Interview with Jacinta Leong (CAD Set Designer) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin May 18th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with Jacinta Leong from the official Matrix website.

BACKGROUND

MATRIX: What is your background?

JACINTA: My background is in architecture; I have a degree in it, but I studied it so I could become a Set Designer. I’ve been manually drafting and also CAD drafting and designing for fifteen years now. I like to use whichever one is most appropriate for the task; on this one it seemed to be the computer because, especially rehashing a lot of the sets, if you’ve got those old files behind you, you’ve already done anywhere between 50% and 80% of the work. It’s a good investment then; you have already existing files and you change lines on them to create new sets.

MATRIX: Was working in film your end goal when you were studying?

JACINTA: I primarily wanted be a theater set designer, but when I sent my resumes out after graduating the first job I got was in film. I think it would be too difficult for me now to break into theater; it would almost be a career change. My goals have changed now; that was the original idea and now I’m on a different track.

MATRIX: What are some of your recent projects?

JACINTA: I did about three weeks on Scooby-Doo just before this, which was fun; I was on the board then, getting lead pencil smudges on my hands. Prior to that was Star Wars: Episode II [Attack of the Clones], Moulin Rouge!, and prior to that was Anna and the King in Malaysia.

MATRIX: Was moving from architecture into set design difficult?

JACINTA: Certainly, although I guess there is overlap: drafting and a knowledge of how things work and fit together. But then in architecture you are more concerned about building and council regulations, and minimum requirements. If you have a multi-story building you want to make sure that the ducts and all the plumbing line up. With sets it’s a different method of construction, in that a lot of sets are only single-sided, so you don’t have to worry about what is on the other side, and they’re constructed from different materials and finishes. In the long run an interior set doesn’t have to stay up as long as a house, so there’s not a lot of waterproofing to worry about, unless it’s a set with water in it.

MATRIX: What does your role as CAD Set Designer entail?

JACINTA: My job is to get a brief from Owen Paterson, the Production Designer, and he will tell me what he wants in the set, such as how big it’s supposed to be, and what action takes place in it, and I draft it so that Construction can build from the drawings.

THE ORIGINAL FILM

MATRIX: How did you become involved with THE MATRIX?

JACINTA: I was contacted by the Art Director on the first MATRIX, Michelle McGahey, whom I had met on previous productions. For the sequels I was asked to draw up the Nebuchadnezzar, which is Morpheus’s hovercraft, and funnily enough I still had my electronic files from working on that for the first film. I was able to salvage a bit from there and draw up some other ships, especially since on the sequels now we’re reusing that same set on Stage 5 [Fox Studios, Sydney].

MATRIX: What directions were you given in order to create the look and feel of the Neb for the original film?

JACINTA: We’d already been given some concept illustrations, so we had a fair idea, and Owen had some theories about the structure of a hovercraft: how there are layers like air pockets before you get into the main area, and how it actually travels, so on those guidelines I had the scale rule and had to draw up exactly what was required. I would draft the structure and the architecture, all the elements like the ceiling, the floor and the walls. Sergei [Chadiloff, CAD Computer Modeler] worked on the Ecto Chairs, and the screens were handed over to the Screen Graphics people.

MATRIX: Was the floor made of some kind of grating?

JACINTA: Yes it was: it was a pig grating. I think it was Owen’s idea to say that we’re not just in a closed solid set; that beyond the main elements there are air pockets, and beyond that there are services like pipes and ductwork. We bought the grating secondhand from a railway yard in Queensland, and it worked out pretty well; the sizes were already set, so we worked within those parameters and we came up with a good floor.

There was a point where, for the bulkheads of the interior, Owen had an idea that they should be hydraulic mechanisms that would pump or shift or actually move and change the shape, but it was quite an exercise and in the end they ended up being stationary steel I-beam structures.

MATRIX: Being so intimate with the structure, were you involved with the construction of it?

JACINTA: I go through the drawings with the Construction Managers and the Construction Estimator for starters, and they may change them in some ways. They might say it will cost less if we do it a particular way, or there might be an easier method of construction if they do it differently. We mull that over, and if it’s found to be time-cost efficient, I’ll make those changes on the drawings and resubmit them.

MATRIX: Were there any other departments you liaised with while the Neb was being built?

JACINTA: Yes, Props Manufacture. They make a lot of the elements you see like instrumentation panels and consoles, and quite often I end up drawing those as well. I’ll take the drawings down to them and have a chat with them and Owen about it, as well as the Art Directors, and we’ll fine-tune it again.

MATRIX: Did you work very closely with Owen for the first film?

