Mater Takes Center Stage: A chat with Victor Navone and Rob Gibbs, co-directors of the new Disney/Pixar TV Cars Toons.

This week marks the premiere of Pixar’s Cars Toons, a three-part shorts series featuring Mater, the rusty tow truck which befriended Lightning McQueen in the 2005 feature. The animated vignettes are directed by John Lasseter and co-directed by Victor Navone (animator on Cars, The Incredibles, Finding Nemo) and Rob Gibbs (story artist on Cars, Finding Nemo, Monsters Inc.). We were lucky to get Navone and Gibbs on the phone to find out more about this fun project:

Animag: So tell us about how these mini-series of shorts came to be? Were the shorts created around the same time as the movie?

Rob Gibbs: Basically, we started to work on the shorts last summer. John [Lasseter] cares a lot about the characters in Cars, and he was looking for a project that would keep these characters alive. That’s how we came up with the idea for these shorts, which were created as 30-second bumpers. In the beginning, they were conceived as crawls on the bottom of the screen, but everything at Pixar seems to grow.

Victor Navone: We look at them as Mater’s ‘Tall Tales.’ The idea was not to repeat the plots of the movie, but to expand that world. Mater is one of our favorite characters’a lot of the character is based on Larry the Cable Guy’s vocal performance’it’s the broadest performance and very silly, so he’s likely to get into ridiculous situations.

Rob: The development took about six months. We had a bunch of different ideas and narrowed it down to the ones that were the best.

Victor: The actual production took about eight months, total. We worked under a pretty accelerated schedule. The team wasn’t the same one that worked on the movie, or the short (Mater and the Ghostlight) that was included on the DVD, because this happened a few years after the movie’s production was done. We had some veterans of the feature, but basically we had a team of about 60 people working on the shorts at a given period.

El Materdor

How does working on a shorts package like this compare to a big 90-minute feature? What are the pluses and minuses?

Victor: Oh, it’s so much easier to tell the story in the shorts. You don’t have to worry about dealing with character arcs. It’s all about getting the gags to work in a short period of time.

Rob: It takes five years to create a movie. But with a mini-shorts series like Cars Toons, the turn around is relatively quick. You get to see the finished product so much sooner.

Victor: And the characters are already established, so you know what they’re doing.

So will the Mater shorts qualify for Oscars this year?

Victor: No, because for the shorts to qualify for the Oscar, they have to first be screened in theaters. We think they’re good enough, but we just didn’t want to spoil everybody else’s chances of winning!! Maybe we can win an Emmy instead!

We always like to find out about the toons that influenced animators early on in their lives. What were yours?

Victor: I watched a lot of stuff on TV that was just awful when I was growing up. But I also loved Warner Bros. cartoons. Those classic Chuck Jones cartoons were huge influences in terms of style and situation comedy.

Rob: I used to run home from school to watch those same Warner Bros. Cartoons. I was that kid in school who just loved to draw all the time!

We know you get this questions a lot, but everyone is curious about Pixar’s secret recipe for success. Why do you think the studio has such a solid track record?

Victor: It’s Teflon! Seriously, one reason is because our projects are all director-driven. The ideas for the movies come from directors and animators themselves, not from executives or focus groups and surveys. The studio culture really shelters and nourishes artistic creativity.

Rob: We don’t have a problem with throwing stuff out if it doesn’t work. We work with our editors and go over scenes over and over again until we get it as close to perfect as possible.

Victor: We also get a huge amount of support from John Lasseter. These shorts are all his babies. If we can make John laugh we know that we’ve succeeded in our jobs.

What is your take on the big animation scene in 2008?

Victor: It’s funny, but life at Pixar is hermetically sealed. We keep doing what we’re doing and try to come up with original, new ideas and we don’t follow trends. The job climate is not as volatile as it is in L.A. People are on salary and it’s quite family-oriented.

Rob: We do love to see what’s going on in other studios and the stuff that comes out of the independent scene. We’re always excited about 2D animation surviving. Next year’s Disney feature The Princess and the Frog is a great example. We have a lot of animators who were originally 2D animators (they work on the title sequences and the Ratatouille short film My Friend the Rat, for example).

What kind of advice would you give students of animation who want to get into the business?

Rob: Draw, draw, draw and draw! That’s the most important thing you can do. Also watch a lot of funny films. There are so many good schools out there. I went to CalArts. A lot of our animators are CalArts graduates.

Victor: Pixar looks at a lot of schools out there. I’d say it’s very important to focus on traditional skills, instead of technologies. We’ve hired animators who have never used computers before. It’s hard to teach someone to be an artist, but it only takes a few months for someone to learn a computer program.

Here is a complete list of Cars Toons premiering on Toon Disney (all times ET/PT) and their official synopses:

Monday, Oct. 27 (6:56 p.m.)

Rescue Squad Mater. Mater is a fire truck that rescues Lightning McQueen from a burning building. When McQueen is rushed to the hospital, he discovers that Mater is a doctor, too.

Tuesday, Oct. 28 (6:57 p.m.)

Mater the Greater. Mater is a famous daredevil who does all kinds of stunts. And Lightning McQueen becomes an unwilling participant in Mater’s greatest stunt ever.

Wednesday, Oct. 29 (6:57 p.m.)

El Materdor. Mater is a famous bulldozer fighter in Spain. He’s so good, he’s able to fend off multiple bulldozers at once. Lightning McQueen joins Mater in this tall tale just as things are at their worst.

Disney Channel will present all three shorts throughout the day on Saturday, Nov. 1. ABC Family will present the shorts beginning Tuesday, December 23 during the network’s annual “25 Days of Christmas” programming.