Interview with Brian Dusting (Set Decorator) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin May 24th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with Brian Dusting from the official Matrix website.


MATRIX: How did you get into Set Decorating?

BRIAN: I’ve been in the business about twenty-odd years, so what got me into doing this would’ve been starvation: a graduated art student, it was hard to get a job painting pictures, so I fell into this, as most people do.

MATRIX: Do you remember one of the first projects you worked on?

BRIAN: I remember I painted a set for a Eurela Telethon, which I thought was quite marvelous at the time. But since that stage I’ve come to work on bigger and greater things and, come to think of it, I probably did a fairly lousy job. After that, I worked on The Sullivans, the groundbreaking Australian police drama Cop Shop, and a few other things of that genre – Sky West, for instance.

On Anna and the King I did some design; we made costumes for horses and elephants. That wasn’t a common job for me, I don’t generally design costumes for horses and elephants, so it had its degrees of difficulty. I worked on Evil Angels [aka A Cry in the Dark]; does anyone remember that film starring Meryl Streep and Sam Neill?

MATRIX: What qualities are required of a Set Decorator?

BRIAN: A sense of humor and probably nothing else! An intrinsic eye for detail, and the odd bit of logic doesn’t hurt either… and the odd bit of anti-logic as well. You need a bit of an aesthetic, but most of all a sense of humor.

MATRIX: In your experience, is there a difference between TV and film work?

BRIAN: Not to the degree that one might think – that one is more demanding than the other. It’s neither here nor there, because it comes down to sets being problems that need to be solved. Sometimes the hardest things you can do are on fairly cheap television productions, and sometimes the easiest things you can do are on major feature films.

Once a set is quite largish on a screen, there is a level of detail you have to be aware of. But the rules for both demand the solving of the given problem. When you are on a major feature film with lots of money to spend and plenty of time, you have the ability to apply the detail, whereas on something a little more stringent in both budget and time, it’s a battle to apply the detail. Nevertheless it’s still the same sort of problem in the end.


MATRIX: When did your pre-production start here for Set Decorating?

BRIAN: The beginning of April 2001. That’s when I had to find a desk and a chair, and start to find some people: friendly, friendly people.

MATRIX: Did it make a difference for your department that filming had started in the United States?

BRIAN: It was fairly much a non-issue. The filming in the States was basically a couple of isolated sequences. One being the interior of a Temple, and we actually did the exterior of that, so there was a degree of continuity to that later on, and there was the Freeway Car Chase, which we did a prelude to, and an after event of. As far as Set Decoration goes, the Freeway really didn’t demand much from us.

MATRIX: How much of a challenge was it to recreate sets that were in the original film, such as the Oracle’s apartment?

BRIAN: Marian Murray [Assistant Set Decorator] mainly handled that; it was difficult because we had to recreate what, in essence, was a one-off set, containing a lot of one-off furniture and other pieces. In the sequels you see what we call a close facsimile of that set, but not an exact replication.

MATRIX: Were the sets well documented from the first film?

BRIAN: We downloaded a lot of shots from the original film because a lot of the original photos and continuity shots were lost. There was a great period of time in between the original and the sequels, so you can understand how things would get misplaced.

MATRIX: Can you tell us about your team in the Set Decorating Department; how many people are there and what kind of roles do they have?

BRIAN: At any given moment there are probably about fourteen or so people. They’re all of differing personalities, persuasions, and religious bent, shapes, sizes and aspirations. They each have a specialty: there is a gentleman who is a door furniture whiz, and people who buy, people who find things, people who recreate things, and people who build things. It’s a whole gamut, and sooner or later we utilize all those particular talents in one set.

MATRIX: Can you define Set Decorating for people who are not familiar with the film world; where do Prop Makers end and Set Decorators begin?

BRIAN: It’s a very fine line, and very thin ice. Sometimes it’s totally intermingled; sometimes it’s not. There’s a rule of thumb that anything that’s referred to script-wise or referred to in print will become a prop. As in, “I am Neo who picks up a pen”, then the pen will become a prop. The desk, however, which he doesn’t pick up in the script, will be part of the decoration, as will the rest of the room.

