Wednesday, May 31, 2006
Disney/Pixar Cars Premiere: NASCAR, Music, Celebrities, Fireworks, fly-overs, and the world's largest digital movie screens.
Last Friday, May 26, 2006, I took my family to the world premiere of the new Disney/Pixar animated feature, Cars. The story revolves around stock car racing in a world populated just by cars and other motor vehicles. Richard Petty has a small but important voice role and there are also bit parts by Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Darrell Waltrip, so the premiere was fittingly held at the Lowes Motor Speedway, just outside Charlotte, N. C. Brief review of the movie: highly entertaining, but not as fresh as Pixar's earlier films. The story will seem too familiar to grown-ups. Cars opens June 9th in the United States.
The Speedway is an immense complex which can seat 167,000 people. The track is 1.5 miles long, the length of 26 football fields. For the premiere, about 30,000 seats were available, all around “Turn 2.” The tickets were available to the public, but sold out fairly quickly. Most of the tickets went, I'm sure, to NASCAR fans. This is the biggest week for Lowes Motor Speedway, culminating in the Coca-Cola 600. I'm not a NASCAR fan, but I found out about the event from a mailing from Disney. Our sons, courtesy of their Aunt Henrietta, have a subscription to Disney's online game, ToonTown, and Disney has our address from that. The tickets were priced very reasonably, $10 each, with proceeds going to charity.
We started from Chapel Hill, except for my wife and 9-year old son, who were at the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro on a class field trip--busy day! We picked them up there, then headed down N.C. Route 49, which I hadn't traveled on for years, through the Uwharrie National Forest. This turned out to be quite fitting, since a theme of the movie is enjoying the scenery on Route 66, instead of speeding along Interstate 40.
One funny thing happened on the way down. My 16 year-old daughter got a phone call from one of her best friends. The conversation went something like this: “Hello ... I'm in the car on the way to Charlotte. ... Because! ... I'll talk to you later. ... Because! ... I'll be back tomorrow.” She didn't want to tell her where she was going. As it turns out, she didn't want to have anything to do with Larry the Cable Guy, who has a major role in the picture and was the emcee for the live portion of the premiere. He was completely inoffensive at the premiere, my daughter admitted, not (in her words) his “usual celebration of ignorance and bigotry”!! I have no idea if this is an accurate description of his act, which I've never seen.
Disney was taking a risk holding the premiere outdoors and weather nearly ruined it. I checked the forecast the night before and there was a 60% chance of rain. Sure enough, as we headed down NC49, the sky darkened and there was lightning in the distance. Highway 49 leads right to Morehead Road, where the speedway is. As we approached the speedway, we traveled through vast campgrounds filled with RVs. It confirmed my daughter's worst suspicions about the redneck nature of the event. More than a few Confederate flags were evident. There are African-American NASCAR fans, by the way, including the husband and young son of one of my coworkers. She tried to get tickets to the event, but it was already sold out. I'd guess that only about 1% of the crowd that night was black.
It only started to rain as we were looking for a parking place. After we parked, we waited for a break in the weather. When the rain seemed to be slowing, we got out of our car--and then the hail started! Or maybe it was just sleet, I don't know if there's a distinction. It was just rice grain-sized, but there were reports of dime-sized hail in nearby counties.
We waited in the minivan, with the windows steaming up. We tried to call the speedway to find out if the event was going to go on, but just got in a seemingly endless hold loop.
Eventually the weather calmed down a bit and we trekked to the stadium. At the gates we were handed free plastic rain ponchos. I don't know if that's a standard NASCAR thing or just something special for this event, but, either way, they were very welcome. By the time we got to our seats the rain had stopped, but it did drizzle a few times during the evening, so we did use them.
There were 4 or 5 giant TV screens showing the celebrities arriving on the red carpet outside the stadium; a couple of NASCAR announcers narrated. Three trucks with jet engines mounted sideways on the back were blowing water off the track.
After a long time, the festivities began. In some order the following happened:
- There was an exhibition race, 8 cars for 12 laps, with Disney Studios' chairman Dick Cook starting the race in the pace car. Darrell Waltrip won the race in what was apparently a pre-planned outcome.
- A military band played some patriotic music; at the end, perfectly timed, four F-16s flew over the stadium.
