How to Make Poptimistic Photo-Anime

Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures

Closing the Tribeca festival, the Wachowski brothers’ Speed Racer puts more than a fresh coat of paint on the old anime series—thanks to effects gurus John Gaeta and Dan Glass. Gaeta pioneered The Matrix’s “bullet time” effect; together they staged Reloaded’s chase scenes. They call their new approach “poptimistic photo-anime”; we asked them to dissect their influences and techniques.

John Gaeta: The original series is the DNA, but we also looked at a lot of other anime. Hayao Miyazaki’s The Castle of Cagliostro [a sweet action-comedy fable about a thief who falls in love with a princess he meets while hurtling toward a cliff in the middle of an absurd chase scene] was very important to us. Like Speed Racer, its palette is vivid and its approach is very optimistic.

Photo: MPTV

J.G.: The Elvis movie Speedway is inching toward a Pop Art style that we were interested in. Tron? Sure. 2001. Akira. Any art form is derivative, reimagined by the new influences of the day: HD broadcast, animation on TV, video games, the Internet—it’s all a new swatch book.

Photo: Walt Disney Co./Everett Collection

High-end Disney “cel animation” films like Tarzan are made by overlaying multitudes of clear frames. Each frame (or cel) contains art that has been painstakingly drawn for a corresponding foreground, background, or midground (think stacked transparencies from science class). Instead of drawn cels, Dan Glass says, “we use photographic layers. It’s a kind of photo-anime.

Photo: David LaChapelle/Courtesy of Fred Torres

J.G.: There’s no film grain— we did everything to make the medium textureless. And we were very influenced by Pop Art photography. We could draw a line from Andy Warhol to David LaChapelle—or Jill Greenberg’s site, where human beings are elevated to the highest form of commercial Pop Art. They’re almost not human, they’re icons.

D.G.: It was important for the Wachowski brothers to surprise people, to go from dark, very adult films and do a candy-colored family comedy. J.G.: So we really pushed the envelope of digital color to get colors that we could alter in any way—at times it’s a very electronic, rave-y design: techno-color. Mostly, it’s candy-colored because we consciously wanted a palette that would be very attractive to kids.

Photo: Eadweard Muybridge/Time Life Pictures/Getty Images

D.G.: These zebra ads are inspired by Eadweard Muybridge’s photos of a horse in motion. We took footage of a zebra running and made a more graphic version. In the race, when you see the car in profile, the images—actually a series of stills—move and you see a running zebra. J.G.: This is an inside wink to Muybridge— he was an inspiration for “bullet time,” which premiered in the first Matrix movie.

Photo: AP

D.G.: The car that’s pictured is the Mach 6, the next generation of the Mach 5 featured in the original cartoons. The original cars were inspired by the Corvette Stingray and Harvey Earl designs. We modernized it. Our cars are always jumping and spinning. We designed wheels that can rotate one full revolution independently, so they can perform almost dancelike maneuvers, more akin to aikido or capoeira. We call it Car-Fu.

Photo: John Kelly/Getty Images

J.G.: In this world, racing is the World Cup times ten, in a way that young people might reimagine a sport if they could start Formula 1 over. We thought about extreme sports. Thirty years ago, nobody would have expected motocross guys to be doing balletlike pirouettes in the middle of a jump. So our racetracks are the world’s largest skate parks.

How to Make Poptimistic Photo-Anime