Interview with Adam McCulloch (Screen Graphics Coordinator) from The Matrix (1999)

By Paul Martin February 17th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix

Archival interview with Adam McCulloch from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: What do you do for ‘The Matrix’?

ADAM: I am the audio visual coordinator, working with the screens in the Nebuchadnezzar.

MATRIX: I know that Animal Logic did some designs, such as the Matrix code. Where do you come into it?

ADAM: I came onto ‘The Matrix’ to co ordinate Animal Logic, Extra Digital, a couple of other animators and 3D Designs. I had to get all of their work together so that it was color balanced, it ran the right sort of timings and so it was variable enough that the actors could learn how to use the system in 15 seconds. There is not the time to have someone teach each individual how to use a system as complex as what we have created. The directors don’t have time to sit down and learn how the system works and make decisions on minute details. If everything works on set, the directors can say on which screen they want an image to appear; we needed to be able to patch an image through in a minute and a half so that they can get the plates that they want, including camera effects from shooting cameras A and B to any screen on the set, so we have eliminated a lot of the video split function as well.

MATRIX: What do you mean by that?

ADAM: They take a video feed off the film camera and we feed it through our system and distribute it to any of our screens on set.

MATRIX: So what was being filmed on the actual camera rolling, you could put onto any screen?

ADAM: Yes.

MATRIX: What was the benefit of that?

ADAM: It meant that the actors could see the stuff playing back and that the directors could see it after the take.

MATRIX: On all screens?

ADAM: On one screen or all screens. It made life a little easier for an otherwise crowded set. There were a lot of things that we had set up, some of which we used and some of which we didn’t, which were just unexpected extra little things that we could do. The basis of this system was an AMX system, which is a touch panel system. It looks like a regular flat screen but it has something like a battle ship grid on it in its memory. You touch the screen and it logs that point and communicates to the computer background base station what to do when someone touches that screen. That is why you see actors in the film touching the screen, touching buttons, and actually triggering off something. There was a lot of work in the development of that system, but it meant that rather than us having to try and coordinate our cues from watching what the actors were doing, they did it themselves, they ran the system themselves.

MATRIX: So, in the past the way it has been done is with off camera people working the equipment, picking up cues when the actors hit the screen.

ADAM: It has all been done as cut aways because it could never be coordinated. The last thing that you want to be doing when you are shooting a film with $10 million actors on set is doing a cut away and then having to re shoot a scene because you haven’t got the timing right with someone touching the screen or touching a button.

MATRIX: Besides that, the flat screen technology was pretty spectacular.

ADAM: The AMX is an LCD screen which is an excellent screen because they can take computer input, video input and they also have built in memory. It also has its own button system, it is sort of a mini computer with a screen. The digitron screens we used were a plasma screen, which had an excellent angle of view so you didn’t have to worry too much about where the camera was to get a good image.

MATRIX: So, if I understand it right you are here to co ordinate the vendors. How many vendors are there?

ADAM: Animal Logic, Extra Digital, an in house 2D / 3D designer Sergei Chadiloff, another 2D designer Karen Harborow, and my assistant Sam.

MATRIX: So you are coordinating all the different vendors and on top of that embellishing, working on, and creating screens yourself. With so many people to coordinate, was it difficult to make it all seem fluid and integrated?

ADAM: It was more of a nightmare than I could possibly tell you. To begin with, Animal Logic was the only company that had been contracted to do graphics, I think it was envisaged that they would be in charge of everything. But it became apparent that we needed a lot of other elements to make the system work and so we brought in other people to do the various parts of that.

MATRIX: Were you involved at the stage that Animal Logic was hired?

ADAM: Shortly afterwards.

MATRIX: When it was decided that it was going to be a bigger project than they had anticipated?

ADAM: I decided that we couldn’t tell the story with just their graphics.

MATRIX: So you came in after they were hired and you saw that it needed more graphics, more muscle.

ADAM: Yes. In terms of interactivity Animal Logic was outputting our stuff, essentially, as a tape format. A lot of the stuff that we used was output as various tape formats, but for it to be a repeatable sequence we needed a lot of stuff to come off the computer, which is rare, for creating the graphics and animations. Then we took what Animal Logic had created and transferred it to something that we could use as an interactive environment.

MATRIX: That is so much more than I thought was involved. Essentially, Animal Logic did the static work, Extra Digital did the interactivity and you put it all together and made it so the actors could learn it in 15 seconds. You wanted to make it seem as though it was no work for the actors and directors, that it just came up on the screen, and it worked. Are there any interesting stories about when the crew or Larry and Andy first saw the screen?

ADAM: They didn’t want the screen to be interactive. Even though I had spent many months working out and writing the sequences the actors could do in order to make it work.

MATRIX: What kind of sequences were they thinking of doing?

ADAM: They wanted the actors to touch keyboards and that things would happen on the screen separate from that, which we could actually do, but it wasn’t the path that we were going down. We were going down a touch screen path. We could interface the keyboards through the computers and actually have it trigger off exactly what we did. To be able to see an actor touch a screen tells two story points in the one moment, so you don’t need to do a cut away or move the camera, it makes it a richer experience. John Gaeta, a man who is not big on compliments, said it is the first time he has ever seen it work.

