Owen Paterson designed the bleak cityscapes of the Matrix movies and V For Vendetta, and now he's creating the candy-colored neopolises of Speed Racer. Not to mention concept cars with wheels that can turn a full 180 degrees. We tracked him down in Sydney, Australia and asked him about the visual influences behind Cosmopolis, the city where Speed races, and the cars which Speed and his opponents drive. Along the way, he dropped a surprising amount of backstory about the alternate world of the Wachowski's Speed Racer, coming in May.
We've watched the full-length Speed Racer trailer a bunch of times, and we keep being blown away by a lot of the bizarre cityscapes that Speed races through. Where did those come from?
In the genesis of Larry and Andy's idea, they were trying to pay homage to the cartoon that came out of Japan in the 60s. And so the idea in a nutshell was to do a movie that was photographically real, but that was two dimensional that and had a sense of the cartoon style. And of course along with that, you need to design a city that s fresh and different [and] that's not as threatening as the city in The Matrix. [A city that's] fun and blatantly colorful. The original cartoon was full of colors that contradicted each other. They used color very well and they used two-dimensional design very well. We've tried to take it to the next level.
It looks like the designs have a lot of bright purples, reds and pinks in them.
There's lots of greens as well, and oranges, I think you'll find every color in the palette. And at times, it was quite a challenge to get all those things to work together.
Why was that challenging?
I think using a very broad palette with a lot of colors in it is very complicated. Larry and Andy wanted the film to be very colorful. There is a retro feeling to it. It's not exactly psychedelic at all, but it has parts of that. We were doing a lot of the pre-production in California, and we used that ranch style house and a lot of the colors from it, and we amped it up a hundred fold.
It definitely looks amped up. And it looks like it has a very cartoony style in general.
Larry and Andy are renowned for their groundbreaking worlds, and this will be another one. This will have a profound effect on how people go about doing things. There are a lot of very graphic images within the film. In one of the trailers, you'll see the faces kind of swirling across the background while the camera is moving. The camera is rotating around the room or panning around the room, and it's following a character, and intercut with that is another character who comes into the frame and sort of pushes the other character out as they're doing their dialog. It's very unusual. It's come from the world of 2D cartoons.
One of the fantastic things about the Wachowskis is their transitions from one scene to another. In Bound, which I didn't work on, there are some fantastic transitions. In The Matrix, they'll drop through the road [or the floor] from one room to another. I think in trailer #1, Speed and Royalton are having an altercation, and you'll see how one face almost pushes another face out... it's not a traditional way you'd cover a scene. There is a sense of a cartoon or an anime.
So does the movie take place in a future city? It certainly looks weird and futuristic.
There are two cities. Cosmopolis is the main city. George Hull did a lot of the design of the actual cities for me, he's one of the illustrators. We were taking inspirations from a lot of buildings around the world — and even from the [American] dollar bill, with the pyramid and the eye on top. One of the buildings is in fact that [pyramid], or very similar to that. It's a completely fanciful city. It's a huge city that's built on advertising and commerce. [In the movie]the world was a world of "corpocracy" as opposed to democracy.
It sounds a lot like our world, actually.
I suspect there's a kind of reference in that. They're very smart guys. The city came from that. We were trying to make a city that is full of color. There's a building that looks like a big sushi fish. There is a sense of playfulness — You could take a giant caterpillar and do some elongations and some geometry on it, and you could create a building. If you look really closely and freeze one frame, the background is like that.
In the film, when they get to the Grand Prix toward the end, the city surrounds the Crucible, which is the Grand Prix track. The track is literally in the city, and parts of the buildings are great big grandstands that can look down into the Grand Prix track. If you go to Chicago, to Wrigley Field, all around the baseball field, there are grandstand buildings that are five stories high and on top of some of them are homemade grandstands that people sell tickets to and you can sit there and look right down into the baseball.
What's it like designing sets and backgrounds using CGI? Is it harder than the design work for The Matrix?
Yes and no, in that we were designing a city that had particular style to it and color to it. There was a little more two-dimensional quality to it than there was in The Matrix. In The Matrix our big city was based on Sydney and then it was expanded, buildings were made taller, buildings were made longer. Particularly in the first Matrix when Agent Smith is talking to Morpheus — whey they have Morpheus a prisoner in the government building — the city behind Morpheus in the window is the city of Sydney, and we had just added a bigger building to it. Agent Smith says this was built at the pinnacle of human success.
Whereas the city of Cosmopolis is actually based in a fantasy world. There are a lot of elements based on car parts [in the buildings] but they're very subtly done. It's a lot like how when you look at the Empire State Building, they take a particular design motif and they expand on it. Certain things like that have been done with the buildings and the city of Cosmopolis, they'll take a particular piece of a grill of a car and they'll extrapolate on it so it doesn't look like a car part any more but there's a hint of it.
And you mentioned it's a very corporate-dominated world.
It's also a world where they don't use gasoline. They have motors that take like battery power and convert it using a thing called a transponder and they convert this theoretical energy through a convertinator, into a high powered non-CO2 fuel. They're not burning up gasoline when you see those cars going around.
Did you work on designing the cars as well as the sets?
Yes, the art department does that. We have a team of people who work with me who were doing that. The original Mach 5, the car Speed drives around in, was a cartoon car. We had to make a physical version of the car, it doesn't drive, but you can push it around. Julian [Jenson] reinterpreted that car to bring it into the 21st century. It's a very beautiful looking car. It certainly has a retro quality to it. When you look at it you say, "Oh it's the Mach 5 from the cartoon," but it's developed a long way. They did a beautiful job of doing everything from the bumble bee to the shooting star that flies out of the car that Rex Race drives. That's an absolutely gorgeous car. [The cars in the movie] can do lots of tricks, they have saws and jumping legs.
Everybody who worked on this was out to put in the fun elements that you have a cartoon that you can't really put into a regular movie.
In our world we have architects. In Speed's world, they have carchitects. [If you] want a car, you get someone to customize or design your car for you. It doesn't have to be the most expensive. All the street cars [are customized], so when you drive down the road what you see is just the most beautiful cars and exotic cars that you could possibly imagine. It's like going to the Pebble Beach Concourse up at Monterey. The Concourse de Elegance. They have the most beautiful cars in the world, from all time periods from the futuristic cars the concept cars to the 1910s and earlier probably. Some of the cars there are the concept cars of the 1920s or 1950s. If you're going to have a city called Cosmpopolis, it has to be very cosmopolitan. Every car you see is absolutely uniquely beautiful.
And then there are the race cars?
Race cars in Speed's time are called T-180s, and their wheels are able to rotate 180 degrees, rather than the regular 90 degrees. So the car can travel down the race track sideways. In its simplest form, the wheel is captured form above and then it has a drive shaft.
Captured from above?
You know, in a shopping trolley, the wheel is captured from above, and the wheel can spin right around, and then the car has a flexible drive-shaft which is coming off this very powerful non-polluting engine. It's like ion power. So the T180s, they'll do 300 miles per hour, they're very fast. Some other racers we see, [like the one] that Rex Racer is racing, they're the cars that are pre-T-180, their wheels will only partially spin. We were trying to make a film of a parallel world. It's our world, but it's slightly off axis a little bit.