SFX (UK), May 2003

Brave Neo World

They're telling us that this is The Year Of The Matrix. From the web to the console to the cinema screen, you can't escape Neo and pals in 2003. Steve O'Brien looks at The Matrix phenomenon and asks: is this the new Star Wars?

It's difficult to think now of a time in movieland before The Matrix existed. But there was one, and it ended only four years ago without even the dignity of preparing its own death. It's easy to forget how little fanfare preceded the Wachowski brothers' virginal science fiction offering back then. But if you put yourself in an early 1999 mindset, you can understand it. One prior film to their name (the admittedly stylish Bound) and Keanu Reeves, that always trying underachiever, the one who wasn't River Phoenix, attempting one more time to save a flailing movie career. Look back at issue of 52 of SFX and - oh, the pain - see how insignificant our coverage of The Matrix was. It didn't even make the cover. Hey, sometimes even the great screw up.

But that was then, this is now. We're already seeing the first stirrings of the all-media assault that Warner Bros are preparing for their double whammy of The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. This year, the movies are but a small part of a new cultural consciousness that the Wachowski brothers have formed for us to immerse ourselves in. Video games, animated shorts, comics, books and a crucial website are all being lobbed our way, and they're all part of the Matrix media jigsaw; each one complements the other, and while we're told we don't have to watch the nine-minute short (The Final Flight Of The Osiris) currently supporting Dreamcatcher, they tell us it adds to the viewing experience of the sequel, so we're compelled to anyway.

In 2003, the Wachowskis aren't serving us a movie, they're dealing their audience a lifestyle and the brothers' fingerprints are over every part of this marketing blitz, just as much as Rupert Murdoch's or Donatella Versace's are over their respective empires.

The Matrix is in our bloodstream now. As marketing bombing raids go, it's near revolutionary. But we have been here before, you know, back in the dark ages. George Lucas was the first one to fully exploit the slack-jawed desire of fans to buy into his saga's internal universe. Much of the terminology of Star Wars comes not from the movies but from the associated merchandise. We wouldn't have known what to call that Cantina character from Star Wars if it hadn't been for the Hammerhead action figure; we talk about Anakin and Obi-Wan's fateful lightsaber fight in that volcanic pit like we've seen it, but it was never mentioned in the movies, only in a 1978 Star Wars poster magazine. But although Lucasfilm exercised control over these spin-offs, Lucas himself had little to do with them, except maybe sign a panoply of release forms thrown in front of him. Replacing poster magazines and Holiday Specials with web shorts and video games, the Wachowskis have given this multi-media offensive a slick, 21st Century makeover and, more importantly, a single authorial voice.

The game, Enter The Matrix, was the idea of the directors themselves and not some profit-hungry marketing exec. "They always wanted to do this," says producer Joel Silver. "They're very connected to what is going on, they play video games, and they just felt that this was a good opportunity to enhance the movie experience by adding more content."

"It's really the first time anyone's told a story in multiple mediums," the ever-ebullient Silver continues. "If you just see Reloaded by itself, you'll love the movie, but there are all these other avenues of content and story. The video game interconnects incredibly with all that has happened so far in the movie, and you have scenes that the Wachowski brothers wrote and directed for the video game that are not in the movie, but connect."

It seems a natural ploy to align a video game with a movie blockbuster, but it's unusual to tie it in so closely. The Matrix was one of the first movies to fully echo the immersive, escapist nature of videogames, yet it was stupidly passed up by Shiny Entertainment (makers of Enter The Matrix) as a video game tie-in the first time round. But if games were a part of the stylistic and thematic stir-fry that was the first movie, it's ironic how The Matrix's influence has rebounded on the gaming industry.

"Bullet-time effects appear to have suddenly been written into all manner of games," says Kieron Gillen of PC Format magazine. "It's the game which happened at a similar time - Max Payne - which gained most from The Matrix. Of course, it had been in development for years, drawing on the same Hong Kong slo-mo and wires source as The Matrix, but coming out when all things with high calibre and low-frame-rate were re-popularised by Neo and chums definitely assisted it."

