I am thrilled to share that Cars 3 is in theaters today! I’ve been so excited for this day to come and I know you’ve been waiting. While attending the Cars 3 Press Event in San Francisco, I was able to learn what it really takes to make a movie like Cars 3. I hope that you’ve enjoyed checking out all of my posts (listed below)
In addition to Cars 3 hitting theaters today, Pixar’s newest short film LOU premieres before the movie! I was so excited to see this short and chat with the director and producer about it.
Clip from “Lou”
Follow Pixar’s Production Timeline
Director Dave Mullins shared a bit about how Lou came to creation. The presentation followed a Pixar Production Pipeline where he showed us from start to finish what it took to make Lou. First he told us about John Lasseter’s influence on his thought and creation process.
In conception John Lasseter has something said something about Pixar films once that always stuck with me? Pixar films have very specific ingredients. Pixar films have heart, entertainment, setting and animation. Heart meaning the main characters flawed and experiences personal growth. Entertainment meaning the story has to be unpredictable and funny. Setting meaning the film needs to transport the viewer or audience to some place that is exciting and new and animation meaning the film must be called to be animated and must use animation’s full potential. I love these guidelines because it gave me a road map for what to pitch at the studio. It’s these ingredients that appeal to a wide audience and help create a really compelling film.
When I was a kid, I moved around a lot. My dad was very driven and that meant that we moved every year or so for his job. I was always the new kid and it was tough leaving old friends behind every year and having to make all new ones. At times, being the new kid made me feel invisible. So I thought about that experience and it gave me an idea for an invisible character that could hide in plain sight at a school and longed to be accepted by the other kids. Something that would be kind of funny yet creepy at the same time. So I drew a bunch of different creatures and finally landed on one that was great! It’s a pile of stolen toys that is actually a little kid underneath.
Lost and Found
The idea was interesting but there are a couple of issues with it. First the creature was a thief, and he wasn’t really that likeable. I wanted a character that you could root for, that the audience could get behind. The second was that it was a little boy underneath all of the stolen stuff and that was just a little too complicated, which made him a little less appealing to me. So I went back to the drawing board and I rethought the character but I kept that core idea. A creature that could hide in plain sight at a school and a character that wanted to be accepted. And this time, the pile of toys was literally the lost and found box at the school.
When bringing something inanimate to life, you have to think about its intended purpose in the world. A lost and found box is meant to collect lost items and return them to their original owners. This character had a built in sense of purpose. It supported my core idea and became the key to my pitch. I mean how many times have you walked by a lost and found box and never even thought twice about it. There is something about that is unexpected and it made it entertaining. So I knew this was a great character premise and a foundation to what could be a great film.Now all I needed was conflict to give the story heart. What is the best adversary that believes that true happiness comes from giving? A thief of course. And in the context of an elementary school specifically, a bully that steals. JJ was born and the story began to take shape. Then I designed Lou as a collage seen here. Then I enlisted my wife Lisa who is a talented stop motion fabricator and animator to build a maquette of Lou. I fell in love with it right away. As you actually have the physical thing in front of you, you can start playing with it, I discovered there is something interesting with the eyes.Having the baseballs as eyes, you can turn them to get expressions like lids and as you orient the stitching, he become happy or mad or whatever it is and it acted like eyelids just using the actually objects and for me this is when Lou really came to life and it excited me because this was the part that could only be done in animation. So pitch day came. I set up the room; I put a white sheet over Lou’s maquette.As everybody piled in, I could see everyone kind of eyeing this white lump in the middle of the room. I pitched the idea, talked a bit about the story change and then I revealed Lou’s maquette and everyone lit up. John Lasseter and Pete Duncan were in those roller chairs and they wheeled their way over to the maquette and they started playing with it and there was great conversation right away about the possibilities you could do with Lou. At this point, I knew I had them hooked. This was the pitch. It’s a story about a lost and found pile that loves to give toys back, but a bully starts to steal toys and Lou fights back. In the end, Lou gives the bully back the one thing he really wants, his long lost stuffed animal, changing the bully’s heart. It had all the ingredients to make a compelling pitch. John Lasseter looked at me and said this character looks like a pain in the ass to do. Lets make it. And with that I was given the green light to move forward with the story. I was so excited.
