MATRIX: How big is the Special Effects crew on this production?
AL: In our Special Effects crew we have 12 technicians from Hollywood and, I think, four local technicians, so we don’t have a really large crew. We had a little larger crew when we were down in Hollywood working, prepping the show. All the boys have been really busy, they’ve had a lot of stuff to do, it’s been a real challenge.
MATRIX: Those 16 people cover both First and Second Units?
AL: Yes. We have a shop foreman [Clay Pinney, SPFX Supervisor], and I have a specific crew that’s dedicated to me on Second Unit, working on projects I’ve been allocated, but if I need extra help, I’ll call and say I need this done or that done, and they’ll jump in with it. When we first started, we were working with the First Unit, and then as Second Unit started up, we branched off. We’ve been pretty much with the production the whole time. This film has been a little bit of a unique experience because Second Unit SPFX is usually dedicated to second unit filming, you’re hired for Second Unit work only. In this particular case, we’ve worked on the whole thing, we’ve been on both First Unit and Second Unit.
With this film, it’s so much dove tailed together. The brothers [Larry & Andy Wachowski, Writers/Directors] tend to want to have real control over everything, they’re very creative guys and they have pretty specific ideas about what they want. They’re very fortunate to have a Second Unit Director [David Ellis] as talented as he is, but they’re pretty much dictating what they want, and he’s giving them exactly what they want. They’re very, very precise about what they want, and they want it filmed exactly the way they want it. A lot of directors rely on their people, but these guys really know what they want.
MATRIX: How much interaction do you have with Larry and Andy?
AL: A little bit. I tend to try to stay a little low key when I’m dealing with people like directors; it mostly tends to pay to listen a little more. But at the beginning I had a little bit of interaction with them, and like I say, they’re very talented young men.
MATRIX: What other films have you worked on?
AL: I worked on U-571 just recently, in Malta. We just finished a project for Disney called Bubble Boy which was out around August 2001. And we also did Volcano, we did Godzilla, Independence day… the list goes on and on and on.
MATRIX: How long have you been in the business?
AL: This will be my 32nd year, so I’ve been in it for a while.
MATRIX: Have you been in Hollywood all that time?
AL: Pretty much. We started the crew in Hollywood and, although we’ve been on a lot of locations, we’re based out of Hollywood.
FREEWAY BULLET HITS
MATRIX: What has the SPFX team been involved with here on the second MATRIX film?
AL: One of the biggest projects on this film is a car chase sequence that will represent about 12 minutes on film. It’s the major chase sequence. All these cars are being shot at, so the big challenge was the fact that these cars are moving at high speeds, and trying to coordinate the bullet hits to the firing of the vehicles. When we started this project, the first thing we had do was put multiple cars together, so we had more than one take of any car. In the case of the Cadillac, what we’ll see as T Cadillacs, we had four cars that we rigged, and each car had about 270 bullet hits in it, which went off in different sequences. You don’t shoot off all 270 hits at one time, you shoot them in sections. We decided, with the Directors, which sections they wanted to shoot first and labeled those. We had A, B, C, D E, F and G hits on the cars, so that as the cars were being chased and the bad guys were shooting at them, we would know which sequence they were shooting.
The first thing we realized was that we were going to need some kind of automatic firing devices to fire these things, and nobody I knew in town had that many firing devices on hand. So we went to work; we had basically three weeks to manufacture these units, and actually have them ready to go and tested. It was a bit of a challenge to make that many firing units. I had designed one unit I had used on other shows, so we took that basic design and kind of improved upon it. We realized that, for this particular project, we were going to need some special features to be added to these units. One of the things we realized was that it was going to be very difficult, with three stunt people in the car, to put one of our people in the car to fire the hits, which is what we normally do. Plus the fact that the cars were involved in crashes, and we felt that that wasn’t really a safe situation.
We devised a radio control system so we could fire these units remotely, which is not something we would normally do, but in this particular case we felt it was a good option. We designed a pretty nice, fail-safe unit, with a three channel system; it has to have three different channels before it can actually fire. It has been extremely successful, we’ve had very, very good luck with it. We also brought a scanner with us so we can scan the airways to check and make sure we have a clear frequency, which is a really important thing, especially when you’re involving pyrotechnics.
The firing boxes were limited to how many hits we could put on each box; each box came out to be about forty hits, and there were some sequences where we had 55 and 60 hits to fire. So we designed the boxes so they could cascade from one box to the next. The way we have it set up, we can literally take all of these boxes, line them up, and fire from box to box to box to box. That gave us a really good option: we could fire as many hits as we wanted, or as few hits as we wanted. We can also control the speed, how fast we want the hits to go. We can go very fast, we can go very slow, or we can go individually.