- Country music group Diamond Rio sang the National Anthem, with an honor guard from the 82nd Airborne presenting the colors. Just at “the rockets' red glare,” red fireworks shot up and, well, the bombs burst in the air. Nice touch.
- Larry the Cable the Guy told a few jokes and introduced Disney chair Dick Cook, John Lasseter, Paul Newman, and Speedway chairman Burton Smith. The former pair presented the latter pair with oversized checks for their charities, with half a million going to Newman's Hole in the Wall Gang camp and the same amount to the Speedway Children's Charities.
- A band that just plays parties and other events warmed up the crowd with a lively set. Unfortunately, there were sound problems; we couldn't hear one of the singers. Perhaps the problem was just in our section of the stadium.
- Larry the Cable Guy told a few more jokes and introduced the cast of the movie that were present: himself, Paul Newman, Cheech Marin, Richard Petty, John Ratzenberger, Michael Wallis (author of Route 66: The Mother Road), Tony Shalhoub, Katherine Helmond, Bonnie Hunt, Darrell Waltrip, and Owen Wilson.
- Country star Brad Paisley sang three songs, including “Mud on the Tires.” Evidently he's quite popular. I'd never heard of him, but he was quite good. A couple of his songs are on the Cars soundtrack. I notice on Wikipedia that he appeared on a TV special, "Route 66: Main Street America" on The Learning Channel" back in 2000.
- Larry the Cable Guy recognized several groups in the audience--military families and children from the Speedway charities.
- Larry the Cable Guy introduces surprise musical guest Chuck Berry! Holy cow, he's 79 years old! One of his hits was "Route 66" (Get Your Kicks on Route 66). Coincidentally, I saw him 19 years ago, almost to the day (5/24/1987) at the American Booksellers Association Convention. He gave a great private show there to promote his autobiography. I thought he was old then! Unfortunately, at the Cars premiere, there were major screw-ups in the sound system. First we couldn't hear him sing, then we couldn't hear his guitar. Then he introduces the piano player and we couldn't hear the piano! It was infuriating. I hope that the problem was not in all sections of the stadium--that would be insulting to the performers as well as the audience. I don't even remember what he sang because I was so steamed.
At last, around 10PM, the movie started. The entertainment was fine, but considering the weather and the number of young children present, it could have been shorter.
The movie was great fun. It tells of a cocky, rookie race-car, Lightning McQueen (Owen Wilson), who is in three-way tie for the Piston Cup. (Until very recently, NASCAR's season championship was the Winston Cup.) On the way across country to the special tie-breaker race, in the middle of the night Lightning falls out of his trailer and, with no headlights, gets lost on a back road. Trying to get back to Interstate 40, Lightning causes quite a bit of damage to the desert village of Radiator Springs and is put in the hoosegow by the local sheriff.
Lightning is sentenced to fix the damage, which takes several days. Grown-ups won't find much suspense in what follows: will Lightning find humility, small town values, true love? Will the embittered veteran be coaxed out of retirement, will Lightning win the big race? Cars is not at the level of Pixar's top films, Toy Story(s), Finding Nemo, or The Incredibles, but it is a solid piece of entertainment, like A Bug's Life or Monsters, Inc.
After the credits rolled (and, yes, there was something clever during the credits), there was a short fireworks display. Then we left; it was midnight.
The film was shown on four giant movie screens--115ft by 50ft (35m x 13m)--projected digitally using DLP Cinema 2K projectors from NEC, Christie, and Barco. Each screen was lit by three projectors perfectly overlapping to achieve maximum brightness. The resolution of each projector is 2048 x 1080. The picture was superb--perfect, really. A side purpose of the premiere was to show off the capabilities of the DLP projectors. I think that digital projectors have definitely arrived.
I see that Carmike is installing DLP projectors in a big way, including in a theater not too far from me. I'll have to check out what DLP looks like for a live-action picture.
The sound, unfortunately, was not good. It was unpleasantly loud and, though I could understand all the dialogue, I don't think I would have recognized any actor's voice (except John Ratzenberger) if I didn't already know who they were. There was something very wrong about the audio spectrum.
Despite the weather and the sound problems, we all had a great time, even my teenage daughter (although she may not admit it).