DAMIEN TALKS ABOUT THE ZION COUNCIL CHAMBER
MATRIX: Where are we right now and what is the significance of this structure?
DAMIEN: We’re in the Zion Council Chamber. We started with some early concepts from the United States where, initially, it was a bigger circular space with more bleachers for the members of Zion. We call them bleachers, but I’m talking about the tiered benches up the back of the set. Originally it was more of a circular volume, more of a Greek-style auditorium space, it was like stadium space almost. Those early CAD drawings had a domed roof and an oculi in the middle – a big central opening.
Then it was decided because of the scope of the build, and the number of Extras we’d require to sort suitably fill that space, that we would consolidate the set into two half-moon shapes, which we ended up with: one for the twelve members of the Zion cabinet, and the other for the other members of Zion and the captains of the various crafts.
In the initial concept the three window bays behind the Councilors were all glazed, and they were glazed in a way that you saw beyond to the central core from The Brain down to the Resident’s Area. Logistically that was a bit difficult because we would have had to create an environment outside the set that we would have had to finish, paint, dress, and build. There’s a lot of time and money involved in doing that, so it was decided by the Directors and the Production Designer to in-fill some of these elements so we had minimal environment to create outside the set.
We’ve retained the one window as a light source, but beyond that you may be able to make out the pipes that form the central core. Often we have to limit that so we limit the extent of the build and / or the Visual Effects input. The other way to treat it would have been to have clear openings and blue screen beyond, but then it would’ve become a big Visual Effects shot to create that environment outside of the Council Chambers.
MATRIX: As an Assistant Art Director, is lighting a consideration when you’re illustrating?
DAMIEN: Often times we try and incorporate an element of practical lighting into the set, which will assist the DP [Bill Pope] and the Gaffer [Reg Garside] in lighting the set. It also makes more sense when you see the set as to where the light might be coming from – if you have a set with no practical lighting and no openings, but yet it’s alight, the thinking audience would wonder how it was lit.
The Council Chamber is quite a dim space, but there are practical lights in the stairs and there are practical lights in the walls above. The boxes behind the Councilors against the walls are also practical uplights, so in RELOADED you’ll see light spilling up the wall. There’s also a big band of light around the wall, which is created by the light panels, and we had a light source spilling from the upper portions of the archways. I think it’s important to try and create opportunities to get practical light into the set other than just letting the DP and his crew illuminate the set because it makes less sense that way.
MATRIX: Can you describe where the Chamber is located in Zion?
DAMIEN: It’s in the area of the Brain, so it’s above the Residents’ Area. To access it you come from the stairs of the Brain to the top of the Resident’s Area and then into the higher part. We never really see it in its context in the films, but this Council Chamber is a segment that repeats around a center point behind the windows [behind the Council members]. I can’t tell you what’s in the other spaces, but there may be other meeting spaces or other ancillary spaces that would end up forming a complete circle. I’ve developed a computer model in case it becomes relevant in CG land at any point, showing that these segments repeat around a central core and that central core would be the core of the Resident’s Area, but at a much higher level.
MATRIX: When you were first presented with the scale of Zion, what was your reaction to the immensity of it?
DAMIEN: Initially we were all simultaneously horrified and excited by what we might have to build in undertaking sets of this scale. But I think we knew from the beginning that a lot of the bigger vistas would be CG elements, like the Zion Dock, and we would build big sets but they themselves would form a small part of massive environments.
The Council Chamber did start out bigger when you look at the concepts, and they’ve been rationalized to the point they are now because of economic constraints, or the fact that they really didn’t need to be that big to shoot the action that needed to be shot. It’s still pretty enormous, but it was almost twice the size originally; we would have needed seven or eight hundred Extras to fill that space, and I think we ended up in the order of one hundred to one hundred and fifty to shoot the set now. So it was a big logistical saving there as well as cost in building the set.
MATRIX: What kind of backstory did you get from the Production Designer in order to create this space?
