On Location: 'Cars 2' production designer Harley Jessup hits the road
In “Cars 2,” the latest feature film from Pixar Animation Studios and Walt Disney Studios, director John Lasseter and his team faced the challenge of how to take the familiar characters of Radiator Springs to a global stage for the first World Grand Prix. For that task, they turned to production designer Harley Jessup and his team of artists, who had to virtually create several iconic cities — including authentic settings and characters that would resonate with international audiences. Jessup took time to talk about how they did it.
Just like the characters in “Cars 2,” you went on a global tour as part of the production of the film, visiting London, Paris, Tokyo and the Italian Riviera. How important were these trips?
We were in Europe for 14 days in May 2009 [they visited Tokyo in October]. These trips were super helpful in bringing back the authentic details of the places that you just can’t get in books. You have to visit London, Tokyo, Paris and the Italian Riviera to know what each of these cultures is like and what the visual feeling of these places is. Before our trip, we had outlined our race routes through each of the cities. We tried to re-create the race routes, driving through the cities and stopping at key landmarks we wanted to include in the film.
I used the photographs I brought back as resources for details about everything from sign graphics to mailboxes, models of cars, even what the sky looks like and how light reflects on buildings. Our goal was to try to get audiences in each of these cities to feel like we captured the essence of their cities. I took more than 10,000 photographs from the Europe trip and another 3,000 from Tokyo.
What look were you trying to create in designing these characters and virtual cities?
We wanted to weave these car-themed shapes into the traditional architecture of buildings. So, in London, there were these Georgian buildings where, if you look closely, you will notice they are built with a variety of car parts, such as shock absorbers for pillars. The dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral is shaped like a car’s differential casing. If we were building a skyline that looked too much like the actual city, John [Lasseter] would ask, “Well, what’s ‘Cars’ about that?”
And Big Ben was transformed into Big Bentley.
Big Bentley plays a pivotal part in the story. Denise Ream [the producer] arranged for us to get inside the clock tower, which is very hard to do. In order to make it fit into the “Cars” world, we scaled it up about 250%. We used a Bentley grille and hood ornament to surround the clock face, spark plugs in place of the Gothic spires, and created a wheel spoke design for the clock dial.
Where did you visit in Paris?
It was really fun for me to get to work in Paris again. We studied it so much for “Ratatouille,” so it was a treat to be back there. We went on this motorcycle tour through the city. We stopped at the Louvre, the Place de la Concorde and Notre Dame cathedral. We also visited an old marketplace near the Bastille that was torn down in the 1970s. In the movie, we transformed it into a black market for auto parts.
What was the inspiration for the fictional city of Porto Corsa in Italy?
We wanted it to be a mixture of an Italian Riviera town like Portofino, with its terra cotta roofs and brightly painted buildings, and Monte Carlo, which has a great Grand Prix tradition of racing. We visited the race every day and saw the drivers practice and took tours of the pit areas. It’s a very different world than American NASCAR racing. It’s a very cool and glamorous world, and we really wanted to show that.
You also took a test drive?
We toured a Fiat factory in Torino and we met with [famous car designer] Giorgetto Giugiaro and his son. They took us out on a Fiat test track where they had six cars parked. I didn’t have any experience with race cars, so it was really important for me to get the feel of being in a race car. Traveling at 150 miles an hour in an Alfa Romeo — it was really fun.
— Richard Verrier
Photo: Harley Jessup, production designer for "Cars 2" at Pixar Animation Studios in Emeryville, Calif. Credit: by Deborah Coleman / Pixar.