Exclusive: Story Supervisor Nate Stanton Talks Cars 2

A few months back, I had the chance to sit down for an exclusive interview with Cars 2 Story Supervisor Nate Stanton. We spoke about exactly what a story supervisor does, the difficulty of the job, transitioning the Cars sequel into the spy genre, the response to criticism for the original film, and the inspirations for the spy aspects. We learn great new details about how the creative team had to cut scenes that were deemed too dark to make the cut. Yes, Pixar was determined to make a great spy film. Read on for an enlightening interview with Stanton!

Nate Stanton

Pixar Times: For those of us who don’t know, can you describe the job of a story supervisor?

Nate Stanton: Yeah, of course. A Story supervisor basically does just that – supervises the other storyboard artists that are on your team. Every movie has anywhere from five to 10 people storyboarding and they’re on the movie for anywhere from two to maybe three and a half years. Supervisors – as things get very busy and all these sequences are being storyboarded – your job is primarily to look at all the sequences they’re doing and you review them with the director and then you give notes. I often will sit down one-on-one – maybe work on a sequence with somebody, with some little sketches. I do a lot of what we call thumbnails – sort of work it out – “I think we should move the camera around here” – that kind of thing.

My job is really to keep a global look at the whole movie and help keep the movie moving and also I work very closely with the director and the writer, often separately in a room like this (NOTE: we were in a conference room at Pixar). It’s my job to keep my team informed of any changes that are happening. There’s always changes. Every week. I have to keep them fed on what’s going on. Or if they need something from the art department – “Oh, ok. I’ll talk to the art department. Make sure you get that one thing.” It really is a lot about information. It’s just giving information to my crew.

Then, as the production progresses, it’s my job often to meet with the other departments. I might have to meet with the layout department and pitch them an idea for a sequence that is being worked on but is not done – but they need to know what it is. So, often it’s just giving information to people, going to a lot of meetings. It’s less boarding. I’ve storyboarded on seven features here, so this is my eighth one. As a story supervisor, I didn’t get to board that much but I got to play a bigger role in the making of the movie, which was really fun.

(L-R) Ben Queen, Kate Ranson Walsh, Nate Stanton, Nick Sung, Brad Lewis

PT: You must have a number of people working with you, trying to keep everything consistent. Is it difficult to work with everybody and try to keep them consistent so that when it’s finished it all flows?

NS: Yeah. Everyone draws on their own style but there are model sheets and everyone needs to draw certain characters the same way. Everyone is going to draw them a little differently but we use color options to absolve that problem. If everyone colors [Lightning] McQueen the same way – he can look a little different – that’s okay. Everyone knows what he is. Everyone knows the language of storyboards and what they are. Every director wants something a little different. Some guys don’t mind loose boards – some guys want tighter boards.

It is difficult to keep track of everything. Often, I find it will be difficult to remember – “Ok. I gotta remember to tell these guys about these two or three big fixes” that I know about but they don’t. So, it’s often hard to remember what they need to know. And then every story person is different. Everyone has different needs and wants. Everyone has pros and cons about how they work so I have to work a certain way with one guy and another guy I’ll have to worry about. Another guy, I might have to hold their hand a little bit and sit down and do a lot more work with them to make sure they’re staying consistent. But that’s all part of the job.

(L-R) Jay Ward, Nate Stanton, Geoffrey Yetter

PT: So when did you first start working on all this? Movies at Pixar tend to be in production for about four years. When does the story supervisor’s job start?

NS: I started in July of 2008 (about three years before film’s completion) – that was when I really started. The director and the writer had already been on the movie for at least six months if not before. My job at the beginning was to think about the movie, bring my interpretation of what it is, any changes that they might be doing – we talk about the movie often. Then, I start doing beat boards, single drawings for each sequence, just to flesh out what they might look like. I would do that for the whole movie. I brought one extra guy on and that’s what we did for a few months. Then I start bringing more people on. It’s just a matter of getting approved. Once you start, there’s no stopping. You do screenings every three to four months and that’s the cycle for two to three years.

PT: Do you find that your approach changes for a sequel. Obviously, these characters have existed and audiences know them. I know at Pixar, you don’t feel good about rehashing themes and putting out the same thing. Can you talk about how it’s different from [working on] say, the first Cars?

NS: I didn’t work on the first Cars but that was one of the reasons I wanted to work on this, because it was all new to me. The sequels are just as hard to make as the originals. There’s really no difference in how painful it is to get the story right and make the movie. The nice thing is that we have this world that’s been created. Often, one of the things that we do, which takes a long time, is just finding your characters. There were plenty of new characters in this film and we had to do that but the universe was already laid out, [along with] the rules for that universe, which is really nice because often that’s often how we talk about our films – you’ll have a screening and the reaction will be, “It’s really fun and entertaining but I don’t know what the rules are. You seem to be doing everything.” You need to set some ground rules for what these characters can do, so again, we have this first movie to look at, which is really nice.

