Feel the need

“We were in the middle of doing V and they called me up one day,” recalls mega-producer Joel Silver. “They said, ‘What are you doing with that Speed Racer?’ I said ‘Well I’m struggling with it.’ They said, ‘What if we want to take a shot at it?’ I said, ‘It’s yours.’”

Of all the people to rev up Hollywood’s big screen adaptation of family-friendly ‘60s animation Speed Racer (Mach GoGoGo in native Japan speak), the Brothers Wachowski are perhaps the least likely to spring to mind. It’s an initially befuddling u-turn for Misters Andy and Larry after the brooding philosophy of The Matrix, the dazzling, kaleidoscopic landscapes revealed in Speed Racer’s theatrical trailer acting as a sun-screen to the minds behind its creation. But pop the hood and there, purring alongside the typical genre mechanics of the fuzzy family flick, you’ll find Wachowski staples all present and correct. Roots in the comic world? Yep. A David versus Goliath battle? You got it. A pleasingly multi-national cast? You betcha. And, of course, dizzy, technology-pushing visuals.

“What really motivated them was that they wanted to make a picture for everyone. For kids, for families,” explains Silver. “They’ve made stuff up to now that’s all R rated, the Matrix films, V For Vendetta. This is an opportunity to do something for everybody.”

June 2006, Los Angeles. Andy and Larry Wachowski meet with their favourite visual effects co-ordinators John Gaeta and Dan Glass, and production designer Owen Paterson. All five worked on the Matrix trilogy, for which they received a collective critical kicking in the soft bits. But something very different is in the air this day. One year on from the unveiling of Sin City, which pioneered a new, CGI-reliant strain of comic book film interpretation, the Wachowskis are looking to expand their horizons. No more saturated rain fights, out with the philosophical psycho-babble, even the grit has to go. For they feel the time has come to broach that tricky, fickle genre… the family film.

“That was the honeymoon phase if you like,” says Glass. “There wasn’t a script yet. Andy and Larry wanted to take this idea of the racing family and they wanted to put it into a world where cars were really everything. Almost like a fetish for vehicles, like a teenager had visualized Formula One racing as if a parallel world had developed in the ‘50s or ‘60s.”

Not only that, the brothers’ ambition extended to the very execution of the film, the necessity of shooting against green screen stretching into something that would compliment and justify the adaptation. With Speed Racer they intended to produce the most literal translation of cartoon into live action ever seen – both visually and emotionally, more on that later – attempting to leave the visual language of animation in-tact.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Brought to the attention of Joel Silver in 1992, the Japanese cartoon’s depiction of a bright, fast-paced race world in which its lead character Speed battles all manner of vehicular pyrotechnics (and prejudices) was always going to be a rough ride. Created as a manga comic by Tatsuo Yoshida in the 1960s, the TV series premiered in 1967 and ran for 52 episodes. Dubbed into English for American audiences, the show took on cult status. The story? Speed is a young driver who competes in a slue of outrageous races, his trusty Mach 5 the Swiss Army Knife of automobiles, gifted with gadgets that would make James Bond weep. With the support of his motor-business family – Mom, Pop, brother Spritle and pet chimpanzee Chim-Chim – as well as girlfriend Trixie, he contests various auto-foes, including the mysterious and enigmatic Racer X. So far so cool, but why so long in the making?

“We kind of never had the right people involved,” explains Silver. “I mean a lot of people wrote scripts, but they always felt derivative, they weren’t really exciting and fresh.”
The project stalled and started, the air gasping out of its weary tires as directors Gus Van Sant, Alfonso Cuarón and J.J. Abrams all took a stab before quickly departing. The overriding problem? Technological limitations. With the defining iconography of the cartoon consisting primarily of the gravity-defying race car exploits, it was all just too much. “Really it isn’t until now, like this year,” continues Silver, “that the technology existed where the boys – the Wachowski Brothers – created a grammar for these cars to do what we call ‘Car Fu’.”

Of course, for the brain box duo responsible for some of the late ‘90s’ most iconic cinematic images (via The Matrix), the task of generating believable stunt CGI cars was akin to doing the washing up. Andy and Larry wanted to push the CGI further. “It seemed like the time was right to experiment in a different type of movie,” says Gaeta, “a different texture for a film. We thought it was the right time to explore digital cinema across the board.”

Like the Miller-Rodriguez vehicle Sin City, the Wachowskis decided to craft their anime-inspired world entirely with CGI – save for the actors and occasional prop. Ninety per cent of the film would end up reliant on post-shoot computer tampering. But unlike other effect-heavy films (hang your head, Phantom Menace), it was more than just a case of creating images too expensive or technically demanding to produce in-camera – it was about bridging the gap between animation and live action like never before.

“The analogy is: the animation you make layer by layer,” Gaeta clarifies. “You get the background, the mid-ground and then your foreground characters and then you get on your animation stand, you sort of shoot the layers sliding against each other and you give the impression of a camera move. There’s a sort of nuance to it, and we are really looking at a lot of the nuances you get from animated pictures.” In constructing each frame of the film, the Wachowskis hoped to capture the zany cartoon optimism of the original Speed Racer series, along with the slightly warped, illogical perspectives prevalent in animation. More importantly, they wanted everything – background, mid-ground and foreground – to be in sharp, clean focus at the same time. To achieve the desired effect, the team behind the revolutionary Bullet Time looked to an unlikely source: the internet.

