Like so many beautiful internet creations, Racer Trash started off as a joke. Last May, editor Alex T. Jacobs caught a double feature of Two-Lane Blacktop and Speed Racer on Ariel Gardner’s Twitch stream. He typed in chat that he’d always wanted a vaporwave cut of Speed Racer, but that it would probably never happen. Forty-eight hours later, on Jacobs’ birthday, his wish came true in the form of Speed Vapor, the first Racer Trash movie.
He and Gardner were in a group chat for filmmakers, mostly friends from industry circles in LA, who had gathered around the communal streaming hearth to watch movies in the pandemic. Jacobs’ dream idea quickly struck a chord with the group. Someone suggested dividing up the film and assigning segments (or “segs,” in racer-speak) to different people; several friends had worked on the 2014 movie Our Robocop Remake, where dozens of filmmakers reproduced parts of the original Robocop and assembled them into a single, maniacal feature.
And so a new film collective was born, fueled by a distinctly punk ethos: to attack and dethrone cinema. One way to describe it might be movie graffiti. But depending who you ask, Racer Trash is also a powerful “fuck you” to capitalism and a nourishing refuge from regular editing work. There’s only one way to watch Racer Trash movies: live on Twitch.
[Warning: the majority of linked videos may affect photosensitive viewers.]
Today, there are over 50 members, around half of whom are “core,” although this is always changing: some work on every movie, others contribute to one and move on. “We were so excited about it,” Gardner says of Speed Vapor’s two-day turnaround. “The next day, we already had another movie planned out, we already had a Discord going, we were already talking about all the things that it could be and establishing a name of who we were and what our collective was.”
In one year, the collective has reworked and screened Spice World, Hausu, Super Mario Bros., Jumanji, Hackers, Vertigo, Romeo and Juliet, Heat, Dracula, and Alien, just to name a few. Racer Trash has also mutated away from its vaporwave inspirations into its own distinct entity. Its chaotic movies are interwoven with forgotten TV commercials, joke tweets, watermarked assets, Pokémon, 3D computer graphics, and cartoons. Boards of Kaneda is an Altered States-style Akira remix set to the music of electronic duo Boards of Canada. There’s the 30-minute long Abbadook, which is the unholy combination of The Babadook and Abba. In between feature film streams are short intermission-style snippets, like this gorgeous reinterpretation of Fiona Apple’s “Hot Knife.”
Several Racer Trash members believe their movies are the densest form of media on the planet, given that film itself is made up of theater and music and art.
Racer Trash editors refer to themselves as racers or wavers, all professionals from the myriad realms of filmdom. Director Adam Wingard (Godzilla vs. Kong, Death Note), filmmaker D’arby Rose, artist and designer Starline Hodge, and director / comedian Jess Lane are just a few names among its growing ranks of animators, editors, digital artists, sound engineers, and producers.
In the early days, the dozen-or-so members decided on films with a democratic voting system. Now there are multiple projects being worked on at any given time, each helmed by a captain who assigns segs with a random system called “the hat.” As more racers continue to get drawn in through friends or word of mouth, it’s become easier for captains to have a roster that’s ready to go. The process is similar to the exquisite corpse concept, where each racer works on their seg individually, everything is assembled, and everyone watches the finished feature (besides the stream, racers hold internal screenings for themselves).
One of their most recent films, Suprogman (with a cameo by the cult Nintendo 64 flop Superman 64), was a little different. Captained by founding racer Gardner, the movie was passed around and each racer had a few days to play with it, like a COVID-era longform jam session. As a result, there’s a noticeable sense of cohesion that isn’t present in previous Racer Trash work — a textural difference in the way the film flows, mirroring cosmic Yes vibes and marking the evolution of the collective as a group editing entity (and a great Styx sequence).
One of the most striking aspects of Racer Trash is how it allows filmmakers to push their craft beyond the constraints of realism, which dictates the majority of commercial editing work. For D’arby Rose, the essence of Racer Trash is being an “unfiltered artist and weirdo,” and she sees it as a healing outlet during the pandemic. Chloe Brett, a trailer editor for The Royal Cinema in Ontario, randomly connected with Racer Trash folks at an online Adam Sandler marathon. Brett, a self-taught filmmaker, was anxious about her lack of visual effects skills, but soon learned that everyone was happy to share. Racer Marisa DeMarini’s use of time displacement in her r+j seg — isolating parts of the image to reflect different representations of time — was a new technique for many others. DeMarini ended up writing a tutorial email for the collective.
