Why Speed Racer is one of the most visually innovative movies, period. (mobile warning/gifs)

jett

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Oct 25, 2017
12,775
#1

Speed Racer recently turned 10, I think we had a thread about it. Some people around here know it's one of my favorite movies, and for its anniversary I wrote a little something detailing its most unique and peculiar aspect: how it looks. I present it in its near-entirety. This is equal parts an analysis of the film's aesthetic and visual aspects and also a love-letter to a personal favorite of mine. I'm not sure how many people in this forum actually like or care about Speed Racer, but I know there's at least a couple. :P

Every so often I read people say that not even how it looks is anything special. I respectfully disagree, and here's why.

p.s. I warned about the gifs.

p.p.s. This is actually a pretty long read.

p.p.p.s. Any constructive criticism is appreciated.

Looking Through Speed Racer’s Kaleidoscopic Lens

Ten years ago, the Wachowskis released their first directorial effort since having completed their Matrix trilogy. Long-gestating at Warner Bros. (all the way to the early 90s), the film had stalled at the studio multiple times. Essentially, WB struggled to bring the venerable 1960’s anime TV show Speed Racer to the big screen. In 2006, the Wachowskis were brought on board to write and direct their own take on the material. Speed Racer tells the adventures of the eponymous Speed Racer and his family and friends, a plucky band of earnest go-getters who decide to take a stand against the evil mega-corporations of the world, using motorsport racing as their weapon of choice. The siblings were keen to do it, as the Speed Racer cartoon series was a childhood favorite of theirs. And WB was keen to have them do it, thinking they would produce a success in the vein of The Matrix, except this time they would be casting a wider net in terms of public appeal; Speed Racer had always been meant as a family friendly project. Little did the studio know what the Wachowskis’ real intention was:

Lana Wachowski: Warner Bros. was at first gleeful that we were, like, doing a known entity that seemed like a family movie for kids. And then we started showing stuff, and they were like, "Oh my god. Oh my god." We were interested in cubism and Lichtenstein and pop art, and we wanted to bring all of that stuff into the cinema aesthetic. ... They were like, "Oh my god. Are you insane? What are you doing? This is the weirdest thing I've ever seen." And we're like, "Yes, that's the reason we're making it."
While for WB Speed Racer was just going to be another four-quadrant tent-pole release at the box office, the Wachowskis had decided they were also going to use this property to push the boundaries of editing, cinematography and the normalcy of what the “cinema aesthetic” is supposed to be.

Lana Wachowski: We said, ‘Okay, we are going to assault every single modern aesthetic with this film.’
Layers Upon Layers Upon Layers

Speed Racer starts off with a literal, visual representation of a kaleidoscope, an instrument that presents ever-changing viewpoints and colors. It lets you know exactly what you are in for from its first moments.



While this seems like a fairly innocuous opening title sequence, this is actually an early look at the film’s multi-layered editing technique, in which multiple disparate elements are layered on top of each other, transitioning, appearing and disappearing at the directors’ will. The Wachowskis’ intention was to create a continuous visual flow in the narrative, straying away from the more traditional cut.



Lana Wachowski: And we said, ‘Why do you have to use cuts? We want to do sequences that are like run-on sentences, stream-of-consciousness sentences that don’t just start and end with the conventional cut, that are just montaged collages and flow the way...’
In the opening sequence we get our first look at one of the film’s visual staples:


We see multiple characters, elements, and backgrounds entering and leaving the frame with each passing second. Similar to a kaleidoscope, we get multiple viewpoints from the race, narrated by four different commentators, one after another in a semi-continued motion. What could be an audiovisual cacophony is edited artfully in an easy to follow manner. While these are just racing commentators who add a little flair to the action, the same technique is used later in the film to greater narrative effect when main character Speed narrates memories from his childhood. Thanks to this layered approach we can see him on screen reacting to events from his past as they crisscross in the background, heightening the emotion of the scene.





During one of the movie’s most expansive set-pieces, the Casa Cristo Rally race, we see how the Wachowskis’ idea of a moving collage comes to life. As the camera zooms out the scenery looks to be made of multiple flat 2D layers, one on top of each other, with everything flowing together in a continuous motion without any cuts.