JACINTA: Fairly closely. It was good that I didn’t have to go through anyone to get a straight answer, I could directly ask him exactly what he wanted and fast track the process.

MATRIX: Were you involved with other sets back then?

JACINTA: I worked on the Government Building, the one at the end of the film where the sprinklers go off; I did some drawings for the steel beam structure of that set. But I think that was about it; the Nebuchadnezzar took up most of my time. Another big thing was the Ecto Core, which is the center of those eight chairs where they jack into, and that was quite a design process as well. Owen had a lot of textures and colors in mind, as well as ideas about what the core actually did, which was quite a fun thing to draw.

MATRIX: How does Owen convey his ideas to you?

JACINTA: We’ll have a talk about something, and as we’re talking about it – you know a picture is worth a thousand words – so to expedite the briefing he’ll quickly draw something as well; they don’t have to be pretty sketches. And we have to do a bit of mind reading as well. On the first film we had a large table in the middle of the Art Department, and if Owen wasn’t around we’d put our drawings on the table with notes, and hopefully he’d walk past it and allocate some time to it. But there was one time when he was so incredibly busy and you wished that there was another Owen around that I fabricated a big fluoro arrow on a piece of wire to draw attention to my drawings, trying to prioritize them; which didn’t work.

THE SEQUELS

MATRIX: How long have you been on the sequels’ production so far?

JACINTA: It’s the twentieth of February 2002 today, and I started a year ago yesterday.

MATRIX: Can you remember the first thing you did here?

JACINTA: I set up the computers. I believe that for the records and archives some of the drawings of the Nebuchadnezzar had been misplaced or lost since the first film, so I had to quickly print them all out again. That was handy too because we were reassembling that very same set in Stage 5; it had gone to the United States in a number of containers for their press conferences for the first film, and then it was dismantled again and every component was returned to Australia. I needed to print those drawings so the Construction team could reassemble it.

MATRIX: Were any of the Construction team there the first time around?

JACINTA: Yes, luckily we had Brett Bartlett [Construction Foreman] who had had a hand in building it the first time three years ago, which really helped.

MATRIX: Did you develop more of the Nebuchadnezzar?

JACINTA: The Nebuchadnezzar Main Deck is such a large set that it was then disguised to become the interior of another ship. I worked on the cladding, some of the I-beams, changing the colors and changing the catwalk. Also, the shapes of the bulkheads in the Nebuchadnezzar were very distinctive, so to disguise them we clad them so that they looked more like boxed sections. We lowered one of the catwalks to try and disguise them, and we sealed off one end, and changed the core in the middle so it didn’t look like the Nebuchadnezzar core. And hey presto, new ship Main Deck!

That second ship was the Vigilant, which has now been struck and is being used for a third time as the Mjolnir Main Deck. Again we disguised it; we actually took the bulkheads out, and we have a very curved and clean look for the Mjolnir.

MATRIX: Were you involved in the different designs for the ships?

JACINTA: No, I wasn’t there when the concept illustrations were done. In L.A. Owen had a team of illustrators and concept artists, and that’s where those ideas were born. Simon Murton conceptualized a lot of the ship interiors, and when we look at one of Simon’s illustrations we feel like we’re in that set – for example, the Mjolnir Cockpit. A cockpit by nature is very small, and it’s quite crowded, which was very clearly conveyed in Simon’s drawings. The gadgetry, and ergonomic consideration (where a pilot might have to reach up to flick a switch), were hinted at in his drawings. His drawings were pretty much a literal representation, and we made sure that they could be built.

MATRIX: Did the storyboards help you in any way?

JACINTA: Yes they did, in that the Brothers are very specific about each frame. If we’ve drawn up a set and in the storyboards we don’t really have to see that corner, we won’t build it then. That’s a money saving and a space saving if it’s not required.

MATRIX: Does backstory on a set assist you in design development?

JACINTA: Yes, having that background you do a lot of subconscious designing then as well, especially with the finishes and condition that a set might be in. For example, the Nebuchadnezzar and the other ships in the fleet of hovercrafts, we’ve put them at hundreds of years old. That gives us ideas about materials that don’t last forever and there being a lot of patch-up work that is not necessarily neat and pristine, so there’s a lot of rust, water staining and broken features.

MATRIX: How does action on a set change the way in which it is built?

JACINTA: Yes, it certainly does change, especially with stunts; we might have to pad something with foam and paint it to make it look like steel. If there’s, for example, a falling catwalk (which happens on one of the sets), we have to speak with the Special Effects Department and see how they might want to hinge it, then also fine-tune with the Stunt Department as well. We need to know who is going to be sitting in that seat, how far away they want the person from the falling item. The action has a lot of action influence on how we design a set.