But then sometimes a hand prop might be an intrinsically designed thing that works in with the decoration, so then it will become part of it, and we’ll take care of it.

MATRIX: Do you have an example of that on the sequels?

BRIAN: Yes, the martini glass. In the Hel Night Club, a sort of S&M type club in REVOLUTIONS, there is a lot of furniture we designed and made. The hero martini glass, which the Merovingian drinks from on that set, became more a part of the design and the feel of the furniture etc, so we made that to work with everything else.

MATRIX: Back in April 2001, how did you begin, knowing there were around 150 sets to decorate?

BRIAN: There were a multitude of concept drawings already achieved, so in a manner we were left in no doubt as to the particular look, although there were things that were not in the concepts that we developed through one means or another. With discussion and the concept drawings the looks were set in general terms, for instance the look of the “Zionesque” sets was fairly entrenched quite early, so we knew what we were doing with them and took it from there.

MATRIX: Did you have a sense of continuation from the first film?

BRIAN: Yes. Owen [Paterson, Production Designer] tended to lean towards a sort of sparse retro-ish look for the Matrix sets on the first film, which we’ve kept up with as that seems to be an identifiable visual of the film, which works really well.

MATRIX: How closely do you follow the storyboards?

BRIAN: Fairly closely, within particular reason. The storyboards reflect exactly what the Directors’ intention is. Not all of the sets have been conceptualized, BUT we do follow concepts as much as we possibly can… although we like to put our own stamp on so to speak, and embellish somewhat because we actually think we’re a bit clever at that.

MATRIX: Environments are very weathered in the real world; how much work was it to beat up those sets?

BRIAN: Yes, there’s a certain distressed look about it all. We do imagine that anything that has been manufactured would generally be from a metal-based source, especially in Zion. It’s around the five hundred years old mark and with the underground nature of the place, the corrosion etc has built up over a number of years. The concept with the finish of the ships was kind of based on a World War Two destroyer – something like that – the levels of paint upon paint upon paint upon paint, and the corrosion. And texturally speaking everything is based around that level of distress.

The Matrix sets are not distressed in the same manner; it’s more of a sparseness that is reflected in those sets. It’s a minimalist sort of feel.

MATRIX: How important is color to these films?

BRIAN: Pretty important in the manner that we have a color theory, where there’s a bent towards keeping away from any blue in the Matrix, and keeping away from any greens in the real world.

MATRIX: Is there any restriction on other colors?

BRIAN: No, not necessarily, but when we’re in the Matrix we use a lot of green bases for colors. You’ll see a lot of greenish grays just to keep the element of the green filters running throughout.


MATRIX: Where did some of the inspiration come from for the Merovingian Chateau?

BRIAN: We looked at a lot of chateaus and castles; at the baronial aspect of fairly large grand staircases, the weaponry which decorated the walls, and statuary, from which we ended up making original pieces of sculpture based on Clovis the First [481 – 511], who was the first of the Merovingian kings of France. His face is kind of mythical, but the style of sculpture is more in the [Gianlorenzo] Bernini [1598 – 1680] style baroque; very dramatic, with a lot of flowing drapery.

The walls of the Great Hall are decorated with weaponry, all of which become practical weapons in a fighting sequence in RELOADED. In that we were working in close conjunction with the Hong Kong Wire Team, so a few things got lost in translation, but it was invigorating because every weapon had a specific need and want as per the character using the weapon, as per the action, and as per the action that Yuen Wo Ping [Fight Choreographer] was dreaming up from one moment to the next.

We made up a lot of mock-up weapons that were almost there, but not quite there – it was hard for those guys because they were flying through the air, and picking things up, and smashing stuff. For us the complexity was in the type of materials the weapons were made of: there were soft versions, and some were not so soft. There was also a balance and weight thing: if it was a mace or something like that, the length was important. Hence we spent a great deal of time during their rehearsals to make sure that these mock-ups were going to actually work in relation to the action. That was a very lengthy procedure.

I was trying at that stage to keep this weaponry strictly medieval in relation to the set, and there was a cross between the more oriental elements of what the Wire Team were probably more used to. There was a bit of a juxtaposition in how that would work in their terms.