Lana Wachowski: And we thought wouldn’t it be amazing to create sequences in a film that are just rushing montages that simulate the way that we actually experience the world. Particularly in like a race or a sports event where its swirling historical memory experience strategy conflict all woven without constructed, falsely constructed sentences.
This effect is also put to great use in the many creative transitions found in Speed Racer. Here’s one example: during the Thunderhead race, Speed is so ahead of the pack that the only car in front of him is the video game-like replay ghost of the reigning lap record, set many years ago by his brother, Rex. To show us a flashback of Rex’s race, the film smoothly transitions from the present to the past in a single motion, dissolving one background layer into another, and using the stars in the night sky as an abstract marker for the time switch.



When it’s time to return to the current timeline, Speed and his Mach 6 invade the flashback from behind and literally wash over the screen, as if the present time was a massive wave of color and scenery, covering the past.



This is all possible due to the fact that the film was shot almost entirely on green screen. All elements on screen were shot separately and then composited together. To construct the final image, the VFX teams created multiple 360-degree panoramas stitched together from photographs, 3D models and matte paintings, a sort of virtual cinematography. These panoramas would then be layered on top of each other in a way that resembled 2D animation to create the results shown above, in what visual effects designer John Gaeta dubbed “photo-anime. It was a collaborative process between the visual effects artists, the editors and the directors.

“‘Speed Racer is the first movie I’ve worked on where it seemed we had the potential to carve out a new format for a movie,” Gaeta says. “It’s a work in progress, of course. But we could let our hair down and break some conventions of cinematography.”

“You can see a thread through all the Wachowski projects and my collaborations in visual effects design through all these years,” he adds. “Visual effects always serves stories; the glue of this work is in changing the perspective and perception of events in stories.”
Poptimistic Art, Cubism and Anime

As mentioned earlier, at the time of Speed Racer’s production the Wachowskis were influenced by cubism and pop art, and they also wanted it to feel like a live-action cartoon. How are these elements brought together?



One of the film’s most striking features is its use of color, more specifically its use of primary colors and an oversaturated color palette. According to John Knoll from Industrial Light & Magic (one of several VFX houses that worked on the film), he kept getting asked to push for more and more color saturation in the shots he was in charge of (such as during Racer X’s introduction) until eventually, he turned it all the way up.



At a time when visual effects strived for the utmost photorealism (and still do, although with varying degrees of success…), Speed Racer went in the opposite direction and did so not just with colors. The goal here was hyper-reality, something that looks completely unreal, in order to capture in some measure the source genre (animation) and to present a unique-looking world. Even the way lighting reflects off the cars is done in a way that purposefully eschews realism.



Often it resembles an animated CGI film with live actors rather than the other way around (a live-action film with CGI elements). In a way it’s a callback to old Disney features that mixed actors with animation, although clearly with some differences.





The film’s cheery disposition, in stark contrast to The Matrix’s grungy and darkly-lit cyberpunk aesthetic, was called poptimistic by John Gaeta.

“’Speed Racer’ is the antithesis of ‘The Matrix,’” Gaeta says. “It’s bright, colorful, poptimistic. The whole frame of mind is different. We went a level away from photorealism and the perfect integration of all things.”
To further contribute to the film’s otherworldly visuals and also as a way of paying homage to its source material, a few cues from manga iconography are also brought into Speed Racer, such as speed lines.



Due to the nature of the static medium that is manga, speed lines are used to portray the direction of movement, and also to emphasize character motion.



But Speed Racer puts its own spin on it and uses speed lines not just to accentuate motion, but also to transition from one scene to another, and more:



After contract negotiations go sour, villain Royalton, who has complete control over the results of motorsport racing, threatens Speed and his family with total ruin, accurately predicting that he won’t even finish his upcoming race, which the film then seamlessly transitions to afterward. Here speed lines are actually used for more than just motion and scene transitions. As the scenery swirls around Royalton, this motion accelerates in tandem with the background morphing into speed lines and the increasingly aggressive tone in his speech, resulting in the dramatic tension in the scene being bumped up a notch.

Abstract background effects such as patterns are also used in manga and anime to emphasize the mood of a scene or state of mind of a character.





Speed Racer uses shallow depth of field to play with the bokeh in the picture to achieve this effect. Bokeh is the aesthetic quality of the blur produced in the out-of-focus parts of an image produced by a lens.




There are also sections in the film where it goes even more abstract with its visuals, using cubist-inspired abstract geometric shapes in place of the actual, “real” scenery.





In a reference to the original show’s classic opening sequence, the bokeh in the background changes into a massive red and yellow checkerboard pattern, also serving as the checkered flag signaling Speed’s triumph in the Casa Cristo rally race.