It was bullet-time, the distinctive special effect where, moving in a weird, dream-like slow-motion, Keanu Reeves limbo-dances beneath the line of fire, that made The Matrix stand out from the crowd. This ostentatious camera trick is in fact a variation on an effect known as time-slicing - a technique employed to great effect in Vincent Gallo's otherwise low-tech Buffalo 66. In each case, an object appears frozen in time, and the camera circles around to show it in three dimensions. It's a technique that is already in the grammar of modern movie-making, and post-Matrix flicks such as Mission: Impossible 2, Equilibrium and The One are riffing on the visual ticks of The Matrix.

To anyone close to the wire-fu insanity of Hong Kong cinema, this is pretty established stuff, but it took the best effects bods in the business, along with the Wachowskis, to synthesise and adapt it for a Western audience.

That The Matrix should commandeer such a vast array of media outlets seems only natural. The film was written at the height of the internet phenomenon. A dizzying technological wonder for most in the late 1990s, the web's now become an ignorable background chatter. The popping of the dot.com bubble demolished a lot of our faith - and, in some cases, paranoia - about the web, but just four years ago, there was a tingling novelty about escaping this cruel world through a phone line. The Matrix was the first movie to find a metaphor for this new technological era and in 2003, the Wachowskis' paranoid vision seems perfect for a time when we are becoming more security conscious about the state closing in around us. Wherever we are in our relationship with technology, the Wachowskis are there, taking notes, being the barometers of the zeitgeist.

It's interesting that, in 1999, three films opened in close proximity to each other (oddly, all with connections to Australia) that dealt with the precarious nature of reality; The Matrix, The Truman Show and Dark City. But with its orchestrated medley of pop culture imagery and fast food religion, it was The Matrix that caused the cultural tidal wave.

The film was borne from the chaos of instant info-gathering. It synthesised elements of Buddhism, Christianity, martial arts, cyberpunk, Alice In Wonderland, comics, anime, rock 'n' roll and Homer ("I read The Odyssey all the time," said Larry once, in a rare interview. "I always get something out of it."). It, the typically hodgepodge product of the 1990s internet mind where everything is but a Google search away, but almost always truncated and simplified, incompetently written Rough Guides For The Attention Deficit Disorder generation. The Matrix was like the result of an Ivy chef, armed with the best ingredients, cooking up a meal for a Burger King customer.

"What the film showed was that Hollywood can strip-mine ideas which SF novels were getting bored with ten years earlier and still get lauded as wild and original," says SF writer Jon Courtenay Grimwood. "The really interesting thing is how comprehensively The Matrix used the best bits from everything else. The real skill of the first film was remixing those in a way that was incredibly stylish and utterly addictive. For anyone who'd been a fan of Gibson, Sterling or Stephenson, The Matrix was actually elegantly retro."

We're not ones for hyperbole, honest, but 2003 really does belong to The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions. Even if the movies suck, then the marketing alone will be remembered and admired as something that tore up the rule book. The first movie took $460 million at the box office and became the first DVD to sell over one million copies. If there was any doubt that four CGI-saturated cinema years might have blunted the hunger for more Matrix, then consider the fact that the first teaser trailer was downloaded two million times in its first 72 hours on the net, obliterating previous records set by Harry Potter and The Lord Of The Rings.

The countdown for Reloaded is now well underway. The first two Animatrix shorts are up on the net (and are released on DVD on 3 June) and The Final Flight Of The Osiris is, at the time of writing, about to hit cinemas in the States. This animated mini-movie has been written by Andy and Larry Wachowski and directed by Andy Jones, who was responsible for the amazingly photo-realistic CGI on Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within. It's described by Joel Silver as "chapter 1.5 in the Matrix story", and is set in-between the first and second films, focusing on the rebel warriors aboard the spacecraft Osiris, who are attempting to send a vital message to Zion, a message whose eventual delivery serves as a key plot point in Reloaded. It's also closely tied in with the computer game and, together, they both set the scene for the first sequel, and both star Reloaded newcomer Niobe (played by Will Smith's wife, Jada Pinkett Smith).