All the features we added to the boxes, along with the radio control systems, made the boxes very useful. They’ve been very durable, and have had a lot of beatings; a lot of them have been flipped upside down in cars and banged around, and they’ve all handled it really well. I’m very happy with the way they worked, it was a real challenge to get them all made in time, but it all worked out pretty well.
MATRIX: You said you were able to make the hits go off fast or slow; could you fire them randomly?
AL: Let’s say we set one box at one speed with ten hits that we want to go at that speed, then we can cascade over to the next box, which we can set at a slower speed. If we have a third set of hits we want to be faster, we cascade over to another box. We can fire them remotely, so we have the ability to fire as fast as we want. We can also fire in a burst – we can push the button and they’ll burst for a while, we take our finger off the button, and they’ll stop. We can actually fire the hits like a real machine gun, which was basically what we were trying to do. We were trying to follow the hits the stunt person or actor was actually shooting, so we stopped when he stopped, we fired when he fired.
It’s been working really well, we’ve had very good luck. A lot of these firing boxes tend to be a real troublesome thing, because you’re dealing with, a lot of times, electronics. We decided to go back to old school and we used, basically, a mechanical switch instead of going with solid state. The problem with solid state is you have no air space involved and if there was an electrical dysfunction, in other words, if it, for some reason, spiked, it can automatically fire. We elected not to go with that type of system, we wanted to go with a more tried and true system, which actually had a switch that went from spot to spot. I think it paid off because the boxes have been durable and faithful, and that’s really all I’m interested in at the end of the day: that they don’t fail me and don’t cause problems.
MATRIX: On most projects, a technician would normally be in the vehicle firing the hits. On this film, where were the technicians when firing remotely?
AL: If we weren’t in the vehicle firing, then sometimes we were in a pursuit car, which was in the same proximity where we could get a line of sight. We were also on the camera cars a couple of times, which worked out real well. We’ve been in all sorts of places, even standing on top of the overpass, it just depended on the situation. Basically, we have a good solid mile range with the radio control unit, so we can be within a mile, although we tend to like to be a lot closer. I like to be at least in the line of sight; if we can see the gunfire then that’s our cue to fire.
MATRIX: What safety precautions are taken before firing begins?
AL: What we generally do is work as a team. As we get ready to fire, one person goes over and arms the box. We have a sequence that we go through, which we do by radio: we turn on the receiver, we go through a test pattern and we check the channels to make sure they’re all operating, then we go into safe mode, and when we get ready to go we go into fire mode, which tells the man on the radio that we’re ready to fire. We actually have this sequence written down and we go through it verbatim every single time, we never vary from it. It’s done exactly the same way every time so there’s no chance of somebody flipping a switch at the wrong time. That was really important, because we didn’t want to have a hit fire when it wasn’t supposed to fire, or the other case, which is a bad case too, a hit didn’t fire when it was supposed to fire. Everything has to fire exactly when it has to go, it’s really important that that’s maintained.
MATRIX: Earlier, a shot was being rehearsed on the freeway; even when film is not rolling, do the SPFX team take their places as if the rehearsal was being captured on film?
AL: When we do a full rehearsal, we generally say it’s a rehearsal, and we don’t go hot. Everything will be exactly the same, we’ll put everybody in the same positions, we just don’t activate our units. The only time we ever activate, the only time we go hot, is when we’re actually rolling film. When we see the camera rolling, the very last thing we do is go hot. We wait for the very last minute, so there is no chance of sitting around for a period of time with everything activated.
SET UPS & TIMING
MATRIX: How many set ups do you usually allow for on each stunt?
AL: What we’ve been set up for is four takes, that has been the average. Most times we’ve been able to get the shot in one and two takes, but in some cases we’ve actually gone the whole four because they’ve changed the camera angles, or we’ve changed different things. Usually, we have four vehicles in back up. When we do the sequence in the tunnel [shot in the Posey Tube, Alameda], we’ll have four vehicles. We have two series of hits to go off in there, so we’ll be able to do each one of those four times. If they need to do the take again, we’d have to go back and reload. The problem with that is the time factor involved in reloading. In the case of the larger hits, it takes two or three days for a couple of guys to load these things. We have had a couple of cases here where we’ve had to do re-shoots, so we’ve had to send the vehicles back to be reloaded, but they generally give us a couple of days.
MATRIX: Is working on the Freeway set a unique experience for you?
AL: Yes, it really is. The thing with the freeway is that it’s very difficult to view what’s going on. Like today, you want to find out what’s going on, and you won’t know until you go out there and look at the freeway. There’s so much going on, you’ve got background traffic, you’ve got the traffic going there, and to coordinate the timing and everything like that is really quite a challenging thing. All the effects we’re doing are at speed, nothing is stationary, everything is moving, and most times it’s moving over 40 miles an hour, once in a while we do things a little slower. So when we’re flying down the freeway, the timing and the stunt people are very important.