Lana Wachowski: Lens flair; all of these things can be redesigned to an aesthetic choice instead of connected to just what the technology can produce and then as we talked about all this, we had this moment that we were talking about cubism and the way that cubism offers this construction of art based on the imagination of perspective.
In this scene we also see another technique that is widely used by the Wachowskis in Speed Racer, that being the deep focus. Deep focus is a photographic and cinematographic technique used to keep the entire image in focus.



Every element in the image is in focus, the foreground (Speed), the middle-ground (the Mach 5) and the scenery far into the background. By diminishing the depth in the picture, the sensation that you’re watching a 2D, traditionally animated movie is enhanced.








At points, the Wachowskis also use a form of dynamic deep focus.



Watch how at the beginning of the shot a traditional depth of field is employed, the foreground (Pops Racer) is in focus and the background (Rex Racer) out of focus. However, as Rex walks into the picture and gains focus, Pops Racer doesn’t lose it, and the image transitions into being entirely in focus.

By mixing the strong, bold use of color in pop art, the abstraction and multiple viewpoints of cubism, the sensibilities of anime and manga, and their own multi-layered style, the Wachowskis have managed to create a film that looks wholly unique and truly stands out from the pack. Speed Racer doesn’t merely wear its influences on its sleeve; it deconstructs and reassembles them into something completely different, finalizing in a package that is entirely its own thing.


(Picasso's Guernica and Roy Licthenstein's In the Car)


In this scene, right before the final Grand Prix sequence, we see the visuals of Speed Racer come together: the use of saturated primary colors, multiple elements layered on top of each other to provide simultaneous viewpoints, and a dynamic depth-of-field effect that starts with the picture being entirely in focus, but with each passing character the background starts becoming more and more out of focus until it dissolves into abstract geometric shapes.

Lana Wachowski: And we’re like “wow, we could make the first cubist film because we could do edits that have the back of someone’s head and the front of their face on the screen at the same time."
The Final Lap

Speed Racer encountered divisiveness at the time of release. Some people couldn’t stomach its colorful, hyper-real aesthetic; others found the characters banal and superficial. On a personal note, it was one of my favorite movies of 2008, and over multiple viewings, it has become one of my favorite movies, flat out. I was lucky enough to be able to catch it in theaters (its run didn’t last long), where you’re truly able to appreciate its visual splendor. But as much as I love it for how it looks and the chances it takes aesthetically, it’s the characters that form the backbone of the movie for me. While some decried the earnest nature of the film, I thought it was refreshing to see a family of characters who are unabashedly good and show honest love and care for one another. Speed Racer is a film without a single cynical cylinder in its engine; the emotions on display are as true as the visuals are crazy. For me, it’s a movie with real heart. When you see John Goodman and Emile Hirsch having a heartfelt father-to-son talk, you feel it. At least I did. Without this expertly-constructed and 100% sincere family dynamic, all of its whizzing and zooming cinematography and flashing lights of color would be for naught. And yet I fully admit that Speed Racer is not for everyone; it absolutely is a love-it-or-hate-it kind of movie, and I’m fine with that. That's what art should be.

Art should challenge conventions and pre-conceived notions, and that’s naturally going to cause rejection in some. If a group of people hates it, then it’s doing a good job. There’s nothing worse than conformity and safeness, where you run the risk of being forgotten. Although Speed Racer didn’t do too hotly at the box office when it was released, over ten years it has seemingly been slowly finding new appreciation. For its 10-year anniversary, several positive retrospectives popped up from the likes of Film Crit Hulk (via the Observer), The Atlantic and CBR.



Ten years ago, Lana and Lilly Wachowski released a movie about a little race car driver who creates art when he shifts and drifts. Some liked it, some did not. But even if you are part of those where this film isn’t for you, I believe it’s impossible to not appreciate the boldness of the Wachowskis’ vision. I believe that ten years from now, we’ll still be talking about it.
 
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Oct 25, 2017
452
#2
Yes, yes, yes

I wasn't really a fan of the anime but this movie is just wow, it was so visually pleasing and it still amazes me
 
Oct 28, 2017
652
#5
Brilliant reading Jett, you’ve sold me on another viewing to make suare I’ve got it all because the movie is a lot visually.
 
Oct 29, 2017
1,328
#7
Excellent OP.

I just got done watching this movie, so it's fun to come to Era and see this here. You're right about everything, and about a bunch of stuff I didn't notice, like how they use focus.

