A Leap for Realism in a 'Matrix' Teaser
by Michel Marriott
WHEN the film adaptation of Stephen King's supernatural horror tale "Dreamcatcher" opens March 21, it will have an added attraction, and for certain moviegoers, perhaps a bigger one: a nine-minute computer-animated film that revisits the dark yet flashy science-fiction universe of "The Matrix."
The short is intended as a prelude to "The Matrix Reloaded," the first of two feature-length live-action "Matrix" sequels due this year. For weeks, the short, called "Final Flight of the Osiris," has been heavily promoted on television and in computer magazines.
"Final Flight" will offer what may be the most sophisticated expression of photorealistic, fully computer-generated imagery to date on the big screen.
"We tried to do a lot in those nine minutes," said Andy Jones, the director of the film, which took 13 months to complete. "We had to build so many sets, so many sentinels," he said, referring to mechanized hordes that look like a cross between an angry squid and a bomb.
Everything on screen, from the glint in a character's eye to the character itself, from the clouds in the virtual sky to a crack in the virtual street below, was created with software in high-powered computers. In fact, each frame - 24 per second - contains, on average, 15 layers of digital details, Mr. Jones said. The final product was transferred to film so it could be widely shown in theaters.
Mr. Jones, 30, who was the animation supervisor of the digital sinking in "Titanic," said that some of the biggest advances in "Final Flight" were in the animation of human skin, clothes and other textures. Executives at Warner Brothers, the producers of the original "Matrix" film in 1999 and its sequels, describe "Final Flight" as "chapter 1.5" of the saga. And in a "Matrix" sort of way, its story - written by the series' creators, Andy and Larry Wachowski - is simple.
In a post-apocalyptic future in which a ragtag band of humans struggle against machines that have enslaved most of humanity in a virtual world known as the Matrix, a hovercraft called the Osiris discovers the machines drilling their way to the underground holdout of free humans. The ship's crew must battle and escape thousands of sentinels long enough for the ship's beautiful first mate, Jue, to enter the Matrix and leave an emergency warning message.
That message sets up the action for "The Matrix Reloaded," which is to open on May 15. (The story line is also fleshed out with more traditional animation in eight other shorts being released this year, some of them free online at www.theanimatrix.com, and in a video game.)
Making computer-generated animation more realistic has not, however, been a recipe for box-office success. While cartoonish fare like the "Toy Story" movies, "Monsters, Inc.," "Shrek" and "Ice Age" has earned hundreds of millions of dollars, lifelike computer-generated images have generally been part of larger, live-action films like the computer-generated Golum character in last year's "Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers."
"Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within" (2001), for which Mr. Jones was animation director, is the only full-length photorealistic computer-generated film to date. And its lackluster performance at the box office helped lead to the demise last year of its studio, Square USA in Honolulu, a subsidiary of the Tokyo-based Square Company.
Mr. Jones said his "Final Flight" short was the last project by Square USA. But the fate of its predecessor has not discouraged him. "I think this one has a better chance," he said.