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From the Wachowski brothers and producer Joel Silver, creators of the groundbreaking “The Matrix” trilogy, comes the high-octane family adventure “Speed Racer.”
Hurtling down the track, careening around, over and through the competition, Speed Racer (Emile Hirsch) is a natural behind the wheel. Born to race cars, Speed is aggressive, instinctive and, most of all, fearless. His only real competition is the memory of the brother he idolized - the legendary Rex Racer, whose death in a race has left behind a legacy that Speed is driven to fulfil.
Speed is loyal to the family racing business, led by his father, Pops Racer (John Goodman), the designer of Speed’s thundering Mach 5. When Speed turns down a lucrative and tempting offer from Royalton Industries, he not only infuriates the company’s maniacal owner (Roger Allam) but uncovers a terrible secret - some of the biggest races are being fixed by a handful of ruthless tycoons who manipulate the top drivers to boost profits. If Speed won’t drive for Royalton, Royalton will see to it that Speed never crosses another finish line.
The only way for Speed to save his family’s business and the sport he loves is to beat Royalton at his own game. With the support of his family and his loyal girlfriend, Trixie (Christina Ricci), Speed teams with his one-time rival - the mysterious Racer X (Matthew Fox) - to win the race that had taken his brother’s life: the death-defying, cross-country rally known as The Crucible.
Yet, the ultimate test of Speed Racer’s true racing grit will be at the pinnacle event of the World Racing League: the Grand Prix. But standing between Speed and the chequered flag are the world’s best - and most cutthroat - competitors, fuelled by a million-dollar bounty from Royalton to the driver who takes Speed out once and for all.
“Speed Racer” marks the Wachowski brothers’ first writing/directing collaboration since “The Matrix” movies. Joel Silver, who previously worked with the Wachowskis on “The Matrix” movies and “V for Vendetta,” produced the film under his Silver Pictures banner. Grant Hill, Andy Wachowski and Larry Wachowski are also producers, with David Lane Seltzer, Michael Lambert and Bruce Berman serving as executive producers.
The behind-the-scenes creative team includes director of photography David Tattersall, production designer Owen Paterson, editors Zach Staenberg and Roger Barton, and costume designer Kym Barrett. The music is by Michael Giacchino. John Gaeta and Dan Glass are the visual effects supervisors.
“Speed Racer” stars Emile Hirsch (“Into the Wild”) in the title role; Christina Ricci (“The Opposite of Sex”) as Speed’s girlfriend Trixie; John Goodman (“The Big Lebowski”) and Oscar winner Susan Sarandon (“Dead Man Walking”) as Pops Racer and Mom Racer; Matthew Fox (TV’s “Lost”) as Racer X; Roger Allam (“The Queen,” “V for Vendetta”) as Royalton; Paulie Litt (TV’s “Hope & Faith”) as Spritle; Benno Fürmann (“The Mutant Chronicles”) as Inspector Detector; Hiroyuki Sanada (“The Last Samurai”) as Mr Musha; Asian pop superstar Rain, making his American feature film debut, as a rival driver named Taejo Togokahn; Richard Roundtree (TV’s “Heroes,” “Shaft”) as Ben Burns; and Kick Gurry (“Daltry Calhoun”) as Sparky.
Based on the classic series created by anime pioneer Tatsuo Yoshida, the live-action “Speed Racer” showcases the kind of revolutionary visual effects and cutting-edge storytelling that have become benchmarks of the Wachowski brothers’ films.
“Speed Racer” is a Warner Bros Pictures presentation, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures, of a Silver Pictures Production, in association with Anarchos Productions.
Digitally re-mastered into the unparalleled image and sound quality of The IMAX Experience with proprietary IMAX DMR (digital re-mastering) technology, “Speed Racer: The IMAX Experience” will debut concurrently with the nationwide 35mm release in conventional theatres.
“To me, racing isn’t just a sport - it’s a way of life.” - Speed Racer
Reigniting the Mach 5
Creators of “The Matrix” trilogy, writers/directors/producers Larry and Andy Wachowski have helped redefine the action film genre with their unique brand of filmmaking, which blends multi-layered storytelling with groundbreaking visual effects.
Bringing the classic cartoon series “Speed Racer” to the big screen was an opportunity for the Wachowskis to re-envision an enduring classic and, at the same time, reach a broader family audience.
“With ‘The Matrix,’ Larry and Andy created a visual style that altered your consciousness as you watched the movie. You saw things that you could not imagine happening on film,” says producer Joel Silver. “And with ‘Speed Racer,’ they wanted to change the way you see movies again. They had a new concept in mind for telling the story with cars flying along the most spectacular and challenging racetracks - fantastic action sequences like nothing you’ve ever seen. It’s a new approach to combining CGI with live action. The brothers love to break the mould; they love to push the envelope.”
