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The special effects in <i>Cars</i>, such as lighting and reflections where the sun bounces off cars coated with five layers of metal-flake paint, proved among the most difficult animation the studio has ever undertaken.

Laurie Sullivan

June 20, 2006

3 Min Read

Information technology-driven special effects in the Pixar animated movie "Cars," currently No. 1 in the charts, make it the most "visually complex" movie that Pixar has ever created, said Bill Kinder, Pixar director of editorial and post production. And that's saying something since the famous studio has cranked out such animated blockbusters as "Toy Story," "A Bug's Life," "Monsters Inc.," "Finding Nemo," and "The Incredibles."

The special effects in "Some of the things we were asked to do seemed completely ridiculous and impossible, but it all got done," he said. "Like the frames with 160,000 cars in the stands at the stadium that did the wave, or the neon signs with 3,000 lights that flash at night." Rendering these frames each took about 20 hours to complete before the artist could see the results of their work. Pixar animators use a proprietary platform pronounced "MenVee," running on Linux, but have the capability to integrate frames created in Maya from Autodesk Inc., or other software packages, for example. The rendering process took longer because the scenes with "intense lighting and reflections" are filled with complicated mathematical calculations that required time to process, Kinder said. "Cars," directed by John Lasseter, remained the No. 1 movie in U.S. and Canadian theaters for a second week, taking in an estimated $31.2 million, for a total of $114.5 after 10 days in release. It's Pixar Animation Studios' first 2K (2048x1080 pixel resolution) digital release. Walt Disney Pictures distributed the movie to 210 screens in the U.S., and more are scheduled to hit European screen in the coming weeks. Pixar used a "computationally expensive and sophisticated approach" to create the reflections and lighting in "Cars," said MovieEditor.com studio technology consultant Robin Rowe, who attended a screening Monday night hosted by the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California digital cinema lab in Hollywood. That technique called "ray tracing" allows 3D animators to create the affect of light bouncing off objects, an otherwise difficult task, industry insiders say. "It's a controversial technique because the process adds time to the rendering process," Rowe said. "In going from a more traditional approach in the movie "The Incredibles," to ray tracing in "Cars," it increased the render time by a factor of 10. One frame typically takes about eight hours to render at 2K resolution." Aside from the rendering, it took Pixar nearly seven years to make "Cars,"from concept to release, Kinder said. Until last year, the movie remained in pencil drawings and storyboards, with nonprofessional actors doing the voices. Kinder said the computer graphics work came toward the end of the production process, "similar to building a house where the blueprint is drawn, wood frames go up, and the surface detail and interior design comes at the end." Producing the movie in 2K resolution makes it easier to repurpose in 4K (4096x2160 pixel resolution), said Howard Lukk , executive director of production technology at Walt Disney Pictures. "You'd line double each pixel in each line to display it through a 4K projector," he said. Many roads and building signs in the movie also were translated into many languages to fit into international markets. More than 100 scenes were translated where text or audio might influence the viewer's reaction to the movie.

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