Joel Silver/John Gaeta interview
by Burly Brawlin' Smilin' Jack Ruby
Lord help us, we're back with Part 4 of the neverending Tales From The Junket Circuit column concerning the upcoming sci-fi sequel, The Matrix Reloaded. This time, we're talking to the One and Only, His Holiness Lord Joel Silver and one of the guys who took home a special effects Oscar on the last one, Visual Effects Supervisor, John Gaeta.
Why no hoopla for Lord Joel, really? Well, to be frank, Lord Joel looked pretty tuckered out by the time he got to our table, I had interviewed him just recently at the Animatrix press line and I wasn't likely to get Gaeta again, so I really wanted to rapid-fire ask Gaeta as much shit as possible.
Have you listened to the commentary on the DVD to The Matrix? To me, I thought Gaeta sounded pretentious as hell on the disc and it matched with the guy I saw on the Oscars – all spiffed out in black leather looking like a mean-ass motherfucker, but also kind of a nerd. But then in Sydney, I met the guy and thought he was not only fucking cool as hell, but also one talented visionary who not only knew his shit, but also knew where he wanted visual effects to go. I like John Gaeta and I think his work on The Matrix and its sequels are right up there with the ground-breaking work done on the first Star Wars film.
Oh, and he gives long answers. He's not going for sound bytes, he's going for trying to make you really understand what the fuck he's talking about. Yet another reason to think John Gaeta is this shit. Without further ado, here's a subdued Lord Joel and a pumped-up John Gaeta.
First thing out of my mouth was I asked him what he was looking to perfect from other movies with the work in Reloaded and what kind of goals he had when he wanted to raise the bar a few more notches this go round. "There's a variety of things," Gaeta replied. "There are ideas that have gone on in a few other films past, and then there's our own last project, both areas we wanted to create our own extension, evolution. Without a doubt, really evolving up the superhuman, superhero action that has been attempted in many projects of the last ten years, fifteen years, but really always seeming to fall short because of the physical realities of trying to move men in tights with wires is really – is an obstacle that has prevented the real idea of the power, the energy, the essence of that type of a character from really getting through. That's where you at some point can get stopped in your tracks and lose the connection to the story, at that point when you see the failure of the power. So what we really wanted to do was to create a mechanism, a method, that allowed us a limitless ability to show superhuman events. That was an approach that we – the approach we crafted was using virtual humans and virtual environments effectively in all digital scenes to have the tools for the directors to really get what they wanted to out of those ideas. On a more simple local level you could say flying, for example, is like a subject that has been screwed up countless times through the history of film. It often looks forced and we wanted to approach it like everything else in the Matrix, as in it is an experience within the mind, it's a subconscious event, and so our approach was to make that a lot more mental than a physical feat. Lots of little things like that."
Fred Topel of About.com had made the point to me that certain producers had been telling him of late that they would "blur" CG stuntmen effects to make them look more real (ie. Bulletproof Monk). So, naturally that question came up as well and why Reloaded didn't go there. "It's an effective method of hiding mistakes," Gaeta laughed. "The Matrix is about hyper-reality. Let's put it this way, the visual experience is hyper-real when you're inside the matrix, so clarity and ultra-sharpness has been the nuance that we actually have spent a lot of time working on. It makes things ten times harder of course, because the detail – it's there on the big screen, when it moves in ultra slow motion, you are exposed completely every little detail, error or not, is visible, but it is the visual goal for the brothers to make everything as crisp, clean, sharp and as distinct as possible."
The neverending questions about what the Wachowskis were Really Like kept coming back up with one journo asking if one of the brothers would take the lead on the effects stuff more than the other. "No, they are very much into the application of visual effects to reach a more fantastic design," Gaeta replied. "The one thing about them is, once they've observed a process in any of the design disciplines, whether it be production design or cinematography or visual effects or costumes, they are very astute at understanding the process and then they start asking very specific questions that fit within your process to try to pull out new ways of getting details. They are both like that, they both relate back and forth on what they want out of the details, so it's really about the content more than the visual effects. They are always interested in the content you're going to get."
So, how would you describe the brothers? "How would I describe them?" Gaeta said. "Well, they are very intelligent, they're very funny, they're very specific in what they want, they don't beat around the bush trying to find the thought or the idea, they know it. Really at times your experience with them it can be a hilarious or it can be one in which you've thought harder, which can be a very stressful one too as you try to solve some kind of problem. It's a whole range of things. It's a fantastic land between the very intellectual and very lighthearted. It's a nice balance." Well, does one have a particular strength over the other? "No, I'm not going to get into all of that," Gaeta said. "They are brothers, and brothers are brothers – they have connections between each other, and they're filmmakers and they have their way of going about getting their material – they each have their own personalities, of course, and they have their interests that they show."
Straight up, we asked Silver if – after his looooong-ass time doing of big movies, if this was biggest thing of his career. Naturally, Silver replied in the affirmative. "I think of anybody's," Silver replied. "You're dealing with a situation where these guys, the Wachowski brothers, had a passion for telling this story in so many mediums that it gave us the opportunity to really expand the notion of a story in a movie, because you have a video game with an hour's worth of footage with a lot more story, you have these nine animes which also in some cases directly impact the story, and you have just a whole sweeping area of production that is trying to have all these things come together and happen at the same time. At the same time you have two movies that are going to come out six months apart, and new technology that has never existed before that is creating – we're not the military, so we had to figure out the best way to do it ourselves, and just changing the way people make movies and tell stories. So you're talking about a massive amount of new – it's all new."
