The Fast Picture Shows
STRIKING NEW VISIONS OF THE ULTIMATE CYBERUNIVERSE DRIVE 'THE ANIMATRIX,' A COLLECTION OF NINE SHORT FILMS. HOW DID THEY SPRING TO LIFE?
by Noah Robischon
THE LAST TIME ANYONE TOOK AN animated science-fiction anthology seriously was in 1981. Steve Perry was on the soundtrack and it was called Heavy Metal. Journey eventually made a comeback; sci-fi vignettes starring glowing green orbs did not.
Leave it to the Wachowskis to embrace the cartoon-omnibus genre and make it shiny again. The Animatrix is a series of nine animated shorts that will expand the Matrix universe (they're not essential to understanding the movies, but they do provide some impress-your-friends detail and back story for Reloaded) and supply a convenient fix until Revolutions comes out in November. Since the movies' action sequences were inspired by such Asian anime classics as Akira and Ghost in the Shell, the brothers felt they had to pay their respects to the genre. So, shortly after the first movie's release, the brothers decided to get their geek on by commissioning films from some of their favorite animation directors, most of whom are based in Japan. "We talked about doing it as a television series," says Joel Silver, producer of the Matrix movies. Instead, Warner Bros.' home video division persuaded them to use the collection as a promotional vehicle and to release it on video.
Three of the shorts - A Detective Story, Program, and The Second Renaissance Part 1 - are already available on the Web at www.intothematrix.com; The Second Renaissance Part 2, which completes the two-episode prequel explaining the origin of the Matrix, premieres in May. And Final Flight of the Osiris, an extended computer-animated action sequence so photo-realistic that the main character appears to need lip balm, has been playing in theaters before the Stephen King adaptation Dreamcatcher since that film opened in late March.
All nine Animatrix episodes (ranging from 7 1/2 to 17 minutes) will be collected on a $24.98 DVD (or $19.98 VHS) due in stores June 3, nearly three weeks after Reloaded debuts. "Initially there was some pressure on us to make things come together in advance, because there was such a gap between The Matrix and Reloaded," says Michael Arias, an Animatrix producer. "But we weren't able to finish it any sooner:" Although directors spent up to two years in production, the last episode was only delivered in December.
Osiris, the technological jewel in the crown, comes from the team that hatched the 2001 feature Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, and cost $5 million to make. "It sets up the story that goes through Reloaded and Revolutions," says Silver. The rest of the shorts were far less expensive, with budgets of around a half million dollars each (a pittance by Pixar standards, but one director says it's four times the budget he gets for one episode of his weekly TV series).
The Wachowskis provided two-to-six-page story treatments to all of the shorts' directors. But some animators, though fans of The Matrix, initially balked at adapting someone else's work. "There have been a lot of ill-fated American-Japanese collaborations," says Arias. "No one was too eager right off the bat."
Koji Morimoto, animation supervisor of 1988's Akira and director of an episode called Beyond, stated from the outset that lie wanted creative control. "To make the best film possible, it had to come from inside myself," he says. The Wachowskis obliged him and several other directors.
In the end, the five shorts not written by the Wachowskis expand on themes introduced in the movies, such as alternate routes of escape (World Record) and what computer bugs look like to humans living inside the Matrix (Beyond). The other four segments deviate substantially from the Wachowskis' initial story treatments. Shinichiro Watanabe, creator of the highly rated Cartoon Network series and current movie Cowboy Bebop, feared the brothers would be upset by his revisions to their Kid's Story. "It was almost a total change," he says of the short, in which a high schooler outmaneuvers agents and teachers alike. "In the original story he runs away on foot, but I used a skateboard." He also added an eyebrow-raising ending in which the protagonist escapes the Matrix by jumping off the roof of his school. The Wachowskis were unperturbed by the changes, but the jarring finale may be one reason Kid's Story was pulled from the lineup of films on the Web (it will appear intact on the video).
Here's a short-by-short account of what The Animatrix has to offer:
1 Final Flight of the Osiris The plot of the Enter the Matrix videogame (out on all platforms May 15), as well as the first act of Reloaded, is set up in director Andy Jones' visual marvel, which begins with in erotic swordfight and ends with a swarming mass of robot sentinels.
2 Matriculated An abstract psychedelic trip from Peter Chung, creator of MTV's Aeon Flux, explores a virtual world created by humans and inhabited by machines. Think of it as the anti-Matrix.
3 Kid's Story In Watanabe's rough-hewn segment, reminiscent of Richard Linklater's Waking Life, a teenager escapes the virtual world. A live-action incarnation of The Kid reappears in Reloaded as part of Neo's posse.
4 Program This short from Yoshiaki Kawajiri, director of the Japanimated cult fave Ninja Scroll, is drawn in the traditional anime style, with flat tableaux and overly moist eyes. It pits samurai in a duel and shows that not every training simulation looks the way it did in The Matrix.
5 World Record Agents attempt to outrun a sprinter who glimpses the real world through sheer physical strength. Program's Kawajiri crafted it to look like a German expressionist film on steroids.
6&7 The Second Renaissance Parts 1 and 2 Filled with visual references to the Holocaust, Vietnam, and the Tiananmen Square uprising, Mahiro Maeda's two disturbing segments detail the origins of the Matrix.
8 A Detective Story The PI in this futuristic noir tracks Trinity using 1940s technology. Director Watanabe made the film in black and white to evoke photos of the era.
9 Beyond Children discover a "haunted house" in the Matrix where the laws of physics are bendable. Agents in hazmat suits swap the paradise with an empty lot.