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Speed Racer Lives Again: An Interview With J.J. Sedelmaier

Everybody's favorite animated race car driver is turning 30. With all eyes on Speed and crew, we decided to interview J.J. Sedelmaier about his award winning Volkswagen commercial and Elizabeth Moran's new book, Speed Racer: The Official 30th Anniversary Guide.

Download Speedracer Quicktimes!Duel (1.3 Mb)Volkswagon (1.8 Mb)

It is Speed Racer's 30th Anniversary, and the animated speedster is showing up all over the place: commercials, on-air promos, television repeats, limited edition cels and even a commemorative book.

Keep a sharp eye out for four new 15-second Speed Racer promos that are currently running on Cartoon Network in the United States. The new Speed serial of "action spots" mix classic animation from the series along with new animation completed by J.J. Sedelmaier Productions in New York. Because the pieces spotlight the show's action content they are primarily airing during Cartoon Network's afternoon action block. The spots will also be airing in the future on Cartoon Network Latin America.

In the new book by Elizabeth Moran entitled Speed Racer: The Official 30th Anniversary Guide, an entire chapter is dedicated to J.J. Sedelmaier's award-winning, 1996 Speed Racer Volkswagen commercial. Other chapters include a trivia challenge, the history of the Speed Racer cartoon, a look at the real voices behind the animated characters and a Complete Speed Racer Episode Guide. J.J. Sedelmaier recently took some time out to speak with me about the spot and the book.

Heather Kenyon: How did the original Speed Racer Volkswagen commercial come to be?

J.J. Sedelmaier: Well, the concept, the idea, was generated out of Arnold Advertising in Boston. They were doing a cool, Baby Boomer-type campaign. I don't know if it's Baby Boomer or Generation X or whatever, but they were obviously hitting people my age (41) and a little younger, trying to sell Volkswagens, specifically the GTI. I got a call from somebody whom I've known for quite a long time, a producer over there, and he said that they were thinking of doing a spot in an old Japanese animation-type style. And I asked, "Well, anything specific?" and he said, "I can't get specific right now." So that afternoon, I pulled everything out of our library and our archive: Astro Boy, Gigantor, Eighth Man, Speed Racer, anything that I felt fit the bill. I edited together a tape and sent it to them. From what I understand, it made a pretty cool impression on them right away.

When I found out that what they really wanted to do was to make a Speed Racer cartoon, I really went all-out. Then, once he mentioned it was for Volkswagen, I just started salivating. I thought, "Oh, my God! If these guys are going to approach this the right way, this could be a real zinger." I did something that I don't normally do. I made sketches, designs and models before even having the job, because I wanted this. I wanted this bad. (laughs) I knew I could have a great time, and everyone in the studio was going to have a good time with it too. That's one of the things that motivates me for bringing jobs in. I want to have something that we can really strut our stuff on.

So we finalized everything and then really started tearing apart the whole, not only the look and the texture, but also the pacing, the cutting and the angles. The only thing I needed [the agency's] coaching on was doing a car commercial, because I really was not well-versed in what it is that they need to concentrate on. Car commercials for the most part are pretty specific, and to do an entirely animated piece was going to be a real breakthrough thing to do. There was discussion at one point about trying to do a live-action car, [with] Speed Racer in it, but that would have been completely hokey. It wouldn't have been half as fun. So, I did a shooting board off of their rough storyboard, and then I did an animatic, because I knew that if I shot an animatic or basically, shot a photo board, that they would be able to get a pretty good feeling about what this thing would be like. The animation wasn't going to be real full and fluid, that's not what Speed Racer is about. Speed Racer is about attitude and angles and dynamics. So, I did a photo board and we set it to a scratch track that I recorded just using my voice, imitating the voices. They basically bought off on it pretty soon thereafter.