Like Lucas before them, the Wachowskis always intended The Matrix to be a trilogy, but they couldn't have foreseen the various branches of their world that they'd eventually give to the salivating public. The two sequels have together cost $300 million, and that doesn't even include the money set aside for Osiris and the Animatrix shorts.

Reloaded begins with the war against the machines reaching a new intensity after their discovery of Zion, the last human stronghold, situated near the Earth's core. Much of Reloaded plays in The Matrix, but after the cliffhanger end to the movie (after an insanely elaborate car chase), the action in Revolutions switches to the devastated real world and the climactic show-down between mankind and the machines.

The original has left the brothers with an unusually tough act to follow. The fact that The Matrix offered up so many cool and innovative special effects naturally means it's up to them and their effects buddy John Gaeta to wow us all over again. Their answer this time round is what they call "virtual cinematography", in which five cameras photograph the actor from every conceivable angle, with the resulting images fed into, yup, a computer, which then assembles them to create "virtual" actors, who can be placed into any scenario the brothers see fit. It should be as exhilarating to watch as bullet-time was four years ago, and Joel Silver is in no doubt that the two sequels will wow us. "We were in the Stone Age when we made the first one," he says. "Now we've raised the bar so high, there is no bar. This will end the way movies have been made until now."

It may not seem like it yet, but, culturally, 2003 is in the hands of Larry and Andy Wachowski. Look left, look right, look behind and The Matrix is somewhere near. We don't even have the opportunity to swallow that blue pill, so that everything goes back to normal. We accepted that red one four years ago and, like Neo, there's no turning back.

**

Sidebar 1

NEO EVOLVED

Lawrence Browning talks to the king of computer cool… dude!

Listening to Keanu Reeves discuss the psychology of Neo, you can't help but see a twinkle in his eye about the part he plays, and a justified one, too for the character has quickly become an icon of science fiction filmdom. So, what do the latest movies hold for him that the first film didn't? "It's really the development of the hero journey for my character," Reeves explains. "There are new challenges and new choices It's not so much about being born."

His excitement, though veiled beneath his familiar cool no-nonsense façade, is palpable. And, in many ways, unprecedented. Few (if any) of Reeves's past film roles have stirred up this much Joseph Campbell style philosophical reflection. Can you imagine him discussing the psychology of "Ted" Theodore Logan, or the ideology of stepping speeding buses?

"What [Neo] can do in the Matrix is not enough," says Reeves of his characters motivations "He's still on the path of discovery and choice. He's told by the Oracle that he hasn't got a destiny. It's the choices that he'll have to make that will affect the survival of the human race.

He hints that Neo has even bigger doubts after realising just how much power he wields. "[Neo] wanted to find out where and who he was. Now he knows Or he thinks he does. That's one of the questions." And for Reeves, this question of doubt was the centrepiece to his approach to the arc of his character.

Thespian philosophy isn't the only thing Reeves lies been boning up on. Intense physical fitness training has become like a new religion for the leading actor. In Reloaded the action intensifies: there s everything from backflips to roundhouse kicks to machine gun punches, making Reeves's job that much snore jaw-dropping in its Jackie Chan-like intensity.

"Neo fights with some weapons. Carrie-Anne does. Laurence has weapons as well. Agent Smith has weapons. Oh, my God! He and I were just fighting and fighting and fighting!" Yes, Neo faces off in a dramatic kung fu sequence against 100 virally replicated Agent Smiths (played by Hugo Weaving). The entire scene took 27 days to film. To pull off the shoot demanded some stringent bodily requirements.

"It's been a very strict diet and very vigorous, rigorous training," says Reeves "I try, during the course of film, to maintain 7.5% body fat, and I like to stay between 165 and 175 pounds." That's roughly 11 to 12 stone, for puzzled British folks. In other words, he's pretty buff.