Welcome Dana Murray, Producer
Lou was officially in production at this point. Besides the obvious things that a producer takes care of like building a schedule and a budget, and building a team, I would say most of my focus was on making sure we stayed true to the story that Dave wanted to tell. Besides focusing on the story, we were planning on some unique challenges ahead of us. So first Lou is a character made out of cloth, toys and who knows what. How are we going to build and animate this? And second we had a whole school to fill of kids. So each kid needed to be built and animated by this small crew, but hey we’re in good shape, everything’s going well. What’s the worst that can happen? Well, features happen which means we needed to shut down for a little bit. Features are always the priority at Pixar and shorts often have to go on hold because of this. And in our case, it was the Good Dinosaur. But after 6 months, we were up and running again. So at this point we started to focus on art. We needed to design the characters and the sets so the story artists would know what to draw. So we started exploring Lou, which was a ton of fun. We tried a bunch of different ideas and eventually landed on a design. Next up to design was our bully JJ. So we got to work on him. We tried a cross between Scott Farkas from the Christmas Story and John Connor’s friend from Terminator 2. But these kids seemed way too tough so we looked at Jonah Bobo from Crazy Stupid Love. This kid even though he looked tough also looked vulnerable at the same time. This was exactly what we needed JJ to look like. Someone who is as tough as nails but could fall apart when he was reunited with his long lost stuffed animal. So now we had appealing designs for our characters and we started working with the story department.
We began by exploring a bunch of different story ideas involving Lou like throwing lunch meat, having a sock tongue, etc. We tried jumping from one box to the next, changing shapes, trying to stay away from jock straps. Covering JJ completely with Lou and then he jumps out and I kept drawing his underwear, which I thought was really funny. At least it made me laugh. Tidy Whities are always funny. It made it into the film. Its funny. In story there are so many elements in play both written and visual. This is where I learned the most and I found it the most challenging. This is something that would continue for the entire film, that story telling process. After story comes edit. We delivered our storyboard to Tony Greenberg who is our editor for Lou. Tony would show me exactly what I asked for every time and then he would show me a better version, which he had worked on. So I was really happy about that. With this we began a rough assembly, which is basically coming up with the boards for the film. We learned a lot from the rough assembly.
We then had the opportunity to see some of the story boards that they had developed and presented. Dave explains that it was entertaining to see Lou right off the bat because there was nothing mysterious about him when you see everything when the film starts. “We decided to hide him in the beginning of the film to give this moment a much bigger impact. Making it more entertaining. As soon as I learn what pitched well did not necessarily play well on the screen. It happens every time you go into a new department and more significantly in the earlier stages of a film. So when you go from script to story, story to edit, edit to animation something new is learned every time. It was at this point we got some pretty big notes from the studio for we thought our story was on track but it wasn’t quite working. I didn’t fully understand at the time that Pixar you’re never really done with story. I had seen other directors’ story changes like this before but I had never experienced it for myself.”
Dana shares that all of this meant that they had to go back to the drawing board and rework the entire story from scratch. She shares that “the wonderful thing about Pixar’s culture is that it cultivates telling good stories but with that comes notes, lots and lots of notes.” Dana shares “what we thought we knew about filmmaking was completely wrong. Story is never done, so we went back to the drawing board and something unexpected happened. By continuing to work on the story we found some humor and entertainment that was missing from the original version of the film. In the end we stayed with the original idea but we learned some things. It was a great lesson in being open to radically different ideas because at Pixar the best idea always wins. So once we were back on track with our story, we had to build, articulate and texture not only our main character but also a ton of school your kids and the set.
LOU Character Development
Dave states that Lou wasn’t even a traditional character. He was just a bunch of stuff.
We had to figure out a way to build him so that the animators could actually move him without going crazy. We decided that everything would need to be animated by hand, so there’s no computer shortcuts or simulations that we ran to make this character feel alive. It is fully animation. And believe it or not this is actually the simplest solution. I still have animators cursing my name to the state because of it. At Pixar we love these types of challenges and the animators were totally up to the task. At this point we turn to the fantastic sculptor, Jerome Ranft, to sculpt JJ. Here’s a little secret about JJ, his initials stood for Joyce Jean, which is my mom’s full name. My mom called me on this and said did you think I was a bully? I was like no mom I just wanted to have someone immortalized in the film in the film that I loved. Not somebody that I didn’t. I had my bully’s initials on the board at one point and I’m like why am I putting that guy’s name in here. But my mom is great.
