Hollywood Science: How to Make a Digital World

The high-speed stunner Speed Racer resets reality by creating a fantasyland out of nothing but computers and imagination

Filming conventional high-speed action fare is hard enough, but to bring the classic cartoon Speed Racer to life, the Wachowski brothers had to contend with 300mph racecars sporting fanciful features like robotic reconnaissance pigeons and wheels that can rotate 180 degrees. With 2,300 visual-effects (VFX) shots—twice as many as last year's eye-popping 300—it heralds the future of summer-blockbuster fare: The entire movie, aside from the human actors, exists only in a computer.

"It's a film about racing cars with no real cars and no real racetracks," says Kim Libreri, the vice president of advanced strategy at Digital Domain, a visual-effects studio responsible for many of the race scenes. In our photo gallery, we present a step-by-step guide to constructing an entire movie world from scratch.

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1. Build the Environment

To craft realistic digital backdrops, location scouts took photographs of exotic landscapes like the tops of the Austrian Alps and California's Death Valley. Then VFX engineers stitched the images together to create a virtual 360-degree world, called a bubble. The bubble is used only during the production of the film; the landscapes and backgrounds seen in the movie are completely digitally re-rendered.Warner Bros.

2. Insert the Actors

After filming a scene in front of the green screen, the cinematographer, directors and actors can catch a preview of the shot on a display called a field monitor, which shows the actors inside the bubble. The bubble saves studios hours and money by helping directors avoid reshoots, which happen when, for example, an actor isn't perfectly synced with the digital action of the scene.Warner Bros.

3. Run the Race

Filmmakers looked to roller coasters for inspiration when they designed the movie's racetracks. Before a shoot, a crew member "drove" the digital racetrack by watching it on a screen while driving a car in a racing videogame. The movements of the car in the game were then fed to a hydraulic platform. During the shoot, the actors sit on the platform, which moves like a flight simulator to match the turns on the virtual track.Warner Bros.

4. Make It Look Shiny

Producers rented five Corvettes in different colors and took 360-degree photos of the cars under various light conditions. Animators then re-created (and revamped) the cars as digital wire frames. Next, they manipulated the wire frames' textures and colors, until the digital version was indistinguishable from the real deal.Warner Bros.

5. Put It Together

Animators replaced the green screen from the footage shot on set with computer-generated cars, racetracks and landscapes by digitally selecting everything green in a shot and replacing it with the animation. From start to finish, a single frame can take an animator more than a year.Warner Bros.

FAQ: When Were Colored Screens Introduced?

The 1940 film The Thief of Baghdad was the first major studio film to use blue-colored screens heavily, according to William McDonald, a professor of cinematography at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television.

FAQ: Why the Switch to Green?

Today, filmmakers prefer green screens because the frequency range of the color green is more consistent between artificial and natural lighting, making it an easier color than blue or red to separate from a shot.James Vreeland (CC Licensed)

FAQ: Is All This Movie Tech Useful For Something Else?

The cosmetics industry has adopted programs used to model hair motion and skin translucency, used in films like Shrek, to virtually test cosmetics before they go into development.Dreamworks/Everett Collection