MATRIX: Which other departments within the film did you work alongside?

BRIAN: Yes, it’s not very often that you do work with a Wire Team. We worked pretty closely with all other departments really, particularly wardrobe, and specifically on this film, lighting.

They’re shooting a lot at three hundred frames, so we have been in the position where the option of off the shelf lighting doesn’t really exist, so we’ve pretty much made everything down to simple fluorescent fittings. Because of the camera speed and the amount of light we’re pumping through, we end up making things like what would’ve been ostensibly a plastic shade. We’ve been forming them from Pyrex and materials like that, so they can actually take the heat. This has been very much a complete manufacture of everything.

MATRIX: Do you ensure set pieces are fireproofed?

BRIAN: They would melt long before they catch fire. Generally we’re conscious of warping and anything that’s going to throw the shape of something out, or that something is going to start melting in the middle of the shot, which would be embarrassing for everyone concerned.

The lights do heat up though. There was an exterior shot of the Rerouting Facility where we built street lamps, and they were housing around eight thousand watts. Once they began shooting a car needed to be moved – these lights were five meters up in the air and the car was directly below it – and a couple of guys had to push the car out of the way, and the bonnet was boiling hot.

The lights are actually burning at a very high temperature, and in that we’ve been constantly manufacturing and doing tests under the extreme requirements that our Gaffer prefers. Some tests fail, but we’ve gradually hit on a method where they don’t fail anymore.

MATRIX: You mentioned you work closely with the Costume Department; in what regard?

BRIAN: We collaborate on things like colors and choice of fabrics. You tend to look at what a particular character would be wearing in a particular set so that you don’t come in too jarring with any dressing that’s happening. It pays for all these groups to get together from time to time and make sure we’re doing this sort of meld: that we’re all working on the same film and that we’re operating under a common thought.

MATRIX: Which would be designed first, the Set Decoration or the Costume; who takes the lead from who?

BRIAN: I would say Costume would be in the lead, generally speaking, you have costume designs well before set decoration… mind you, you would have concepts of sets fairly early as well.


MATRIX: Did ideas for the Hel Night Club come from visiting clubs?

BRIAN: No, it came quite naturally, shockingly enough. We just took that set out of everyone’s imagination, and it worked okay. We took some cast out figures that we sprayed in latex and arranged in a variety of poses and hung from the ceiling.

When the extras arrived on set, there was one girl in a sort of straitjacket with her hands behind her back, perched precariously on a bit of a mount, which we actually locked her feet to in the end, so she’d feel a little bit safer. She seemed to be thrilled by the element of danger. She was off to one side near the staircase and we chained her from the ceiling and she was leaning on a fairly obtuse angle, what looked to be a very dangerous-looking angle.

MATRIX: Is there one set out of the 150 that stands out as being more challenging?

BRIAN: Knowing there were a hundred and fifty sets to do was quite challenging! There’s a little Keymaker’s set, which does not come across as any form of grandeur whatsoever, but it’s very magical and quite small, and there are 250,000 keys in there, all of which were hand threaded by very dedicated individuals.

MATRIX: How did you procure all those keys?

BRIAN: Initially we thought it was going to be a lot of keys when we had a look at the concepts… and we were right; there were actually a lot of keys. We thought of ways to simplify this in different ways: maybe they were going to be laser cut, maybe they were going to be vac-formed into groups of keys, all of which we tried and nothing worked. In the end we actually bought a lot of keys. There were people on the road buying them from varying sources like locksmiths who, in the back rooms of their premises might have boxes with ten or twenty thousand keys in them.

The hard part was that the keys all had to be on rings in order to hang in the Keymaker’s room, and we’re talking about between eight and twelve keys per ring (that’s a lot of rings too, come to think of it). Eight and twelve keys per ring, and somebody actually put each of the 250,000 keys on a ring!


MATRIX: [Councilor] Hamann’s Office had a lot of different “relics” on display, do you have any backstory on those items?

