Interview with Kevin McManus (Leading Hand, Prop Manufacture) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin May 9th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with Kevin McManus from the official Matrix website.

BACKGROUND

MATRIX:What is your background?

KEVIN: My background is in industrial model making and prototyping – that’s what I did an apprenticeship in about thirteen or fourteen years ago – and I slowly got into this sort of thing. Initially I did engineering and then advertising models for still ads, then TV ads, then eventually got into what we have here, which is a lot of fun. You get to express yourself a little bit and you get to play; you don’t have to stick rigidly to some of the drawings like you would have to in engineering prototyping.

MATRIX: Do you remember any of your first jobs?

KEVIN: I’ve only been in Australia for a couple of years and I was lucky to hook up with a guy called Peter Wyborn [Property Manufacture Supervisor] who is running the Prop Manufacture Department on this show. He ran the one on Red Planet as well, the Val Kilmer movie, and I got in on that with him. After that he did Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, and he took me along as well, which was good. I’m very lucky because he’s a good guy to work for, he tends to bring the same crew with him.

MATRIX: How does Star Wars compare with what you’re doing here, as far as scale?

KEVIN: It’s definitely on the same sort of scale. Star Wars for me was a bit of a dream come true; I was of that generation that when I was a kid I thought it was super. To actually get the opportunity to work on it was a real dream come true, and I was lucky enough to actually say that to George Lucas. So he had a bit of a laugh about that. These films are going to be great; the story is very exciting. The first one was such a huge hit and great look to at, and some of what I’ve seen here to date on the other sound stages and sets they’ve been building, is going to be really good.

AGENT SMITH MANNEQUINS – PRE-SHOOTING

MATRIX: As a Leading Hand, have you been assigned a particular project?

KEVIN: I’ve been with the production since they came to Australia and I am working on the “Multiple Hugo” project that we started about two and a half to three months ago. At the beginning we worked out the quantity of Hugos or Agent Smith dummies we were going to need, and went from there: we broke it down from stage to stage then did a few prototypes, and then got them up and running. We ended up manufacturing a hundred and ten of them in the end.

MATRIX: How did this project begin?

KEVIN: We tried to break everything down as much as possible to see how the actual bodies would work and then we started at the top – the heads. We got this really talented couple, Rick and Charmaine Connelly in to mold the heads, etc. We did three head castings – three expressions of Hugo’s head – a grumpy face, a neutral face, and a happy face. Then we molded hands to replicate the various faces, doing a fist for the grumpy face and a straight out hand for the happy face and so on. We did a couple of early mockups that worked out well and then we decided to run with the whole thing. One hundred of them had to be manufactured, so we got a whole production line together, siphoned a lot of the Prop Manufacture crew to make bodies and arms and shoes and hands. Since Hugo had his molds taken, this process has probably been in total about 6 weeks added up all together, but probably loosely about two and a half months.

MATRIX: Specifically, what was your role on this project?

KEVIN: Together with Pete Wyborn, Props Manufacture Supervisor, we selected a team of model makers, mold makers, prosthetic artists and engineers with specialist skills suited to this particular project. Once we got the team together, it was my responsibility to take the briefs and ideas from the Designer and Pete and produce the various “Hugos” from the inception to the final shooting requirements. This included rain tests with extras, so we’ll have 160 extras and Hugos on the set altogether all singing and dancing, so it should be very exciting.

MATRIX: The skin looks very real; what material is the face made from?

KEVIN: We fooled around with a lot of different finishes to see what would be the best thing to use in a rain and lightening situation. Initially we tried resins and fast casts, but when we lit them and rained on them we found that the nearest thing to skin we could get was actually silicon. The water actually bounced off it like it would bounce off your skin in rain and it reacted to light in the same way because it adds a certain amount of depth; it also sort of moves the same as skin. Inside the heads there is a core of foam to back it up and then we have the Hair and Makeup Department putting wigs on them and then we had Nicola Buck; her job was to single handedly punch all the eyebrows.

MATRIX: Why have you decided to paint eyes on the heads if he’s wearing sunglasses?

KEVIN: Originally, when we molded Hugo’s head he had his eyes closed, obviously, because he didn’t want to get clay in his eyes. Generally, what happens afterwards is that you sculpt the eye in, but because he was wearing sunglasses we felt that you wouldn’t see it, so it didn’t matter. Then on inspection from camera tests we noticed that you could slightly see the slits and whites of Hugo’s eyes so we decided to air brush them in. So now when we put the sunglasses on, you can just make them out, and it makes a massive difference, it really looks good.