Producer Grant Hill offers, “Besides being one of their favourite cartoons growing up, one of the things that interested the Wachowskis most in adapting ‘Speed Racer’ was the strong family dynamic in the original series. Larry and Andy had a strong desire to make a family film; they wanted to create a movie their nieces and nephews could see.”
“They wrote a pure family movie, maintaining the essence of the original centred on Speed and his family in a completely new adventure,” adds Silver. “‘Speed Racer’ is for everybody. It’s got great characters, great action beats and, of course, great visuals.”
The film centres on Speed Racer’s journey to become the best race car driver in the World Racing League (WRL). To Speed, the two most important aspects of his life are car racing and his family. The story positions Speed and his family as one of the last independent racing teams facing an increasingly uphill battle against fierce competition from racers backed by mega-sponsors. The stakes are so high that the outcome of a major race could determine the fate of a driver or an entire organization.
In creating the racing action, the Wachowskis tapped into their wildest imaginations to conceive a style of auto racing beyond anything we know. Race cars in “Speed Racer” are a perfect synergy of form and function, capable of performing gravity-defying stunts on incredible courses at over 400 mph. Highly customized works of automotive art, each race car is wilder than the next and is designed to reflect the persona of its driver.
The vibrant, candy-coloured world of “Speed Racer” is one in which many eras and styles co-exist, all intersecting in the dominant sport of racing. “You’re seeing what’s past, present and future in the aesthetic of this film,” says Joel Silver. “The society is car crazy, and Larry and Andy have been able to come up with designs for cars that you have never seen before. We’ve seen fancy concept cars in magazines and movies, but this film takes that to a totally new level. These cars can do anything, making the races thrilling beyond anything you’ve ever seen.”
Grant Hill offers, “Larry and Andy are always looking for ways to take things to the next level. We looked at some extreme sports like skateboarding and snowboarding, which have a very fluid motion, and imagined how racecourses would need to look and how fast cars would need to go in order for drivers to perform similar aerial manoeuvres.”
Of course, no WRL race in “Speed Racer” would be complete without gladiator-style battle tactics skirting the edge of what’s legal, involving spear hooks, tire shanks and saw blades. Silver offers, “This vision of an extreme, full-contact motor sport, best described as an acrobatic blend of martial arts and Formula 1, was dubbed by Larry and Andy as ‘Car-Fu,’ automotive martial arts.
“The original ‘Speed Racer’ series was the Wachowski brothers’ introduction to Japanese animation,” reveals Silver. “Larry and Andy were fascinated by the stories, the action and the unique visual style of the series, all of which were so remarkably different from that of the other cartoons on TV during that time. They went on to become big fans of ‘Speed Racer,’ as well as of Japanese anime as a whole.”
In fact, fans of “Speed Racer” span multiple generations and many cultures. The original “Speed Racer” cartoon series was born out of a Japanese manga (comic book) series, created by anime pioneer Tastuo Yoshida, entitled “Pilot Ace.” In 1967, the comic evolved into a Japanese television show named “Mach Go Go Go,” followed by the English-dubbed, American adaptation, “Speed Racer,” six months later.
“Speed Racer” was an instant smash hit across the United States, capturing the imaginations of young American audiences with its blend of exhilarating car action, international intrigue, family values, teen romance and irreverent humour. Unlike anything they had seen before, “Speed Racer” featured the young and determined hero who triumphed against unscrupulous competitors while racing around the world in his powerful and ultra sleek Mach 5.
Over 40 years and several television incarnations later, the story of Speed Racer and his adventures in the Mach 5 has been re-imagined for the big screen by the Wachowski brothers, employing not only spectacular visual effects and high-flying action, but also cutting-edge photographic techniques and state-of-the-art computer- generated imagery.
When the main cast of “Speed Racer” arrived at Babelsberg Studios in Berlin, the Wachowski brothers gave the actors a first look at the world they would be entering, including paintings, storyboards and artwork, as well as an extended pre-vis (3D storyboard animation) of a race sequence.
“Watching the pre-vis sequence was humbling,” states Emile Hirsch, who stars in the title role of Speed Racer. “It was amazing to see how much work had already been done on this film before we even started shooting. It didn’t feel sci-fi, like ‘The Matrix’ films. It felt more magical. It’s more about colours than darkness.”
“There were 12 actors in the room, and I guarantee you, it’s a rare occasion when so many actors are in a room together and completely speechless,” recalls Matthew Fox, who plays Racer X “Everyone was looking at each other, completely blown away. It was pretty exciting. There are very few times in life when you’re part of a project that is endeavouring to do something that’s never been done before, and this was one of those times.”
The Racer family, friends and foes
There are two elements at the centre of “Speed Racer” - racing and the Racer family, both of which are deeply intertwined. “Speed’s family eats, drinks, and breathes car racing. After all, their last name is Racer,” smiles Emile Hirsch. “They work together as a unit. It’s all about teamwork and doing the right thing. I think that’s what makes the heart of the story appealing - everyone gets to participate in the adventure.”