And so our well sculpted intellectually polished hero goes forth flying into the air like Superman - flying into a sequel and a storyline rife with dangers as serious as Kryptonite was for the Man Of Steel. "The Wachowski brothers have put up some great obstacles to test those powers," Reeves says with a teasing smile. "The story goes outside the Matrix and starts to concern itself with the machines and Zion."

Well, yes we know that! What about these unheard of obstacles? But like the ringleader at a circus spouting tantalising descriptions of what's to come, Reeves prefers merely to tease the crowd. "There's some hard choices, and then it's all of us trying to save the world…"

Sidebar 2

MORPHEUS UNCHAINED

Laurence Fishburne talks to Lawrence Browning about life with the Wachowski brothers

"Welcome to the real world." Little did Laurence Fishburne know that his words as Morpheus from the first film would resonate so painfully on the set of it's sequel. "I was injured... during the very beginning stages of training for Reloaded and Revolutions," he grumbles. "I don't think a lot of people understand just how incredibly taxing all this work is physically. The amount of time and the hours that we are required to train are the kind of hours that professional athletes deal with. When were working on wires, we come down and we're bruised. When we fight each other, we're often making contact with each other and walking away bruised. You got little nicks, cuts and sprains.

Fishburne's aches and pains quickly melt away, however, when he discusses what Matrix films represent to the history of Hollywood filmmaking. "With the technology that exists, with the fact that the studio has been so generous to fund this whole thing, with the Wachowski brothers' vision of this world that seems to go on without end - there are so many possibilities. We are all aware of the fact that we are involved in something that is absolutely history-making in terms of cinema in the world, so it's a great, great honour and a great opportunity for everyone involved."

Fishburne reminds us that the world of The Matrix is an aggregate of many influences. Utilising everything from '70s martial arts films, the inspired comic book works of Geof Darrow and Alice In Wonderland, the series is infused with universally appreciated cultural icons and themes. Perhaps the greatest influence came from anime stories touting apocalyptic concepts and explaining the dark side of technical progress. For Fishburne, anime became a useful reference material, enabling him to wrap his brain around the vision forged by the film's directors. "The Wachowskis explained to me what they wanted to do when I had my first meeting with them. They said, 'We want to make a Japanimation film, but we want to do it live.' And I thought that was a brilliant ides and I was very excited about being a part of that. The animes I was familiar with that related to the first picture were Ghost In The Shell, Akira and Ninja Scroll. But you don't want to overload on that stuff. My job was to concentrate on the character and tell the story the way I was supposed to."

Reflecting on being directed by the Wachowski brothers, Fishburne offers a little insight into their creative process, and the apparent burdens that come with it. "They have a secret code that exists between the two of them. Larry generally will take the viewfinder and Andy will stand by the monitor and they'll just fool around with the camera and talk about it. It's almost as if it's already in their heads and it's almost inconvenient that they actually have to sit though it physically." Ah yes, the trials and tribulations of producing cinematic greatness…

Sidebar 3

WHO ARE THE WACHOWSKI BROTHERS?

Steve O'Brien goes in search of the truth about the mysterious duo behind The Matrix

We like mysteries and we like enigmas But in this celebrity-saturated age, who wants to go unnoticed? Howard Hughes, JD Salinger, Thomas Pynchon; they all belonged to an older generation. Today's writers, directors and actors are all after that Vanity Fair cover, that Entertainment Tonight report. Aren't they?

Not the makers of the biggest movie franchise this side of Star Wars. Larry and Andy Wachowski are conspicuously absent from any of the extras on the Matrix DVD and you won't be seeing them crop up on Film 2003. They consistently shun interviews and premieres, leaving ever-excitable producer Joel Silver to do the media rounds.

"They're great guys," enthuses Silver "But they think the films should speak for themselves, and that the audience should take from them what they want to take. They feel that if they're precise about it, it will rob the audience of their enjoyment."

