One look at the feature film Rally Road Racers will remind you of Pixar’s Cars movie series. But the very next moment, you notice the former’s distinct look and style. Behind this uniqueness is the VFX studio ReDefine.
Released in May 2023, Rally Road Racers tells the story of a rookie race-car driver who gets an opportunity to compete against the reigning champion. With help from a former driver, he must overcome treacherous terrain, rival racers and unexpected obstacles to prove he has what it takes.
To make a movie on racing, in animation, and to stand out as a unique product in a market where the Cars franchise has been etched in people’s memory for years, is no easy task. But that was exactly what Rally Road Racers director Ross Venokur assigned to ReDefine VFX supervisors John Harvey and Alexei Nechytaylo.
“From the start of the project, we understood film’s director Ross Venokur’s desire to create a unique look that was not an imitation of projects from other studios,” Harvey started.
The supervisors paid very close attention to the nuances of different cultures to ensure that they were culturally sensitive at all times. “This resulted in a film that balanced the funny and high-action car chases with authentic Chinese culture and environments that Alexei knew well from his time spent living and working in China,” Harvey explained.
Nechytaylo continued, “I love the incredible culture and people of China so I really wanted to make a film that doesn’t follow the tried path of Asian clichés and instead tells the authentic story of modern China. I wanted to show the two opposing ideas of the country: the dynamic and fast-paced modern city, as well as the traditional and meditative village life. I picked the areas I love the most. The mountains of Yunnan, one of the last bastions of traditional ways of life, and Shanghai, the poster child of globalism and modernity.”
But it wasn’t just Chinese culture that was taken into account. Many other nations are represented in the film. Harvey shared, “Ross particularly enjoyed our very early 2D animated character tests. These were used as a guide to character movements later in shot production.”
Talking about detailing that went into the character and vehicle design, Nechytaylo said, “The characters, above all, had to be entertaining and fresh. The character count is quite high so the character development took about a year with many iterations of each. The additional challenge was to preserve the comedy and lightheartedness when we built the characters in CG. It’s a tricky process that often dilutes and sometimes kills the character design.”
Since the film is about racing, vehicles and the races themselves become significant elements. Hence, Nechytaylo treated the vehicles too as characters. “All of the vehicles had to have a comedic quality and all of them had to be exciting to look at,” he said.
The ReDefine team had identified very early on that the film’s race sequences in boarding would not be creative enough for the process. They kept the boarding simple and the dynamic and creative work on the chase action sequences was achieved in previs/layout where real cameras and volume could be utilised.
Nechytaylo explained, “It was helpful to have vehicles as diverse as ours were. Our main challenge was the effects. You can’t have a dynamic race without all the excitement of dust and debris flying around and I was against the use of photorealistic effects in the stylised show. We spent months developing the look and then years populating all the shots with FX.”
Since their goal was to create a new, fresh and unique look, VFX supervisors Harvey and Nechytaylo did not take any reference from the Cars films. But they revealed that the 2010 live-action racing film Rush and the Formula One documentary film Senna were some very early inspirations, primarily for the dynamic camera work. “Unlike live-action films, we had the added complication of scale,” Harvey mentioned. “Our vehicles were all very different and compositions allowing for the various sizes and shapes was challenging at times.” Nechytaylo said that he “watched tons of drone footage and studied the cinematography of the iconic live-action race movies such as Fast & Furious, Akira and Mad Max.”
He continued, “Cars is a great franchise. It is an incredibly slick and polished product. It has that “Pixar look” that people know and love. We had to be completely different to have a chance to stand out from the crowded landscape of Pixar lookalikes. The show looks very bright and colourful and it is reminiscent of the beautiful racing posters with their bold and graphic design language. Creating the unique look ended up being one of the most challenging aspects of the film.”
For Rally Road Racers, ReDefine’s main tool was lighting. From the beginning, the team built lighting into the layout as prelighting. That allowed the artists to stage the characters well and work around the “one lighting scenario per sequence” limitation. As they weren’t able to do custom lighting per shot, the basic lighting set-up allowed them some room to stage the action and position the characters. Since they already had set up the light and shadows, they could move the characters around that.
Nechytaylo elaborated, “I used colour as the cornerstone of the film. In my opinion, the show had to look bright and colourful but it had to be done tastefully. More often than not, we see garish animated films with all the colours screaming as loud as possible, creating a visual cacophony. We went the other way — all the colours in every frame are carefully curated.”
ReDefine ensured every sequence has a “signature lighting and colour recipe,” the supervisors said. Planning the lighting process from the very beginning was key to maintaining that consistency throughout.
As its lead animation partner, ReDefine created 1,700 shots for Rally Road Racers. The concept art and storyboards were done internally with over 200 artists from London, Mumbai and Montreal studios. Using software like Maya, Clarisse, Houdini, Nuke, After Effects, Substance Painter and Mari, the VFX studio completed the production work in three years.
Currently, ReDefine and Redefine Originals have several animated movies in various stages of production. And we can’t wait to see what fresh style the team will bring to the table next!