DAMIEN: Owen [Paterson] gave us quite a lot of opportunity in detailing the set and to come up with suggestions. In talking to Owen we felt that it should be a sort of a regal space, a more formal space. While it is in Zion and there’s a lot of corroded steel and it’s still very rough and industrial, I wanted to try and convey more of a formality in the architecture, so the windows are kind of gothic in form but in a very abstract sort of way. Even though we’re in Zion it still has much more of a formality than the industrial spaces of the Dock, or the very utilitarian spaces in some of the other areas. We thought that was important because the Council meets here and in effect they’re the leadership of Zion: the Council, the Government, the Crown, so the space should have a quality that is more formal and more regal than if it was a simple meeting room.
MATRIX: Can you give a timeline for this set from concept to realization?
DAMIEN: I think we first started with the concepts for this set about ten months ago. At that time it was a long way down the schedule, but on the other hand it was a set that we had quite a clear concept on and we had some preliminary 3D modeling, so it was something we could move ahead with quite quickly. Also, it didn’t have large special effects or visual effects components, so as an Art Department we could move confidently on the set without having to wait until we got to a point with stunts, or the Hong Kong Wire Team. We quickly did the documentation and drawings that were needed, then we built a model that we talked through with the Brothers.
Initially this set was worked on, on and off, in the Art Department for about four months until we locked in the parameters of the set: the overall size, its height and its breadth. It then had a couple of generations of models where it went from the larger circular stadium-type space to this smaller segment space with the two crescents, then once that was locked in there were three or four weeks of solid drawing for one or two people to get all the details done – the furniture details and the like. There was also a reasonable amount of structural input – although you might not appreciate it on camera – for a space of this scale and for when you sit a couple of hundred people on something which it appears like it’s built out of steel, it needs to have appropriate structural support.
MATRIX: Was this set created in the computer or hand illustrated?
DAMIEN: It started off as a computer model, and then it was hand drawn. I actually did all the drawings and detail drawings for this set, so I pushed and pulled the initial CAD model until we established the parameters. That only ever remained as a basic wire-frame model, which I then changed such that it became the repeating segment. Once that was signed and locked off I drew it manually, probably for the sole reason that for a lot of these sets, with the aging and texturing, it’s much more effective to convey the texture, aging and feel of a set with manual detailed drawings than it is in the computer. It’s very helpful to the Scenics and Construction to understand what we want the set to look like because sometimes with a hard line computer drawing you end up with a hard line computer-looking set as it doesn’t convey the character you want to get in the set.
That’s not to dismiss computers, they have their function – we would have scanned my manual drawings into the computer then rendered them in Photoshop to convey the colors to the Scenic Artists. So it’s a matter of using the best tools for the appropriate outcome.
MATRIX: Can you elaborate on how the Scenics utilized the Photoshop renderings.
DAMIEN: It’s good to give the Scenic Artists an overall impression of the color of the set. It could have been hand rendered in pencil or pastel or watercolor, but with the PAs and all the great skills we’ve got in the Art Department, they can quite quickly render with metal textures and corroded metal textures that we’ve done many other times in Zion for different sets. Having established a lot of those textures already we can quite quickly put them onto an elevation drawing so the Scenics and Carpenters get an impression of how the set was to be created, and then we can talk to them about the best materials to get the deeply pitted metal finish that we’ve got in the Chamber, for example.
This set was probably two months in Construction, but often those crews would move between sets, so it’s hard to say exactly how much time in man-days, but it took a solid couple of months to build and erect it. A lot of the pieces were prefabricated at the workshops in Everleigh [Matrix Construction Dept. at Everleigh Street, Redfern]. The big window arches and the inserts were all built as single units and trucked over here, then the big arches up above the seating areas. Because they’re repeat panels it’s really good to prefabricate that sort of thing, then bring it over to the Sound Stage. The seating, however, had to be built in situ because there was a lot of structure to go underneath the seating.
MATRIX: Do you spend a lot of time with the Construction people when they’re building a set you’ve designed?
