Fx Whiz Takes 'Matrix' where No Film Has Been
by Paula Parisi
LOS ANGELES (Hollywood Reporter) - The 'bullet time' effect in 1999's 'The Matrix' was a shot heard 'round the world, one of those rare bits of 'cinemagic' that transcends film lexicon and permeates popular culture.
The visual effects team behind that movie received an Academy Award for its efforts and so clearly had its work cut out when attempting to up the creative ante again for the May 15 release 'The Matrix Reloaded' and November's 'The Matrix Revolutions.'
But to hear senior visual effects supervisor John Gaeta talk about the work during the thick of postproduction, it sounds like fun.
'It's exciting, but it can also kill you,' he laughs from a cell phone during his daily commute down the California coast from the former Alameda Naval Base -- where Larry and Andy Wachowski's production company, Eon, keeps offices in the control tower -- to Venice.
The base also is home to ESC, the visual effects company formed by the Wachowskis and Warner Bros. Pictures to handle effects for the 'Matrix' sequels, which incorporate more than 2,000 shots on a combined VFX budget said to be in the vicinity of $100 million.
In addition to ESC -- named after the 'get-me-outta-here button' on a computer keyboard and pronounced, by some, 'escape' -- work spilled over to eight or nine other firms, including Tippett Studios, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Giant Killer Robots, Australia's Animal Logic and Paris-based BUF Compagnie. In all, 800-1,000 people worldwide were striving for a synchronized vision.
'This is a massive operation,' Gaeta says. 'It's the biggest thing that's ever been done that isn't ILM (Industrial Light & Magic) doing 'Star Wars.' It's much bigger than 'The Lord of the Rings.' And we got some stellar performances out of these third party compaies.'
To achieve their latest eye-popping visuals, Gaeta and company continued to push the envelope in virtual cinematography techniques and image-based rendering, mapping photographic images over 3-D wireframe models. (A more physically based-method for acquiring impossible camera moves was used to achieve the original film's 'bullet time.') For the 'Burly Brawl' scene -- in which Neo (Keanu Reeves) battles an army of rapidly multiplying Agent Smiths (Hugo Weaving), with the camera whirling by at supersonic speed -- the technology was used to create 3-D scenes that are 100% computer-generated, including the actors.
To achieve what Gaeta describes as heretofore-unseen authenticity for synthetic performers, he worked with fellow 'Matrix' alumni -- including George Borshukov, Kim Libreri and Dan Piponi, the core team at ESC -- to devise the technique that made that possible: 'universal capture,' or, more familiary 'U-cap.'
'What it is we get the shape and the performance in one go, rather than digitizing you, then capturing your motion, then later adding the skin,' Gaeta explains. 'What it does is eliminate the need for scanning.'
Though it can be done using any cameras, including film cameras, they chose to use five Sony HDW-900 cameras in an array configuration. the actors were scanned making a range of facial expressions. That information was mapped onto wireframes of the actors' cranial structures and later set atop the bodies of motion-captured stunt doubles. The combination of 3-D characters and 3-D sets allowed the filmmakers to unfetter their imaginations using a virtual camera with unlimited mobility.
'Once you have the 'ballet' in the computer, we can precisely capture how each body arcs, swings and rolls then create a negative, an inverse of that motion for the camera,' Gaeta says. 'It's always perfect, full-tilt -- no fake Hollywood punches.'
Another major 'Matrix' effects set piece is the 'Sentinel Reveal,' a superhighway of corrosive sewer pipes patrolled by drone-like Diggers -- 250,000 of them, to be exact. The sequence incorporates towering, 30-foot miniatures -- called 'big-atures,' with the name deriving from the huge environments in the 'Rings' films -- and physical interaction was needed.
But, again, most of the scene was built digitally, 'with a tremendous level of detail and sense of scale,' ESC visual effects supervisor Joe Takai says.
Although the technological expertise and artistic detail required to pull off the set pieces are impressive, Gaeta says the real secret behind the mind-blowing look of the 'Matrix' movies is simpler.
'It has everything to do with the connection between the development of the film and the creation of the effects,' he says. 'There's a linkage from Larry and Andy, with myself, to ESC that is greater and deeper than any standard vendor contract. And if you're to look out in the field, it's only Pixar and maybe PDI that have a really deep linkage to the creative development of their content.'
But Gaeta predicts that such arrangements are 'the wave of the future,' and if he has anything to say about it, effects houses 'will get out of this racket of 'self-destruct projects' for studios that don't really help subsidize the technology side, the growth side. The only way they won't fall is if they create a new formula on which they're given points on a film -- and the only way they can do that is to be co-developers.'
Citing the 'Matrix' model as an example, Gaeta explains that 'the content, the imagery and the concepts are heavily routed through Eon, which squeezes out the ideas. ESC is the one that's bringing the technology to the table, so it's a good collaboration.'
Beyond that philosophical collaboration, the logistical aspects of data collaboration presented an awesome challenge to Eon. The company simultaneously developed and produced not only two large-scale feature films, but also an animated film, an online game and a video game.
Given that volume of work, development of a robust asset-management system was a key plank of the firms' technical strategy. Everything from concept sketches to low-resolution images to high-rez files was databased and accessible from multiple locations.
'We developed, basically, a relational image bank that houses thousands and thousands of shots and images at all resolutions,' Gaeta says. 'We transfer that around to all our different media, and we're like a full-on post facility. I'm sure Pixar does this as well, but in a different way. I mean, Larry and Andy's company is as capable and robust as your most high-end post facility; they're just a couple of directors with the same setup they'd need going into post on any live-action film -- but they've got it exponentially.'
That combination of creative energy and technical savvy has made ESC 'easily more capable than any other effects firm in the industry,' says Gaeta, who works at Eon but was part of the team at Manex, the now-defunct Bay Area effects house that handled the original 'Matrix' film. 'It's a magic combination. In terms of talent and technology, they've surpassed everyone, in my opinion.'
The fate of ESC and its 290 employees is not clear beyond the completion of 'Revolutions.' It is not uncommon for talented effects guns to move from project to project and facility to facility, following their fancy as well as industry demand. But Gaeta hopes for a miracle, even as he laments some industry trends -- specifically, that the volume required by today's tentpole releases has resulted, to a large degree, in the commoditization of visual effects.
'Some of these firms are giant engines, but at the end of the day, in visual effects, they're not known, really, for their product,' he says. 'Visual effects are supposed to be unique, one of a kind -- that's how you move things forward. Without that spark, films are all going to look the same.'