When they reconnected, it was for “Speed Racer.” The Wachowski brothers brought back production designer Owen Paterson and art director Hugh Bateup from ‘The Matrix’ as well as Gaeta and Dan Glass, who had co-supervised the last two films in the trilogy. Gaeta and Glass pulled together a team that included several ‘Matrix’ trilogy alumni including Kim Libreri, Mohen Leo, and Haarm-Pieter Duiker now at Digital Domain, Lubo Hristov at Christov Design, Matt McDonald at Evil Eye, and many others. In addition to those studios, the visual effects supervisors enlisted help from Sony Pictures Imageworks, Industrial Light & Magic, BUF, and several other artists and studios all of whom would find themselves tossing most of what they’d learned out the window.
“’Speed Racer’ is the antithesis of ‘The Matrix,’” Gaeta says. “It’s bright, colorful, poptomistic. The whole frame of mind is different. We went a level away from photorealism and the perfect integration of all things.”
To create the X-game action of ‘Speed Racer,” CG cars zip around roller-coaster tracks and the drivers practice “car fu.” In these sequences, the highly reflective racecars speed inside CG stadiums with cheering digital crowds. The drivers are often the only live action elements.
For the narrative sequences, and some of the races, visual effects artists led by Hristov created “bubbles,” 360-degree virtual backgrounds from photographs stitched together by Dennis Martin, another Matrix alum, photographed elements, matte paintings, and 3D models. They layered these bubbles one inside another, cut holes between them using transparency, and produced animated backgrounds, much as if they were creating 2D animation – an homage to the anime television series of the same name that inspired “Speed Racer.” Gaeta has named the technique “photo anime.”
On the “Speed Racer” set, the director of photography David Tattersall, who was the cinematographer for “Star Wars Episodes I, II and III,” referenced these virtual locations to light the actors. Also on set, Gaeta and McDonald used a game-engine based, real-time compositing system developed at Digital Domain to composite the live action footage from the HD cameras into the bubbles – that is, into the virtual locations - for the directors, DP and actors to see.
The filmmaking process was fluid: The visual effects team changed the cinematography. The editors moved layers in the backgrounds. The filmmakers used the virtual backgrounds and other effects to make emotional story points using heart-shaped defocus blurs, for example, in a romantic scene – much as in a 2D cartoon or anime.
“‘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.”