Behind the Scenes Speed Racer

Young Brooklyn musician Max decides to go on a Caribbean cruise alone when his girlfriend Willow dumps him cold two days before the trip. Once in Jamaica, Max quickly escapes the tourist zone for more “authentic” surroundings and in the process is robbed of his possessions and is stranded, and literally misses the boat. As Max sets out for the American Embassy in Kingston on foot, Jamaica is waiting to meet him with unexpected and extraordinary encounters, including a full-moon celebration with the legendary reggae group The Congos, and a dreamy stay with a Rasta prophet.

From the creative minds behind the Matrix comes the 21st century re-imagining of 1970’s classic ‘Speed Racer’. Out this Friday, the film promises to blow your mind with jaw dropping visuals, a kick-ass story and an A-list cast, including the likes of Emile Hirsch, Christina Ricci and Lost’s Matthew Fox. We got a chance to chat to Dan Glass and John Gaeta, the magicians behind the now infamous bullet time, and to see what they have up their creative sleeves for Speed.

Q: What was the most challenging thing about creating the special effects for Speed Racer?

Dan Glass: The two big challenges with this movie, one was the amount of content and the time we had available, which, in a way every movie faces to some degree. I think this felt like an enormous challenge from that point of view. The second more intriguing and ambitious challenge was the creative approach that the movie took meant that we were questioning a lot of the traditional film making devices that are used to. Everything from cinematography, composition, layout, color, and indeed, editing itself, so that to set off questioning and trying to come up with a new almost storytelling language within the context of the film. It’s very exciting. But when you don’t have rules, it makes it very hard to sometimes know how to plan or how to put things together. It becomes much more of an ongoing experiment that evolves. That’s both the challenge and the excitement of trying to put it together.

John Gaeta: Yes, and because of those conditions we had no choice but to, essentially. This is what I think that this form of film, and not all films are going to be like this, but particular types of genres this might be contained within. We, essentially, could not do this film unless we started post-production, or what the idea of post-production is, on the very first day of pre-production. As in, all of those things that people tend to think happen after you’ve photographed your actors, those types of things actually need to all be brought to the very first day. So you are actually, building a template of the movie from the very beginning. You are experimenting with the way that action and choreography works. You’re experimenting with what the sets around the actor are going to be. You’re experimenting with the final look of the movie way ahead of the actual shooting of the actors, so that by the time we get to the time when we shoot performances, we’re able to make it more tangible for the director, for the director of cinematography, for the production designer, for the actors themselves to know that, “Right, I’m surrounded by this. If I do, if I walk around and do this then the world’s going to look like this.” So we have to bring that. We have to be there onstage. And in this case, we need to arrive at what traditionally is the mid-point with something that is a sort of window to what’s down the road for us. So the entire process has to be collapsed and accelerated. And then, speaking to what Dan was mentioning, the time was so challenging for us in terms of the amount of time that we had to finish the project, that the only way that we could actually achieve this, essentially, we were creating an animation factory, replacing the animated bits with live action and photography. The only way we could achieve making a factory without a factory is going massively parallel. As in, we enlisted a lot of people, a lot of talented companies and artists from the visual effects community, to move in unison at a very aggressive pace. You could say there was, very plausibly up to a thousand people working from the moment we finished Berlin to the delivery which would dwarf the size of the actual photography crew. Many of those people thread to before photography, so survival required parallel work, many talented minds working in parallel.

DG: Trying to bring everybody to a coherent end result, while we’re still really evolving some of the rules and language of what we’re working with. It’s like having multiple experiments going on across the world that you’re trying to keep together in some semblance of cohesion.

JG: Yeah. People and companies in every continent practically. If we wanted to we could be on the phone and talking to our associates twenty-four-seven, literally. Whether they were in Europe or Australia or here in the United States, there was always someone awake on every single day of the week working on our material. And that all had to kind of go through this nexus, this room here.

Q: What special effects sequence are you most proud of in this movie?

DG: That’s a really difficult question. I think one of the things I love about the content of this movie is that there are so many varied images and a kind of feelings to the film that sheer volume of inspiring material, it enables you to keep excited about the content right up to now. And makes me genuinely excited to see this movie myself. Very often at this stage of a film, in fact, most of the time, my relationship to the content, it means that I need to actually get a bit of distance from it. But this material, somehow it’s very, very exciting across the board. I love watching it and I’ve loved making it. It’s good.

JG: It’s very difficult for me to also say what’s my favorite because of the fact that we were not, approaching the visual effects as, like, Okay, in this scene we’re going to have this gee-whiz effect and then, this scene we’re going to have this gee-whiz effect, because of the fact that the umbrella that the visual effects brought had to do with the basic helping to create the structure of the entire picture. To help Larry and Andy, the directors, create their first piece of digital cinema in which they could literally touch every single frame of the movie in large or small, beautify it or just stylize it, or just hone it to. It’s a different type of experience than trying to capture all of that beauty at the moment in one spot, it’s a different experience. It’s no lesser an experience, it’s just different. It does make it difficult to point out a particular scene, because they all sort of have thread together by way of the way that we built the structure underneath. So I can’t really say either.

Q: How many different racing cars were created for this movie?

JG: Oh, gee-whiz.

DG: Uh, count them

JG: A lot.

DG: Something in the order of eighty vehicles possibly.