The Racer family home is an idyllic suburban single-family house, where Pops Racer builds race cars in the garage and their pride and joy, the Mach 5, is the centrepiece of the living room. Mom Racer is the backbone of the Racer household, providing comfort, support, and advice, not to mention delicious baked goods. Speed’s wisecracking younger brother, Spritle, and their family pet chimpanzee, Chim-Chim, have their own ways for staying close to the action by hitching rides in the trunk of Speed’s Mach 5 or hiding in unexpected places. Speed’s faithful girlfriend, Trixie, shows her dedication to the Racer family on, off and even above the track from her pink helicopter. Sparky provides dependable service to Racer Motors as Pops’ trusty mechanic.
For the title role, Hirsch held the pole position in the minds of filmmakers throughout an exhaustive casting process that spanned three continents and involved hundreds of actors. “I couldn’t believe it when I got the part,” Hirsch states. “I used to watch the ‘Speed Racer’ cartoon at home in the mornings while eating my cereal. I’ve watched every episode. I’m also a huge fan of ‘The Matrix’ trilogy, so I am really excited to be in a movie directed by Larry and Andy.”
“When we first met Emile, we knew that he had the right look, youthful appeal and talent necessary to play Speed Racer,” Joel Silver offers. “At the time, ‘Into the Wild’ had not even come out, but we also felt strongly about his ability to carry the lead role in our movie.”
Christina Ricci plays Trixie, Speed’s number-one crush, who has been his friend and fan since grade school. Smart, stylish and strong-willed, Trixie can be found cheering for Speed in the grandstand or helping him navigate treacherous racecourses from her helicopter.
“Trixie is my kind of girl,” says Ricci. “She’s always up for adventure and does everything the boys do without the film commenting on the fact she’s a girl. She does all these things - strategises with Speed, flies a helicopter and even does kung fu - but she has a special super cute ensemble for each activity. Trixie is a tomboy and girly girl all at the same time, which makes her really fun.”
Never one to discount the significance of personal style, Ricci recalls, “When I went in for my meeting with the Wachowskis, I was intimidated to meet them because I had been such a big fan of theirs for so long. I was a bit shy and couldn’t really speak, but then I looked down and saw that we were all wearing the same black Chuck Taylor Converse sneakers and I knew then that everything was going to be alright.”
Another steadfast supporter in Speed’s world is Mom Racer, played by Susan Sarandon. The Oscar-winning actress was attracted to the project by the Wachowskis’ story, which emphasizes the importance of a cohesive family unit. “I liked the idea that the Racer family lives in a timeless little pod, where they still sit down together to have dinner every night,” she says. “Mom Racer is the glue that holds everybody together.”
“Mom Racer is definitely the rock of the Racer family,” adds John Goodman, who stars as the head of the Racer family in the role of Pops Racer. “She’s the one everybody goes to with problems.”
Pops Racer is a brilliant car designer and engineer who builds Speed’s race cars, just as he had Rex Racer’s cars before him. “He’s been building cars since Speed was an infant,” says Goodman. Staunchly independent and driven more by passion for the sport than profit, “Pops is extremely wary of Royalton’s offer,” Goodman adds. “He hopes that Speed will turn it down, but he’s willing to let Speed decide for himself.”
Goodman, who also grew up watching the “Speed Racer” cartoon series on TV, recalls, “I had never seen anything like ‘Speed Racer’ when it first came out, so I watched it all the time. When I heard that the Wachowskis were shooting a live-action version, I jumped at the chance be a part of it.”
While Emile Hirsch, John Goodman and the Wachowski brothers enjoyed the “Speed Racer” television series as kids, Matthew Fox, who plays the mysterious Racer X, had a notably different experience. “I grew up on a farm in Wyoming without a television, so I missed out on watching ‘Speed Racer’ as a kid.” Fox nevertheless did his homework prior to his first meeting with the Wachowskis. “I did some research on the cartoon series before I met with Larry and Andy, and when I saw how Racer X was portrayed in the original show, I became even more eager to play the role.”
Fox did share some common ground with the Wachowskis, noting, “One of the first things they said to me about their goal with this project was that they wanted to make a movie their nieces and nephews could really enjoy. I have a ten-year-old daughter and a five-and-a-half-year-old son, so knowing that my kids will see me as Racer X in this movie is tremendously exciting.” On the role of Racer X, Fox states, “This is not a guy that’s walking around in disguise because he wants to. He’s operating at a really deep level of intelligence gathering and working with a secret law enforcement organization to stop corruption in racing. The stakes are life-and-death for a lot of people, which require his true identity remain concealed.”
Doing their own share of inconspicuous intelligence gathering are the offbeat dynamic duo of Spritle, the youngest member of the Racer family, and his pet chimpanzee, Chim-Chim. The two are always looking for adventure, but are usually left behind by the adults, so they get creative in finding ways to join the fun, such as stowing away in the trunk of Speed’s Mach 5.
