'Cars 2': How Pixar Used Its Secret Weapon on CGI Sequel

6:04 PM PST 06/22/2011 by Stephen Galloway
Disney/Pixar

One of the company's effects artists has a specialty he used to create the movie's opening scene, featuring some of the biggest and most realistic waves ever seen in computerized animation.

Pixar had a secret weapon when it came to creating the biggest and most realistic waves ever seen in computerized animation, which it needed for the opening sequence of its new movie, Cars 2.

The weapon was a staffer who just happened to have a doctorate in "fluid simulation."

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Fluid simulation is an academic specialty through which engineers and others see how water will move in real-life situations and is often used for the creation of dams and other hydraulic projects. It involves complex scientific terms like the "Navier-Stokes equations," which outline the physics of fluids.

Luckily for Pixar, one of its 1,200 staffers, effects artist Tolga Goktekin, had a Berkeley Ph.D. in that very subject. He used his specialty to create one single shot, when we see two boats dropped into the ocean next to a series of vast oil rigs -- part of the opening scene in which Finn McMissile, a James Bond-like car (voiced by Michael Caine) travels across the water and discovers the oil rigs at night.

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Director John Lasseter wanted to convey the sheer immensity of the rigs, compared to the boats. But that meant making the boats and the waves ultra-real. Goktekin tackled the hardest part of it, says Apurva Shah, supervising technical director for the movie.

"He's the one who worked on the most difficult shot," Shah said. "He spent three months working on that shot alone, which lasts maybe six seconds."

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Three months? "We didn't want to spend three months on that shot, but when it doesn't work it's really obvious," Shah said. "It was the last shot to be final on that reel. [The problem] was the scale. There are some obvious tricks, like you can say, 'Hey, slow the motion down, it makes things look bigger.' The scale looked better then, but the shot lost all its energy. We had to go back and forth and find the right balance."

Among the many aspects Pixar had to address for that one shot: the water surface, the splash that comes out of it, the spray and the mist. "You have all of these different elements," Shah said. "But from an effects perspective, it was basically this one guy."

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