BRIAN: What we were trying to do there was lift the everyday into artifact, so to speak, as you would find if you were picking up a bit of pottery from Pompeii or something. It was Hamann being the type of character he is, a sort of Henry Higgins [the Professor from My Fair Lady] type, giving a collection some sense of purpose in that he has a kind of reflective nature, lifting these elements out of the norm and into art pieces or precious things.

MATRIX: Another beautiful set was Link’s Apartment; he had an unusual lounge chair in there.

BRIAN: That came out of an auction somewhere, it was one of those flukey things that looked right. It could’ve been a fifties chair or it could’ve been a little more on the stylish line, but the idea of wacky was very appealing. You don’t find that high standard of pool furniture so much anymore. It carried its own shape pretty well, and with a paint job on it, it looked okay. It was out of the norm and, I would imagine, unexpected, so in that it paid for itself.

On that set we actually made a lot of gizmo gadgetry, which serves the overcomplicated look of the electrics of the set. The people in Zion tend to over-manufacture everything – I don’t know whether you noticed – so we just built on that. A lot of those things were chosen very specifically, just for the shape, then the shapes become interesting things, and once you introduce a few buzzers and dials, bells and whistles, and a bit of cabling, they become something else altogether.

It’s not so much individual objects themselves, it’s more the overall atmosphere. You’d probably find it very hard to identify specific items as such with the lighting and the way it is overcomplicated and overly dressed. It kind of looks like the guts of a machine – like the secret innards of machines – or something like that.

MATRIX: The sets also give illumination to the characters: Lock’s office has all his military miniatures sitting around, and there are Zee’s crystals in Link’s apartment.

BRIAN: In essence the script is fairly self explanatory with the characters, so you develop on what their natures are script-wise, and what their intentions will be. A lot of this is subliminal background material, which I think nevertheless helps the film out. As far as the crystals go, you think in the manner of what would be available where they live, so far underground.

MATRIX: How do you break down the script for Set Decorating – as it never specifically says something is there unless it is called for in the script?

BRIAN: You don’t because there’s no breakdown for the script. However, you know that Link is in a room, and we’ll get drawings earlier on in the manner of drafted drawings, and then we can sit down and plot what we need to put in. Early on I read through the script and get a notion of what each set demands. A lot of it’s just guessing, and sometimes you‘re even right.


MATRIX: With such a vast number of sets, do you recycle items from one to the next?

BRIAN: You might notice throughout the Zion sets there’s a lot of pipe and cable, which we recycle. The cabling is about the eccentricity of the way that electricity is dispersed. We looked at the concepts and figured out how many sets we had to do, then we set down what we wanted to dress and figured out a reasonable amount of flexible conduit, ie. electrical cable. We bought just about eighty-five kilometers [51 miles], which sounds excessive, except that this week we have another thirty-five kilometers arriving [21 miles]. And it takes a long time to drive that far.

The chairs originally used in the Le Vrai Restaurant were re-worked for the Zion Council Chamber. We got about a hundred and twenty of a particular chair, which worked pretty well in the restaurant, then when it came to the Council Chamber I’d done a few costings on making them up from scratch, but there was never anything we were going to find which was going to be suitable. So we ended up re-gigging those particular chairs: adding a bit of timber here, cutting a bit out there, doing a bit of a paint treatment on them and a bit of riveting. Hopefully they’re heavily disguised.

MATRIX: What happens to all the things that have been made once the shooting is over?

BRIAN: We’ve been going through those discussions for some time – we’ve kept everything so far… except for those restaurant chairs (although we’ve still got a few left over). For the publicity after the film is finished, there are some sets that may or may not be used. We’ve got those all put to one side, plus everything has been stored and catalogued. We’re still unsure of whether we’re going to be sending everything back to the United States, whether it will just exist here in a storeroom, or whether we’ll auction it off at some stage. But at this moment in time we’re hanging onto everything.

MATRIX: Everything has been saved, right down to the small books that were in Lock’s Office?

BRIAN: Yes, we’ve got it all. Our storerooms just grow and grow. It becomes a full time job just maintaining it. We’ve catalogued all the sets up to now, and then we catalogue each particular item, photograph it, put that on disk, and pack it away somewhere. God knows who’s going to open it in the end!

MATRIX: Thanks Brian.

Interview by REDPILL

June 2002

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