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J.J. Sedelmaier created the1996 Volkswagen commercial featuring Speed Racer. © 1996 Volkswagen of America, Arnold Advertising and J.J. Sedelmaier Productions. (Quicktime 1.8 Mb)

As soon as they did, they said they wanted to use Corrine Orr who was the [original voice of] Spritle and Trixie. They were having trouble getting Peter Fernandez [the original voice of Speed and Racer X], and I [recommended] Billy West, [who I've worked with a lot], because I know what he is capable of and I know he could do Speed. As for Pops, he's pretty easy because he's so gruff. He's almost a caricature of himself. And Inspector Detector only has two words, one line with two words in it. Billy did a great audition for them right over the phone, and he grabbed Inspector Detector completely with two words. "Here, Speed!" I wanted to do this conventionally. I didn't want to go into any sort of digital ink and paint or anything like that, because I felt that was going to blow it apart, and we had a decent enough budget, not a great schedule, but a decent enough budget where I could afford to do it conventionally, actually airbrushing everything and doing self-line shadow on stuff. Then, instead of just transferring the negative to video tape for the final transfer, we shot it, transferred it, then I had the print developed from the negative, took that print and had an interneg made and then transferred that interneg. There was just that much more grain on it so it would look a little old. It was starting to look too crisp. It was looking too new. HK: I was going to ask you about special steps that you took... JJ: It wasn't anything special other than degrading it as much as I could. We didn't want to get into scratches, and we couldn't wash it out too much. It is trying to push the positive aspects of a car, so we decided to keep the color pretty much intact, but just add a lot of grain. The grain wasn't added in post. The grain was inherent in the negative. It feels different I think. You can simulate it but it isn't the same as actually grabbing it.

Once [the spot] hit the air, then it really got fun because we pulled up stuff on the Internet where these die-hard, definitely time to get a life (laughs), Speed Racer fans are analyzing this cartoon. It's sad. They are saying things like, "Well, the second scene they've actually used footage from the fourteenth show where Pops is..." and I'm thinking, "Oh my God. Let them have fun, but man, you guys are way off!"

[The spot was] well-received. It had all the return and reaction that you want to get when you do something. It was just so gratifying. At the agency, [Arnold Advertising], Ron Lawner started out with Alan Pafenbach, Lance Jensen and Bill Goodell; they were like the guardians of this commercial that they were bestowing on us. But once we got our hands on it, and really started playing with it, they came to realize how well we knew it, and how well we where cradling it. At one point, they were trying to figure out what to do with the music track. They were thinking of doing kind of like The Go-Go's, a female chorus singing. I was pleading with them, trying to get them to understand how it's important to make it feel like this is Speed driving your car. This should feel like a Speed Racer cartoon. Don't try to take him out of his element, because visually, he's not out of his element, he's completely in it. At a certain point, it was terrific, they said, "We didn't know what you guys were up to, but you have completely nailed this beyond what we would have ever imagined." That was good to hear after they had decided to keep the music intact, and it was like we now had become the guardians of [the spot]. The whole process was very good, with a lot of back and forth of the healthy kind. It helped the project get better and better, and that's what it should be about.

HK: Did you have to get a lot of approvals from the Speed Racer rights holders, the Rocknowskis?

JJ: No, none whatsoever. I did speak with him, but this was actually after we finished the Cartoon Network spots. I realized, "I haven't spoken to him, and I might just as well call and say hello." He basically sold the usage rights to Volkswagen and Arnold Advertising, and that was it. He didn't have any approval process or anything.

We ended up doing a poster or two, that was like the top poster last year or something in college dorms, and that was cool. We designed the poster. David Wachtenheim and Mike Wetterhahn who were the head animator and assistant animator on (the commercial), worked together on the print, which is great. It was just one of those magic projects.

HK: Did the crew enjoy the project as well?

JJ: Oh yeah. Number one: they felt like they were apart of something that was going to get a lot of visibility, which is great. Here is a national spot that is going to get a lot of attention. It's a big name client. It's a first run on the Olympics, that's what our schedule was determined by. On top of that, we are working on something that we know we can nail, and if we do nail it as well as we know we can nail it, it's going to only blow people away that much more. It's not like it's coming out fresh and people have no baggage. People have so much baggage with something like this, that if you can, not only please them but fool them, that's what it's all about.

Speed and his shiny new Volkswagen. © 1996 Volkswagen of America, Arnold Advertising and J.J. Sedelmaier Productions.