JG: Yeah

DG: Every vehicle in the movie they wanted to be uniquely designed. All of our racing and CG vehicles were basically custom-designed for the movie within the art department, a combination of some of the art directors including Jeff Julian. And we had an in-house modeling crew headed by Mike Myers who, basically, between them crafted the majority of the vehicles in the film. To relieve some of that design effort, we also went around Europe and occasionally further a field in the world to photograph concept vehicles that had been designed previously, but were somehow unique in their design. And they were photographed as full turntables so that we could place them into scenes within the movie. But every vehicle you see is somehow custom designed and unique across the board.

Q: Were the car racing and fighting scenes planned out from the first idea to the final shot?

JG: Well, before there are race scenes, there was the idea of what is the sport per se. And the original series was about car racing as it is traditionally understood, although what the series did was it added this whole fantasy aspect where the cars always wind up sidetracked into these incredible adventures in which the cars wind up in places that are very difficult for cars to get through. So in order to do that, the cars are, are equipped all sorts of special devices to allow them to ascend difficult slopes and leap over obstacles and avoid catastrophe in all the forms that it comes. But in our evolution of the film, we decided that there would be a couple of aspects. One would be the idea of the sport is the World Cup, the world’s obsession. It is the sport that all are focused upon. They live and breathe this motor sport. With that we wanted to create a sort of next generation idea behind the idea of racing. And we thought that before we could start getting into choreographing scenes, we needed to understand what is the sport, how does the sport work. The original sort of inspirations, came from things like the X Games and video games and influences that younger folks today have all about them that reflect this new attitude towards, “I can do anything in my sport. I don’t need to stay inside the lines. I can create extra personality and originality and individuality by doing this expressive move or stunt or whatever in combination with the intended objective of the sport.” So, the advent of things like the X Games pushing vehicles and people in all these sort of new imaginative ways, that was sort of something we looked at and said, “Okay, what if young people were allowed to re-invent Formula One racing like the next generation of Formula One? What would they do?” So, we thought that. Of course, the first thing they would do is they would completely re-design all of the tracks, and this is something that Larry and Andy, the directors, were really intent on. It’s like making these tracks a new scale and scope and level of difficulty, and to include great feats and acrobatics intermingled with extreme speed, like having cars reaching the speed of sound in a straightaway and things like that. So we decided that in order to have cars be able to navigate tracks like this, cars needed to be equipped in certain ways. But that wasn’t really where the Wachowskis wanted to stop. They wanted to add this whole new sort of element of combat and conflict, this thing they call “Carfu” to make it even more difficult to make it to the end of a race.

DG: As if it wasn’t hard enough already.

JG: All of your adversaries are sanctioned by the rules and allowed to knock you off the track in any way that they can. And every team brings to bear this sort of super-advanced, jet-powered car plus, several attributes would include these wheels that we call “T One-Eighty wheels,” which are like a swivel chair. If you have an office chair, the wheels are captured from above, which means that the wheels can spin completely around if you need them to. All four wheels can be controlled individually so that the, the cars can actually orbit and always keep the wheels pointing in the direction of travel. So you could, if you wanted to, do figure eights at three hundred miles an hour, and the wheels would always point where you’re going. So with that kind of agility, you can do very complicated maneuvers in and around your adversaries. And that is just for starters. Additionally you could have your cars equipped with these sort of akin to Super Pogo technology. They’re called “Jump Jacks.” And the cars have four Jump Jacks underneath. We speculate that these are like electromagnetic, super-pneumatic ram devices that can allow the car to jump and flip sideways, end-over-end, backwards, or, in sort of three-quarter combinations. And if you combine the wheel technology with the electromagnetic pogos, you can make the car pretty much go and maneuver anywhere. And you need that so you can devastate your adversaries.

DG: Or outmaneuver.

JG: It’s like super-acrobatic and super-combative racing. And that is what we figured out the sport was, which is fun. Which is like you’d only pull that out of the mind of a young person who wants to do something different with their cars. So we start there.

DG: Or crazy adult people who haven’t grown up.

JG: So there’s a lot of trial and error we figured out. We figured out the basic rules of the sport. Once you do a lot of concept on how cars move, you begin the races, and so the races tend to have dramatic arcs. There are very intentional sort of meetings between the characters and there are story arcs that Larry and Andy, the directors, are writing that we need to follow, fulfill, and help them build this sort of climax in terms of the scale of the combat and the scale of the difficulty level of the course that they’re racing on. So once we got the rules, once we have words from Larry and Andy, we go about and we use computers, three-D animation, techniques which we call Visualization. We essentially map out the choreography of a scene shot by shot, but usually, we begin as the event. The idea of the event is he’s going to flip over this cliff and knock this guy over onto this thing. Then these three people are going to converge. And then, there’s going to be a huge event here, and then, there’s going to be a near miss, and then, all this stuff happens. So we have this basic course of action that we map out in three-D visualization and refine and refine and refine and refine to the point where we are all satisfied. Then it can be composed, and we edit it. We then, shoot with our virtual CG cameras. We sort of compose and shoot the action and make lots of options like you would in a normal movie. And then that is done in collaboration with the editors who will cut and rework and allow the action to unfold dramatically as Larry and Andy guide them through that.

Check out the Behind the Scenes video here. Just click play below!

Speed Racer
is in Irish Cinemas Friday.