Larry was born in 1965 in Chicago, with Andy following two years later. Larry attended Bard College in New York but dropped out to become a painter and decorator with Andy, who in turn had dropped out of Emerson College in Boston. Inspired by a book they'd both read about Roger Carman, they began to write their first screenplay, an exploitation yarn about cannibalism in the upper classes. Constantly rejected, but periodically praised by successive Hollywood studios, they embarked on a more commercial script. That screenplay would eventually become the easily forgettable Assassins, the 1995 Sylvester Stallone slower that died an ignominious death at the box office.

Battle-scarred, the brothers served as both writers and directors on their next project, the noir-ish lesbian drama Bound. It was the success of this that led them to resuscitate an idea they'd been mulling on for years - The Matrix.

"The only comparison I have is the Coen brothers," says Joel Silver, of Larry and Andy's collaborative style. "The Coens come to the set knowing exactly what they want because they write their own films together, and Larry and Andy are the same kind of guys. They, too, come from the Midwest, they are very well read and articulate and they plan out everything together."

With them both being comic book nuts, The Matrix was pitched to Warner Bros in strip format. They hired artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skrose and made a 600-page, scene-by-scene comic book. "It was virtually identical to the movie," says Silver.

So, what next for the brothers Wachowski? The Matrix was always designed as three films. But, as it was the last project expected from the directors of a low-key lesbian crime drama, maybe their next offering will be a small story about elderly Hungarian shoe makers. Weirder things have happened.

Sidebar 4

TRINITY RE-DRESSED

Lawrence Browning chats with the leather-clad heroine of a movie trinity

Image is everything. That's the modus operandi for many in the film industry, especially when it comes to costuming. Who can forget the adrenaline rush when we saw actress Carrie-Anne Moss (in those gorgeously tight, metallic black leather pants) levitate into a butt-kicking crane position at the beginning of the original Matrix? That outfit made Moss an overnight sensation, instantly thrusting her into the SF pin-up girl limelight.

This time around, the actress is even more attuned to the aesthetic of her look as the sexy Trinity, donning the power of her appeal as if she were' Bruce Wayne throwing on his anatomically correct crusader costume. "Our designers have taken the movie to a whole other level that I think is just beautiful," she grins. "What's so wonderful about the costumes, for me anyway, is that as soon as I slip into my Trinity outfit, I'm her. So, the costumes give me a big part of my character. You really appreciate that in a movie like this."

Moss's appreciation for her attire goes far beyond its killer look. Costume designer Kym Barrett had to manufacture multiple versions of the same outfit in order to accommodate the actress's stunt requirements. The task is quite challenging considering the fact that her trousers in one scene - stuffed with padding, harnessing, and metal plates for gravity-defying wire effects - must look exactly the same as a much lighter pair of trousers she wears in a more intimate scene with Neo.

"In a pair of pants that I wear, I'll have four different cuts," Moss explains. "One's the beauty fit, that's for standing and looking as good as I can look. One's an action fit, so I can have flexibility and move. They also have gusset pants for flexibility, so I can kick and I can run. Then we have the really big pair so I can put a wire underneath." Now, that's a load of pants...

Gorgeous looks aside, the key to Trinity's character is her epic love affair with Neo. In the first movie she realised that she was in love with him at the very same moment that he proved he was the One. Which was handy, seeing as the Oracle had prophesised it already. No room for doubt there. This time round, Trinity has to deal with her feelings about their relationship.

"She definitely goes through a transformation. It's hard for me to explain my character because I'm not away from it to look at it, but I think she's more vulnerable. She's still as strong and committed as ever and believes in Neo with everything that she has, and is committed to the fight of saving the world and making a difference. Those are her fundamental qualities... but there are a lot of other places that she goes. I cant get too specific because we're trying to allow [the audience] to have a new experience watching the film."

Sidebar 5

MATRIX RELOADED SPECIAL FX

by Ron Magid

With a $100 million budget that rivals that of the production of any typical Hollywood blockbuster, the epic visual effects of back to back Matrix sequels - Reloaded and Revolutions - was a logistical nightmare that taxed the talents of the Wachowski brothers and lead collaborator visual effects supervisor John Gaeta… plus some half dozen plus effects houses worldwide.