MATRIX: Are the skin tones gotten through airbrushing as well?

KEVIN: Yes, with airbrushing, and the skin goes on with the eyes. Each one of these heads was done, all one hundred, and then we’ve got spares as well – we’ve got 110 heads total with the 3 different expressions.

MATRIX: The hands are made of a different material.

KEVIN: They’re made of a fast cast. One of the pairs of hands is actually the original Hugo’s hands, some of the other hands belong to one of the guys here. Simon [Bethune, Prop Maker] volunteered his hands; they were the nearest to Hugo’s hands so we molded his. Hugo is a very busy man so he couldn’t be going around with his hands in buckets of plaster all day waiting for us, so Simon kindly volunteered to have his hands molded.

MATRIX: What was the process of making the Agent Smith mannequin’s body?

KEVIN: The mold shop boys, Keith Rae [Leading Mold Maker] and his crew, took a body cast of the real Hugo Weaving and then they blew lightweight foam into the body molds. Rodney Nash [Steel Fabricator] and his guys in our Steel Department made a steel armature to go on the inside so that the body slots onto his feet. We made his body out of lightweight foam so he is easy to move around and is water resistant. His arms are made out of a soft foam that we attach to the armature inside, so we can just pop them onto the body easily, and we can pop on his hands as well. For extra flexibility we put an aluminum wire armature in his arms so that his arms can bend and stay bent, a bit like the old Bugs Bunny toy you had when you were a kid. The flexible arms also help to dress them; it’s easier than if the arms were rigid.

MATRIX: On set do you see any reason for them to have their arms bent?

KEVIN: What we’re trying to and what we want to do is cover every option in case they want to have a pose that’s slightly different.

MATRIX: Why have you created more bodies and heads than actually required?

KEVIN: I’m probably being a bit pessimistic, but I like to cover myself. When you’re on set it’s pretty full on, so we try to get everything done quick and fast, and if there’s a situation where we do have a little break down, we’ll run in and whip the whole body out and put in another one. Or we’ll take the head out and put another one in, or whatever the offending problem is. The crew run in and out like a Formula One team, replacing all the bits and pieces.

MATRIX: How close will the camera be to the Hugo mannequins on set?

KEVIN: From looking at the storyboards there are various shots, panning, a long shot. I think the camera will concentrate mainly on Neo and the “real” Agent Smith, so I’d say these guys will be mostly in the background. There are elements of close ups I believe, so we’re trying to make the dummies as real as we can in the eventuality that the Brothers decide to do a close up shot; we have to cover all the options.

MATRIX: Could you explain how the puppetry of the mannequins will work.

KEVIN: We’re going to have a row of 50 Hugo dummies, then another row of 50 Hugo dummies behind the first, and behind them again 50 extras dressed in Hugo masks and suits. The idea is that we’re going to get the 50 extras to puppeteer the two rows of dummies in front of them. It is going to be fun considering they’ve never puppeteered before!

MATRIX: Were these extras employed through an agency?

KEVIN: Yes, they were picked through the agency for their size and shape and build… and to puppeteer the Hugos. Because of the two rows of dummies, the extra will more or less be in a position between them and as Neo walks up the street, all Hugo heads will follow him. We have a rig in the back of each dummy that is attached to its head that can turn the head a little to the left and right. That rig will be operated by the extra’s hands – they each have two dummies to operate, one for their left hand and one for their right. The idea is that as Neo walks by the extras have to turn their own heads as well as the heads of their two dummies all at the same time; and at the same time as the other 49 extras turning their heads and their dummy’s heads.

MATRIX: How much time has been allocated for training the extras?

KEVIN: We’ve got a couple of days, so it’s going to be pretty intensive, and on the third day we’re actually going to do it under rain. They’ll all be kitted out and we’re going to dump a lot of water on them because it’s a really heavy rain scene with thunder and lightening.

MATRIX: Who developed the puppeteering system?

KEVIN: Well, that was myself initially and then Aidan O’Keeffe [Leading Hand] and myself put together a fairly basic push pull cable system that we tried to keep as simple as possible. We try to keep everything as simple as possible, because the simpler it is the less chance things will go wrong – that’s the theory anyways!

