Interview with Clay Pinney (Special Effects Supervisor) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin June 15th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with Clay Pinney from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: Could you break down what your role in this production is?

CLAY: Basically, the Special Effects Supervisor, on a film like this, is in charge of virtually all of the atmospheric effects and all of the mechanical gags that go on. Working with the brothers, and then R.A. Rondell, who is the Stunt Coordinator, we went through the sequences. We started out working with the pre-viz guys, understanding what the brothers’ ideas were, and then had to translate that into physical reality.

MATRIX: Have you been involved with the production for long now?

CLAY: I started last August [2000], 11 months.

MATRIX: How did you get into Special Effects?

CLAY: I was back east in upstate New York when a show came to town called The Way We Were. At the time, I was with a theatre department there, and everybody went down and got a job as an extra, and I went down, hung out with the crew and got to know them. About a year and a half later I pretty much sold everything, except my cooking equipment, my books and my tools and moved to Los Angeles, I decided I wanted to try film.

MATRIX: How difficult was it to break in?

CLAY: The most ready way I had to make money at that point was carpentry work, so I was doing a remodel for a woman named Valerie Douglas, who was a publicist in town. She came home one night and said, “Clay, I notice your work, you do nice work, what do you want to be doing in five years?” I explained what my goals were, and that I figured I’d have to do non-union work and slowly break in. She said the proverbial, “Let me make a call”, (her secretary’s roommate was the secretary to a man in charge of permanent construction at MGM). That was on a Tuesday night, I had an interview Thursday, and started the following Monday. And that was 23 years ago. So, Horatio Alger is alive and well.

MATRIX: How did you get into Special Effects from construction?

CLAY: After I saw the film crew up there, I did a bunch of research and reading, and then thought effects would be something I might be interested in. Back when I got into it, it was basically an apprenticeship program. It took me about 7 years to get an effects card, because they had a series of tests you had to do, and time you had to spend in trade. The wonderful thing about effects is that every show is different. Most departments, whatever they do, they do the same thing show after show after show. For the Prop Master and Special Effects, it tends to be whatever the show is. We’ll do one show like Backdraft and it’s six months of fire (which I never want to do again), and it changes each show. The last show we had, had an awful lot of atmospheric effects, large ground fogs rolling and things like that, which is just a different logistical problem.

This show is the largest car show I’ve ever done, so that was a big challenge. Some of it was work that we’d never done before, and some of it has never been done before. In Godzilla, we had one of the largest rain scenes, plus a lot of mechanical gags. Toys was wonderful because we did all of these little animated wind up toys that were based on little tin toys. That keeps the interest there, because Special Effects really does change radically from show to show, what you’re going to attempt to do. I think the best summation is that it’s creative mechanics; we continually take something that was meant to do something else, and alter what it is, to do what we need it to.

MATRIX: What are some of the productions you’ve had a chance to work on?

CLAY: Going backwards, there was this, Soldier, Godzilla, Independence Day, Backdraft, Toys, Bugsy, Avalon. I’ve been fortunate to work with some really good people.

MATRIX: Have Special Effects changed or evolved in the last twenty or so years?

CLAY: Mostly it’s the technology that allows us to use a lot more safety features now, as far as cabling. Obviously, all of these shows with the martial arts now wouldn’t be able to be done without the fact the fact that we can remove the wires, especially this film. Twenty years ago if they wanted to jump a motorcycle off a moving truck, that’s probably what they would have done, and done it a lot slower. We brought the stunt people off a truck and over 10 feet at thirty miles an hour, and set them 19 feet in front of the motorcycle rig… and did it seven times. You’ll see it in the film, the cables will be gone, and they land on the freeway and drive away.

MATRIX: Does the increasing use of Visual Effects affect what you do?

CLAY: A lot of people are nervous or afraid of that. I think, for us, it expands what we can do. As an analogy, we’re still at a point where we need a physical take off and a physical landing. It frees us to do things we could never have done before.

MATRIX: When you get the opportunity to do a film like THE MATRIX 2, what are the things that go through your mind?

CLAY: It’s interesting because it wasn’t the Producers who contacted me, it was a friend of mine who worked in the Art Department as the Art Department Coordinator. We’ve known each other for years, and they’d said, these guys are really great, and I should come and meet them. I basically cold called, although I’d met Owen before on MI2, and we’d chatted. So when I got there, I knew Owen [Paterson, Production Designer] and Mark Mansbridge, an Art Director I’ve worked with for years, so I had a couple of people I was in with. When I met the brothers we had a two and a half hour meeting, which never happens, usually you get 15 to 20 minutes and you’re out, they say they’ll give you a call. We just sort of clicked and hit a simpatico; they thought I could do this, I guess… and I just walked out going, “How the hell am I going to do this?”

