Speed Racer: Wachowskis' Innovative Picture

As with every project by the Wachowski brothers, it's expected that their new, eagerly-awaited movie, “Speed Racer” (opening May 9) will break new grounds, technically and stylistically. For starters, all of the pyrotechnic high-flying, hard-hitting car action in the film was rendered in state-of-the-art digitally with CGI.

Interestingly, the filmmakers initially contemplated the possibility of shooting the movie's race sequences by using real cars on practical racetracks. But given the style of the cars needed, and the high-impact action required, it made more sense to create the whole thing digitally.

Speed Racer's thundering Mach 5 is one of the world's most recognizable cars onscreen. While the Mach 5 will always be the car most closely associated with Speed Racer in the minds of diehard fans, the Wachowskis upped the ante by introducing a new generation of the Mach seriesthe Mach 6.

Its profile, complemented by a glossy, white finish with a red 'M' emblazoned across the hood, is firmly etched in the minds of “Speed Racer” fans around the world. The updated design of the Mach 5 could have gone in several directions, but “we eventually came back to a semi-retro look with very sleek lines,” says production designer Owen Paterson. “For the Mach 6, which is used strictly for track racing in the World Racing League, we went for a very bold yet refined profile, and maintained the color scheme and overall 'M' shape of the Mach 5.”

Says producer Joel Silver: “After exploring several possibilities, Larry and Andy looked at the original Mach 5's iconic profile and decided to retain the essence of the original because its look is truly timeless and unique.”

Larry and Andy coined a term to describe the Mach 6 and cars in its class in the film. They called these types of cars 'T 180s' for their ability to turn their wheels 180 degrees and drift across banks sideways, generating several Gs of lateral acceleration.”

Paterson and his team began work nearly a year in advance of principal shooting to create more than 100 individual car designs. “In our world, we have architects, but in the world of 'Speed Racer' people hire 'carchitects' to custom build their vehicles,” Paterson says.

Says Hill: “We brought together some of the most talented artists in the field, from storyboard artists to top designers within the automotive industry. We wanted to have fun with them and let everyone bounce ideas off of one another.”

After the car designs were done, they were painted in a digital mode. Speed's Mach 5 and Racer X's Shooting Star were physically constructed in full-scale for use in certain scenes. And while you could sit in the cockpit of each car, these full-size replicas weren't actually going anywhere as no power trains were installed.

Dan Glass, visual effects supervisor, observes: “At the speeds they're driving, and with the combative techniques they are using, there are a lot of precious moments on the track. It's an extremely dangerous-looking sport, but no one gets seriously hurt, because we've developed a special device that protects the driver.”

John Gaeta, Glass' colleague adds: “Larry and Andy came up with a safety feature they call 'Kwiksave Foam,' which is like a big rubber ball that inflates around the driver to protect them in the event of a crash. This is standard equipment on all the cars that compete in the World Racing League.”

The Wachowskis' first suggestion was that the racetracks be a cross between a giant ski slalom and a skateboard park, based on their understanding that, impressive as the cars are, they needed a dramatic place to show off their moves. They felt that each of the races should look different from each other, as Silver explains, “Since we have the freedom to build tracks and backgrounds digitally, we really put our imaginations into overdrive. From the start, the races were meant to keep the viewers on the edge of their seats.

Four Unique Racetracks

Thus, four different racetracks were created, each with unique characteristics. The racetracks feature challenging loop-the-loops winding spirals and breathtaking jumps, but they also take place against exotic-looking environments.

Thunderhead is the hometown track, where Speed's late brother, Rex, still holds the track record. While Thunderhead is a classy track, it is not one of the majors on the WRL circuit. It's a track that has seen better days, but still holds special place in Speed's heart because of Rex's Racer's legacy. Even so, it still holds all the excitement other tracks bring, including spirals, banks, butterflies, and giant drops.

The second track in the movie is the Fuji Helexicon, a big-league track on the WRL circuit, set on a tropical archipelago against a backdrop of natural volcanoes and ultra-modern buildings inspired by the designs of internationally renowned architects. The track weaves in and out of the atoll and over the glittering sea with awe-inspiring twists and turns.

The Casa Cristo 5000 is the road rally race where Rex lost his life. This perilous course, nicknamed “The Crucible” due to the danger involved, spans several continents and crosses many terrains. Drivers must endure extreme climates, from the blistering desert heat in the Zunubian Desert to the narrow Glacier Cliffs and icy Maltese Ice Caves. One wrong turn could send a driver plummeting thousands of feet to his or her demise. Though the WRL has made an effort to clean up the style of racing in this event, driving tricks, including spear hooks, tire shanks and catapults, make the Casa Cristo 500 the most brutal test of endurance.

There's strong pressure to win the Casa Cristo 5000 because the champion will gain entry to complete in the most highly regarded event in the WRL, the Grand Prix. A victory at the Grand Prix will garner fame for the winner, and also make him an instant legend in the World Racing League.

The Grand Prix racecourse is built into the city of Cosmopolis, as Paterson explains: “It's enormous, it's a fantastical high-rise track with giant dips, loops and butterfly turns that enable the cars to accelerate at breath-neck speeds.”

The inspiration for the design and setting of the Grand Prix comes from the Wachowskis who grew up in Chicago and had always enjoyed watching a baseball game at Wrigley Field from the rooftops of its surrounding buildings. Their idea was to take whole skyscrapers and turn them into grandstands, which means that the city itself became a grandstand for the year's biggest race.

Another feature of the Grand Prix was a visual illusion added by the Wachowskis as homage to Eadweard Muybridge, a 19th century photographer known for pioneering instantaneous motion picture capture with multiple cameras, the principles of which were an influence in creating the “bullet time” effect in “The Matrix” movies.

Along one straightaway of the Grand Prix racetrack, the filmmakers placed a series of zebra images along the wall in the background. As Speed Racer and his competitors accelerate across the screen, the combined set of images viewed in rapid succession simulate the effect of the zebra running in motion, akin to Muybridge's “The Horse in Motion” photographs.