“Spritle is a mischievous little boy who wants to be like the grownups,” says actor Paulie Litt, who plays Spritle. “Everybody underestimates him. They wanna protect him because he’s just a child, but what they don’t know is that even though he’s small, he’s mighty. He’s chock-full of knowledge about racing and cars and wants to be part of everything, so he finds ways to avoid being left out. If he had his way, he’d be in the trunk of the Mach 5 for every race.”
Only 11 years old during production, Litt won the role of Spritle over 250 other young hopefuls. “It was every kid’s dream,” Litt states. “I got to be on a movie set in Germany for the summer and I got to hang out with a chimpanzee all day. How cool is that?”
Chim-Chim was actually played by two chimps named Willy and Kenzie. “There were really only two or three chimps in the world with the training to fit the role,” says animal co-ordinator Sled Reynolds. Willy, who was three years old and had the benefit of advanced training, was the lead chimp, while the younger Kenzie, at two, served as Willy’s understudy and stand-in.
Since Spritle and Chim-Chim are never far apart onscreen, it was important that they develop a bond. The process of building a relationship between Litt and the chimpanzees took place over the course of eight weeks. “Paulie spent two or three hours a day with Willy and Kenzie and gradually developed a rapport with them. He was very respectful of the chimps and became a natural with them,” Reynolds remarks.
“I’m a big animal person, so I had a blast working with Willy and Kenzie,” Litt attests. “They’re so lovable and intelligent, and they had very different personalities and facial features, just like you and me.”
Recognizing Speed Racer as a real up-and-comer - and potential threat to his dominance of the sport - billionaire tycoon EP Arnold Royalton, founder of the multinational corporation Royalton Industries, offers Speed a lucrative sponsorship deal that will give him access to Royalton’s state-of-the-art equipment and training facilities.
“Royalton offers Speed the deal of a lifetime, but with strings attached,” says Hirsch. “He must choose between driving for Royalton for lots of money and continuing to race as an independent against the most powerfully backed drivers on the circuit. When Speed declines Royalton’s offer, Royalton threatens Speed, telling him that all of the races are fixed and that he will never win another race without Royalton. From that moment on, Speed sets out to prove Royalton wrong and to protect the sport that he loves.”
For the role of the greed-driven founder of Royalton Industries, the Wachowskis sought the talents of acclaimed British actor Roger Allam, with whom they had previously worked on “V for Vendetta.” Allam offers, “It’s great to work with Larry and Andy once again. The brothers are very relaxed on set and work great in tandem.”
Allam describes Royalton as “a self-made man. He’s not from a wealthy background as one might assume for someone in his position. He is someone who started out as an ambitious businessman who has worked hard for his success and, in doing so, created a vast industrial empire. He is powerful to an extent where he thinks he can influence the outcome of every race.”
Royalton’s latest plot involves manipulating two competing families on the WRL circuit: Musha Motors and Togokahn Motors. The head of Musha Motors, Mr Musha, is played by acclaimed Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada.
“Mr Musha is a pure businessman,” remarks Sanada. “He has wanted to control his main rival, Togokahn Motors, for a long time. Royalton knows this and offers to deliver Togokahn to Musha in exchange for Musha Motors’ transponder foundry. This deal will allow Musha to dominate his competition and allow Royalton to corner the transponder market.”
Sanada grew up watching the original Japanese version of “Mach Go Go Go” in his native Japan. “I can still remember the opening song. ‘Speed Racer’ made history for Japanese animation in the United States and the Wachowski brothers are always making history with their films, so I am very happy to be a part of this movie.”
Making history in his own right is Korean pop sensation Rain, who was recently named one of TIME Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People. Rain makes his American feature debut in “Speed Racer” as Taejo Togokahn, the lead driver and heir apparent of Togokahn Motors.
“I think people are going to be blown away by Rain in this film. He has a great presence onscreen that just commands your attention,” Silver states.
Rain’s character Taejo is forced to defend his family name when they are threatened by Royalton’s plot. “Togokahn Motors has been in Taejo’s family for five generations,” notes Rain. “Racing in the WRL has changed a great deal over the generations since Taejo’s family started the business. There used to be a certain nobility about the sport and the drivers, but now everything seems to be about image, branding and profits. Like Speed, my character is out to protect the family business.”
Hot on the tracks of Royalton’s plot to take over Togokahn Motors is Inspector Detector, played by German actor Benno Fürmann. “Inspector Detector has been investigating corruption in the World Racing League for many years,” Fürmann states. “Now he is teamed with Racer X and they are getting close to uncovering Royalton’s scheme, but they need the help of Speed Racer to make it happen.”
Completing the main cast in “Speed Racer” are Australian actor Kick Gurry, who plays Sparky, Racer Motors’ indispensable gearhead and a member of the extended Racer family; and Richard Roundtree, who plays Ben Burns, a legendary WRL racer and former champion of the Grand Prix.