“We’ve got to come up with a better name,” cautions Glass, “but we were calling it ‘Bubble Technology’.” Said technology adapted a “very primitive” digital imaging program favoured by real estate companies called QTVR technology, which gives a 3D impression of a room. “If you can imagine you photographed in every direction and then you put that into a Quick Time movie, you can yourself look around it,” Glass explains. “We took that to extremes by going to gorgeous locations like the Alps or Morocco, and then we shot them at extremely high detail levels, so the files are absolutely enormous.” Taking these flat panel background shots, Gaeta and Glass manipulated them in a way that replicated the process of cartoon animation. Adds Glass, “It gives you a very strange look.”

May 2007, Berlin. Shooting of Speed Racer’s live elements is under way at Studio Babelsberg. A huge, neon green studio houses the action, as well as the film’s only full set, the Racer family house (“that, in theory, gave us a little moment to pause,” justifies Glass). The crew have been given a brisk three months in which to shoot – a task made slightly easier by the four filming and six visual effects units tending to various elements of the script.

As the titular Speed, Emile Hirsch’s workload proved particularly heavy. “It was intense,” he nods. “Sometimes we would all three of us [myself and the Wachowskis] be working together huddled in a pow-wow, you know, working on what I’m doing, coming up with ideas.” And the uniquely green screen environment presented its own challenges. “It’s an oddity in itself ‘cos it’s just an imaginary world in your head that you have to deal with,” says Hirsch. “Sometimes it’s your worst enemy, and you just wanna put a bazooka through it.”

For Roger Allam, caramel-toned Brit thespian with a voice bred for villainy, the Kermit factor didn’t have too much of an impact. “If you do a lot of theatre, pretending that stuff is there, it’s quite normal,” he reasons. “I didn’t find that nearly as off-putting as I thought I would.” Integral to the film’s plot, Allam plays Mr Royalton, the corporate billionaire who attempts to capitalize on Speed’s talent by luring him away from the family business to race for him instead. “Villains are always great fun to play,” laughs Allam. “I have had my fair share.” When Speed refuses Royalton’s advances, he becomes embroiled in a dirty-knuckled underworld of corporate control and sports tampering.

“It’s funny because, when we were filming, all the scandals in the racing world were coming out,” says Susan ‘Mom’ Sarandon. “The espionage of stealing plans. When you’re in this kind of arena, this product placement is everywhere.” It’s a thread most obviously carried through from The Matrix – that of mass control, the crushing of the little people for the benefit of the cold, calculating elite. The theme forms the emotional and dramatic crux of the movie. As John ‘Pop’ Goodman notes, “It’s a good versus evil, family versus corporation type of a thing.” Another Wachowski staple.

February 2008, Los Angeles. “It’s like nothing I’ve seen before,” enthuses Goodman. “It definitely looks like live action anime.” Post-production is in full swing. Almost two years after their initial meeting with the Brothers Wachowski, visual effects co-ordinators Gaeta and Glass are having to remind themselves to breathe in their scrabble to finalise effects shots in time for Speed Racer’s May release.

“This film is an experiment in how one can create a sort of pop-art experience using really hi-fidelity, super-clean, colour-rich digital photography,” says Gaeta. “We’re emulating qualities that you would only really find in animated film.” These qualities include very clean frames, infinite depth of field and saturated colour that are all done to “emotional effect more than realistic. So it’s more how it makes you feel than how real it is.”

Here, then, is Racer’s (and the Wachowskis’) greatest ambition – to heighten the emotional impact of a film’s mise-en-scène by injecting it with the electrifying palettes of cartoon animation. Thus during the hair-raising races the deepest, most succulent of blushes are utilized, adding a visual-emotional zing to the action. When things turn sinister, a bleak, snowy clime is adopted. “We always had the intention of keeping it just on the edge of believability,” muses Glass. “Emotionally you get the right feeling.”

With its almost entirely digitally-constructed universe, Speed Racer recollects the kind of progressive, explorative camera work that led to the creation of ‘80s mind-bender Tron. The effects team, however, are careful not to make hasty declarations of bold technological advancements. “I’d like to hear what kids and teens think about it before we create an analogy, but the whole Tron thing was a pretty bold experiment,” says Gaeta. Glass echoes his co-worker’s wary sentiments. “You never know with these things if people are just gonna go, ‘What were they thinking?’”

After the critical flogging that their Matrix sequels received, the Wachowskis threw their directorial hats to the wind in favour of less scrutiny-heavy production roles. Speed Racer marks their return to the viewfinder after a five year absence. So are they out to prove themselves? Do they see Racer as their comeback movie? “I don’t think so,” Silver asserts. “The movies that they made are the movies they wanted to make. The Matrix is about consciousness, and it’s complex and it’s difficult to understand, there’s a lot there. You have to realise those movies returned $3bn to Warner Brothers. They were a successful venture.” He pauses, thinks. “Speed Racer is thrilling, it’s funny, it’s emotional, it’s everything a big family movie needs. The question is, ‘Is this movie gonna do what the Matrix movies did?’, and all I can say is I hope so.”

Via Total Film