A promising new vision from Joe Sill and his writing partner, Matisse Tolin, we’re pleased to welcome them back to the site with The Cloud Racer, a sci-fi proof-of-concept short heavily indebted to underdog sports films, cinematic aviation spectacles, and old-school chase filmmaking. While the 100% CG film soars via its cutting-edge “virtual production” techniques and real-time workflows, its soul is firmly grounded in old-school Hollywood sensibilities, resulting in a glossy confection that is a pleasing amalgam of forward-looking futurism and nostalgia.
The logline encapsulates all that you need to know. Set in a dystopic Los Angeles of 2055, Jonah and his father have been dreaming of the big-time—racing in the SpaceX Series. Despite competing against sponsored teams with big brand backing (Uber, Amazon, and Honda are some of the other present-day brands cheekily borrowed for the short’s world-building), the scrappy father-and-son duo is willing to fight the odds in order to fulfill their dreams and achieve glory.
The film is designed as a teaser for future development but is more fleshed out than strictly necessary. Considering that the creative team’s previously featured short film, AUTONOMOUS, ended up attracting prominent development partners in Jon Berg and Greg Silverman of Stampede Ventures, that would appear to be the standard to meet. Yet AUTONOMOUS is a 4min film where all the faces are obscured by helmets and the stand-alone plot is more of a sketch than a script.
The Cloud Racer, therefore, is a step forward in ambition. Clocking in at 10min, it hints at its world’s possibility for expansion, yet provides a bit more narrative satisfaction. Most notably though, Sill opts for full motion capture for the characters, utilizing facial performance data which allows the CG characters full expression—no obscuring helmets this time. This decision might prove controversial to many of you. It’s fascinating to see the state of the technology, but the execution is still a bit off—as humans, we have extreme sensitivity towards faces and in The Cloud Racer they are still a bit too plastic. Perhaps aware of this, the “camera” is awfully busy, attempting to mimic the look of hand-held cinematography, yet the synthetic version of the technique feels a bit ostentatious.
If the faces are still a bit weird, whatever is the opposite of weird is, however, are the aerial actions sequences—they are simply awesome! The freedom and possibility for serendipity and discovery that are the hallmarks of virtual production techniques really shine in these race sequences. While fast-cut and kinetic in its motion, the scene possesses a comprehensible geometry, preserving the audience’s understanding of space despite the assault on the senses. This is something of a lost art in action filmmaking, and The Cloud Racer is simply a top-tier race sequence, with no qualifiers regarding the project’s scope or scale.
If the hyperbolic reception by critics and audiences for Top Gun: Maverick this summer is any guide, folks have been nurturing a latent hunger for hi-octane showcases of aerial action, so let The Cloud Racer fill that need! Just kidding, Top Gun’s dad-movie appeal was in no small part predicated on the sort of practical production effects that work like The Cloud Racer is diametrically opposed to. And yet, the spirit of Top Gun is very much present within The Cloud Racer too. Sill’s translation of childhood favorites into a new paradigm is, to me, a welcome sign that, even as technology evolves, the stories and styles of filmmaking we’ve enjoyed in the past will find ways to persist.