Fans of the original series may remember Speed’s long-time nemeses Snake Oiler, Cruncher Block and the Gray Ghost - played by Christian Oliver, John Benfield and Moritz Bleibtreu, respectively. The Wachowskis have also introduced new rivals, including Jack “Cannonball” Taylor, one of the most celebrated drivers in the WRL circuit and star member of Royalton’s team, played by Ralph Herforth; Prince Kabala, a driver whose car is completely encrusted in precious jewels and worth an estimated $22 million, played by Ashley Walters; Delila, leader of the Flying Foxes Freight team, whose devious racing tactics may deflate Speed’s chances of finishing a race, played by Jana Pallaske; and Grand Prix competitor Kellie “Gearbox” Kalinkov, played by Venezuelan-born Indy-car driver Milka Duno.
Though the process of assembling the internationally diverse cast of “Speed Racer” was no easy feat, producer Grant Hill offers, “I think Larry and Andy did a wonderful job populating the world of ‘Speed Racer.’ It was cool to hear so many different languages being used on set, and an international project like ‘Speed Racer’ deserves a truly international cast.”
“We really had an amazingly diverse cast, but everyone fit their roles perfectly,” agrees Joel Silver. “And it was great to watch the dynamic between Susan and John with the younger actors like Emile and Christina and Paulie. They really did become like a family on the set.”
The cars, the racetracks and the birth of “car-fu”
Speed Racer’s thundering Mach 5 is perhaps one of the world’s most recognizable cars onscreen. Its aggressive 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. While the updated design of the Mach 5 could have gone in a number of directions, “we eventually came back to a semi-retro look with very sleek lines,” says production designer Owen Paterson.
“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,” says Joel Silver.
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 series - the Mach 6.
“As can be expected with Larry and Andy, they also wanted to break new ground here,” says 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 colour scheme and overall ‘M’ shape of the Mach 5.”
Furthermore, “Larry and Andy coined a term to describe the Mach 6 and cars in its class in the film,” continues the production designer. “They called these types of cars ‘T180s’ 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 photography 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 states.
“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,” says Hill.
Once the car designs were approved, they were modelled and painted in a digital environment. Additionally, 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. All of the high-flying, hard-hitting car action in the film was rendered digitally with CGI.
The filmmakers initially contemplated the possibility of shooting race sequences in the film using real cars on practical racetracks. However, Paterson notes, “Given the style of our cars and the high-impact action that we wanted to achieve, it made much more sense to create it digitally.”
“At the speeds they’re driving and with the combative techniques they use, there are a lot of precarious moments on the track,” says visual effects supervisor Dan Glass. “It’s an extremely dangerous-looking sport, but no one gets seriously hurt, because we’ve developed a special device that protects the driver.”
Visual effects supervisor John Gaeta 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 of the cars that compete in the World Racing League.”
As impressive as the cars are, they needed an equally dramatic place to show off their moves. “The Wachowski brothers’ first directive was, ‘Our racetracks should be a cross between a giant ski slalom and a skateboard park,’” recalls Paterson.
“Larry and Andy felt strongly about making sure that each of the races looked very different from each other,” says Silver. “Since we have the freedom to build tracks and backgrounds digitally, we really put our imaginations into overdrive. You’re going to see things that are fantastic and thrilling; the races will keep you on the edge of your seat.”
Four racetracks were created, each with unique characteristics. Not only do the racetracks feature gut-challenging loop-the-loops, winding spirals and breathtaking jumps, but they also take place against exotic-looking environs.
Speed Racer’s hometown track is Thunderhead, where his late brother, Rex, still holds the track record. While Thunderhead is a world-class track, it is not one of the majors on the WRL circuit. Paterson notes, “Thunderhead is a track that’s definitely seen better days. Still, it holds a special place in Speed’s heart because of Rex Racer’s legacy. It has all of the excitement our other tracks bring, including spirals, banks, butterflies and giant drops.”
The second track in “Speed Racer,” the Fuji Helexicon, a big-league track on the WRL circuit, is set on a tropical archipelago against a backdrop of natural volcanoes and ultramodern 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 death-defying road rally race where Rex Racer lost his life. This perilous course, so dangerous that it has been nicknamed “The Crucible,” spans several continents and crosses every imaginable terrain. 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, underhanded driving tricks, including spear hooks, tire shanks and catapults, make the Casa Cristo 5000 the most brutal test of endurance in “Speed Racer.”
“The Casa Cristo 5000 is the most treacherous cross-country race in the world, and competitors will use whatever means to get ahead,” Paterson explains. “We developed what I called the Roman chariot kind of racing, where we have big swords coming out of the cars and shields to protect the wheels.”
There is intense pressure to win the Casa Cristo 5000 because the champion will gain entry to compete in the most highly regarded event in the WRL, the Grand Prix. A victory at the Grand Prix will not only garner fame and fortune for the winner, but also make him or her an instant legend in the World Racing League.
