VFX-Heavy Production Used Seven Cameras to Create its Candy-Colored World

Whatever you think of Speed Racer, the new alternate-reality VFX fest from the Wachowski Brothers directorial team, you’ll have to admit that it doesn’t look like anything you’ve seen before. From the digital backdrops behind every scene and the crazy, Nintendo-style racing environments to the smeared, saturated colors and shot transitions that use moving live-action elements as wipes, Speed Racer is clearly intended to tweak the nose of every big-budget action movie that’s preceded it. To get the unusual look, the Wachowskis and director of photography David Tattersall turned to the brand-new Sony F23, the successor to the company’s popular F950 HDCAM. F&V spoke to Rob Willox, director of the content creation group at Sony Electronics, for a little background. Watch the trailer, below. And look for more Speed Racer coverage, coming soon.

F&V: How did the F23 get the job on Speed Racer?
Rob Willox: The production was asking questions at the time about our F950. At that time, the F950 was an absolutely great camera. They were looking for something a little bit above that, but they weren’t sure if they were looking for a 35mm-sized digital camera or a 2/3-inch. 2/3 seemed to fit their vision a little bit better. The backgrounds in the special-effects shots aren’t as important as they would be on a set where you had specific set items at specific distances. This was all going to be virtual. We mentioned to them that we were going to have a new camera that was a successor technology to the F950, and it would be a little more friendly to their process in terms of operation. They were quite encouraged by that. We showed them some advanced prototypes of it and they were thrilled with the image. They said, “Look, if you can get it done in time for our film, this is what we’d like to use.”

What’s “more friendly” about the F23?
Mainly the operational software and the camera ergonomics. The F950 had to be cabled to a camera-control unit. It wasn’t a single-package unit. It always had to be tethered to something, and that could present challenges to the production. They’ve got to be mindful of all the cables hanging off the back, and plan around the video village to have everything coming to one central point. If you’re not used to working in that environment, it can become inconvenient or unfriendly. The F23 represented the first time that we had 4:4:4 imaging capability in, basically, a camcorder – a joined single-body unit. It makes the camera friendlier for Steadicam and crane work – it’s just much more transparent in production than our previous offering.

And these directors had previously shot on film, so they didn’t have a digital-friendly production style.
It would have been new to them, so we wanted to give them a toolkit that they were familiar with. The other thing was we went for a really big change in the camera’s GUI. The user interface on the F23 is much more film-friendly and uses film terminology much more than the F950. The F950 was essentially a video camera that was capable of 444, and Pace Technologies and others had modified them for cinema work, while the F23, by birth, was designed to work in a cinema environment.

How many F23s did Speed Racer use in production?
Seven. Six operating and one backup.

Did they use any other cameras?
Not that I know of. The only camera that we know about – and we had engineers from Japan and domestic on set during production – was the F23.

And it was the first deployment of the F23, correct?
Yes. We didn’t have a TV project or anything. This was the first out of the gate. You have to have a really high degree of confidence in your own product to have that as your first undertaking. You’d like to do somebody’s wedding.

But it was basically timetable-driven. They wanted to start. We wanted to enter the market with a bang. And when that project came up, it was a commitment made by both Sony America and Sony Japan. We worked with them and coordinated delivery of the equipment and personnel to nurse it through the production. Surprisingly – encouragingly – it went very well. I think it was one of our stronger showings out of the gate, ever.

Was it fairly transparent in terms of the dailies workflow and post production?
They liked the idea that it was cassette-driven. They would make duplicates of what they were shooting that day, and that gave them the opportunity to use other media or other resolutions to screen it. Overall, because it was such a VFX-driven film, it was a very welcome workflow.

The footage from Speed Racer is really eye-popping.
The big difference between the F950 and the F23 is we’ve gone beyond ITU 709 color space, and we can record a wider gamut. Once you start with something so incredibly clean, once you get that into a DI suite and decide how you want to maintain your colors, really the choices are just mindbending. It’s amazing to me how, if you look at the top 20 movies, how many of them are look and VFX driven. I’m not saying they have bad actors and bad scripts – of course they have the best of everything. But if you’ve got three Pirates movies and three Harry Potters and other things that are so visually challenging, it’s amazing how well the public responds when you get them right.

And if this is the type of stuff we can do in 1920×1080, once we start looking at 4K and that type of management and increased color space, these looks are only going to look better and better all the time.

And you mentioned that, with the F23, you’ve started incorporating more feedback from cinematographers.
The timing had to be right, and the product we delivered had to be relevant. I don’t think it could have happened four or five years ago. I don’t think we were at a place technologically where we could have provided the tools. When we introduced HDCAM, man, that was a really tough technology at the time, and there were so many hurdles to overcome. Is this compression going to be accepted? Can they live if we subsample this so we can have a camcorder? There was so much give and take in a camera that’s become a Hollywood TV standard and has made something like 500 movies. The next one was going to be something really special.

The VTR in an F23 is the 30-year extension of a Betamax portable cassette player, if you can believe it, and we’re now recording 880 Mbps of RGB beauty onto, essentially, that half-inch cassette shell. That says an awful lot about the evolution of our imagery and our commitment to the business. We’re not done with that yet – we showed an SRW at NAB [the SRW-5800, buffed up with an optional add-on board] that can record 4K.

There’s a comfort level in recording to tape that still works for production.
We always welcome the opportunity to hear from people what they think is next – and we try to find the reality. The best we can deliver that’s economical and transportable and not fragile is tape. There’s that Mark Twain saying – the death of tape is a little premature. We’ll look beyond it when the technology is stable and the workflow is there. This year at NAB you saw some workflow innovations where we can marry tape and an IT infrastructure together to give a lot of the benefits of tapeless media along with a reliable cassette.