“We teach each other things,” explains founding racer Ellie Pritts, who helped to color-grade early segs that, in turn, shaped a core part of the Racer Trash aesthetic. “It’s a rare thing to find, especially in the professional creative world where I feel like people are really guarded about their techniques and what it is that sets them apart … I think all of us have become really, really good editors over the last year because of that. So it feels like school, a little bit.” DeMarini agrees, comparing the collective’s mutual support system to the proverb “iron sharpens iron.”
Racer Trash also has its own language, which ranges from technical slang to inscrutable acronyms — Jacobs attributes this to everyone in the collective being Extremely Online and attuned to the birth of new phrases. “I can’t pinpoint when we started using ‘wave’ as a replacement verb for ‘edit’ but we definitely do that,” says Pritts. Ted Marsden, who did the opener for the Racer Trash version of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, inadvertently created the meme “LMBIH,” (“Li Mu Bai is here,” referring to Chow Yun-Fat’s character). “The night it premiered the chat blew up repeating the line and it became an instant meme,” Marsden says. “It wasn’t my intention to create a catchphrase or anything like that, it was just a funny idea to me to take this throwaway line and make it as epic as possible.”
Twitch chat is undoubtedly a huge part of the Racer Trash experience — it’s a shockingly positive space full of sincere and wholehearted enthusiasm for each wave. This also means that viewers sometimes pop up to request links to full films, which is a no-no for a few reasons. Ariel Gardner sees the livestream-only format as a substitute for “appointment viewing” when people gathered every week to watch a cherished program. His co-founder Jacobs revels in replicating the experience of catching something weird on late-night TV, which he tried to do with 3AM screenings of Racer Trash’s take on Eyes Wide Shut. “There’s appointment viewing, and then there’s ‘I had this bizarre experience,’ and when you find somebody else who had this bizarre experience, it creates bonds,” he says.
There’s also the matter of copyright law. “When people [ask] us for links, the kind of canned response we give is, ‘Racer Trash is a live experience,’” says Pritts, who adds that she felt buoyed by an off-the-record conversation with a Hollywood studio lawyer about the transformative nature of Racer Trash movies. Since there are no profits involved — the Twitch stream is free — it’s tough to find a legal angle. “In the Simpsons, there’s an episode where they explain that Mr. Burns is so sick, he has so many diseases that they all cross each other out and he becomes healthy, like they all can’t fit through the door at one time,” Gardner explains on Zoom over Pritts’ muffled laughter. “So that’s where we’re at legally. We’re doing so much stuff it’ll cancel each other out. It’s totally fine.”
Most of the racers I spoke to were visibly pumped about the punk elements of their Racer Trash work. Harrison Atkins gave me an impassioned monologue on how movies are designed to turn profits, how Racer Trash “slices through the forces of dark capital,” and recalls the invitation to do his first seg: “do you want to fuck up Independence Day?” There’s a bold sense of triumph among racers over the simple realization that this sort of cinematic subversion was always possible. “You can’t stop us from making these movies,” says Casey Donahue when I ask about the fear of getting booted off Twitch. “And that I think resonated with all of us where it’s like if they stop us at any point, it doesn’t mean that we didn’t make this and that we can just keep making this.”
I get the sense that Racer Trash has become an artistic gift for many racers who needed something to pour themselves into, like a dam breaking or a multidimensional lightbulb going on. “It’s thrilling, both as an editor and as a consumer of media, to live in a time where a collective like Racer Trash exists,” says Lola Gonzalez, one of the newest racers who worked on Spice Wave, which was captained by D’arby Rose. “The fact that it was born out of the human need to create during extremely difficult times, in a year that we are globally still grieving and processing, Racer Trash became the epitome of pure, ephemeral self-expression.” Gonzalez is currently working on a few different Racer Trash projects, including a horror feature and a cartoon-centric wave.
I’ve never seen anyone deconstruct and remix movies quite like Racer Trash, or grow into such an unanticipated force of creativity. It’s an absolute subversion of our cultural reverence for larger-than-life blockbusters simply by virtue of their prestige and value — they’re often wildly expensive, exclusionary pieces of media starring untouchable celebrities that exist in a realm beyond the average audience. As the traditional moviegoing experience is becoming an endangered species, this is a group of filmmakers who have broken an unspoken taboo to reinvigorate their craft, and amassed a loyal following of viewers in the process.
Racer Trash is ultimately a radical act of creative freedom in a time when the pandemic has brought forth new perspectives and priorities. Alex Jacobs, for one, survived a personal apocalypse last year, which has imbued him with what is best described as inspirational yolo energy. “Copyright law, who gives a shit? Money’s out the window. I traded grapes for toilet paper last year,” he says. “It felt like an exciting new thing that we were able to do. And of course we were [always] able to remix movies if we wanted to … I never thought that I was allowed to do things like that.”