“Imagine an event bigger than the Daytona 500, the Indy 500 and the World Cup combined,” says Joel Silver. “The WRL’s Grand Prix is this event in the world of ‘Speed Racer.’”
“The Grand Prix racecourse is built right into the city of Cosmopolis,” Paterson states. “It’s enormous. It is a fantastical high-rise track with giant dips, loops and butterfly turns that enable the cars to accelerate at breakneck speeds.”
The inspiration for the design and setting of the Grand Prix comes from the Wachowski brothers, “who grew up in Chicago and had always enjoyed the idea of being able to watch a baseball game at Wrigley Field from the rooftops of its surrounding buildings,” Paterson continues. “They had this idea that we could take whole skyscrapers and turn them into grandstands. As a result, the city itself became a grandstand for the biggest race of the year.”
Another feature of the Grand Prix racetrack was a visual illusion added by the Wachowskis to pay 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 the development of creating the “Bullet time” effect in “The Matrix.”
Along one straightaway of the Grand Prix racetrack, the filmmakers placed a series of zebra images along the wall in the background, and as Speed Racer and his racing 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 series of photographs known as “The Horse in Motion.”
“We love to give nods to our inspirations, and so the zebra zoetrope is essentially a wink to the inspiration of ‘Bullet time’ in a literal sense,” says Gaeta. “We planted a lot of illusions in the backgrounds of this film, and among them is this homage to Muybridgean photography in the veil of an advertisement on the Grand Prix track.”
Meticulous attention was also paid to covering the many camera angles required to capture each actor’s close-ups and reactions during the fast-paced action sequences in “Speed Racer.” While the exterior of the cars were composed digitally, full-size cockpits - replete with steering wheels, gas and brake pedals and back-lit instrument panels - were fabricated and mounted on hydraulically powered gimbals controlled by a virtual-reality driving program to simulate vehicle dynamics of actual race cars.
Second unit director James McTeigue, director of “V for Vendetta,” worked with his team to shoot the film’s four major racing sequences, staged against a 200 x 40-foot green screen. The gimbals were designed to simulate the movement of the various cars in each race as they made their way around the tracks. The powerful, hydraulically operated platform enabled the cockpits to move in a three-dimensional space, precisely mimicking a driver’s commands over a custom-designed track.
“The gimbals’ base is controlled by software that ties the movement of the car cockpit to the pre-visualized scene. We also threw in live elements like wind to help the actors feel as though they were actually driving instead of being driven,” says Owen Paterson.
From an actor’s perspective, Rain offers, “Riding the gimbal was pretty intense. It’s probably the closest thing I’ll come to driving a Formula 1 car, but much less dangerous.”
“Working with a gimbal was a fun, new challenge for me,” recalls Emile Hirsch. “You really get thrown around in there, so you don’t have to pretend like you’re being tossed around in a scene. It’s more realistic than pretending to drive something stationary.”
Matthew Fox adds, “The gimbal is wild and requires a good amount of focus. It’s important for the action to look convincing, since the racing in ‘Speed Racer’ is a full-contact sport. James and his team had total control of the gimbal and they adjusted the levels and manipulated that thing however they wanted. I was always telling them to ‘Crank it up!’”
The hyper-stylized world of “Speed Racer”
Speed’s quest for racing glory takes him around the world, from the Thunderhead racetrack in his hometown to the multi-continent Casa Cristo 5000 road rally to the Grand Prix in Cosmopolis. To create the varied settings and action sequences, the Wachowskis called on the expertise of some of the most innovative designers, visual effects artists and digital photographers in the field, many of whom they’d worked with in the past. The directors handed the critical task of overseeing the creation of the film’s 2000-plus visual effects shots to visual effects supervisors Dan Glass and Oscar winner John Gaeta.
“We wanted to have locations from around the world that would normally be impossible to shoot, like exotic foreign cities, arid deserts or icy mountain roads,” explains Owen Paterson. “Places where most directors wish to shoot but couldn’t because it’s either too remote or can’t accommodate a film crew. Instead, the decision was made to take the best of those rare and exotic locations and ‘virtualise’ them, allowing the visual effects department to incorporate them into scenes.”
The final imagery in “Speed Racer” was created using actors against green screens joined with high-definition digital image captures of far-reaching locations, including Italy, Morocco, Austria, Turkey and Death Valley. These images were captured by a small camera team using ultrahigh resolution digital still cameras and later pieced together to create 360-degree panoramic backgrounds known as QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR) spheres, also informally referred to by the “Speed Racer” team as “bubble photography.”
Dan Glass notes, “Because the bubble photography unit is made up of only a few people and requires considerably less equipment than a full-scale production team, we were able to use exotic locations that typically don’t give access to large film crews.”
“The idea is to get freer and freer with our creative process,” offers Gaeta. “When the images captured were tiled together, it created a panoramic view in which you could put the camera where you want in postproduction, and see what you want to see at pretty much any focal length. We expanded on our ‘Bullet time’ concept from ‘The Matrix’ with ‘Racer time,’ which is similar to ‘Bullet time’ but includes attention to planes of depth.”
