Speed Racer: Hyperstylized World

It's expected that Larry and Andy Wachowski's eagerly-awaited movie, “Speed Racer” (opening May 9) will break new grounds, technically and stylistically. The brothers were the first filmmakers to utilize Sony's F-23 HD camera, which has not yet been released, when the principal photography began.

F-23 HD Camera

We used the first five F-23 Cameras that Sony made, and the camera performed beautifully,” says cinematographer David Tatersall, who had worked on George Lucas' “Star Wars: Episodes II and III,” both shot in HD. “This was a perfect choice for the look that Larry and Andy were aiming for. We composed our shots to look very sharp, super saluted and very glossy.”

The quest of hero Speed's for racing fame takes him around the globe, from his hometown to the multi-continent Casa Cristo 5000 road rally to Cosmopolis for the Grand Prix. To create the varied settings, the Wachowskis relied on the expertise of the industry's most creative designers, visual effects artists and digital photographers, some of whom they had worked with in the past. Two artists, Dan Glass and Oscar winner John Gaeta, played a particular significant role.

Observes production designer Owen Patterson: “We wanted to have global locations that would normally be impossible to shoot, like exotic foreign cities, air deserts, and icy mountain roads. Places where most directors wish to shoot but couldn't because it's either too remote, or can't accommodate a film crew. The decision was made to take the best of those rare and exotic locales and 'visualize' them, allowing the visual effects department to incorporate them into scenes.”

360-Degree Panoramas: QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR)

The film's final imagery was created by using actors against green screens, joined with high-definition digital image captures of far-reaching locations, including Italy, Morocco, Austria, Turkey, and Death Valley. These images were captured by a small camera team using ultra-high resolution digital still cameras and later pieced together to create 360-degree panoramic backgrounds, labeled QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR) spheres, and informally referred to by the movie's team as “Bubble Photography.”

Bubble Photography

Says Dan Glass: “Because the bubble photography unit is made up of only a few people and requires less equipment than a full-scale production team, we were able to use exotic locations that typically don't give access to large film crews.” Gaeta complements: “The idea was to get freer and freer with our creative process. When the images captured were tiled together, it created a panoramic view in which you could put the camera where you want in post-production, and see what you want to see at any focal length.” The team expanded on their “Bullet Time” concept, used to great effect in “The Matrix movie, with “Racer Time,” which is similar but includes attention to planes of depth.

Live-Action Anime Look

According to Glass, “the colors were pushed beyond the usual limits to produce “pop-timistic' or techno-color imagery. To get the film's myriad visual effects, the directors aimed for “live-action anime look,” using a visual-layering techniques that allows the foreground, mid-ground and background to stay in focus, much like that of traditional 2D animation. The technique was labeled by the Wachowskis “21/2D Technology.”

In “Speed Racer,” each layerthe foregrounds, mid-grounds and backgroundswere created separately. The way these planes move against one another has a quality seen in cartoons; it's like a second language for children. Striving for emotion over realism, and blurring the lines of perspective, was quite liberating for the visual effects team. The team was playing against perspective, creating images that deliberately break the rules.”

“Anime is such an expressive format,” says Gaeta. “In the cartoon series, which was hand-drawn, there are unrealistic perspectives deliberately created to spark emotions. It's less about what's real and more about what the artist wants you to feel. Translating this into live action involved a process that is, in the simplest terms, like creating moving collages.”

Practical Sets

While many of the locations in “Speed Racer” were virtual versions or computer-generated, some of the practical sets were also built. Production designer Patterson describes the world of the story as “taking place in a fusion retro-futuristic era, a parallel reality where the optimism and fashion of the 1960s is juxtaposed with the hyper-competitiveness and technology of the future. Larry and Andy didn't want the world of 'Speeder Racer' to be confined to a specific era.”

Contrasting Milieus

Two contrasting milieus are presented in “Speeder Racer,” one that the Racer family inhabits, which is safe and suburban, and another that is sleek, ultra-modern and over-run by corporate advertising. “The Racer family lives in an uncomplicated suburban landscape where the colors are warm, bright, and very saturated,” says Paterson. “We did a lot of the concept work in Los Angeles and were influenced by the mid-century modern style of homes there.”

In contrast, Royalton Industries is based in the ultra-modern city of Cosmopolis, a colder reality that's artificially lit by outdoor billboards and corporate logos. Paterson says: “We've taken the skyline of a bustling, modern city like Shanghai or Hong Kong, both architecturally and from an advertising sense, and then applied that to the very multi-national conglomerate-drive world run by Royalton. It's global branding and marketing on steroids.” Inside, Royalton's office is a spacious but sterile environment, largely silver gray, but accented with shades of purple to convey a sense of power, wealth, and extravagance.

As the Racer family is the heart of the story, so too was the Racer Family house the heart of the production's shoot. It was on this set that many of the film's most endearing family moments unfolded. Unlike a typical suburban home, the focal point of the family living room was the Mach 5, parked right in the middle of the house.