DAMIEN: Yes, we field a lot of queries about what goes where, but the intention is to get it all in the drawings so you have as few queries as possible. Often there’s good feedback from Construction, like if there’s a small design change that can be made that will make the design process more efficient or cheaper, without significantly affecting the design intention, then we will discuss that, which helps both us and the Construction guys. So sometimes there are changes that happen in the process, where drawings we issue are not always exactly the same as the end product.
MATRIX: Will parts of this set be recycled for another in any way?
DAMIEN: There are a few elements in the Council Chamber that have been reused. I don’t know yet whether we have canvassed bits of this for anywhere else, but there are some large shoot-off pipes out of both of the doors that featured in the Residents Area Elevator. The arches at the very back of the set were actually in the Merovingian’s Lower Hallway. We try to recycle if possible. Those elements were re-skinned, but the structural framework is the same thing.
MATRIX: There are many different kinds of rust found in Zion; is this a generic Zion type of rust?
DAMIEN: The intention with the aging in the Council Chamber was that it was more of a consequence of age rather than industrial battery. The Dock Area has signs of previous battles and encounters, or bumps of APUs or craft, and this space is clearly not one of those. Owen stressed though that it was still hundreds of years old and had had a lot of use and atmospheric corrosion; it has a steel plate construction and because of the moist damp atmosphere in Zion it would have suffered corrosion. It’s not as heavily aged or beaten as some of the other Zion areas because it doesn’t have that kind of physical wear that the other sets would’ve had.
MATRIX: Was the Council Chamber built by the people of Zion?
DAMIEN: These are all the questions we’re asking ourselves while doing the sets. It has even been suggested that Zion was built by the machines for the people of Zion, so I don’t think it’s a hundred percent clear in our minds the whole backstory to Zion, but it could go either way.
MATRIX: What are some of the other important details of this set?
DAMIEN: The chairs were a redress of an earlier chair – I might be giving away some trade secrets here – featured earlier on in the film [in the Le Vrai Restaurant]. The chairs and the smaller details here have had a lot of input from Brian Dusting, our Set Decorator, so they were drawn up largely under his direction. Chairs are something that are often quite expensive to make because they have to perform ergonomically as well as look good, so they’re kind of a functioning prop. The existing chairs were skinned to give much more of an industrial look and we added the finish, which appears like metal plate and rivets.
The table surfaces were intended to have the appearance of massive masonry, or a concrete-type finish, so the big slabs of stone or concrete are sitting on quite industrial metal base legs. I think the industrial theme through Zion is pretty strong in the Council Chamber, but with more of an architectural formality than you get in some of those other spaces.
The book was a joint effort between Screen Graphics and Set Decoration – it is meant to be a map of the Zion region with the massing Sentinels and Diggers making their way through Zion. It’s not something that was featured as a hero prop, but it presents a sectional diagram through Zion. You can see there are radiating distances and the mass of the Sentinels slowly making their way to the core of Zion. Everyone has got the same map; they were placed by Set Decorating in a military style flip books, which again have all the patina of Zion on them.
MATRIX: Was there much talk about the lack of new materials to produce something like that; paper is not readily available in Zion.
DAMIEN: In the realm of fantasy or science fiction there are a lot of questions that are tough to answer. But I think there are technologies at their disposal in Zion. I don’t think everything gets spelt out to us, or the viewer, but I think it’s nice that those things remain in question because it gives opportunity for debate amongst us, and the people who will see and enjoy the films, about how these technologies were developed. For instance, in the Temple scene and in the Resident’s Area scene there are certain foodstuffs that have obviously been grown in Zion and certain things that aren’t. So I think the same goes for materials, a lot of it would be recycled, hence the age of the folders and everything.
MATRIX: What is being shown on the screens on the desks?
DAMIEN: It’s an interface between the Zion Command Center and the Council Chambers, such that they can relate information. It’s like a little intercom system basically, where they can be kept up to speed on the progress of the Sentinels toward Zion, and that kind of thing.
MATRIX: Thanks Damien.
Interview by REDPILL