The Wachowskis were the first filmmakers to utilize Sony’s F-23 HD camera, which had not yet been released to the public when principal photography began.
“We used the first five F-23 cameras that Sony made, and the cameras performed beautifully,” says director of photography David Tattersall, who had worked on “Star Wars: Episodes II and III,” both shot in HD. “This was a perfect choice for the look that Larry and Andy were aiming for. We composed our shots to look very sharp, super saturated and very glossy.”
“We pushed the colours beyond the usual limits to produce what we called ‘pop-timistic’ or ‘techno-colour’ imagery,” adds Glass.
To render the film’s myriad of visual effects shots, the Wachowskis achieved what they called a “live-action anime look” using a visual-layering technique that allows the foreground, mid-ground and background to stay in focus, much like that of traditional 2D animation. This technique came to be called by the filmmakers “2½D technology.” Glass explains, “In the film, each layer - the foregrounds, mid-grounds and backgrounds - were created separately. The way these planes move against one another has a quality we’ve all grown up seeing in cartoons; it’s like a second language to children.” Intentionally striving for emotion over realism and blurring lines of perspective, for instance, was quite liberating for the visual effects team. “We’re playing against perspective and creating images that deliberately break the rules.”
“Anime is such an expressive format,” states Gaeta. “In the cartoon series, which was of course hand drawn, there are unrealistic perspectives deliberately created to spark emotions. It’s less about what’s real and more about what the artist wants you to feel. Translating this into live action involved a process that is, in the simplest terms, like creating moving collages.”
While many of the sets and locations in “Speed Racer” were virtual versions of the locations or computer generated, a handful of practical sets were also built. Production designer Owen Paterson describes the world of “Speed Racer” as “taking place in a fusion retro-futuristic era, a parallel reality where the optimism and fashion of the 1960s is juxtaposed with the hyper-competitiveness and technology of the future. Larry and Andy didn’t want the world of ‘Speed Racer’ to be confined to a specific era.”
Two contrasting milieus are presented in “Speed Racer”: one that the Racer family inhabits, which is safe and suburban, and another that is sleek, ultramodern and overrun by corporate advertising. “The Racer family lives in an uncomplicated suburban landscape where the colours are warm, bright and very saturated,” says Paterson. “We did a lot of the concept work in Los Angeles and were influenced by the mid-century modern style of homes there.”
In contrast, Royalton Industries is based in the ultramodern city of Cosmopolis, a colder reality that is lit artificially by outdoor billboards and corporate logos. Paterson states, “We’ve taken the skyline of a bustling, modern city like Shanghai or Hong Kong, both architecturally and from an advertising sense, and then applied that to the very multinational conglomerate-driven world run by Royalton. It’s global branding and marketing on steroids.” Inside, Royalton’s office is a spacious but sterile environment, largely silver grey, but accented with shades of purple to convey a sense of power, wealth and extravagance.
As the Racer family is the heart of the film’s story, so too was the Racer family house the heart of the production’s shoot. It was on this set that many of the film’s most endearing family moments unfolded. Additionally, unlike a typical suburban home, the focal point of the Racer family living room was the Mach 5, parked right in the middle of house.
Co-ordination between Owen Paterson and costume designer Kym Barrett was essential. Says Barrett, “All the characters have a colour palette: Pops and Mom are red and green, respectively; Speed wears blue and white. To set off those costume colours, we used a lot of orange, turquoise and fuchsia pink in the house. We tied it all together with red floors, ‘Racer Red’ as we called it.” For sequences shot against green screen, Barrett had to find alternative colour schemes as anything green would disappear onscreen.
“In my first meeting with Larry and Andy, they told me they wanted rich primary colours,” continues Barrett. “Instead of getting into too many specifics right away, they started the process by describing their concept of creating a live-action cartoon for all ages. Once that was established, they left me to my own devices.”
In referencing the original cartoon, Barrett found a stylized pop Americana of the 1960s, in which her Racer family costumes would find their root. Barrett used primary coloured fabrics, at times patterned, to achieve a retro-futuristic look. Speed Racer’s outfit in the cartoon series remained the same in every episode: the trademark blue polo shirt with white collar, white trousers and tan racing gloves, as well as a red kerchief and red socks. When initially creating the “Mach Go Go Go” hero in the 1960s, Tatsuo Yoshida was inspired by Elvis Presley’s look in “Viva Las Vegas.” Barrett took creative license to update the appearance of Speed, but gave a nod to the original series by outfitting Emile Hirsch in Speed’s classic outfit for the Casa Cristo 5000 rally race.
Trixie’s colour palette was candy-coloured pink, matching her zippy helicopter and spirited personality. “I loved my outfits,” says Christina Ricci. “My character’s very girly, but also a little bit of a tomboy.”