It's interesting, because my work centers around working with artists and translating their work to film, mostly cartoonists and illustrators and designers. Something like the Speed Racer spot really helps people who are in a position to work with us, understand how that translation process works. Once you tell them something like the Speed Racer thing was done from scratch, then they begin to comprehend, "So they just did this out of the studio, this isn't just moving stuff around." They really have got to understand how things work, what style is about and what approach is about to be able to translate this.

HK: What kind of research did you do? Did everyone sit around and watch 20 episodes of Speed Racer?

JJ: That's essentially it. We came to realize how messed-up those [original episodes] are. (laughs) When we first noticed, it was right at the beginning when we had to construct models. We had to pass the models, the drawings that were going to determine what this thing was going to look like and what the characters where going to look like, by Lance and Alan at the agency. In order to do a model, you've got to decide on what the thing is going to look like in one drawing. Every single frame of film that we pulled up on any of the characters was completely different. The persistence of vision phenomenon that makes animation possible, how the brain fills in all the gaps when it's moving, is great but when you actually try to say, (a character) looks a certain way, you come to realize how loose the thing really was.

One thing that is very interesting is how they are able to bring across a very dynamic and full exciting feeling with relatively limited animation. It's not fully animated, but they move the camera around and dynamically animate everything in terms of point of view. The camera rises up and turns around and so on and so forth. It's not locked down. That does teach you how you're able to get across certain feelings without having to work on ones, twos or even fours sometimes. It's actually very static.

HK: Well, let's talk about the book now. You've been involved in the book, you have an entire chapter, what do you think? How does it rank as a book for fans?

JJ: I think it's better for someone who wants to have a Speed Racer compilation in their library as a reference piece. As a fan's book...fans are the hardest to please. It's a good piece, [but] it's too small.. It's everything it should be, but as a fan's [book], I don't think it will satisfy fans as much as a big hardcover coffee table sort of thing. On the other hand, most fans probably wouldn't be able to afford what that would entail. But I think it's got everything in it that it's supposed to have in it. I think [Elizabeth Moran] did get across what an impact Speed Racer has had on people, and that's what it should be about...giving examples and then backing it up. It's a modest treatment, but I think in the publishing industry, to get something like this done at all, you have to make a decision as to how far you're going to go with it. But I think it's great. I think you could still do an even more comprehensive "fandom" sort of thing. All you've got to do is stamp a limited edition on it and you're set for life. (laughs) It is nicely designed. I always find it interesting when Hyperion [Publishing] is willing to do something about [non-Disney] animation.

HK: Is there anything in this book that you wish you'd had before you went and made the cartoon?

JJ: The print aspect of it, which the book is, was not something we zeroed in on, because there's such a difference between print and film. I think the book would have been hanging around had it existed before we did the commercial. It would have been great so we could have seen how we did it.(laughs) But I don't think it would have been used as reference as much as the actual films were. I did go out and buy a Mach 5 model, one of these epoxy resin models, so we did have something tangible to tilt, hold and turn. That was very helpful, because the Mach 5 only exists in the most part in flat cartoon form. It was good to be able to move it around. I was even able to get a Volkswagen dealer to let me drive a GTI around so we could videotape that too.

HK: I know you worked hard to get Speed on the screen just right, but he's such a fun property with such a reputation, one would want to work with him.

JJ: I was not a big fan of Speed Racer before we started doing the commercial. I knew who he was, and I knew what I needed to know about him, but I was not at all apart of the cult that surrounded him, and I'm still not. But I've come to appreciate the "funness," but I've got to say it tongue-in-cheek. So much of this sort of thing is steeped in nostalgia, that once it goes beyond the reasonable attitude it's starts to get kind of silly. As long as you don't take it too seriously, it is fun.

Speed Racer: The Official 30th Anniversary Guide by Elizabeth Moran. Hyperion, 1997. 139 pages, illustrated. Paperback, $11.95; ISBN: 0-7868-8246-8. To purchase Speed Racer videos, visit the AWN Store.

Heather Kenyon is Editor-in-Chief of Animation World Magazine.

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