Please tell us about yourself
Northeast Ohio native Michael Comet sounds exactly like the kind of person you’d imagine that Pixar Animation Studios would want on the team.
You know, someone who earned good grades but was no stranger to letting his imagination become a distraction.
Michael Comet, character supervisor for the Pixar film Cars 3, says he always had an interest in computers, drawing and art.
“I loved the traditional Disney movies from Snow White to Bambi and 101 Dalmatians up through Warner Bros. cartoons like Bugs Bunny,” says Comet, who grew up in Beachwood and attended Case Western Reserve University, via phone from his office at Pixar Animation Studios. “At the same time, I was a bit of a nerd. I went to computer camp at a young age.”
His father picked up an old Apple computer, and Comet started teaching himself some basic programming. His aunt bought him a book about how to create animation, and he learned how to do 3-D animation at home. While at Case, he became a computer science major and took a computer graphics programming class.
How did you end up in such an offbeat, unconventional and cool career?
“In Beachwood, in high school, I was doing flipbooks in biology class, as well as doing well in biology,” Comet says in a recent interview to promote “Cars 3,” which hits theaters June 16 and on which he worked as a characters supervisor.
“I was originally thinking of going pre-med, but I realized my passion was computers and programming and computer animation,” he says. “At the university, I created some graphics for the brand-new website pages we had for our first-ever site of the university.”
“I was doing stop-motion (filmmaking) — I got a Super 8 (camera) from a shop in Mayfield Heights,” he continues. “At the same time, I was teaching myself Basic and C ++ (programing languages) … and going to computer camp.
“I actually wrote my own paint program, just because there was nothing really that great at the time.”
OK, OK. We get it.
After majoring in computer graphics at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland and taking art classes there and elsewhere, Comet went to work in the video game industry.
A chance meeting with Doug Kelly, who worked at the Case library at the time and has written books and articles on 3-D animation software, led Comet to want to become an animator. He got his first gig at a video game company in southern Illinois before landing the job at Pixar.
He transitioned to animation work, however, landing jobs for different studios and having a hand in movies including “Robots” and “Ice Age 2.”
He came on board at Pixar just as the first Cars film was released in 2006.
How did you get into Pixar?
The interview with Pixar that led to his employment wasn’t his first. In the mid 1990s, he had talked with company reps at a job fair and believed — mistakenly, he says — they were looking with someone stronger on the artistic side of computer graphics, while he says the technical side is where he’s stronger.
“It’s the one interview that I totally bombed,” Comet says.
The second time, he nailed it and has been with Disney-owned Pixar since 2006.
Tell us about your work
His first job was as a character rigging technical director on “Up,” the critically acclaimed animated film helmed by Pete Docter that earned a nomination for the best-picture Academy Award.
“‘Up’ was definitely a fantastic film,” Comet says. “I just loved working with Pete Docter — he’s a fantastic director.”
Comet recalls spending a bunch of time working on the walking cane carried by the film’s protagonist, the elderly Carl (voiced by Ed Asner), as well as on the rottweiler Beta (Delroy Lindo).
He remembers walking into one of his first meetings where the character department had to figure out with Docter and the animation department how to make the short Carl touch the top of his head.
“One of the things I remember (is thinking) just how collaborative it is here,” he says. “Pixar works hard internally, I think, at just being super-collaborative between departments.”
After working in a similar capacity on 2012’s “Brave,” Comet shot up in the Pixar world, becoming a character supervisor on 2015’s “The Good Dinosaur,” the job he also did on “Cars 3.” As a rigging TD, he was responsible for, more or less, setting up a character that comes from the designers as a sort-of digital puppet that can then be animated.
For the last two movies, though, he has been someone supervising that work. So, for instance, should one picture him doing a bunch of screaming when the windshield eyes of “Cars” series hero Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson) don’t look right?
“We’re not screaming,” he says with a laugh, noting he was one of two character supervisors on the new movie.
“For Cars 3, the biggest thing for us was to get the next generation of racers and make them look as amazing as we could,” Comet says when asked about the latest installment of the series, which opens area-wide on Friday. “The story of Cars 3 is about [the stock car] McQueen getting older and facing these new challenges as the next generation appears on the scene. [McQueen rival] Storm is the anti-thesis of McQueen. McQueen is rounder and softer. Because he’s so round and soft, the art department designed Storm to be sharper. Our job is to take the artwork and translate it. We wanted to increase the level of detail and realism.”
Comet says an updated rendering system allowed the animators to go into more detail. For example, some of the cars have metallic paint and even “micro scratches.”
Stellar animation aside, Comet says the Cars films appeal to viewers on a few different levels.
“For me, cars are a passion of mine,” says Comet. “My dad was big into cars. I have fond memories of being in one of my dad’s old Jaguars. And Pixar movies talk about emotions and things that transcend cultural and national boundaries. Cars 3 is no exception.”
Speaking of “Cars 3,” if you watch one of the trailers, you may notice how the visuals really pop.
“Our software’s really advanced over the last several years, to the point where it’s really realistic the way it makes light behave,” he says.
For example, they can really get detailed with how the cars of “Cars 3” look.
“We can control the shininess of the clearcoat separate from the shininess of the paint,” he says. “Pixar, in general, is always trying to push the technology, as well as the artistry.”
According to an official synopsis of “Cars 3,” Lightning McQueen finds himself pushed out of racing by a new generation of crazy-fast cars. However, a young technician, Cruz Ramirez (Cristela Alonzo), may hold the key to getting him back in the game. Other new characters are voiced by Armie Hammer and Nathan Fillion, while Larry the Cable Guy is, of course, back as Mater.
“I think ‘Cars 3’ is a story we haven’t told before, and it’s a really fantastic story,” Comet says, who soon will move to a new project but says he doesn’t know what that will be. “It’s got some great voice acting from Owen Wilson, and our new actors Armie Hammer and Cristela Alonzo, and it’s really just a touching, heartfelt story about how to fight back when the chips are down when you’re struggling in life and obstacles come your way.
“I think fans of the ‘Cars’ franchise will really enjoy it.”