MATRIX: How precise are your measurements?

JACINTA: Extremely, when I’m on the computer it’s very difficult to fudge a dimension, so it is exact, especially working in 3D. You have three dimensions and you know exactly where a point is in space, and that makes for peace of mind – you know something is going to work.

MATRIX: Besides the ships, what other sets have you had a chance to participate on?

JACINTA: There was a Zion set, the Command Center, which was a cave. They gave me what they called a “sanity break” from the computer, so I got onto the board for about three weeks and got lead pencil smudges all over me. I think you’re better off drawing a cave on the board because it has crevices and it’s a natural rock formation – on the computer that’s not very easy to replicate.

I worked on the Mjolnir Bedroom – the Mjolnir being one of the ships – it’s in wire-frame on my computer now. The great thing about having it in 3D is the precision: knowing almost literally how a set is going to look afterwards. Before it has been built you have a good idea, so you have a confidence that it’s going to work and do what you want it to do.

3D Studio MAX, where I have the Bedroom, is a great program: you can put in lights and different lenses. For example, at the moment I’m using a 50mm lens looking a corridor, and I can see what it looks like with a 35mm lens standing at the same height, or with a 28mm lens, or a 24mm lens. Also, having a set like this you know exactly what shoot-off flattage [how much background is needed beyond a doorway] is required so you don’t have to build more than you need.

This is something I constructed this in AutoCAD, and imported into 3D Studio MAX. It’s good you can see it with colors as well; that’s another important feature of the design where you know what to expect at the end of the set. I also put in individual little rivets to really sell the space.

I also did the Mjolnir Cockpit in 3D Studio MAX. There’s a camera that can move along a path so you can get an idea of what it’s like to move backwards in that set, and so you can see that everyone’s got enough room. The camera even passes through the windscreen, it’s so literal, and you can see the floor grating and we know how the light is going to appear on the ceiling. You can also take the camera outside to check there is enough offshoot for when they film from the outside of it in reality.

MATRIX: Describe how your work is different to the Pre-visualization Department’s.

JACINTA: As a Set Designer I’m more interested in the sets and their construction; even though I’ve got lenses here, that can only be a plus. Pre-viz is more interested in what happens at the cinema, what ends up on the screen in terms of camera moves and that sort of thing, whereas what I do is more seeing what the set looks like before it’s built along with the possibilities of camera angles.

MATRIX: How do you use the possibilities of camera angles?

JACINTA: For example, for the Mjolnir cockpit set I was handed a storyboard showing a specific angle outside the windscreen looking at the people inside. I’d already drawn up a windscreen based on one of Geof Darrow’s [Concept Illustrator] drawings, and after setting up the camera at about the same height and angle as I guessed the storyboard was conveying, I could see that one of the mullions, or one of the frames I had drawn, was right in the middle of one of the actor’s faces, so I changed mine.

Also, we wanted to save money by not having a particular hologram in one of the cockpits, so we worked out how high the hologram unit had to be for the hologram to be in shot. I was able to submit to Owen different design versions of the hologram unit at different heights and with different camera angles, standing behind the pilot and co-pilot, and from that we could make a good decision on what height the unit should be.

MATRIX: When you adjust a feature to match a storyboard, how confident are you that the shot will be as per the storyboard?

JACINTA: I guess it’s difficult to tell because anything could happen, but on advice from Owen after he has spoken with the Brothers I can generally lock something in. We can then communicate with other departments and say, “This is the height it’s going to be; does anyone have a problem?” If no one answers we’re basically done, especially if the Brothers give it the okay.

MATRIX: How do you present your work to Owen?

JACINTA: Both digitally and in hard copy. I show him QuickTime movies that I can drop into his folder via the local network, or he can just have a look at them on my screen. Sometimes I also print out some key frames for him to look at, to make sure he’s happy with the proportions and the volume of individual sets.

MATRIX: When did you first read the scripts?

JACINTA: During the first week we were here, we sat around a table and went through it pretty much word for word. I think having been on the first one I had a head start on understanding what was going on. At the same time, there is so much more in the second and third films; there’s certainly new material and new concepts, so you have to get a grasp on those as well.

MATRIX: The production is much bigger this time round; what are the differences that you notice?

JACINTA: Owen is a lot busier so it is harder to track him down and pin him down for a chat. I think it is now more the quality of the time you spend with him; and you have to organize your time a lot better so that when you do get him you’re armed with all the questions you need. If you can get him in one hit with all those questions, that’s good.

MATRIX: Thanks Jacinta.

Interview by REDPILL

February 2002

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