MATRIX: Did Larry and Andy immediately jump into the scale and what they wanted to do?

CLAY: No, the first meeting was about what my background was. They had seen some of the films I had worked on and they had some questions about that, then it was my getting a feeling for where they were going and what they wanted. It’s a good relationship, they’re great guys.

MATRIX: What was your reaction when you first read the script, and really knew for the first time what you were going to have to accomplish?

CLAY: Fright was probably the biggest reaction, and wondering how we were possibly going to do it. I had a core group of guys on real early and spent probably close to a month of literally going through the Freeway sequence storyboard by storyboard. Some of it was very obvious and some of it became trickier. For the most part it wasn’t what we were doing, it was the amount we were doing all at once, because then you just have so many places one thing can go wrong and make it not work, so many redundant systems that any one of them can blow the shot. We had to have much more of an eye and sense of detail on this to make sure everything was right.

MATRIX: How do the storyboards for this film compare to those on other films you’ve worked on?

CLAY: The boards are extraordinary and the one thing that’s wonderful about the boys is that they’ll stick to them. They’ll vary maybe a little bit but you can pretty much count on what’s in the boards. Bill Pope, the DP [Director of Photography], when we were first talking, said to pay attention to the boards. They were good and they gave us pretty much what they were going to do. And the pre-viz even more so.

MATRIX: You’ve seen the storyboards, the pre-viz and now the dailies, how has it gone?

CLAY: The Third Event sequence is virtually identical to the pre-viz, it’s remarkable.

SPFX RIGS

MATRIX: What was the beginning of the SPFX crew’s work on the Freeway?

CLAY: Special Effects’ primary responsibility was all of the vehicles for the freeway chase and the mayhem that ensues there. We started out working with the pre-viz guys, understanding what the brothers’ ideas were, and then had to translate that into physical reality. So we prepped just about 80 different vehicles from either just safety harnesses to safety seats to fuel cells, or full roll cages, as in a NASCAR.

When we started out, we planned the stunts in the 40 to 45 mile an hour range. After R.A. was up here [in Alameda] he said he thought we could jack it up a couple of notches, so basically all the action took place around 50 to 55 miles an hour. For crashes at that speed, you basically have to build a race car interior to protect the stunt people involved. We also did some of the flying, we did a motorcycle descender rig, and we built several camera installations for the camera department. We had a camera rig constructed to use in the Posey Tunnel that had to bring the camera from right on the ground, to just up over a police car, as it sped underneath. We did a remote control motorcycle camera rig that went from the ground to five feet in the air, and could pan and tilt. We had a camera snap back rig as well, where two vehicles were coming at each other, and the camera had to pull back at the last moment – it’s when the Agents are about to hit head on with the trailer trucks.

MATRIX: We’ve heard a lot about the snap back rig; could you elaborate on how the camera was not the most important thing?

CLAY: We used it twice statically, which was fine, because then it would have just struck a vehicle, and they would have lost a very expensive camera. The real problem for us was the two vehicles closing on each other, so not only would we lose a camera and a vehicle, but possibly a stunt person, so that was our main concern. We had a pneumatically fired cylinder that brought the camera back, with a liquid filled cylinder that slowed the descent down when it came back to rest. The challenge was getting it to go fast enough to be safe for the vehicle and the stunt man, but not so fast that it would destroy the camera. We were dancing on that knife-edge between the two, and we finally got it down so it worked pretty well.

MATRIX: How much did the driver have to do in that situation?

CLAY: Be really good friends with the Special Effects department. Basically, he’s got his out. What we did as they were driving, was make everybody aware of what a driver might have to do to swerve out, if something happened. These are really seasoned stunt people, we worked really closely together, and we did a lot of testing, so by the time we did it, the driver was very comfortable with the situation.

THE FREEWAY AS A SET

MATRIX: Were you involved at the point when the Freeway was going to be a location shoot?

CLAY: I was involved when they were talking about that and realized that it wasn’t practical. If you got a freeway that looked good enough, it was too busy, just because you couldn’t shut down the traffic, and if you did you had a very small window of opportunity during the day. We, at times, had an extra 100 drivers plus 75 stunt drivers here on the Freeway, so just getting that many people from one place to the next to the next became very, very impractical. This was wonderful because we could film to the last light of day, we had no pressures when we had to get off, we could shut the cars down, come back the next morning and come right back on the Freeway.

MATRIX: Was it big a deal when the talk turned to building a Freeway set?

CLAY: The brothers always knew they were going to build their own freeway, it was just going through the motions of trying to find one we could use, and then everybody realizing that wasn’t going to be something that would happen. While scouting, we had a very pleasant evening in Akron, Ohio, in December [2000], and the guys from Australia got to see their first snow. We really froze our butts off out on the freeway in the morning, I think that’s when the reality check came in, and they decided they would actually have to do it here in Alameda.

