What’s under ‘Speed Racer’s’ hood?

John Gaeta breaks down the film's VFX

Speed freaks, rejoice. The Wachowski brothers may have had little kids in mind when translating the classic “Speed Racer” cartoon to the bigscreen, but they’ve given the show’s grown-up fans something to grasp on to as well.

“We began with the idea that the DNA of ‘Speed Racer’ was born of Japanese anime,” says visual effects designer John Gaeta, who also collaborated with the Wachowskis on the “Matrix” films. In that trilogy, the aim was to simulate reality to such a degree that impossible feats would look plausible. By contrast, “Speed Racer” was designed to reflect the cartoon’s highly stylized world.

“We didn’t want to do another dark, dystopian movie on the farthest edge of hyperrealism,” Gaeta says. “We wanted to be expressive and fun and let our hair down a little.”

True to the Toon

For many Westerners — siblings Larry and Andy Wachowski included — “Speed Racer” marked their first taste of Asian-made animation. Low-budget American cartoons of the late 1960s, such as those produced by Hanna-Barbera, cut corners by showing characters standing around and talking. Working under the same constraints, Japanese animators found ways to use selective animation to their advantage.

The creators of “Speed Racer” realized a high-stakes race could be suggested simply by alternating between dynamic poses, such as a foot on the clutch, a hand on the stick and a tire spinning in place. Movement occurs between shots, rather than within them.

While remaining true to that aesthetic, the Wachowski’s wanted to take it to the next level with the latest advances in CG technology. Instead of cutting, they used visual effects to flow smoothly from one vantage point to the next within a single shot, creating what Gaeta calls “editography.” Now, a sequence that would have once demanded distinct clips could conceivably begin with a beauty closeup of Speed, swoop out to a wide shot of the car and then pan over to spectators cheering in the crowd — all in one fluid movement.

Demon on Wheels

The original show may have inspired the racing style, but the Wachowskis wanted the driving scenes to look completely different from the cartoon — or any other live-action movie. That meant finding a way to depict gladiator-style competition set at breakneck speeds, on racing tracks that no camera could possibly navigate.

“There’s a lot of stunts and acrobatics intermingled with combat, which meant you had to create many different driving looks on these esoteric-looking tracks,” Gaeta says. “We designed the wheels to rotate 180 degrees, which allows them to do spinning and figure-eights and wild curving moves. The best analogy would be drifting, but in our sport it’s a little more fluid than drifting.”

Gaeta’s team did about six months of conceptual visualization before shooting even started, “from which we reverse-engineered how much the actor would be seen in action scenes,” he says. Emile Hirsch and his co-stars sat in special motion-controlled cockpits, doing their best to simulate the crazy moves mapped out in advance by computer. According to Gaeta, “It looks like a bathtub with all the steering wheels and gauges inside and then that’s retrofitted inside a virtual car.”

The Right Track

In traditional animation, the foreground and background are treated as separate planes; the Wachowskis debated how far to push the effect. In the end, they decided that instead of trying to integrate the levels, they would actually stylize the separation.

“We call the format ‘photo-anime,’ ” Gaeta says. “We’re taking very fundamental concepts in cell animation, which used to require sliding layers in painfully slow ways in front of rostrum cameras, and replacing them with modern computer-based approaches.”

When Speed is racing, the blurred streaks of color behind his head serve as a direct homage to the look of the show. Elsewhere, the technique allowed Gaeta to grab backgrounds from locations all over the world, including some so exotic or fragile that film crews aren’t usually allowed to enter them. “One place we shot was a spectacular ballroom in the Sanssouci castle, which they’ve kept it pristinely preserved,” says Gaeta. “You have to walk on blankets to the center of the place and yet, using one guy with a digital camera, we can capture that and create a virtual backdrop.” Onscreen, the rare location could then serve as the Drivers’ Club in Royalton’s Wonka-like factory.

Bullet Beyond Time

A number of the show’s signature effects, including a shot in which Speed leaps from the car and hovers in mid-air as the camera rotates around his frozen pose, recall the “bullet time” trick Gaeta helped develop for the first “Matrix” movie. “The kernel of the idea for bullet time actually dates back to the 1800s and Eadweard Muybridge,” he says. Using a series of multiple cameras, Muybridge was able to track a galloping horse at speeds previously thought impossible (watch the walls of the final race as the Wachowskis tip their hat to his experiment).

“We’re reaching a point where we are now becoming accustomed to the idea that the time and space of the camera doesn’t need to be interlocked with the time and space of the subject,” Gaeta says. When Speed uses his jump jacks to flip the Mach 6 (one generation more evolved than the show’s space-age car) over his rivals’ heads, the action slows to watch it tumble in slow motion.

Muses Gaeta, “Imagine if Alfred Hitchcock and Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick had these tools, what would they do with them.”

Click here to watch full-length scenes from ‘Speed Racer!’

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