But man, the visuals on display, the amazing transitions between scenes; it's a masterpiece in that regard. The second race conversation between Trixie and Speed is so wonderful, how the camera zooms between thh two without actual cuts. It follows the track as they sidewind. It's remarkable.

And I too love the earnestness of the cast, how this movie really is just a big expensive cartoon and it knows exactly what it wants to be and hits it full blast. I mean shit, they pulled off the chimp!
 
Oct 25, 2017
3,043
#12
As somebody who loves the film, if I’m to play devil’s advocate, the film could be perfect by cutting a bunch of screen time from Spritle and Chim Chim’s obnoxious antics.

I’ve wanted to show my wife Speed Racer for years, but can already feel myself cringing next to her as she looks over at me during those scenes.
 
Oct 28, 2017
3,135
#13
Never seen it... now I want it on 4K HDR. I skipped most of the OP to not spoil myself.

But any hints at a 4K HDR version? I Googled and didn't see anything.

Is it on Netflix? Or maybe I should buy the BluRay Version on sale.
 
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jett

jett

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Oct 25, 2017
12,775
#15
As somebody who loves the film, if I’m to play devil’s advocate, the film could be perfect by cutting a bunch of screen time from Spritle and Chim Chim’s obnoxious antics.

I’ve wanted to show my wife Speed Racer for years, but can already feel myself cringing next to her as she looks over at me during those scenes.
Sometimes they're a little overbearing but on the whole I dig 'em. Chim-chim cookies are too good.

The only, literally the ONLY issue I have with the movie is their insert at the end.. Utterly unnecessary. Feels like the only time in the movie the Wachowskis' second-guessed themselves.

Never seen it... now I want it on 4K HDR. I skipped most of the OP to not spoil myself.

But any hints at a 4K HDR version? I Googled and didn't see anything.

Is it on Netflix? Or maybe I should buy the BluRay Version on sale.
It's on Netflix US, blu-ray's great too. The movie was shot in 1080p so 4K won't do much for it anyway.
 

Elodes

Looks to the Moon
Member
Nov 1, 2017
541
The Netherlands
#16
Holy shit, OP. What a fantastic thread you've written here. Amazing work!

I must see this film now. I'm in awe; I never knew it was so ambitious. Thank you!
 
Mar 24, 2018
85
#17
Glad you made this thread. The first time I saw this movie I had taken psychedelics for the first time, and the visuals were just out of this world. I need to watch it again it to fully appreciate it.
 

Dr. Benton Quest

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Oct 25, 2017
2,236
#18
This is a great article Jett. I never knew anything about this film and now I want to watch it.

You should write for a publication.
 
Oct 28, 2017
3,135
#19
Sometimes they're a little overbearing but on the whole I dig 'em. Chim-chim cookies are too good.

The only, literally the ONLY issue I have with the movie is their insert at the end.. Utterly unnecessary. Feels like the only time in the movie the Wachowskis' second-guessed themselves.



It's on Netflix US, blu-ray's great too. The movie was shot in 1080p so 4K won't do much for it anyway.
Thanks for the info. Might just watch it on Netflix.

How is the sound in the movie? Wondering if I should get it in BluRay for the sound as well.
 
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jett

jett

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Oct 25, 2017
12,775
#20
Thanks for the info. Might just watch it on Netflix.

How is the sound in the movie? Wondering if I should get it in BluRay for the sound as well.
Blu-ray has regular Dolby Digital 5.1. I mean the movie sounds great and the soundtrack is actually fantastic, though.
 
Oct 26, 2017
452
#21
I found reading OP more entertaining than watching the movie and i hate reading. Such beautiful visuals wasted on such shit movie
 
Oct 28, 2017
3,135
#22
Blu-ray has regular Dolby Digital 5.1. I mean the movie sounds great and the soundtrack is actually fantastic, though.
Holy Smokes you weren't kidding. Glad I asked. I'll just watch it on Netflix.

Looking forward to it. Era hasn't let me down. (Dredd was great!) Not expecting anything Amazing from Speed Racer, but a visual feast and a fun time.
 
Oct 25, 2017
546
#23
Op, you made the movie so much better than I found it. I just double checked, and I watched the first 23 minutes before I had no interest in watching any more. Is it something that picks up later, or if I don't like the start, will I not like the rest.
 
Oct 27, 2017
3,765
#28
This thread means it's time for a rewatch. I don't think I appreciated the visuals the first time around.

Also, is Speed Racer Baron Zemo? He looks like Baron Zemo.
 

