With “Cars 3,” Pixar leans into female empowerment. First, high-tech trainer and wannabe racer Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo) helps Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) mount a comeback after a near-fatal crash. Their cross-generational relationship deepens when McQueen teaches Ramirez about real racing, as Paul Newman’s late, great Doc Hudson taught him.
At the same time, Pixar promoted animator Jude Brownbill to directing animator on “Cars 3.” She fine-tuned Ramirez and also oversaw major sequences. Brownbill previously worked on “The Good Dinosaur,” “Inside Out,” “Monsters University,” “Brave,” and “Cars 2,” and joined Louise Smythe (a lead story artist) and Ana Lacaze (shading technical director) in the latest display of female empowerment at the studio.
Crashing a Male-Dominated Profession
Just as Ramirez fights to assert herself in a male-dominated profession, so does the soft-spoken, British-born Brownbill. “It does sometimes feel like the female voices aren’t as loud as the men’s [in animation], and one could describe it as a man’s world,” she said. “It is hard as a female to know that your opinion is valid, and you should speak it out loud and it will be heard and respected. And it will.
“But it’s taking that step. Going into that leadership role for me personally has meant engaging in a lot of meetings and giving my opinion about acting choices, all those things I didn’t know I was capable of. It was a big learning curve for me and had parallels with Cruz’s story.”
Originally, McQueen mentored a young male upstart racer similar to Jackson Storm (Armie Hammer), his eventual opponent in “Cars 3.” But when Pixar made the gender change to Ramirez, that necessitated an elegant yet muscular design makeover. And Brownbill helped test new modeling and rigging, which, among other things, resulted in better shapes for smiles.
“You don’t have much to play with: you have a mouth, eyes and then a head,” said Brownbill. “A lot of the performance has to come from how big the head movements are, the speed of them. With Cristela, she had such a bright and sunny performance, that we moved Cruz around a lot more and tried to get more energy into the movement without breaking the truth of materials in the physical world.”
When Ramirez Met Alonzo
But it wasn’t easy finding the character of Ramirez, who’s confident, outgoing, and brutally honest, until they dug deeper into the backstory of Alonzo (“Lower Classy,” “Cristela”). “There was a storyboard screening comment from John [Lasseter],” said Brownbill. “He told us to go back to Crestela, do some research, and find out more about her.”
So Brownbill and the story artists soaked up her stand-up comedy and sitcom. “She has this amazing backstory that she talked about. Growing up poor [in South Texas] and the struggles to become successful in a predominantly male industry, which made her more believable and relatable,” she said.
One anecdote that stood out was the death of Alonzo’s mother. “Death and comedy don’t usually mix, but it was very emotional and you could hear a pin drop,” said Brownbill. “We got to see both sides of her. She really was Cruz with so much range.”
Ramirez Gets Vulnerable
A crucial moment occurs when McQueen shows Ramirez how to race on a beach. Later on, beside their trailer, he lays into her about how little she knows outside of the training simulator. Then she turns away and gets vulnerable for the first time.
“She wanted to be a racer but gave up on that dream because she didn’t think she had it in her,” said Brownbill. “She refocused to becoming the best trainer. It’s a quiet, introspective moment. We don’t want to distract from the power of the words that she’s saying to him.”
Making the Best Choices
But at the same time, the power of Pixar’s photoreal rendering takes “Cars 3” to a whole new level of believability. “These tools are so fast, efficient, and quick — it shakes you a little bit and makes you vulnerable,” Brownbill said. “They’ve done it again and again and again [at Pixar]. You can learn a lot from John and the others. But we’re just trying to tell the best story and make these characters come to life as believably as we can. At the end of the day, it’s the choices that we make.”