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Art imitates life, and perhaps there’s no truer example of this than shown in the Disney/Pixar Cars franchise. Sure, we don’t have the cars-like-people real-life examples, but Jay Ward and Ray Evernham, both of whom had a lot of input into the production of the films, says there are real-life examples that inspired the films.
“We knew after Cars 2 we wanted to tell another story and we also knew we wanted to get back to sort of more the roots of Cars 1, a McQueen story,” Ward said. “We also knew what people love about Pixar films is that emotional journey of a character and the transformation of a character.
And so that was the impetus. That was the beginning and then we thought, ‘if we’re telling the story about McQueen he’s already a hero, he’s already great at what he does. What do we tell?’ And we started with a comeback story. Kind of more like a Rocky 3 kind of. He gets knocked down by the young guy and does he get back up?”
Ward said that would have been an easy story to tell, but what they wanted was a more exciting story about mentorship, about paying it forward, and that’s how the storyline of Cars 3 came to be.
There’s a lot of pressure from all sides, Ward said, because Pixar Films are held to a different standard because they’re one of the leading animation studios. So having a great story from the beginning was worth the time that it took and the challenges that it brought to the team.
“Any film can look beautiful, but not any film can tell a great story,” he told us. “You have to feel a sense of wanting to connect with that character. Luckily we had people who had this love of Cars and this connection with Cars.”
Part of the satisfaction with the final product is the authenticity of the film, Ward said. “John Lasseter’s big word is authenticity. Whatever world it is, it’s gotta be authentic. For Nemo, [the production team] had to go Scuba Diving; they had to go underwater,” Ward explained to us. “They had to see what it looks like to look up from [underwater] For Wall-E, they studied so much stuff about space and… I mean, just every film you go to exhaustive research. And for this film, because Cars is a known world… we can’t get away with just making stuff up.”
But the Cars franchise isn’t just for gearheads, he said. “The person who doesn’t know anything about Cars is like, ‘I love this movie. That character was so cute.’ It’s gotta work for both.”
And when production of the films presented challenges, technical or otherwise, that the team couldn’t overcome, then decisions had to be made to benefit the overall story.
“If it doesn’t move the story forward, or if it takes away from the story, you don’t do it. So even if something’s authentic, and it’s right, if it doesn’t keep you engaged in the story, or disengages you from the story, you can’t do it.”
That adjustment might even mean that a favorite new character doesn’t make it to the final version of the film. It can be one of the coolest designs that the team has seen, Ward said, but when you try and make it into a character and it doesn’t look good, they just don’t do it.
“You cannot sacrifice your story,” said Ward. “That comes first and everything else is there to support the story. The authenticity is to support the story you know. The character design is to support the story.”
Ray Evernham is one of the most likely people that should be a consultant for the Cars franchise. He is a consultant for Hendrick Companies, he was a crew chief, owner of his own team until 2010, and he’s an analyst for ESPN‘s NASCAR coverage. Evernham is also a three-time Winston Cup Series Champion and won the NASCAR Winston Cup Illustrated “Person of the Year”. One might say he’s among NASCAR royalty.
So what does a member of NASCAR royalty bring to the Cars franchise?
“What we did was just sit and talk a lot,” Evernham said, humbly. “We talk a lot and the Pixar team asked a lot of questions. I told a lot of actual stories of how things worked and it was amazing to see them take that and be able to adapt it into the characters.”
Evernham said the story in Cars 3 isn’t too far from his own experiences with being involved in racing over many generations of racers.
“They’re getting lower, they’re getting wider, they’re getting sharper,” Evernham said. “And the air dynamics are coming from the bottom, the tires are getting wider, and profile’s changing. We just talked about all those things and they made notes, after notes, after notes and just kept bringing it to life.”
The real-life evolution of NASCAR cars helped inspire the future of racing in Cars 3, as well, in the form of Jackson Storm. The idea was to make Lightning McQueen look old, Ward said, which is hard to do because he’s still a fantastic, fast looking car.
“So when we show designs for Ray,” Ward said, “we asked, “Ray what would a NASCAR car look like 20 years from now if you can make it up?” And he’s like, “You guys are onto something good.’”
Evernahm said it meant a lot to him to be able to share his NASCAR stories and part of his own history with film-makers.
“I’ve totally… it’s been a fire hose of emotions in some ways because it’s– at the end of my career and having a young child – I’ve got kind of a blended family,” Evernham told us. “There’s 24 years difference between my children and my son is on the autism spectrum at 26-year-old.
“And I have a2-year-old and to be lucky enough to have been involved and this project has brought them closer together and I understand a little bit more… I watch the movies with them and I learn as much myself about my career.”
Evernham said when he thinks of Lightning McQueen, his story is much like the retirement of Jeff Gordon. “But then through this movie, some of the lessons that Lightning had to learn about the emotion and the relationships and the people were more important than winning the races and the trophies,” he said. “Because when that’s gone you just had stuff and without the relationship with people it didn’t mean anything. So, I actually found out more about my life and my career and I think that working on this movie has helped me appreciate my adaption into the Hall Of Fame more than had I not.”
If you want to see the only two life-size Lightning McQueen cars that have been producted, you can visit the Petersen Museum in Los Angeles, CA or the NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte, NC.