Gonzalez

Banned
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Oct 25, 2017
7,679
#29
I actually am not a fan of the green screen effects. Took me out of the action portions of the movie. I absolutely loved the dark corporate themes in the movie, though.

 
Oct 25, 2017
4,179
#30
Watched it recently on my projector and was blown away.

So much style and probably the most visually exhilarating racing I've seen outside of the anime Redline.

It will age really well since it goes for style over realism.
 
Oct 27, 2017
151
#34
Great OP.

Can you create one for Scott Pilgrim vs the World next? I think Speed Racer May have somewhat inspired the effects work and jump cuts/transitions that Edgar Wright used in his movie.
 
Oct 28, 2017
1,033
#35
It's admirable, brining the 2D animation to life, taking all of its techniques, many of which that were originally used in the show as a means to cut costs and save time and embracing it, treating it as a staple of the shows very identity, but it misses the mark for me when it comes to execution. The style is fluid and dynamic as it weaves from scene to scene and transitions back and fourth but funnily enough the Wachowskis instance to stick so closly to the source material is anything but, instead it comes across as rigid and unnatural, almost obsessive.
 
Oct 26, 2017
13,061
#36
Saving this to read later.
Speed Racer is the only anime adaptation film that 100% embraces the surreal vibrant aesthetic of the medium, for better or worse.
 
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jett

jett

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Oct 25, 2017
12,775
#37
Op, you made the movie so much better than I found it. I just double checked, and I watched the first 23 minutes before I had no interest in watching any more. Is it something that picks up later, or if I don't like the start, will I not like the rest.
In all honesty, probably not for you. As far as I'm concerned the first 20 minutes is all you need to watch to know if you'll end up liking Speed Racer or not. It absolutely gets better as the movie progresses, but it's not going to suddenly turn into a different movie.
 
Oct 25, 2017
15,448
#39
if nothing else, this movie felt experimental in it's usage of cinematography and color-scheme. there literally hasn't been another movie like it. one so unashamed of itself and it's source material. it's a movie that truly tests what one can do with modern technology with film. a true feast of the senses

and had a bangin theme

 
Nov 13, 2017
1,336
#40
One of my absolute favorite movies, and my single biggest regret that I missed it in theaters. Fantastic OP, encapsulates everything I love about it. One of my favorite nights ever was showing three friends this movie while on shrooms and they absolutely loved it, the end was amazing.
 
Oct 25, 2017
2,399
#41
Jett doing gods work with this movie. I salute you. Speed Racer is also one of my favourite movies ever. Its also the best anime adaptatiin ever and the only one that got it right.
The only thing I thought it was missing was talking about giacchino's ost and how it flows with the images. Casa Cristo and reboot feel like coasters.
And then its the maximum tribute not only to the music of the american version but also the original japanese one, and using the sound jump of the car in the music.
I feel he should have done godzilla, is the only composer that seems to love respecting and tributing the original music of the movies he is composing.
 
Oct 25, 2017
3,043
#46
Reboot is pure hype, the man should have won an oscar for the whole ost. He got it for UP, but IMO The Incredibles and Speed Racer are much better.
Unfortunately, the bigger the bomb, the less likely one is to be recognised for their work on it. Makes sense that Giac's greatest score is John Carter of Mars.
 
Oct 25, 2017
3,496
#47
Don’t mean to thread whine, and I think Speed Racer is a decent film, but what’s with this forum’s obsession with this movie? We get a thread on it every other week it seems. It’s a unique movie that tries some interesting ideas, but it ultimately doesn’t come together, and is at this as a fan of anime (which it’s trying really hard to be).
 
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jett

jett

Community Resettler
Member
Oct 25, 2017
12,775
#49
Do they have a 4K version of this cause I kinda want it as a showpiece now
Nah. Doubt it will ever exist, this shit bombed too hardcore.

Don’t mean to thread whine, and I think Speed Racer is a decent film, but what’s with this forum’s obsession with this movie? We get a thread on it every other week it seems. It’s a unique movie that tries some interesting ideas, but it ultimately doesn’t come together, and is at this as a fan of anime (which it’s trying really hard to be).
I literally wrote 2,000 words detailing why I think this movie is something special. It didn't come together for you, but obviously it came together for some others. There have been a couple of SR threads lately I guess because May was its 10th anniversary since it was released. Definitely too many though, taking up space that would be better occupied by the 100th thread about God of War, Black Panther or The Last Jedi.