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SET PIECES

The 'Speed Racer' time warp

In the new action film, the future looks a lot like midcentury suburbia. Just add color -- lots of it.

May 08, 2008|Christy Hobart | Special to The Times

IN THE Wachowski brothers' new movie, "Speed Racer," the eponymous main character (Emile Hirsch) and his family seem to live in a modern ranch house in midcentury suburbia. The hallmarks of the era are there: graphic wallpaper, bold colors, bamboo accents and streamlined furniture upholstered in nubby fabric. But there's also a futuristic television and a spotless workshop where Speed's dad, Pops (John Goodman), makes battery-operated race cars that can defy gravity.

"We were trying to make the film quite timeless, retro and midcentury, but set sometime in the future," says Owen Paterson, the production designer, who had worked with Andy and Larry Wachowski on their groundbreaking "Matrix" trilogy. Adds set decorator Peter Walpole: "You never quite know where you are or what time you're in."

However, the eye-popping race scenes that make up much of the movie, which opens Friday, could happen only in the distant future -- or in a video game.

"The intention was to make a live-action version of the original cartoon," Paterson says, referencing the Japanese anime series that achieved a huge following in the U.S. in the late 1960s and veritable cult status later. "Speed's world is a parallel world, an exaggeration of color and action and images."

Paterson's goal was to create a universe like ours, but a lot more fun.

For the Racer family home, he chose bold colors for the walls -- red, blue and orange -- then had them further ramped up digitally in post-production. Other surfaces were lined with vibrant, patterned wallpaper. With these choices made, it was Walpole's job to select furnishings.

"There was an amazing amount of colors on the walls," Walpole says. "It would have been easy to lose balance and have it not work."

He brought in a sofa and armchairs covered in a mauve-purple fabric that works surprisingly well with the blue linoleum floors and orange accents.

"The set needs to be comfortable with the viewer. You don't want it to jump out," he says. "You want it to be about the acting, not the set."

Throughout the house, shiny racing trophies grace shelves, hundreds of tiny Hot Wheels cars line the sills, racing posters decorate the walls, and Speed's pristine Mach 5 sits in the middle of the living room.

In this parallel universe, it's all about the cars. Pops spends his time building race cars in his home workshop, often with the garage door open. The house across the street would make you believe that part of the film was shot in Palm Springs. Although Paterson and his team did tour the California desert and the Los Angeles area looking at midcentury architecture for inspiration for the Racer home, the cast and crew never filmed in Southern California. And despite appearances in the film, they never shot in Asia, the Middle East or North Africa, either. Everything was shot on the sets of Studio Babelsberg near Berlin.

"It was like we were working in a green goldfish bowl," Walpole says, explaining that most of the movie was filmed on minimal sets encircled by green screens.

Before physical production began, location scouts and photographers traveled the world taking 360-degree, high-definition photos of settings that later were dropped into the scenes using green-screen technology. By bringing the locations to the studio, the Wachowskis were able to get a European casino, the Brandenburg Gate, a Dubai skyscraper, Death Valley and much more into the film for a fraction of the cost of having cast and crew on location.

But using this technique to such a degree had its challenges. First, after studying the photographs of the interiors, Walpole and his team had to find or construct furniture that would look like it belonged in the varied locales.

The dimensions of the setting, such as a room in an elegant Moroccan residence, were chalked out on the green floor of the set in Germany.

Walpole and his team then positioned pieces of furniture within the imaginary confines of the room.

"There would be an island of dressing," says Walpole, using the British term for furnishings, "floating in a green space."

To help the actors know where a door or a window eventually would appear on film, simple green frames sometimes were erected. The rest of the room was inserted digitally in post-production. "It was quite confusing," Walpole admits.

But it works. For some in the audience, figuring out what's real and what isn't just might be more interesting than the story unfolding on-screen.

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