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Local boy makes good with 'Cars' and even better 'Cars 2'

Five years ago, pundits were quick to cast doubt on "Cars." A version of "Local Hero" or "Doc Hollywood" starring a high-speed auto? How misbegotten and outre!

It turned out to be one of Pixar's most profitable pictures — and one of its best-loved. Creating a cast of automobiles with human features — eyeballs in the middle of their windshields, eyebrows at the top of them, and mouths and teeth under the grilles — director John Lasseter pulled off an ultra-contemporary yet homespun fable about a hot-shot racer who wins big when he slows down and smells the desert roses in the Southwestern town of Radiator Springs.

Pixar has kept its competitive edge by embracing innovation even in its sequels. The plot of "Cars 2" is like a globe-trotting James Bond adventure — the opposite of "Cars."

The cartoon company has also maintained its energy by recruiting fresh talent — and promoting it.

In 2005, Prince George's County-bred computer-graphics whiz Bob Moyer, now 32, was an intern working on "Cars." Last week, from Pixar headquarters in Emeryville, Calif., he said, "I got started on it super, super early. There were only a dozen technical people, tops, on that film when I began on it. And I got to deal with all kinds of neat stuff — chrome, car paint, tires, everything shiny, but also dust, rust, dirt and weird gunk. Normally with characters, you do a lot of skin, eyeballs, cloth and hair."

Just a few years later, on "Cars 2," he became one of two full-fledged character supervisors. He was responsible for ensuring that each car's paint and chrome and plastic or rubber fittings reflected its personality. He was charged with seeing that four-, three- and two-wheeled characters overflowed with heart, wit and new ideas even in their shading.

Moyer grew up in Kettering, graduated from the Science and Technology Center at Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Greenbelt in 1996, then enrolled in the University of Maryland (and graduated in 2000). At College Park, he pulled off a professional coup and a personal one. He combined courses in "computer science, studio art, and other odds and ends, and basically put together my own computer-graphics major." He also met his future wife.

Moyer said the pivotal experience in his life was watching "Toy Story" when it came out in 1995.

He was a high school junior when he "went to some movie theater … maybe Bowie, maybe the Marketplace Mall, to see it." Special effects fascinated him, even in the blow-things-up-real-good modes that were done (back then) with physical models. But Moyer was also into computer graphics. And after he saw "Toy Story," he said, "I literally came out of the theater and told my friends, 'This is what I'm going to do for a living.'"

He had always loved animation. "I was a Saturday-morning cartoon kid. We never had cable, so that meant, for me, the Warner Bros. cartoons that still hold up — like Bugs Bunny and Wile E. Coyote — and '80s classics like 'Voltron' and 'Transformers' and 'G.I. Joe.'"

He proudly concluded, "Yes, I've been a nerd for a long time."

After he got his Bachelor of Arts degree from Maryland, he enrolled at Texas A&M, aiming for a master's in visualization sciences. He knew that Pixar and A&M had established a pipeline for bringing top technical talent into the company. He won an eight-month internship — that's when he worked on "Cars" — then returned to finish his thesis project, "writing a wood-burl shader," to get his master's.

Back at Pixar, he worked in character shading on "Ratatouille" and "Up." But "Cars 2" marked Moyer's greatest challenge yet — and one of Pixar's, too.

In "Cars 2," Lightning McQueen — and Pixar — aren't resting on their laurels. When British tycoon Miles Axlerod publicizes his groundbreaking clean fuel, Allinol, with a brand-new World Grand Prix, Lightning enters the race. He recruits his Radiator Springs pals — including his best buddy, tow-truck Mater — to serve as his crew in Tokyo, London and the small town of Porto Corsa, Italy. They stumble onto a plot to upend Allinol and paint the green-energy movement oil-slick brown.

In this continent-hopping adventure, supporting characters pop up at you like Dickensian caricatures — flamboyant, effervescent and emotionally complete. Uncle Topolino, the sage of a small Italian village, is based on a 1930s car: the Fiat 500 Topolino. He exudes avuncular wamth. He's a prime example of the way Moyer and his team convey feelings through textures.

"Car paint has changed over the years," Moyer said. "As opposed to now, where you do the color with a clear coat or lacquer on top, for the Topolino they used a single-stage paint, where they mixed the paint with the clear coat. That gives the car this wonderful tactile quality — you just kind of want to reach out and touch it." Thanks to Moyer and his team, Uncle Topolino looks like a 70-year-old car that has aged with perfect grace. "He's not falling apart. He has this dapper-old-man-in-a-suit kind of feel to him."

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