Something that really surprised the fuck out of me about The Matrix Reloaded was that despite all the leaps forward in CGI, there were quite a few practical miniatures in the movie – particularly with the first shots of Zion – that are spectacular. I asked Gaeta about this blend. "You make different choices based on what the content is," Gaeta explained. "We have two distinctly different worlds, one is the matrix, which is hyper-realism, electronic environment, it's got very clean, contemporary designs related to it, then you have the real world which tends to be more of a Dystopian age and arcane world, and the textures and the qualities of the details in the real world at times lend themselves to the synchratic results you get when you splatter paint on a surface. [Production Designer (and all-around bad ass)] Owen Patterson is a master at painting his sets in all of that. And we thought for certain types of scenes that we really wanted to follow his lead in his approach, so we literally incorporated some of the same people to recreate textures like that. Our job is to create extensions for the stuff that's happening on a macro level, and so we chose to do certain things in an analog fashion The truth of the matter is, about 95% is digital. And then there's this gray zone, because we believe that the blend that you need, the fluidity that you need to ride from the all photographic shot into the all visual shot really mandates that you are stealing and sourcing every aspect that you possibly can from the real, so everything in the matrix that you may see which is a fully digital environment, and there's quite a lot – probably a lot more than you realize, it has been constructed with new methods that we have created to acquire the form, shape, texture, every nuance of the real things that we've made. It's kind of like they're dimensional representations of the real things that we did make. It's a nice marriage of things."
After seeing the movie, we were wondering a bit as to why the movie was rated R. It's violent, yeah, but it's not as bad as you might think. So, we asked Lord Silver why it was an R-rating. "That's a question for the MPAA," Silver sighed. "It's for science fiction violence. I don't really know what that means exactly. These are action pictures that are a little tougher than what is conventionally a PG-13 movie. It doesn't have things in it that I think are directly R-rated themes, but the first one was a R movie and this one is too. It's interesting, in Scandinavia it got what they call 11, which means anyone from 7 years old and up can see the movie, I guess 6 years old is a little bit too young. Even in Germany where we had very specific – gave it 15, which means anybody over 15 can see the movie. And it's troubling too, because on the opening weekend people are going to be comparing it to Spider-Man, or whatever, big grossing pictures, and they are going to have to realize that the largest R rated movie of all time was half the gross of Spider-Man, so it's just troubling that they are going to compare it."
Next up, we asked Gaeta about the more complex of the special effects in the movie, just in general, and which ones were the most extensive. "There are visual effects in the film that are completely computer generated, every detail from the foreground action with the lead characters' close up shots and all of that, every aspect, every other character, every dynamic event of things exploding or falling apart, the entire environment, every single thing that you saw in the frame during certain scenes, like for example the fight against the hundred Smiths, which is not all digital all the time, we weaved towards 100 percent digital, but the whole final third of that fight is completely computer generated, every aspect of it," replied Gaeta, all in one sentence. "We began our research on that and conceptual development, creative development, in January and February 2000, and we delivered the final shots from that scene five weeks ago. That was the gestation period to get those kinds of shots. There are other scenes that have taken advantage of that technology, but once you get to the level of complexity with the choreography that's occurring in that scene, if you were to talk to Master Woo Ping, he would easily be able to tell you how unbelievably difficult it would be to even coordinate a fraction of what's going on in the frame at any given time. So what we did was he, along with Larry and Andy, crafted, choreographed many, many events which we compiled together with some understanding of how they would relate to each other, but events that were occurring all in the frame at the same time that could never ever be put together at the same time."
The point came up that there are long sequences without camera cuts, something Gaeta seemed pretty happy about. "If you get to, why would you do it?" Gaeta asked. "One, you can get towards superhuman events obviously with the characters because you can create extensions off of the performances with complete freedom to compose, and effectively when you have the scene – here you have the scene, it has no cameras attached to it, it plays out in front of you, it's like a minute of non-stop martial arts beauty. It's as if you were John Lasseter crafting Toy Story, you can now just go in and infinitely compose at will. And anything that you would desire – if you want a precise counter-move to some kung fu move, I can place a camera so perfectly, so precisely, I can be exactly where I need to be for every single event that I want to see, when I want to see it, I can have perfect moves that you could never get with cranes or the opposite – it's about cinematic freedom. "
Finally, we asked Lord Silver if there was every anything – with the skyrocketing budget in mind – that they had to say "no" to. "There were some things where cost became a factor," Silver admitted. "We had certain things that we just couldn't do, that we weren't able to do."
Yeah, right. I can't fucking imagine what that would be, actually. The Matrix Reloaded has some effects work in it that had my jaw on the floor (seriously – my mouth opened and stayed open when they flew into Zion for the first time – better than anything in Attack of the Clones by a country mile). John Gaeta is like Stan Winston doing Jurassic Park and T2, like Rick Baker doing American Werewolf, like Rob Bottin doing The Thing, like John Chambers doing Planet of the Apes, like Pixar's work on Toy Story, like WETA's stuff on Lord of the Rings. It's incredible what he pulled off in this film.
Anyway, the Matrix Reloaded junket rolls on like a motherfucker. Probably do Monica Bellucci soon or the Animatrix guys next, though Keanu is a'comin'.
The Matrix Reloaded hits next Thursday, May 15th (though many theaters are doing midnight screenings on Wednesday the 14th – saw a sign at the theater next to USC over the weekend announcing as such). I'll be seeing it again tomorrow night, so I'll be interested to see how I feel about the movie after a "second" viewing.