MATRIX: That must have freed things up for you because you can get a little more outrageous on a controlled set.

CLAY: Absolutely, we could do anything we wanted, and that was the wonderful part of it.

MATRIX: What would you say are some of the more insane things that happened on this Freeway set?

CLAY: The Third Event is the largest single coordinated stunt crash I’ve ever been involved in, and that’s in 23 years in the business. We had the flip over car, the Agent left the police car and jumped to the flip over car, of which the hood crushed, the fenders flew out, the doors flew open, the windows broke, and then the car flipped over toward the camera truck, all at 50 miles an hour. So the CG Agent jumps to Trinity’s car, the hood collapses, the front end suspension collapses and comes back, and there were nine separate crashes in the far background, all done as a master shot.

Before this, we’ve done certainly things that large, but in three or four takes, and then it’s assembled. This shot was done with a camera truck approximately 70 feet in front of all this happening at 50 miles an hour. It was something we talked about for months and planned out with distances, had lenses picked, then came out and rehearsed it. We did a dry run through twice, then we shot it, and after lunch we did it again.

VEHICLE PREPARATION

MATRIX: How long would it take your team to rig one of the crash cars?

CLAY: It would take two men about three days to take an interior out and put a full roll cage in. Our picture car mechanics would come over, Kiwi and Bill and Brett and put the fuel cells in, so it was about 6 man days per car times 78, and that’s not counting the bullet hits or any of the other stuff.

MATRIX: You prepared a lot more cars for second and third takes than were used, or did you use most of them?

CLAY: We pretty much prepared doubles so we had the option of doing all of the stunt takes twice. On the bullet hit cars we prepared four identical bullet hit cars, so they had four takes of each sequence of bullet hits.

MATRIX: In initial talks, did you understand the scale that was going to be asked of some of the shots?

CLAY: Yes, the scale that they wanted was definitely clear. What wasn’t clear at that point was how in hell we were going to do it. It’s fortunate that R.A. and I have done several shows together, we pretty much have a short hand between each other, I anticipate what he needs, and he knows how I’m going to do it, so there’s a great deal of trust there. We had to be methodical, and obviously safety was our primary concern, as well as giving the brothers what they wished to see. The most critical decision I make is who I hire. I can get the shows, but it’s just critical for me the crew I have to do it, and on this show there has been an outstanding crew all the way around.

MATRIX: The rig mounted on the truck was pretty spectacular, can you describe what it took to accomplish that?

CLAY: We called it the albatross. We saw the pre-vizes on that, then devised a motion control system because we wanted to have a repeatable pass every time, as the boys were very specific about how they wanted the motorcycle to land. The rig became an erector set we built on top of a moving vehicle out of box truss that ended up being about 32 feet above the freeway, and had cables going everywhere to stabilize it. It also had hydraulic cylinders, an onboard generator and an onboard hydraulic pump, as well as the motion control system. It looked sort of like a square-rigger, basically, coming down the freeway.

Once we got our programming bugs out of it, it was very repeatable. Everyone liked it enough that we basically made it stable inside on the blue screen, and then shot the reverse of that, which they were going to do in Australia on a gimbal. We basically made a book match move, so you actually see Carrie-Anne [Moss, Trinity] and Randall [Duk Kim, Keymaker] come off on the motorcycle and go right by the camera, which will be a perfect match to the other shot.

MATRIX: How long were you actually shooting on the Freeway set?

CLAY: We were on our own freeway for seven weeks and then second unit was out here another five, plus two weeks on the Oakland streets.

MATRIX: The orchestration of the bullet hits must have been difficult.

CLAY: We had four main bullet hit cars, we had a rear drive bullet hit car, and we had two roof tear off bullet hit cars. We had a series of hits: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, and George series, a total of 222 bullet hits on the exterior of the cars, as well 27 inside on the headliner. We prepped four cars completely rigged, then we did various amounts of bullet holes plus bullet hits, as to where they worked in the sequence. It was a hell of an introduction for Laurence [Fishburne, Morpheus], Carrie-Anne and Randall who were inside the car, because we went to them and said, “By the way, there are going to be 27 bullet hits over your head as you’re driving”. They were champs, they got through it. We showed them what we were going to do, showed them some tests we had done, and they hung in there and did a great job.

MATRIX: What were the things that you told them, and what kinds of precautions were taken?

CLAY: We showed them our video tests, and showed them some physical tests of exactly what it was going to be. Inside the car they were always fine, they had earplugs in, and any of the material that’s actually getting blown off the car goes away from them. Our main concern was the twins, one of whom was outside the car standing in a sunroof as these bullet hits were going off. What we try to do is stagger them, and take all the precautions we can, but bullet hits are a small explosive going off that does indeed send shrapnel.

