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'Cars 3': Sneak Preview

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author photo by Colin Ryan May 2017

"Cars 3" is coming out June 16. It's going to be another slice of magic. Because, like the rest of the "Cars" movies, this one has been created by Pixar. This cinematic powerhouse has made some of the best movies of the last 20 or so years, regardless of the fact that they have all been animated. That's not just one person's opinion. Pixar wins Oscars, 16 so far. "Toy Story 3" is one of the highest-grossing films ever and the first two "Cars" films took in more than $1 billion.

Part of the overall appeal is that each movie is layered. It always starts with a strong storyline featuring compelling characters, then works in themes that resonate with virtually every human being in the world. There's plenty of action and color to keep the kids interested, plus a dimension of humor that grown-ups can appreciate. In these respects, "Cars 3" sticks to the script. But that's not to say it's formulaic.

Pixar Studios and its parent company, Disney, have given Autotrader a behind-the-scenes look at what went into the making of

"Cars 3". And no wonder movies like this take more than five years to complete the journey from sketchpad to screen.

First off, it's visually stunning. Animation technology has progressed to such a point that it looks photographic. "Cars 3" features shots of an 18-wheeler crossing the United States in all sorts of landscapes and climates, and it's easy to forget that you're watching animation. Shadows and reflections are the keys. For example, sunlight reflecting off a damp road surface looks different to reflecting off a shiny chrome bumper. And Pixar nails it. As part of their research, the animation team would drive around the parking lot to better understand the play of light on a moving car.

The textures are amazing. There's one scene where the main character, Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) is watching race footage of his mentor on what looks like Super 8 film. The look of the projector itself is gorgeous -- old-school with a kind of hammered enamel finish. Then the "film" itself has a softness to it that seems just right for the times, evoking the early days of NASCAR.

Attention to detail is phenomenal. When designing the cars, a headlight isn't just some bit of simulated glass stuck onto the nose. To make things really convincing, that light will be created like the real thing -- with a bulb, reflector and lens. Make a film of a human out in the desert and the setting will provide its own details, a desiccated tree branch here, a rock formation there. With animation, every little thing -- every stone, every cloud, every blob of rubber that shreds away from a racing tire — has to be created from scratch.

"We're gearheads here," says John Lasseter, director of the first two "Cars" movies, a pillar of Pixar, giant in the animation world and classic car collector. "My father was a parts manager at a Chevy dealership in southern California. We want the engine sounds to be right, even the sounds of the starter motors. We don't have to do this, but we do."

In the "Cars" universe, racing is the prime sport. Lasseter said that he and his team spoke with motorsport TV directors, to get information on where they place their cameras, so the on-track action in the movie can be convincing and seem familiar.

Here's something that might be surprising. Just as designers of real-life cars fashion clay models to see how their ideas look in three dimensions, Pixar does the same. Not actual size, roughly the size of a regular radio-controlled car. But still. "You can't lie with clay," says sculptor Jerome Ranft. "It reveals everything." It takes about two to three days for Ranft to work up a model of each car or truck -- a process Pixar reserves for the main characters rather than the "extras" in the background.

One such character is Jackson Storm, Lightning McQueen's new nemesis, a modern breed of racing machine designed to make McQueen -- once the new hotshot on the block -- look like a relic from a bygone era. Look at Storm and you'll see touches of the Nissan GT-R (one of the most sophisticated sports cars on our real-life roads) mixed with lines inspired by the Stealth bomber. "Storm is a weapon on wheels," says Ranft.

Other new characters include Sterling, McQueen's new sponsor (oleaginously voiced by Nathan Fillion from "Castle"); the most child-unfriendly school bus and representations of real NASCAR personalities. Plus Lewis Hamilton, current Formula One world champion, as Hamilton the on-board computer, and broadcasting legend Bob Costas as Bob Cutlass.

Plus, here's an interesting bit of trivia: Sally (McQueen's "love" interest) was originally meant to be a Mustang (as in Mustang Sally), but that car has a distinctive grille that couldn't be worked into a feminine character. So Pixar went with a Porsche 911, which doesn't even have a grille at the front.

Going back to the inclusion of relatable human themes, though, creative director Jay Ward, says "Cars 3" is "the most emotional of the 'Cars' films." And it's obvious that these guys love the "Cars" characters, but let's leave it at that. We don't want to give too much away. Mark your calendars for June 16 -- a Storm is coming.

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'Cars 3': Sneak Preview - Autotrader