Barrett had Spritle and Chim-Chim in mind when she approached Los Angeles-based designer Paul Frank, whose monkey face graphic graces the wildly popular line of apparel and accessories for children and adults. Frank invited Barrett to visit his company’s warehouse, where she found the famous monkey-faced pyjamas and thought they’d be perfect for Spritle.
Barrett recalls, “As Paul and I talked, we thought, ‘Why not give Chim-Chim the same pyjamas but in reverse?’ So Paul agreed to design a graphic of a boy’s face for us, from which we created Chim-Chim’s pyjamas. Everyone got a kick out of them.”
For the look of the various race car drivers, including Snake Oiler and Gray Ghost, Barrett aimed to create outfits that reflected the established car designs. “Since the cars were designed in advance, I sat down with Owen and discussed the motifs, colours and textures for each driver,” explains Barrett. Snake Oiler’s scaly, rock star-inspired costume and the Norseman-inspired attire of the Thor-Axine Inc team were Barrett’s personal favourites. “I was fortunate because many of the drivers were stunt men who were game for anything and not worried about looking silly. We had a great time with the costumes.”
To design and handcraft the leather racing jumpsuits used in the film, Barrett sought the help of two skilled leather makers from London with whom she had worked on “Eragon,” Patrick Whitaker and Keir Malem.
For Racer X, says Barrett, “We wanted to retain the Masked Racer’s imposing physical presence from the cartoon. Racer X is a superhero, but not the caped kind, so we came up with a look that combines the essence of a superhero and motorbike racer. We decided to create a leather suit that was more everyday, one you could walk around in that didn’t need a lot of maintenance, and didn’t feel as though it was pulled out only to fight crime.”
“One of the first things Larry and Andy said after giving me the part was, ‘The suit’s gonna be pretty tight,’ which was probably their way of saying, ‘Get in shape,’” laughs Matthew Fox.
Once on set, the leather jumpsuit presented a unique physical challenge for Fox. “The suit heats up really fast. I was only able to do short takes at a time during the fight sequences before I had to cool off.”
By far the most challenging fight scene was staged on the set created for an overnight pit stop during the Casa Cristo 5000 road race. Ninjas hired by Royalton’s fixer Cruncher Block invade the hotel rooms of Speed Racer and Racer X for a late night assassination attempt.
“The fight sequence involving Racer X, Speed and the ninjas was a lot of fun to create,” says supervising stunt co-ordinator Chad Stahelski. “The tone for each of the fights was decidedly different. The ninja that fights Racer X is pretty serious, so he gives Racer X a run for his money, but the ninja that fights Speed is actually more of a ‘nonja,’ because we wanted it to be a little more comedic.”
“When Racer X throws a punch you can expect some bone crunching,” asserts Fox. “His blocks are very efficient and have a real rhythm to them.” Fox enjoyed the benefit of extensive martial arts training prior to working on “Speed Racer.” “I’ve practiced Tae Kwon Do for a couple of years and competed in tournaments in the past, so the martial arts stunts in this movie gave me a chance to revisit those techniques.”
However, training for fight sequences was a new experience for Emile Hirsch. “Working with the stunt team was pretty challenging. I mastered a little bit of Kung Fu and really enjoyed it. I liked learning the different sequences, and came to appreciate how much commitment and focus it takes to be a good stuntman.”
“We gave Emile the basic building blocks for becoming a stuntman. He is a fast learner,” adds Stahelski. “Speed Racer” marks Stahelski’s fifth collaboration with the Wachowskis, having worked on all three “The Matrix” films and “V for Vendetta.”
“The brothers love working with the same people over and over,” comments Joel Silver about the Wachowski brothers’ repeated collaborations with such behind-the-scenes artists as Owen Paterson, John Gaeta, Dan Glass and Kym Barrett. “It gives them a familiar shorthand, which is key on any film set and especially on a project of this scope.”
On his first experience working with the Wachowskis, Hirsch offers, “I had no idea that they would be so funny. You see ‘The Matrix’ trilogy and think, ‘Those are pretty serious guys.’ But they’re both fun-loving people. I think they’re just kids at heart; that’s why they were the perfect directors for this project. They really love what they’re doing and it shows.”
Fox says, “Working with Larry and Andy and such an incredible cast and crew was amazing. There were moments when the entire cast was assembled, and you’d look around at everybody in costume and you could hardly believe you were there. We had an awesome time.”
“It was an honour to work with the Wachowskis,” Rain remarks. “What I love most about this project is that the story is about hopes and dreams. So when kids see this movie, the story might give them hope that if you try very hard, you can accomplish amazing things.”
Silver concludes, “We have wanted to make this movie for a long time, and we’re fortunate enough to have had such a great team of actors, artisans and technicians working together to drive this 20th-century classic into the new millennium. We’re thrilled to have the chance to introduce ‘Speed Racer’ to a new generation and very proud to make a family film that audiences of all ages can enjoy.”
About the cast
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