‘Cars on the Road’: How Pixar’s Animated Series Pays Homage to Ray Harryhausen and ‘The Shining’

·3 min read
Animation
Animation

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In Pixar’s new animated short-form series, “Cars on the Road” (currently streaming on Disney+), creator/director and animator Steve Purcell (“Brave,” “Cars”) puts Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy) on a cross-country trek full of cinematic nostalgia. The stops include homages to the stop-motion dinosaurs of Ray Harryhausen, the Overlook Hotel from “The Shining,” and retro sci-fi movies.

“We wanted to send them on a road trip [to the wedding of Mater’s sister], and make it so that each place they stop was its own mini-adventure,” Purcell told IndieWire. “And that afforded us a lot of opportunity to create all these different, interesting locations, each with its own sensibility, style of music.”

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Producer Marc Sondheimer added that in spite of the series’ short-form nature, it still contains 65 minutes of content. And it’s tied together in episodic form. “The launch of Disney+ afforded us a different form factor to tell these stories in a different realm of creative development,” he told IndieWire.

Purcell (who shared directing duties with Pixar vets Brian Fee and Bobby Podesta) based the trip’s many pit stops on his own childhood memories of roadside Americana. “Some of those became natural,” he said. “A haunted hotel, with urban legends and ghosts, or movies I had seen. It was the joy of taking know-it-all Lightning and putting him through the wringer and humbling him.”

In the first episode, McQueen and Mater check out an attraction patterned after Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument. Turns out that McQueen’s become a dino nerd. That gave Pixar the opportunity to create a fantasy sequence in which the two friends fight a T-Rex car that moves in the beloved style of Harryhausen. “It occurred to me that all those parts like the tails were moving in cycles in the old movies,” Purcell said. “So I told the animators that if his little wheels would be sticking out, let somebody rotate them in a cycle, and let his tail be whipping around. So that was a lot of flourishing. And the fight was choreographed to feel heavy and dynamic.”

“Cars on the Road” - Credit: Disney+
“Cars on the Road” - Credit: Disney+

Disney+

It was a challenge to be messy with the stop-motion style, but the scene’s supervising animator was able to draw on his experience with the technique on “Celebrity Death Match.” Added Podesta: “The technical folks in lighting and rendering made sure that there was no motion blur on the dinosaur, but there is on Lightning and Mater until they get picked up by the dinosaur,” he said. “That’s because in the old movies the humans would turn into a puppet. It’s super geeky and we appreciate it if someone gets it.”

In another episode, they spend the night at a haunted hotel, a mash-up of The Overlook and Disneyland’s Haunted Mansion: An elevator gushes antifreeze instead of blood, a ballroom of automotive apparitions echoes the Haunted Mansion’s “swinging wake,” and creepy twins linger in the hallway. “Lightning struggles in the hallway and that actually became a joke when one of our animators pointed out that the hallways were too narrow for him to turn around,” added Purcell.

“Cars on the Road” - Credit: Disney+
“Cars on the Road” - Credit: Disney+

Disney+

Fee got to direct an episode in which McQueen gets recognized by a film crew and recruited to act in a sci-fi parody: “Attack of the Space Zombies from Planet B.” That enabled Pixar to animate a slimy monster. However, the superstar racer is a terrible actor, so Mater takes his place and slides right into the part. “I think the fun was watching McQueen be bad at something and watching Mater succeed without even trying,” Fee said.

But then a new sidekick they meet on their journey, Ivy the monster truck (Quinta Brunson), steals Mater’s thunder. “We wanted that feeling of walking into the middle of a shoot and the in-joke of something being swapped out suddenly,” Purcell added.

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