Creating the Surreal World of The Matrix with Production Designer Owen Patterson
by Jeff Bond
Sci-fi seems to have its first breakout hit in quite a while with THE MATRIX, and the Keanu Reeves cyber-thriller has audiences excited, involved and, yes, sometimes a little confused. Just what the heck IS the Matrix, anyway?
The film establishes a terrifying future vision that’s more "real" than the recreated vision of the late 20th century that’s seemingly "unreal" in the movie. Production Designer Owen Patterson not only had tovisualize the film with the help of artists Jeff Darrow and Alex McDonnel, but he also had to wrap his mind around the heady MATRIX concept.
"What we have in the Matrix is the real world that you and I walk around in," Patterson explains. "We are trying to suggest in the film that in fact the Matrix is a virtual reality and it’s so detailed and so complex it works right down to sight, obviously smell, taste and all of those elements that we feel, touch, all the sensory perceptions that we have are all controlled by computers that are controlledby the machine world. Parallel to that is the construct which is where all the sensory perception organs work, but it is controlled by the particular ship that's using that particular construct. In this case it's the Nebekenezer [sic - "Nebuchadnezzar"] and Morpheus as its sort of captain would control that environment."
Got that? For Patterson, creating these two alternate realities meant turning an Australian metropolis into an identifiably American city."From a point of view of design we’ve had to take in the script that prime part of the human race might be termed our present day, 1998 and so we have tried to deal with Sydney as an American city probably in the north basin part of America," he says. "We've had to alter the traffic conditions in the city for a lot of our filming and we’ve had to re-sign things so they’re more familiar to the people as being America as opposed to Sydney."
Even within the "fictional" world of the Matrix there are divisions of development just like in a real city he adds.
"We’ve taken particular locations where we’ve tried to cross over between a modern glass downtown sort of a world and a run down, beat up sort of Matrix section of the city which is part of the Matrix," says Patterson. "The idea being that as the Matrix moves on or as the years go by in terms of our lives, certain sections of the city aren’t utilized like they were previously utilized, so we’ve had the luxury of being able to use modern sections of town and all their sections of town to create a visual texture between the modern and the new. Bill Pope, our director of photography, has been able to photograph that Matrix in a slightly unreal fashion. He’s used certain photographic filters at certain times to heighten the grains that we’ve tried to use. Whereas when we go into what we call the real world (which is in fact the future for us) we’re using a grain bias so there’s sort of a subtle color difference in there."
Patterson also used art direction to hint at the secrets of the created reality. "We've got a slightly more geometric world in the Matrix assuming that things are laid out on a grid," he says. "For instance, the city is laid out on a grid so we’ve tried to photograph it like that -- we’ve tried to build sets that in a lot of instances, particularly the contemporary part of the Matrix has been laid out in grids, and you notice in things like the interrogation room or the government office that there are grids on the walls, there’s grids on the floor, there’s even grids in the ceiling to some degree and when we go to shooting contrast. These constructs which are part of the training of Neo we see very definite grids in a sort of the layout of the city and so we are hoping that that will convey a feeling of artificial control. When you go into the real world, the Matrix, the sort of the real world being the Nebekenezer or a power plants, there is a more mechanical feeling to it, like the carburetor of a car, the cooling elements of a large jet engine, the sort of gas intakes that are required on something like a rocket motor which have a much more mechanical feeling."
Despite being set almost entirely within a computer-created world, Patterson and his crew had to deal with the realities of the physical world as well.
"Everything is built in plywood and 3-D, and it's quite remarkable that you can go over from one side of the set to the other side of the set and it’s like turning the page in a book--one minute we’re looking at the book and the next minute we’re looking at the real article, and it astounds me," he says. "It's very akin to, I think I've mentioned before to what [MATRIX writer/directors] Larry and Andy [Wachowski] had in mind when they said, this is an illusion, this film is about illusions and two dimensional space. A lot of it came around from the ideas of French sociologist called Beaudriarde [sic - Baudrillard]. And Beaudriarde’s ideas of simulation is an important point within the film and that what would seem in the film as a real object is in fact often a simulation. They would like theaudience to feel that they’re in a set when they’re on location and when we’re on location they almost feel that they’re on set."
