The Technium

Painted Films

Just saw the newly released Speed Racer film. It’s a wonderful example of a painted film.

A painted film is “drawn” with photographs. It is painted, layer by layer, frame by frame not by hand — as a Pixar annimated film would be — but with manipulated photographic images. It is painted by cameras. These movies are the cinematic equivalent of photoshopped films. They are 100% special effects; virtual no frames are left untouched. However the “special effect” in most cases is to create something ordinary, or “realistic.”


In this cool clip from Evil Eye Pictures, one of the artisan digital effects companies which produced Speed Racer, you can see how layers of images are painted up to form the final movie.

It is probably not a coincidence that most of the painted films to date are cinematic graphic novels. I don’t mean films about or based on graphic novels, I mean films that are the visual equivalent of graphic novels.


The Matrix trilogy was among the first to exploit this style of cinematic photo-painting. The famous “bullet time” view was a trick appropriated from Japanese anime by special effects wizard John Gaeta. It contained aspects of both the free-wheeling imagination of drawn images and the found detail of photography.


Sin City, a graphic novel film based on a graphic novel was another example. At initial glance it appeared to be a one-to-one translation from comic book page to photographic film, but the methods and techniques the creators used to make this comic-book film went beyond comics. They were painting with cameras. 

300 Corliss 0313

Then there was 300, a film so painterly, it signaled the arrival of something new. I think of 300 as comic-book kabuki. It was so stylized that it had the air of ritual in it. At the same time, it was obviously not photographed. But not drawn either. Yet it was constrained to the flatness of paper or canvas. Rather than try to mimic the realism of real life, it was imitating the realism of a comic book.

Now we have the newest and perhaps best illustration of this emerging genre in Speed Racer. Speed Racer has a weak story and cartoon characters (one tipoff is the pet chimp). TIME called it “aggressively childish” as a compliment. I think of it as “aggressively childlike.” The medium is the message here. Besides its over-the-top poptimistic style, and its new method of making movies, it is pioneering the hybrid vigor of this new genre of painting moving images.


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