As a character animator with Disney Pixar, Juan Carlos Navarro was given the opportunity to work on the sequel “Cars 2,” the first feature-length animated film of his career.
“It’s been a wonderful experience being a part of Pixar,” Navarro said during an exclusive interview with me. “You feel like you are doing something special. The artistic and emotional depth of the films we make is something I am very proud of.”
In “Cars 2,” Navarro gave life to a number of returning main characters, including Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson) and Mater (Larry the Cable Guy). He also got the chance to animate new characters like Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro), an arrogant, Italian Formula One race car with attitude.
During our interview, Navarro, who is of Spanish descent, discussed the challenges behind animating inanimate objects and what he learned when he got behind the wheel of a racecar himself as part of his research.
What were your responsibilities as a character animator on the film?
Basically, I am bringing the characters to life. It’s our job to make sure that when audiences go to the movie theater and see “Cars 2” they believe all the emotions the characters are going through.
What specific characters did you help come to life?
I feel very fortunate because I had the chance to animate all the main characters. From an artistic standpoint it is very fulfilling because it gives you the chance to get in the skin of these different personalities and these different situations. I enjoyed animating all the characters. I really enjoyed animating Francesco. I was one of the first ones that got to animate him, so I helped create some of his unique personality. I loved animating Mater as well. He carries the heart of a lot of the movie.
Was getting into the skin of these characters difficult since we’re not dealing with human characters?
There is a mantra we have here at Pixar: Truth to materials. That means if you have a human character that is made of flesh and bone you are going to move the character in a particular way. As humans, we can obviously connect to that. But if you’re animating a car, you have to stay true to the material of that car. I basically had to look at the car and imagine it was a big, heavy metal box.
Did you have to do any research on real cars?
Yes, the studio took us to do some driving on a racetrack. We had a chance to drive the cars pretty fast. We wanted to understand what it feels like to be a car. It was extremely helpful to understand what we were animating. We also had professional drivers come into the studio and look at our animation to make sure it felt real. In addition, we needed to bring emotion into it. We had to understand what materials the cars were made of, but also layer it to convey those most important emotions.
How did you decide what emotions a car could show when it was taking a sharp turn or driving fast?
You talk to the director about what the character is feeling at that moment. I had to internalize that emotion, position myself with the character, and connect. How is my face reacting when I say dialogue? How do I reproduce that reaction in the car? That’s the challenge.
Was there room for you to be creative with the characters since this is a sequel and audiences have expectations based on the first film?
We are working with established characters people love. You’re expected to keep them “on model” and consistent with their personalities from the first movie. But since these characters are in different environments and different situation we were able to explore new levels of their personality. There were plenty of opportunities to bring new things to these characters.
Do you have kids?
Yes, my son David is four and my daughter Valentina is six. They love the movie.
Do they understand their daddy helped make the movie their watching?
Absolutely. It’s so awesome especially when they come and visit me at the studio and I can show them the work I’m doing. Watching the movie with them is a lot of fun.