc taught him—get his tires dirty—he’ll find whatever it is that he’s missing.”
Ultimately, he turns to his coach’s coach—Smokey, who was there during Doc’s heyday—for guidance and inspiration, while filmmakers looked to real-life coaches like Evernham and their own lives. “If you’re really trying to share an idea with an audience as a filmmaker, you have to feel it,” says Fee. “So being a parent became my main resource to find and understand the emotion in the film.
“Like a lot of us, I struggled to find enough time to explore my passion projects—we all have responsibilities at work and at home that don’t leave enough spare time,” continues Fee. “Then one day, I spent a couple hours painting a simple picture to teach my daughters about art. Something changed after that. I found the experience so much more rewarding than I ever imagined. That’s what we’re trying to communicate in this movie with the relationship between Lightning McQueen and Doc.”
Lightning’s desire to tap into Doc’s wisdom through Smokey deepens the story by exploring the relationships between key characters. Mentorship is an important theme in the film. “It turns out that the life lessons Doc imparted on his trainee aren’t over yet,” says Reher. “There’s still more to learn.”
The nod to Doc and his impact on Lightning McQueen’s career is part of what brings audiences back to the feeling of the original “Cars.” “Audiences connected with the first “Cars” film in a very special way,” says Jay Ward, creative director for the “Cars” franchise. “They saw the heart in Radiator Springs; they felt the emotion in the relationships between the characters.
“‘Cars 2’ was a spy caper that was fun and exciting,” continues Ward, “but it was really more Mater’s story. In ‘Cars 3,’ we wanted to get back to Lightning McQueen and the warmth and depth that resonated with so many people in the first film.”
Story supervisor Scott Morse says the story team wanted to highlight the emotional core. “We really focused on the relationships between the characters,” says Morse. “We wanted it to feel like a true sports film, but this movie has always wanted to be a mentor story. We wanted Lightning to realize what their relationship meant to Doc.”
Morse, a father of two boys, says he tapped into his own experience as a sports coach for his sons. “I’ve coached seven teams over the last five years,” he says. “Watching them improve and grow as athletes—and the impact it had on me personally—definitely made its way into our story meetings.”
And, says Morse, you don’t have to be an aging athlete to understand Lightning McQueen’s plight. “I’m at a point in my career here at Pixar when I’m not the young kid coming in—a 20-year-old intern who had a Lightning McQueen toy as a kid. They’re as good or better and looking for opportunities. But that doesn’t mean we all step aside; we look for the positives; we look for ways to help them. And hopefully they make us all better.”
Adds screenwriter Kiel Murray, “I think what will really resonate with audiences—especially adults—is this idea of finding meaning as we age, finding a way to be valuable in every phase of our lives, and giving back to the next generation in a way we don’t ever think about when we’re just getting started.”
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On his journey in “Cars 3,” Lightning McQueen crosses paths with new and intriguing characters, and filmmakers tapped top talent to bring them to life. Ranging from a fiery trainer who’s determined to reignite Lightning McQueen’s career to a group of legendary racers who, back in the day, hit the track alongside the Fabulous Hudson Hornet himself—the characters in “Cars 3” will surely make their mark on the big screen.
Production designer Jay Shuster headed up the look of the characters. Shuster, whose first film at Pixar was “Cars,” considers himself a car guy. “It’s really how I got my job here,” he says. “My dad worked at GM for 43 years back in Detroit. So, I had a portfolio full of car sketches and an understanding of the car culture at large.”
In terms of characters, says Shuster, the “Cars” world is largely defined by its limitations. “It’s a different kind of automotive engineering that goes into the designs of these characters—it’s more like an experimental alchemy. We have a parameter of a body shell with four wheels on it, a windshield and a very constrained area around the grill and headlights to engineer into a mouth. Beyond that, we exploit space, paint and graphic to define each character.”
Jeremy Lasky, director of photography-camera, faced similar challenges. “The features on a human face appear on the same plane whether they’re facing camera or in profile,” he says. “A car’s mouth is six feet in front of his eyes—from the windshield to the grill. We play a lot with angles to make sure the character is on model in every shot. We learned a lot from the first two films. But we also pushed it to another level, bringing more energy to our shots and making everything feel more alive without distracting from what’s going on in the story.”
Since 2011, when “Cars 2” was released, Pixar Animation Studios has updated its rendering system. The introduction of a new renderer within the animation world is both welcome and feared. “What’s really great about the new renderer RIS is that it’s more physically accurate,” says Michael Fong, supervising technical director. “So producing images that look like the real world is much easier because it can correctly model how light bounces and interacts with materials. But it’s still new technology, and it takes time to figure out its peculiarities—particularly for the ‘Cars’ world, where the reflections both make us and break us.”
RIS presented “Cars 3” filmmakers with an opportunity. “If you look at a car in the sunlight, you can see tiny concentric scratches and metallic flakes within the paint schemes,” says Junyi Ling, character shading supervisor. “It’s one of the things that makes a car look like a car. Traditionally, it’s been really difficult to do that, but we were able to add those features into our shading.”
According to Sudeep Rangaswamy, global technology supervisor, technology was introduced that automated the level of shading detail in a given character, depending on how close to camera he or she is. “That makes the renders more efficient, despite the increase in detail we’re now capable of achieving up close.”
Kim White, director of photography-lighting, says that the lighters’ role in reflections was almost reversed thanks to the new renderer. “They had to cheat the reflections in previous ‘Cars’ movies,” she says, acknowledging that all new technology comes with a new set of challenges. “Our characters are cars and we want them to look really beautiful, which the reflections really help us accomplish,” she says. “But they’re still characters and the audience needs to read their emotions, their expressions. There are some reflections that can be distracting, so we have to manage that.”
Authenticity on all levels continues to be a priority at Pixar—right down to the last detail. According to Jay Ward, creative director for the “Cars” franchise, the team sought to get it all right. “We paid attention to vehicle dynamics, the way each car moves, front-wheel-drive, rear-wheel drive, etcetera. Lightning McQueen’s tires have treads when he races on the dirt; he runs slicks on the track. We do all of that on purpose because there are definitely people in our audience who will notice if we get it wrong.”