But it was just as difficult. We’re only in Radiator Springs in two sequences out of the whole movie, while everything else is new. What helps, again, with the characters is that everything we do in story is driven by character motivation. You know who Mater is, you know who McQueen is, you know who all the Radiator Springs people are – that helps a lot in finding your story because you know who these people are, which often takes a long time to do.

Nate Stanton At Work

PT: Can you talk about how it was going in a new direction with the sequel? Now, we’ve gone into the spy genre, but have also tried to keep “the heart” in it. It’s very action-oriented. Is it more difficult to focus on “the heart” and keep it in there?

NS: Yeah. Well, this movie it was because we were having so much fun focusing on the plot and the conspiracy and all these fun things they could do. You have to be true to your characters but the heart of this movie was very difficult to find. It took a long time for us to get there because we were so focused on trying to get the plot working. Even though, as I said earlier we know who these characters are, it was hard, even in a whole new movie to find what would work for them and find the heart of the movie. It was tough – it look us a long time for us to land on that but every movie, that is often the last thing that – “Ah! There we go. That’s the last piece of the puzzle. You’re constantly working at that.

Sometimes, our first reel can be great – the heart’s there but the story’s broken. It’s often either or, but it’s usually both that are broken (laughs) and then they become less broken, and less broken, and less broken, and then you find it. To be honest, that was the thing that got me most excited about this movie was – “Wow, a spy conspiracy” – and I got really excited about that. We looked at all these cool films – “Oh, we have to have a scene like that. That looks really cool.” It gets more difficult once you have to start structuring the movie to make it all work.

PT: There’s been some criticism from people who didn’t love the first movie. I’m sure you were all aware of that. Did you try to change the process from how you made the first movie? Or did you just say to yourselves, “We have to make a great movie”?

NS: Yeah, you always go on the blogs and then look at some of the talkback. It’s funny, you know, it’s interesting. Of course we want to make movies that people want to see. That’s how it all works. That’s how this place functions. You don’t want to make stuff that you love and everyone else is going to hate, but that’s what’s amazing about John (Lasseter) as a director. He knows what the audience likes and doesn’t like and he’s very, very good at keeping everyone within those parameters.

You’re aware of it, but no – that’s one of the things that I love about this place – is that we never talk about, “Oh, this has got to be a film for kids,” or “This is going to be a film for tweens,” or “This is going to be a film for teenagers.” We try to make a film that just works and functions. Of course you want to make it palatable for the broader audience because you want them all to come to it. A film like ours, which will be PG, like The Incredibles was PG (NOTE: Cars 2 is actually rated G. It seems that Pixar was actually expecting a PG rating) – we know what we’re doing when we’re making it. Of course when we set out to do a spy genre movie where there’s going to be gunfire and things like that, you’re aware of what you’re making. You know what it is.

PT: That is one thing that I really admire about Pixar. You can sense that the people working on the films are so passionate about creating a great film, whether it’s an original film or a sequel.

NS: Yeah. We hope this one comes off too. I think it’s going to be great. It was a lot of fun to make. It was very hard, but it’s never easy.

Nate Stanton Working Away

PT: We started talking about the spy theme. You mentioned that it’s been fun working within the spy genre. Can you talk about how that affected your thought process and filmmaking?

NS: I really wanted to make as dark a film as we could but that’s just my personal [opinion]. I like darker, more horror in movies, so it was nice to see how far we could push it. We had a lot of scenes that are not in the movie where we went a bit too far, but that’s the fun of story – “Let’s see how far we can go with this.” I mentioned earlier, watching spy films, where your character is basically tortured and it can be a really horrifying scene. I remember thinking if we could just get five-percent of this in one of our scenes – there is a scene where one of our agents is interrogated. We looked at that – the tone – “If we could just get a little of this in what we want, it would be great.” It would go a long way.

You never want to step over the line and shun part of your audience but you want to make the scene work. That for me was what I really liked – looking at films like Ronin, which had incredible car chases in it – just, wow, if you can get some of the sense of what they’re doing here in our movie. That to me was the exciting part.

PT: What were your inspirations for Cars 2?

NS: We looked a lot at Bourne Identity. That was a big one. John particularly liked those movies. We often looked at that movie for all sorts of things – for tone, we looked at visually what they were doing. There’s a great believability in a lot of the stuff that’s going on there. Of course we looked at some Bond stuff too but we wanted to stay away from that. We wanted to look at some other things.

We looked at a film like Gone In 60 Seconds. There’s a great scene where characters put up a car and are almost crushed to death. We used to have a scene like that where [we thought], “We have to try this. We gotta see if it’s gonna work.” We looked at scenes to see how they used the camera, primarily.

All images photographed by Deborah Coleman. ©Disney/Pixar. All Rights Reserved.

Many thanks to Nate Stanton for the fascinating discussion.

Cars 2 hits theaters this Friday!

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