MATRIX: Apparently you also set up a truck rig that spins 180 degrees.

CLAY: There’s a sequence in the film where an Agent is driving a trailer truck, and he tries to squeeze Trinity off the side. She does a U-turn that we made a rig for that we spun around and dragged toward camera, and then Debbie Evans [Motorcycle Stunt Trinity] went zipping off. So you see the trailer truck try and squeeze her off and then all of a sudden the entire trailer truck spins 180 degrees and comes right back at camera. It’s like you can’t stop the Agents. They did a whole sequence with that, of him running into cars, just bowling everything out of the way like bowling pins, as he’s trying to catch up to and destroy Trinity. We ended up making a hydraulic steering system on the back of the truck that could turn the wheels 30 degrees, and then had smokers inside that puffed smoke out around it so it looked like the wheels were sliding sideways. It was actually a pretty cool gag.

MATRIX: Can you tell us a story about any of the car wrecks in the boneyard?

CLAY: They are all just part of the entire sequence. We had 3 major incidents on the Freeway, which took up a total of about 78 separate cars that were rigged for the stunt people to use. Everything was done between 50 and 55 miles an hour, so the stunts are a little beyond the normally staged stunts you’ll see in a film.

What has happened with some of the wrecked cars is the Fire Department came out and peeled the roof off, testing some of their equipment, so the damage now is worse than it was. The Fire Department came out because they don’t get to test their Jaws of Life, and other equipment, a lot on late model cars, because they just can’t get them. So for them it was great, because they’re the latest model cars and they were able to test their extraction techniques and their rescue techniques. We put in the pipe structure, which made it safe for the stunt people to be in there, the cars are all fitted with fuel cells, so there was a very small amount of fuel, which can’t spill out and catch fire. What our Special Effects crew did was put a roll cage structure inside, then the driver basically had a NASCAR racing seat and fuel cells; a structure that protected the people inside.

OTHER SETS

MATRIX: What are some of the set ups you’ve done for other sets?

CLAY: Breakaway benches and breakaway walls for the Burly Fight in the Park set where the Agents keep replicating, and Neo is the master fighter kicking everybody’s butt. I think we had three or four different times that Neo gets thrown, so we made up balsa breakaway [benches], pretty standard stuff, where Chad [Stahelski, Neo Stunt Double] does two and a half flips backwards, comes in blind and crashes through the benches. We also did a large section of pyrasil brick where Neo gets thrown and actually crushes the brick in. It’s a foaming plaster that we make, you paint it to look like the other brick, but when you hit it, it actually crushes. So Neo picks up a post that had a big bit of it on, swings it over his head and crashes it into an Agent, and that explodes.

MATRIX: How did the number of people involved play into what you do?

CLAY: As far as the stunt guys, Tommy Harper [Utility Stunt] and R.A. and Freddie Hice [Utility Stunt], we’ve all worked together for years. Tommy was pretty much overseeing a lot of the rigging on the cars, and Freddie was running the unit for R.A., so it was just working together making sure that everything was installed properly, was secure enough, was safe enough for all of the people.

MATRIX: You’ve already set up everything for the stunt people and then they come in, you were probably the person who was telling these people what they had to do.

CLAY: R.A. explained everything to the stunt guys and, again, most of us have worked together before. They would add an extra pipe here, a gusset, whatever, to their specification through their experience. We’ve built a lot of roll bars, but these guys do it day in, day out, they know where something will fail, and they point it out, so it’s a good learning experience for me, and certainly a big safety factor. I would never put anybody in a car and say, “You can’t have that extra weld.”

MATRIX: Do you know how much time the freeway scene is going to take up on film time?

CLAY: It’s probably a 10 to 12 minute piece.

MATRIX: Does the length surprise you?

CLAY: No, when you do major stunts like this, the Third Event took us all day to do the two takes, and that’s pretty much standard for something like that. Anything more than that and you’re not in a safe area. I’ll commend our ADs because they really looked to us for safety, it’s been a terrific crew. I haven’t ever been on an entire crew like this where anybody, whenever I’d bend over to get something, either a grip, an electrician, the sound guy, or somebody else, would hand it to me. It was a very good experience.

MATRIX: Are you a fan of the first film?

CLAY: I’ve seen it many times, although I’m not as big a fan of the film as my children are, but I’m a terrific fan of it. That’s why I was thrilled when Don Evans called me and said, listen, you’ve got to meet these guys. I think we’re going to blow people’s minds.

MATRIX: Thanks, Clay.

Interview by REDPILL

June 2001

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