Dana then shows us a picture of the JJ sculpt and shares that they actually took a character from Inside Out and repurposed him and trained him to be JJ.
This allowed us to make a very appealing character and a much shorter amount of time with fewer resources, which as a short was a thing. We also did the same thing with all of these kids as well. Now the characters were built and the set was ready and at the beginning of 2016 we were able to move into layout.
Dave said that at this point, the film changes again.
Seriously we have to completely re-make the film once it goes into the computer. The Lens choices you were doing, all the little cheat you were doing with drawing, all this gets laid bare and you have to put it into a set. You have to make the sets and the action kind of all fit together, and it’s a real puzzle here’s what the early layout looks like. It is here in layout that we also learned something new. Lou really, even this is a really rough sort of animation, Lou isn’t anywhere near some of the earlier drawings that we had done. So we moved in the animation to fix this. Our first animation tests were really fun and they were certainly appealing as seen in this Bonifacio test. We weren’t pushing his animation potential far enough with this character. So we revisited Lou’s design and I reached out to the animators to help. They are incredibly creative group and I knew they wouldn’t disappoint in the task and coming up with some crazy fun ideas like this. There’s a snail Lou, football face Lou, tripod Lou, spunky spiky thing Lou, I don’t know what that is Lou and then Albert Lozano, our production designer, came up with this design. And we were over the moon. It held onto what we loved about our earlier design but made him kind of Squirrely and this was the Lou we needed. It made him truly unique and his animation started to look more like this. You can see were playing he’s kind of like a duck thing here, he completely wiped out. This snail thing kind of comes in here. And this was becoming a film that can only be done in animation at this point. Lou was starting to finally find his full potential. Next, they worked on JJ. The question is how do you make a bully funny, how do you care for him? This was answered by answering what motivates a bully. Bullies act out because they want to tension so JJ became a kid who constantly disrupt other kids making him an outsider and when Lou forces him to act with compassion, this changes have a kid see him, and when he finally gets what he really wants, and with the film is actually about which is acceptance. This is a subtle change and an enormous impact on the film, with this you get the character and it gives the film heart.
Sprint to the Finish Line
Dana states that at this point it was a major sprint to the finish line.
Animation kicked into full gear and we moved into lighting. We began by doing color studies of the world. We took key moments of the film and did tiny paintings of them, demystifying the emotional beats of the film with color. And it gives a clear goal for lighting to follow progression looks roughly like this. So the film starts out a little cool and drab, and then has a lot of contrast during the big action scenes. If only ends with the warmth and color that fits the emotional ending. Once we have the look of the film, we need a score that would reflect the quirky qualities of Lou in this world so we chose. Christophe Beck as the composer for Lou. Dave shares that Chris had this quirky sensibility about his music and we knew that he would fit the film perfectly. Chris and Dave worked on Lou’s theme and I wanted something that was hummable as all my main favorite themes are. We landed on that bum bum bum. And then once we had that theme, Chris came up with a really cool idea. So these are all the percussionists. There were 14 of them in a circle and what Chris had them do was each one would play one note at a time and it went around in a circle like that. So they weren’t actually playing music all at once, they were just playing once at a time. So it sounded something like this. We were overjoyed with how the score turned out. It was quirky just like Lou and had a lot of heart. So we headed to Skywalker Sound where you create the sound effects and mix the music. At the end of summer 2016, the film was finally in the can. Dana drove separately that day and she headed home and I kind of walked back to my car and I was kind of sitting alone in the car by myself and felt kind of numb at that moment. I texted my friend Angus McClain and said Lou’s done. He replied sitting alone in the parking lot of Skywalker Sound? And I’m like yeah. And he’s like hey man lets go get a beer. And at that moment this kid that felt invisible for so long as a school kid, realized not only did I make a great film but also made a lot of great friends.