It’s easy enough with toys, monsters, even fish, but how do you assign a personality to a car? That’s a challenge that faces not only Pixar, but the designers who work for the auto industry as well, says Ford chief creative officer J Mays, who headed up the redesign of two classic automotive icons: the Volkswagen Beetle and the Ford Mustang.
When “Cars” director John Lasseter first approached Ford about helping him prepare for his upcoming film, it was Mays who led the Pixar exec into the automaker’s inner sanctum. In Lasseter, Mays found a kindred spirit who brings creativity to what sometimes seems like a very technical field.
“What John does is he tells stories by animating them and putting them on the screen, and I tell stories by bending sheet metal, and it evokes feelings out of people,” Mays explains. “I always say people buy cars because they’re prepared to spend a part of their life with it, and that’s very much a relationship like you have with your spouse or your lover.”
One of the main ways car designers convey a vehicle’s personality is by giving it a distinctive down-the-road look, says Stewart Reed, who chairs the Transportation Design Dept. at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design. “We end up calling it a face because in so many ways, it is,” Reed says. “If you make the human analogy, we have to take in air, we have to see, we have to communicate back.”
Mays’ two most famous designs demonstrate the range of emotions a car can communicate. “The original Beetle has almost babylike features. It’s very round and innocent, and it has great big headlamps for eyes,” he says. “On the Mustang, we touched a chord with people in a very different way. Where the Volkswagen has this hood that comes down and closes over the front fenders almost like a happy-face smile, the Mustang is actually growling because the front end is leaning forward on that car, making the face look quite menacing and aggressive.”
Lasseter isn’t the first animator to worry about how to anthropomorphize a four-wheeled scrap of metal. From such classic Hanna-Barbera series as “Wheelie and the Chopper Bunch” and “Speed Buggy” to Hayao Miyazaki’s Cat Bus character in “My Neighbor Totoro,” “Cars” follows a rich tradition of car toons featuring autos with a mind of their own.
According to Angela Robinson, who directed last summer’s Lindsay Lohan vehicle “Herbie Fully Loaded,” the creative team had endless discussions about how to suggest their own Bug’s life.
“I think people do this with cars, they lend them human properties,” Robinson says. “In a way, you’re like friends with your car or you have an antagonistic relationship. People talk to their cars all the time. You start from an easy place, and people are willing to take the next step because they have so many feelings tied up in their automobiles.”
But instead of treating Herbie as a person, Robinson thought of him more as a pet, basing its actions on ways she’d seen her own dog behave — right down to a rear wheel that wobbles when the characters tickle Herbie’s sensitive spot.
Unlike Lasseter’s cars, Herbie can’t talk, so Robinson’s challenge was to make the car communicate in other ways.
“It was hard to express the more complicated emotions,” she says. “Happy or mad were really easy, but jealous was tricky, and so was conflicted. I mean, how do you make a car seem passive-aggressive?”
The folks at Aardman Animation have a trick. They’ve been bringing cars to life in a series of Chevron ads for years. “Whether we’re doing Wallace and Gromit or whatever characters, most of our energy comes from the eyes,” notes Darren Robbie, who has directed a number of the spots for Aardman.
“I think there were certain obvious design points, like using the headlights as the eyes and the bumper as the mouth, because when you’re a kid you sort of see cars like that anyway,” he says. “We try to imagine that the actual car body is like a giant head, so as the character’s talking, the car will move as a human head might as it’s chatting. We get a lot of the character from the voices.”
In England, one of Aardman’s influences was a show called “Thomas the Tank Engine,” starring a talking train. Meanwhile, Lasseter points to the 1952 Disney short “Susie the Little Blue Coupe” as the template for one of the movie’s most significant aesthetic decisions: placing the eyes in the windshield instead of the headlights.
“The eyes to an auto designer are the headlamps, and then the grille is the mouth,” says Mays, “but I fully understand it now. If you put the eyes in the headlamps, you end up with a long snakelike appearance, so I think it was a stroke of genius to put the eyes back into the passenger compartment because it actually mimics what the bump on someone’s head might look like.”