Call it "bullet-in-the-head time."

Gaeta had to oversee the production's in-house effects company, ESC, plus Tippett Studios, BUF in Paris, Sony Pictures Imageworks, Giant Killer Robots, Animal Logic and several smaller firms. As you can guess, it's not been easy, such a task would have daunted the best of us. And, despite the appearance of unlimited dollars, the huge budget was barely enough to get it done.

"Why don't you work out the math?" Gaeta challenges. "People look at the large number and think, 'Oh my God, it's gold platinum, they get to do everything they want!', but we had to be very efficient and clever so we could afford to do the shots. Given the scope and the goals of these films, I am so amazed that we are making it with the money that we have. I've got two movies, so you can divide that [$100 million] in half, and I've got a thousand-ish shots per movie - I'm practically working for less per shot than on the first Matrix. Nobody was looking for that kind of volume - the fewer shots you do, the more perfect they can be because you have more time to concentrate, focus and refine. We wanted greater complexity, yes, we wanted to evolve up a lot of our original Matrix effects, but volume is, of course, the devil."

That's why Gaeta was a tad concerned when he read the Wachowskis' scripts for the sequels, replete with scenes where 250,000 sentinels are revealed crawling along the inside of a massive tunnel... Neo fighting 100 Agent Smiths... Trinity and Morpheus doing battle with Agents in a freeway chase that promise to out-thrill T2 and Mad Max 2 combined.

"We had loads of quite trippy psychedelic perceptual effects that are there just to set the tone, plus massive amounts of creatures we've never seen, environments we've never been to, so we had immense environment builds and tons of creature animation," Gaeta reveals. "There are films out there that are scratching all of the things we've been talking about, but no one's doing all of it at once."

One of the biggest challenges facing Gaeta and his team comprising 250 visual effects artists, 50 of whom have worked on the Matrix sequels for over three years - was topping the originals high-speed action ballets, wherein Keanu Reeves blasted away of his virtual opponents in super slo-mo as a camera danced around the impossible action. Thanks to a plethora of commercials, rock videos and parodies in films such as Charlie's Angels, those Oscar-winning effects are in danger of becoming passé. Even Shrek used them to great comic effect (although Princess Fiona didn't look quite as cool fighting as Trinity did). The challenge facing Gaeta and the Wachowskis was how to stop these effects from looking clichéd… and, it seems, pointing out that the phrase describing these wild sequences, bullet time, was actually wrong. Who'd have thought?

"'Bullet time' is a term created by the Wachowski brothers in their script for The Matrix, to describe a conceptual state of being inside the virtual reality of the Matrix, where the character Neo obtains a mind-over-Matrix capability," explains Gaeta. "It's a concept, as opposed to a technique. The technique for creating those effects is called 'virtual cinematography' the ability to separate a camera's time and space from that of its subject."

Call it what you will, the original technique had to change radically - especially if Neo was going to fight 100 Agent Smiths. For The Matrix, Gaeta and company solved the problem of creating an impossible camera move around an impossible stunt using 122 Canon Eos A2 still cameras firing in sequence around the action, then interpolating between frames and combining the result with a digital background. But such a cumbersome process wouldn't work for Reloaded. "The anally-retentive process of setting bullet time up, and the planning that went into that, was very labour intensive," Gaeta says. "That was just too restrictive for the next round."

Especially since the others envisioned countless variations on the theme for Matrix Reloaded. In the tantalisingly-named "Burly Brawl", for example, Neo fights Agent Smith, who begins as a single assailant, but when Smith starts losing, he keeps multiplying, while the camera whirls round the action at supersonic speed. This time Gaeta realised they needed more than just synthetic backgrounds - they needed to create virtual humans.

