The Matrix's pencil pusher
by Ian Bailey
VANCOUVER - Steve Skroce, a Vancouver comic book artist who has drawn the monthly adventures of such characters as Spider-Man and Wolverine, has had the ultimate preview of the two sequels to the 1999 film The Matrix due out this year.
For about 15 months of 2000 and 2001, Skroce worked as a storyboard artist on The Matrix Reloaded (due May 15th) as well as The Matrix Revolutions (due in November), following up on his similar work on the original film.
The Matrix was an unexpected box-office hit, fusing science fiction, philosophy and the quirks of Japanese anime comic books with the kind of graceful martial-arts action common in Hong Kong cinema. Skroce had a hand in that action, turning out storyboards under the guidance of Andy and Larry Wachowski, the enigmatic brothers who wrote and directed all three films. Storyboards are like comic-book panels crafted to channel a director's ideas for scenes in a move, allowing filmmakers to work through camera moves, action beats and other aspects of the production long before the cameras roll film.
"It's a lot easier to change a pencil and art drawing than a visual effect," the 29-year-old artist explained.
Skroce jokes about his subservient role for the film. "I was the Wachowski brothers' instrument," quips Skroce. "I tried to the best of my ability to draw what they were asking me to draw. I tried to visualize their ideas. They are very descriptive. They have incredibly intense imaginations."
Another Matrix storyboard artist, Phillip Keller, was a little more blunt.
"The brothers are kind of maniacs about wanting to see every little detail, every little piece of glass and nut and bolt from the explosions and crashes," Keller said in an interview posted to the official Web site for the two sequels.
Pencil art is enough for most storyboards. But Skroce would ink over his Matrix work, giving it texture and detail. "It's very much finished comic-book artwork," he says. "They wanted it as close to what they had in their minds as possible."
At times, the brothers seem like oddballs. Newsweek reports they insisted on a clause in their contract with Warner Bros. that allows them to avoid having to do any publicity at all for their movies, even though the projects are a US$300-million gamble for the studio.
But Skroce says they are down-to-earth. "They're very decent guys, extremely understanding and respectful of the people they are working with," he says. They were up for beers with staff. They were open to ideas from any members of the production team without being sticklers for hierarchy, he recalls. As well,they saw detailed storyboards as a guide for everyone down the production line.
"They feel if earlier on they can get as much of their ideas as precise and clear in the storyboards everyone is doing, it helps the process, makes things easier."
It was a long process, as the films are big productions. To film the chaotic freeway chase that caps Reloaded the production team built their own 3.2-kilometre highway, including on-ramp and overpass, at an abandoned naval base in California. Filming there lasted seven weeks.
The two movies were shot one after the other over 270 days, starting in 2001. Production started in California before moving to Sydney, and Skroce moved with the crew.
"It was almost like college, like semesters," says Skroce. "Every time the production got up and moved somewhere else, there would be a few familiar faces, but new people would come and go."
Skroce first hooked up with the Wachowskis in the early 1990s, serving as penciller to their stories in a comic book called Ectokid. While Skroce kept focused on comics, putting in well-regarded runs on The Amazing Spider-Man and Wolverine, the brothers made their mark in Hollywood with the 1996 lesbian crime thriller Bound -- the only non-Matrix movie they have made.
"They were comic-book writers. They took off in Hollywood. They kept in touch," says Skroce.
And when they began to plan The Matrix, they called Skroce.
Work on the first movie was a rickety proposition because the relatively inexperienced brothers were trying to sell the studio on their ambitious plans.
Skroce figures he worked on the film for six months over an 18-month period, labouring on a sketch table in a Los Angeles hotel room.
"They would show these boards to the executives or whatever, do a little pitch thing and they would get more development money to do more artwork," he recalls.
With the new Matrix movies, things have changed. "Way more perks," jokes Skroce. "Everyone knew what The Matrix was. It was legit. It was a success. They had fancy offices built for the art department. The art department was three times as big as it was on the first movie. Everything on down a long line was tenfold what it was for the first movie."
Since wrapping up work on The Matrix, Skroce has gone on to another storyboard project. He is working on I, Robot -- a science-fiction film starring Will Smith that is to go into production in Vancouver within a few weeks.
He is not bothered by the fact that storyboards are not generally seen despite an artist's efforts to get them right. "For that part of me, I have my comics. As far as the [storyboards] go, my priority is making sure it's something the director wants and helping him."
He has not given up on comic books. Skroce is working weekends with one of his Matrix colleagues, Geoff Darrow, on Doc Frankenstein: Unholy Nemesis of Evil, a four-issue project. They are looking for a publisher. Skroce enjoys working on corporate characters, but also relishes the prospect of owning his own creations.
"I loved drawing Wolverine. I loved drawing Spider-Man, but at the end of the day they're like somebody else's toys," he says. "Something you own is yours."