MATRIX: Do you know how long they’re going to be shooting with these Hugo mannequins?

KEVIN: I believe they’re down for 11 days, although I think that could run to 14 days between second and first unit.

MATRIX: Has Hugo Weaving had the opportunity to see the replicas of himself?

KEVIN: I don’t believe he’s actually seen them all together like this, but we were on set there the other night doing a test and he was beside a couple of them and he was quite blown away at actually seeing these things like himself.

DURING SHOOTING

MATRIX: How have the mannequins been holding up throughout filming under the torrential rain?

KEVIN: They have been holding up really well because all the materials we used were water resistant, and the body is made from a closed cell foam. There’s also an aperture inside him so we can put our mechanism inside as well as drains that allow the water to get out.

MATRIX: How is the puppetry of the mannequins going now that all the operators are in place?

KEVIN: It actually went a lot better than I thought it would, to be honest with you. Getting sixty or seventy extras to puppeteer all these rigs in unison, considering that they’re not puppeteers, which is a profession in itself, is a bit of a feat. We were concerned about that, so we tried to simplify the operation to be as simple as possible. We only had one day to rehearse them – we thought we’d have a couple of days – but we actually ended up only having one for one reason or another, so we just walked them up and down, showed them how the things work, and did a couple of tests. We were lucky enough that they all got it straight away, and it has been like that ever since. For every shot they’re doing what they need to in one or two or three takes. We were expecting it to go on and on because these guys haven’t done anything like this before, in fact I believe it’s the biggest puppeteered rig ever done.

The whole set they’re on is a massive piece of engineering because they’re dumping something like twelve tons of water a minute when they open up all the valves. The Special Effects guys have made an incredible rig. It’s a lot of water so, as you can imagine, the plumbing system here just to get rid of that water and recycle it back up again is pretty massive, as is the size of some of the pipes they’re transporting the water around in. The street here is made of a sort of a latex foam that the boys up in the mold shop created.

MATRIX: What was the most challenging aspect of this set?

KEVIN: The most challenging aspect of this is the amount of water and the electricity everywhere; that in itself is a pretty volatile combination. We had to factor all that in, and also that this has been shot over quite a while and we didn’t want our Hugos disintegrating. Initially there was some concern with the clothing slowly rotting away, so a bit of research went into the materials we had to use. The Wardrobe Department had to treat all the suits so they wouldn’t rot, or go all moldy.

So far we’ve been very lucky; everything is holding up really well, as you can see. It must be coming up to their two week old birthday under the rain now, I think, and they’re still looking all right.

MATRIX: Were you surprised they decided to do this shot practically rather than CG?

KEVIN: Yes, those were my first thoughts – I’m surprised they didn’t CG it. To me it would have been an obvious sort of CG number, then I thought it was going to be a great challenge for us. I’ve got a great crew working with me and we thought it was going to be a lot of fun knocking out so many clones. It has been even more thrilling to see what you’ve worked on for a couple of months come to fruition, and really working well.

MATRIX: Have you found yourself working on other projects?

KEVIN: Yes, the main other prop I was working on before we got into this was the cell phone. On the first one they used a standard Nokia phone available in Australia, but on the sequels they designed their own phone, and I was lucky enough to work on the prototyping of that. It has sort of a rugged and military look to it, and we developed it through to be an actual working phone, which was a lot of fun: going through the prototyping side of it because it actually had to work, and pop up, and all the mechanics inside had to actually work. Maybe they might stick that in a shop someday and try to sell it as an off the shelf phone! Apart from that, we also made rubber ones for the Stunt guys, and all various different types of stand-in phones as it were.

MATRIX: How functional are the cell phones going to be?

KEVIN: They open and light up and all the rest of it, but the key pads aren’t active, although it wouldn’t be a hugely difficult thing to do if they had to do it. In the end we produced 3 actual working hero phones and 3 or 4 open ones and 3 or 4 closed ones, and a collection of rubber stunt phones for the stunt guys to throw around the place.

MATRIX: Can people be excited and look forward to the films?

KEVIN: Most definitely – I’ve had a quick flip through the scripts and I’m just blown away – from the minute it starts, it’s going to be flat out. I think you’re going to be exhausted when you come out of the theater after watching it. It’s going to be really full on and a very exciting movie to watch.

MATRIX: Thanks Kevin.

Interview by REDPILL

November 2001

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