To make it believable that Neo could actually do away with dozens of Agent Smiths at such a superhuman rate of exchange demanded the use of motion capture. Once martial artist extraordinaire Yuen Wu Ping had choreographed the moves, Gaeta and ESC visual effects supervisor Kim Libreri digitised Keanu Reeves's actions, as well as those of the 8-10 stunt people he routinely fought on the world's largest motion capture stage, then edited and multiplied that motion data. The result: a single Neo, does away with Smiths by the ton, while a whirling tornado of Agents tries to enter the fray. "We used those motion capture bits – very complex collisions, guys totally wrapping around one another - to create these virtual characters battling around Neo, who had to perform all sorts of incredible feats to try to get himself away from the swell of human anger before it crushes him," says Gaeta. "We have huge interactions that occur at the inner ring around him, then have Agents trying to enter the fight, and beyond that, we have Agents trying to get to the point where they can get into the fight - and all of that action was motion captured. When Agents are done away with, they become missiles smashing through piles of people, via a crash test dummy -style CG simulation so the bodies have the correct mass and momentum."

Libreri's team then fleshed-out Neo and the 100 Smiths' computer-generated bodies with digital muscles, then dressed them in photographic elements extrapolated from the actors' wardrobe and CG cloth simulations. But for Gaeta, "the extreme innovation" on the Matrix sequels is applying "dimensional recordings" of Keanu and other actors' performances to their CG doppelgangers. Libreri arranged five Sony 900 HD cameras in a semicircle around each actors' face, then applied those images to the digital stuntmen, giving them life like expressions. "We used these five real time recordings to extrapolate the shape of their faces to an extremely high resolution," Gaeta says.

When these photo-real digital actors were combined with a perfect digital recreation of the environment, the true magic began. Once the actors and the setting were completely digital, Libreri's artists could make their virtual camera circle the virtual action at any speed, and with incredible precision, in a way that never could have been achieved with that old bullet-time technology. "Once you have the 'ballet' in the computer, we can precisely capture how each body arcs, swings and rolls," Gaeta says, "then create a negative, an inverse of that motion for the camera. It's always perfect, full tilt, no fake Hollywood punches."

At least there was a blueprint for bullet-time. Not so for the next challenge facing Gaeta: making Neo fly. When the Wachowski brothers demanded a sequence in which Neo zooms at 1000mph over Reloaded's Megacity, the visual effects supervisor was understandably apprehensive. "Flying looks totally, absolutely stupid in every movie that's ever been made before," Gaeta told the filmmakers, "so how is this going to work?" Together, the Wachowskis and Gaeta imposed some flight restrictions... 1) No stupid costumes - though Neo (Keanu Reeves) still sports that long cassock; and 2) watch the speed. If Neo was to believably ignore the laws of physics, Gaeta concluded, he'd have to fly at "either extreme, impossible to-view speeds or unbelievably slow motion."

But there was a third, unwritten rule: don't break the bank. To keep costs from sky rocketing, Gaeta conceived a complement of high end and clever low end effects to propel Neo, ranging from shooting Keanu Reeves against blue screen, then adding Megacity behind him, to bringing in the bullet-time big guns. One of the Wachowski's more bizarre creative leaps involved shooting stunts choreographed by Wu Ping inside the infamous KC-135A Vomit Comet, a NASA aircraft used to create spurts of weightlessness for prospective astronauts (as used for Apollo 13). "We were interested in having no laws of gravity to impact the martial arts, but that [approach] did not turn out to be easy to do," Gaeta says. Still, the effort was far from an in-flight disaster - the material provided excellent reference for at least one major sequence.

Ultimately, it wasn't just the heroes of The Matrix who learned to fly. "We tried a little bit of everything to create a range of complexities," Gaeta says, "so our brains wouldn't explode and we wouldn't lose the physicality and realism of the actors."

So now that they'd upped the ante on bullet-time and transformed Neo into a flying superhuman, the Wachowskis planned to top everything by creating the ultimate car chase. The last time an action franchise took to the freeways was T2's amazing tanker truck chase, but Matrix Reloaded pumps the concept of the high speed pursuit to infinity - James Cameron may have used every cable in Hollywood to light a real freeway, but he never built one. That's where the Wachowskis have gone one better than the king of the world - constructing an actual 1.5 mile-long freeway, based on Highway 110 in LA, replete with hundreds of cars and trucks, on a runway in Alameda, California.