MATRIX: Do you remember the moment that Larry and Andy said that they wanted to use the touch screens?

ADAM: It didn’t quite happen like that, it was a little under handed I guess. Marcus Chong, who is Tank, came in and was wandering around the set and introduced himself to me. I was like… “Yes!”, because I knew that as soon as the actors saw the touch screens and were able to trigger off sequences by themselves they would just blow the keyboards off completely. So a couple of days before we were due to shoot , Marcus came in and I showed him how the system worked and he was blown away, he absolutely loved it. So from day one, as soon as we were on set, everyone was using the touch screens. There was no need to even have the argument.

MATRIX: So Larry and Andy saw them being used, saw that it worked, that the actors were comfortable with it and it has been that way since.

ADAM: They loved it. It was a full fledged system, there was nothing to go wrong.

MATRIX: Which is the danger, I imagine. That is what they feared. As you were saying before about the timing, computers are notorious for glitches. But there were no glitches?

ADAM: No, it all ran absolutely smoothly from day one.

MATRIX: The screens were not originally going to be AMX were they?

ADAM: The primary reason for choosing AMX was not because it was a touch screen system, but because it was something that could accept video. When we first started shooting, everyone assumed that all the screens were touch screens. I remember once we were on set with 20 AMX touch screens around and 3 plasma screens, which are not a touch screen, they do nothing apart from show an image; and Larry said it would be really great to touch a particular screen and have something happen… and the one he chose was one of the few screens on the set that wasn’t an AMX screen.

MATRIX: So what happened?

ADAM: We did a manual cue from the back of the base like everyone else has done on every other film.

MATRIX: So there are a couple of occasions where you did the cue from another location?

ADAM: Yes.

MATRIX: This is one of the biggest multi media film projects that have ever been done, technically speaking. How many screens were actually used?

ADAM: On set we had about 78 screens and there were another 10 or 15 in the master control area.

MATRIX: Where was the master control area?

ADAM: It was about 25 meters from the set. We used 60 computers and 30 VCRs as well. A lot of the stuff was fairly low end resolution, but when you are looking from a distance in a wide shot you only need VHS monitors, you don’t need Beta players. When you do the inserts, you can use a Beta player if you change the program slightly. There was about 4 kilometers of cabling: video cabling, data cabling, communication, 12 volt, 40 volt… it took us about a week to get all the gear in, and four hours to get it out.

MATRIX: Did you participate in the placement of the monitors?

ADAM: Definitely, that was one of my key roles, to work out what images could be done on what screens, and what the flexibility was that the screens should have. How many screens we should have, what the designer wanted, what I wanted, what the directors wanted, and where the information should be on the screen, so that if part of the screen is masked, the visible part will still tell the story.

MATRIX: Can you tell me about your background, how you came into this type of work and what you have been doing the past few years?

ADAM: I have only ever worked in film, which I think is a bit of a worry. I have a design degree, which led me to work in the art department and then as a graphic artist on other films. I have written, directed and produced some of my own work as well. Last year I wrote, directed and produced a short film which is completely non technology based, very low budget. The only big budget thing we had in there was an open air biplane. I have also designed commercials, so I have a fairly multi skilled background.

MATRIX: Which is useful for working in film. What are some of the films you have worked on?

ADAM: ‘Shine’ was one of them.

MATRIX: Do you know what you are gong to be moving on to?

ADAM: Not sure. But I would certainly do this job again… and again and again, it is the most exciting and enjoyable job I have ever done.

MATRIX: What does the ‘The Matrix’ mean to you?

ADAM: ‘The Matrix’… the film or the concept?

MATRIX: The concept is what I am aiming at, but feel free to answer whichever.

ADAM: I guess the concept of the Matrix ties in fairly closely to my area of specialty. I found it quite ironic that the film is about machines taking over the world, and human beings becoming a function of the machine, when the complexity of the system, not only in my area, but in all other areas of this film were incredibly complex systems that behaved as perfect tools for human beings.

MATRIX: Almost the opposite of what the film is proposing, the film couldn’t have been made if machines weren’t our slaves, to a degree.

ADAM: Exactly. And like I said, we set the whole thing up as a deliberately complex system that was to replicate the Matrix. And we came pretty close.

MATRIX: To what is proposed in the movie?

ADAM: I think so. Well, the two major areas of advancement in technology are in medicine and the military. The military is largely responsible for things like virtual reality experiences, hooking up sensors to a person to read their response in a particular situation to see whether that person is over agitated or under agitated. Let’s say your grandmother has died, and before she died she recorded a series of questions and responses that were based on how you were feeling. You could go into this experience and if you were feeling depressed the sensors would understand that you were feeling depressed and she would ask the appropriate question. At a basic level you can do that.

MATRIX: At a basic level, sure. But the concepts in the film… the idea that we’re actually plugged into a vat miles away from each other connected via cables and only ‘think’ we’re on the set of The Matrix… we’re pretty far off from that, you have to admit.

ADAM: [Smiling, almost enjoying the thought] No, I don’t think we are too far off.

MATRIX: You’re not too upset by this. Even seem to be kind of into the thought.

ADAM: [The grin gets wider] Yes, I’m into it.

MATRIX: Thanks Adam.

Interview by Spencer Lamm

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