One of the imaginary settings of the film is Morpheus’s rebel hovercraft, the Nebekenezer, a flitting home base straight from the world of Captain Nemo. "They really tried to bring the guts of the spaceship outside as opposed to burying it behind this sort of normal back forms of style thing, so there’s an interesting crossover between what you might consider to be a spaceship or another hover craft but it’s almost a steam locomotive with very intricate valves and switches," he says. "It’s a cross over between wonderful 20th, early 20th century sand foundings of massive pieces of steel with finely turned and milled pieces of machinery which are then connected to electrical impulses, so that you get an idea that the whole ship is filled with electric current and massive batteries that sort of surround them on deck and then loop back through large wires of cables back into the core. There is a certain sort of retro feeling that we’ve tried to convey an idea of mechanics, machinery you know. I keep thinking of carburetors and ship motors and rocket motors and that sort of idea."
The mix of modern and old-fashioned elements was no accident says the production designer.
"The idea is that the ship is built maybe a hundred a years in our future," he adds. "But then the actual film takes place maybe a hundred years after that so we tried to give the idea that this machine was built like a navy vessel originally, and then after a major war took place between the machines and human beings, materials that you could repair the vessel with over a hundred year period were missing, so anything they could find that did the same thing has been jacked in to the Nebekenezer to try and repair it. They’ve re-wired it and made it work, but it just doesn’t look as neat and tidy so we've tried to bring this idea of aging out to its fullest extent."
Patterson and his crew used the resources of their Australian production environment for research as well.
"There’s been a great deal of work done with submarines we’ve photographed here in Sydney, military vessels, merchant navy vessels, all for determining how we should make the Nebekenezer," he says. "There’s been a lot of work going to buying props and various old dentist chairs from the 1920's, which we have taken ideas from for making the ecto chairs, revamping them so they can go and become the cockpit seats for the Nebekenezer."
The film’s hardware design extended not only to vehicles like the Nebekenezer, but to machinery that interacts with the human body on a frighteningly intimate level. One example is the Nebekenezer’s "ecto chairs" which allow crewmembers to jack into the Matrix environment while onboard.
"The idea of the ecto chairs is you've got this sort of massive core that’s running through the ship which is a power source and it has a system through the chair itself which is connected to that core," says Patterson. "You can sit in that chair, be put back into a relaxed position and a cerebral jack is put into the back of your head and of course, I think people who were born inside the pods in the power plant have that cerebral jack that you require. And it's a bit like a virtual reality machine in a sense that they can take your brain waves, they go down this needle that's deep inside your brain, down through a series of cables, virtually into a modem and then it’s transferred through a massive amount of power back into what we class as a Matrix. The Matrix is like a hard drive and next to that hard drive if you put it in these terms is a construct. Outside that you can have an external computer and some how you’re trying to take the brain waves of our crew members, put them down through this core, through what we can call a modem in our terms and into the construct. So in the construct you know you can arm yourself, you can change your clothes, you can prepare yourself to be then transferred into the Matrix so it's like having two hard drives side by side on a desktop like we have today."
The "cerebral jacks" are the results of some creepy future test tube baby breeding. "You have a cerebal needle, and right on the very tip of one of those you get the conception and then gradually as the fetus grows, it grows up and up and up and around that needle which enables a human being through some sort of advanced science to keep existing," he says. "As a child grows and develops, its head would form around the needle."
One of those babies happens to grow up to be THE MATRIX’s hero, Neo (Keanu Reeves), which is revealed in a startling sequence in which Neo awakens inside a transparent pod full of red goo.
"Larry and Andy were really interested in a very thick consistency to the goo, that it might be colored like this where will be using essentially a clear goop that has a very small amount of red dye in it and when you have it in mass it actually makes the pod reasonably red in color," explains Patterson. "Now we’ve got requirements for a fetus to be able to breathe through this equipment and we have requirements for when Neo needs to be able to breathe through this equipment in a practical sense. He's got to be underneath the water and he’s got to be able to breathe. He also has to be able to pull the thing out of his mouth, so eventually it’ll have a retractable head on it which will appear that it’s drawing things out of his lungs, and then he needs to be able to vomit having brought the whole thing up."
Patterson turned to an expert on the subject in order to see that Keanu didn’t have to hold his breath forever in the pod sequence.
"We have access to a very good commercial diver who designs re-breathing equipment," affirms Patterson. "It’s not exactly like a naval re-breathing system, it’s basically a very large second stage which can be balanced between the atmospheric pressure and the pressure that’s within the pod. [Keanu’s] only about a foot underneath the water so it doesn’t have to have a great deal of pressure added to it. But given that he is in a very thick liquid, they had to compensate for that so they designed a system which allows him to breathe which has a valve one way and then has a non-return valve on it and then there is an exhaust pipe which allows the breath when he exhales to travel down the second part and out through the system. But it isn’t a closed circuit breathing system, it’s just a system that allows for him to safely stay underneath the liquid when he’s in the pod for some time."