We’ve had a couple of huge crash sequences on this movie that have just been spectacular. To see all this actually come into play, and make sure nobody gets hurt, is actually amazing. We’ve had times when we’ve had cars going end over end, cars going over pipe rolls going over sideways, cars spinning out, cars hitting other cars going over the top of other cars, all in one shot, which is a very unique experience. Normally, we do one stunt at a time, but on this particular film, we’ve had as many as four and five different crashes happening all at the same time. To coordinate that to make sure nobody got hurt was a real challenge, and I think that along with good planning there’s some good luck too. I saw tires and wheels flying off those cars, bouncing off the walls of the freeway, there’s just no way you can control some of the bits and pieces flying off the cars. There were 40 or 50 cars involved in these crashes, so it was very successful in that respect.
MATRIX: Did the location shooting for this film pose any particular difficulties?
AL: The local locations were mostly done in Oakland, and we’re familiar with working out on streets doing special effects, so it has become second nature. One reason we wanted a freeway built was so we could stage a lot more, because we have a lot more control over what’s going on than we do on the private streets. During the first part of this movie, we did a lot of filming on private streets in downtown Oakland.
The tunnel [shot in the Posey Tube, Alameda] will pose its own problems, mostly for the lighting people, because it’s a dark tunnel. The fact that it’s a pretty closed thing makes it quite good, and the fact that we can lock it all off and we don’t have to worry about people coming in on us. The one problem that you have on a street location, even though you have traffic control, is that, every once in a while, something goes astray. It doesn’t happen very often, but sometimes it can get pretty scary when some car comes in that isn’t supposed to be there, or someone doesn’t realize they’re rolling film, and lets a car into the actual filming area. We were very fortunate, everything went very well in the Oakland locations, we didn’t have many problems at all.
MATRIX: The freeway sequence is winding down, is there other car work to be done?
AL: We’re getting pretty much down to the end of the car work, what we’ll have now is some blue screen work. What First Unit didn’t get done on the freeway, we pretty much got done on Second Unit. What we’re doing now is basically pick up shots – we’ve got some roof tear off sequences to do, and some really small, close stuff to do. So we’re definitely getting down to the end of it, it’s getting a lot easier now.
MATRIX: Will you begin work on other sets?
AL: We have the cave scene, the actual Zion set, which will be quite interesting. There will be 900 extras on the set with that volcano ash floor; we’ve got a team of Special Effects people in there working right now. We will probably go in there and finish up what the First Unit doesn’t get finished, but they’ll get most of it done so I don’t expect us to have much of work to do in there. Most of our work coming up will be blue screen work.
MATRIX: What are some of the special effects going on in Zion?
AL: The cave is it’s own little challenge. One thing we’ve had to create for that set is pools of bubbling lava. It was a bit of a challenge to seal the tanks off, because the tanks have clear lexan bottoms in them so they can light the lava. To keep the lava from leaking down into the electrical part was a pretty big challenge. The other interesting thing in there is that there’ll be 100 burning torches, carried by people. For the safety of all on set we’ve worked out a system where, if somebody should drop a torch, or let one go, they’ll automatically shut off. That took a little time to work out, but we had to have some way that these torches would be fail safe, so when anyone let go of them, they would shut off immediately. Most of the other effects are an atmospheric type of effect, kind of a visualization thing, not mechanical, like on the cars.
TOOLS OF THE TRADE
MATRIX: As a SPFX technician, which tools do you use every single day?
AL: In the business that we’re in it depends a lot on what we’re doing. We work on all the elements: some days we’re doing a lot of rain, others we’re doing fire, or maybe we’re doing wind, but there really isn’t one tool we use more than any other, that I can think of. In this particular case we’re using the firing boxes every day, on the next show we may not use anything like that. Each project becomes a different thing, which is why, when you look around, you see so many different things hanging in this SPFX truck. It’s basically a small travelling hardware store to provide everything that we might need for every little aspect of any film. We try to make sure we have everything we may need.
MATRIX: Did you see the first MATRIX film?
AL: Yes, many times as a matter of fact.
MATRIX: Having seen how good the first film was, from what you have seen so far, will the second film meet fans’ expectations?
AL: Well, I think that’s an interesting point. It’s very, very difficult to tell what a film is going to be like when you’re so close to it. The one thing I noticed right off the bat, is that this has an excellent script. It takes off from where THE MATRIX left off, and fills in a lot of things. I’ve talked to a lot of people who saw the first MATRIX, and didn’t understand a lot of it, this movie will definitely explain a lot of THE MATRIX, the whole base of THE MATRIX. I think it is an excellent script, and it will stand on it’s own. I don’t think this film even needs to be a sequel, it’s that good.
MATRIX: Thanks Al.
Interview by REDPILL