is a blog about design, technology and culture written by Khoi Vinh, and has been more or less continuously published since December 2000 in New York City. Khoi is currently Vice President of User Experience at Wildcard and co-founder of Kidpost. Previously, Khoi was co-founder and CEO of Mixel (acquired by Etsy, Inc.), Design Director of The New York Times Online, and co-founder of the design studio Behavior, LLC. He is the author of “Ordering Disorder: Grid Principles for Web Design,” and was named one of Fast Company’s “fifty most influential designers in America.” Khoi lives in Crown Heights, Brooklyn with his wife and three children. You can reach him through one of the services below.+
Most of you reading this probably have only a few days left, at most, to go see what in my opinion will surely prove to be one of the most underrated films of the recent past — before it’s withdrawn from your local multiplexes entirely due to its almost universally poor critical response and its relatively anemic box office performance to date. The name of the movie is “Speed Racer.”
Don’t be fooled by its juvenile source material — an American adaptation of a Japanese anime franchise that originated in the late 1960s — or its unabashed formulation as a would-be summer blockbuster. It really is one of the only movies I’ve seen this year that really qualifies as high art, not just entertainment, but a leap forward in filmmaking. For designers, this movie should also be of some interest: its disappointing reception amongst both the cognoscenti and the popular moviegoing public are a testament to my theory that the combination of graphic design and cinematic storytelling is a surefire recipe for failure.
Paint by Numbers
If you get a chance to see “Speed Racer” before it exits theaters, you should know beforehand that, as a friend of mine described it to me, its substantial merits are best likened to those of a great painting, and not so much a great novel.
That’s because the movie is aggressively abstract in its usage of computer graphics. There’s not an inch of the screen in this movie that hasn’t been reimagined through a technicolor prism of pure digital processing power.
The world created by the film’s directors, the Wachowski Brothers, is very much like a post-Photoshop equivalent of an Impressionist masterpiece; the cinematic vision at work here has nearly no truck with reality, only with reinterpeting — often, regurgitating — familiar objects as if experienced from the inside of some sci-fi Chuck E. Cheese. Racing cars don’t act like automobiles so much as they do candy-powered space ships; they speed along Habitrail-like raceways and perform impossible feats, literally exploding into balloons upon impact.
That’s the kind of fantasia the directors have cooked up. It’s an unrelenting and often unnerving vision that understandably turns off lots of people, but I thought it was gorgeous.
The Outer Limits
Of course, the Wachowski Brothers have a reputation for pushing the limits of digital manipulation in cinema, as evidenced by their groundbreaking trilogy “The Matrix.” In the latter two entries in that franchise, their ambitions far outstripped the capabilities of their tools and even of their storytelling skills. The cost for that overreaching was paid, painfully, by everyone naive enough to watch the last two installments. My eyes still hurt.
I can’t say that in “Speed Racer” the brothers have necessarily proven that their ability to spin compelling narratives has grown appreciably, but at the very least, they’ve scaled back the scope of their storytelling. The narrative is simple and superficial, but visual stimulus aside, unexpectedly touching. Inside of a tremendous blender of liquified visuals, there is still a very affecting warmth among the characters. When, inevitably, the main character triumphs at the end, I can’t deny that I was rooting along with unabashed enthusiasm.
Graphic Design Goes to the Movies
For designers, it’s still worth seeing this movie for no other reason than the fact that the sensibility driving its abstraction is, in essence, a graphic sensibility. In spite of the plethora of three-dimensional computer rendering, the cinematography is essentially flat. That is, the directors treat every object in the frame as reductive shapes, to be juxtaposed, overlapped, intercut, transitioned — in effect laid out, much like on a pasteboard, as expediently and impactfully as possible.
To a very real extent, the Wachowski brothers are acting as designers throughout “Speed Racer,” composing each frame not with a pictorial eye, but with a graphic eye. This probably accounts for my very visceral attraction to this movie, and it also probably explains why so many moviegoers have been turned off by it. In fact, it’s my belief that a graphical sensibility is directly at odds with the mainstream of cinematic expectations.
Moviegoers are, by and large, suspicious of graphically-driven movies. That’s why we’ve never seen the split-screen innovations of movies like the original “Thomas Crown Affair” gain much traction, and why the graphical breakthroughs of music videos have rarely been able to break through to feature films. “Novelty” is the word that comes to mind for most people when presented with such attempts to expand the cinematic language. When such devices have been used successfully, as in countless opening credits for the James Bond franchise, they almost invariably signal some kind of irony, some awareness of their own manipulativeness. Usually, as in Ang Lee’s failed attempts at integrating actual comic book panels into “The Hulk,” they are regarded as contemptible disasters.
Perhaps it’s a shortcoming of the cinematic form that it cannot accommodate this kind of visual language, or perhaps it’s a useful constraint upon filmmakers to expect them to work within relatively naturalistic ranges of expression. It shouldn’t matter to designers, though. In “Speed Racer,” we have a genuinely entertaining movie that shows the real potential of combining the narrative dimension of film with graphic sensibilities. It’s a thrill to watch. You might not want to miss it.+