Pursued by Agents, Trinity motorcycles onto the freeway carrying valuable cargo: the Keymaker (Randall Duk Kim), who can open all the doors in the machine world. Trinity tries to get off, but to no avail. "The Agents cause all sorts of collisions and huge pileups, so every time she tries to take an exit, they're cut off," Gaeta says. "She goes back and forth over the same piece of freeway three times." Meanwhile, the Agents psychically leap from car to car, taking over drivers. "The dynamic is that Agents can take over any person in the Matrix and thusly, the adversary becomes all encompassing - they can be in any car at any time, so it becomes far more complex for Trinity to lose them," Gaeta explains.

The concept may be chilling, but the technique was decidedly lowbrow: Gaeta resurrected the oldest CG trick in the book to depict Agents infesting unsuspecting drivers. "Okay, here's where we did this cheesy morph," admits Gaeta, grinning. "You cannot have a million dollar shot times 1000; then you'd need quite a lot!"

There were bigger effects challenges, including building a CG Megacity surround for the freeway set, plus digital explosions that defy all physical laws. But the sequence's most remarkable image - Trinity riding her motorcycle at 40mph against oncoming traffic that's really coming at her at 40mph - was entirely live action, with a little help from Gaeta. He carefully configured the cars travelling toward Trinity's bike, then determined the perfect escape route for the sexy heroine. "We figured out all the paths that Trinity would follow, and we determined a very specific configuration for the car pattern travelling toward her," Gaeta explains, "so if they all crossed that specific spot at exactly the same time, the motorcycle would drive right through them. That's a perfect use of effects technology - a phenomenal stunt combined with really good effects. That's probably going to be the coolest motorcycle sequence ever."

The Matrix Reloaded looks to be one of the best special effects extravaganzas of this year. We'll have to see if it makes the same kind of impression that the original movie made...

Sidebar 6

THE FINAL FLIGHT OF THE OSIRIS

Steve O'Brien reviews this CGI taster for the first Matrix sequel

Trust the Wachowski Brothers. George Lucas, if you think you're at the vanguard of everything new and intoxicating in digital cinema, then think again, beard-head.

The Final Flight Of The Osiris is a nine-minute short, part of the Animatrix series, that is presently attached to screenings of Dreamcatcher. It may well be the making of that film, since every Matrix fan will be compelled to see this CG-ed mini-movie, which neatly binds together the first Matrix and the second.

The movie begins with two blindfolded people fighting it out in a computer generated Dojo. The bloke is Thaddeus, the girl Jue; together, the captain and second-in-command of the Osiris, which is another rogue vehicle roaming the future Earth, trying to evade the attentions of the computers. When an army of sentinels begin to attack the ship, Jue has to enter the Matrix...

Directed by Andy Jones, the animation director behind Final Fantasy, this short shows how much CGI has come on even since that film. If you thought we were decades off simulating a convincing photo-realistic actor, then this might make you think again. Skin pigmentation, hair: it all feels disconcertingly real. It's only movement and mouth action that they can't quite get right yet.

The first few minutes of the movie are taken up with a wordless action sequence as Thaddeus and Jue slug it out in the simulated fight room. It's difficult not to stifle a titter as Thaddeus's sword gradually strips layers off the perfectly pixellated curves of the leading lady. The camera almost caresses her J-Lo-level arse at various points and it's difficult not to imagine a bunch of computer geeks getting their underused rocks off creating this virtual superwoman.

Written by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the plot of Osiris is pretty non-existent. Sentinels attack the ship, Jue goes into the Matrix to stop it. That's it. But it's all about the animation. And there's a tantalising, pre-Reloaded glimpse at the scorched future Earth and an edge-of-the-seat cliffhanger, which will apparently be resolved in the Enter The Matrix game.

See it. And be amazed.




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Matrix, The , Matrix Reloaded, The , Matrix Revolutions, The

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Matrix, The , Matrix Reloaded, The , Matrix Revolutions, The , Animatrix, The




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