The 'Matrix' Sequels
by Kathy A. McDonald
The Herculean task of shooting "Reloaded" and "Revolutions" --- the back-to-back sequels to sci-fi phenomenon "The Matrix" --- can be grasped by the numbers involved: a 270-day production sked, 150 sets, 2,100 visual f/x shots and thousands of costumes, including signature black suits for 160 stunt doubles for Agent Smith. Complicating the storytelling process on the trilogy, produced by Joel Silver and written and directed by the Wachowski brothers, were various realities in the films. These included the machine-generated Matrix, the real world inside the hovercraft ships and the underground refuge called Zion. As if that wasn't enough, a video game was being shot at the same time.
Conceptual artist Geof Darrow began the complex design process by rendering detailed drawings of the sequels' mechanized beings and elaborate sets, such as the massive, cave-like Zion Temple.
Production designer Owen Patterson and an art department of 400 then had to realize those intricate designs, from Zion's various levels, to the gritty ship interiors made of steel and conduit, to a mile-and-a-half long freeway, to the final rain-soaked street and skyscraper-crashing confrontation within the Matrix between Agent Smith (Hugo Weaving) and Neo (Keanu Reeves).
All the combat, stunts, production design and visual f/x in the sequels continue the visual aesthetic established in "The Matrix," and expand into two new realms: the machine city and Zion, where humans have made their last stand.
Zion is located in vast caverns near the Earth's center. Per "Matrix" lore, it holds the habitat for the world's last 250,000 humans. Patterson describes its look as the exact opposite of the machine-made Matrix. "It's reminiscent of early 20th century industrial design, very decrepit but still practical," he says.
The uppermost levels of Zion contain the command center and loading dock, which have a scavenged, rusty patina. Under a cistern-like dome, Zion's dock area is fitted with steel platforms, elevators, bunkers and enough airspace to host a swarming invasion of airborne, octopus-like machines called Sentinels. Zion's human fighters battle the relentless Sentinels on the expansive carrier-sized landing dock using Armored Personal Units (APUs).
Much of the action was CGI, but Patterson's sets included massive ducts and sections of the dock. The prop department made a life-sized mock-up of a 14-foot high, steel-cage enclosed machine-gunning APU for visual f/x capture as well as for close-ups.
According to Patterson, collaboration between departments was extraordinary. To add texture and rubble to the landing dock set, Patterson used the visual f/x files to create molds and cast physical models of "dead" Sentinels. Colors and textures he added to the models were then incorporated into the CGI version.
Color palettes were key to defining the separate worlds within the film: the virtual Matrix exudes an incandescent green; the real world is all blue tones. Patterson collaborated with costume designer Kym Barrett ("Three Kings," "Red Planet" and the new "Superman") to coordinate those hues.
Barrett and Judith Cory, department head/hair on both films, had extensive meetings with the Wachowski brothers to define the look and costume of each character. "There's a definite look to the Matrix, but with no particular time period," Cory explains. "It's not in an actual time realm."
Many costumes had to accommodate wire harnesses as well as be created in multiple versions for stunt doubles. The principals each had two to three looks that evolved over the course of the films: the slick, stylized, latex and leather ensembles within the Matrix, versus the down-and-dirty natural look of the characters in Zion.
Dressing the citizens of Zion was the most difficult assignment, Barrett says, involving more than 1,000 extras who were outfitted in rustic clothing made from non-processed hemp and vegetable fibers. Barrett took inspiration from the natural fibers found on mummies in China and Mongolia. "We found shapes and textures that were delicate and beautiful, but raw. We tried to stay along that vein," she explains.
"Matrix" lore holds that within the computer-generated realm, physical events don't affect the way a character looks, no matter what's happening. During "Reloaded," Carrie Anne Moss (as Trinity) maneuvers through traffic on a motorcycle at high speeds, but her hair stays coiffed and in place.
"Revolutions" climaxes with a fight sequence referred to as the "super burly brawl" between Neo and Agent Smith. For almost eight weeks, actors and stunt doubles shot the sequence in pouring, monsoon-like "chubby" rain --- water that was thickened to appear larger and more droplet-like on screen.
Keeping the actors and stunt doubles looking spot-on under the downpour was one of the biggest challenges for make-up department head Peter Robb-King, whose job spanned both sequels. Wigs and make-up had to be waterproofed; costumes were insulated to keep the talent somewhat dry.
He elucidates the Wachowski brothers' attention to detail. "We would shoot and make it perfect and then shoot again to make it super-perfect," he recalls. The marathon nature of the back-to-back sequels tested both cast and crew, as long hours were required for such an extended period of time. "We had a nucleus of good people who stayed the course," Robb-King says.