Interview with Mark Koivu (Special Effects Technician, Second Unit, USA) from The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

By Paul Martin June 7th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded

Archival interview with Mark Koivu from the official Matrix website.

BACKGROUND

MATRIX: What projects have you worked on for this production?

MARK: I’m one of about twenty effects guys on this show, and we all run around doing all the different effects. I primarily do electronic controls and mechanical rigging, and also pyrotechnics. On this film I have worked on a flying motorcycle; we controlled that with cables. I was one of about five people working on it, I did the electronic controls. We have several camera rigs that are getting pretty close to vehicles, they have to come so close we actually consider the camera a stunt — getting the camera within an inch of a car at forty miles an hour, that kind of thing. Then we’ve got some other cameras driving straight into other vehicles, so the camera has to blast out of the way at the last second.

MATRIX: Have you been in the industry for long now?

MARK: Probably about twelve years, back and forth. I usually do theme park work, however when somebody has a movie and it sounds kind of neat I’ll work on it. My first film project was Matinee with John Goodman. We had big mechanical effects in there; we had a three hundred and fifty seat theater that we were destroying hydraulically so there were hundreds of stunt people. After that I started doing theme park rides at Universal.

MATRIX: How do amusement park rides compare to the work that you do on a film?

MARK: Movie work is much more fun, there’s no question about that. A theme park is built and it has to work for the next ten years. Movie work is done, they get it on film, then you get to tear everything up and destroy it. Then you get to build it again so it’s something else.

MATRIX: What are some of the rides you’ve worked on?

MARK: The Jaws ride at Universal Studios Florida, there are a whole bunch of fire effects in there; there’s a big roller-coaster and a wave machine and all kinds of different little effects I worked on for Disney’s California Adventure; and Tokyo Disneyland — there’s a big volcano in that park that spews flames and does a big fire show at the end of the night.

MATRIX: In your experience, has special effects work gotten progressively bigger over the past twelve years?

MARK: They’ve changed. It used to be special effects where you would only do one shot to get an effect, and all that would appear on film is whatever the camera saw at that moment in time. With this movie there are four or five layers to each shot, so every time the camera rolls you’re only getting a piece of what the finished shot will be. Everything we’re doing is on blue screen to prepare for laying in an actor or putting in a car later; they’ll shoot all the backgrounds, and then go shoot other elements to place in later. It’s just multiplied by a factor of five on this film, so for every minute of film there are twenty minutes of things that were actually filmed and a hundred takes for those.

MATRIX: Would you say this is the largest film you’ve worked on?

MARK: We’re only shooting a small piece of it here; as far as I know we’re only filming twelve minutes of the movie here in Alameda, so it’s not the biggest now, but probably by the time they get the whole thing done it will be. We don’t know what the rest of the film is like — we’ve only been given little, tiny pieces.

MATRIX: How many months of work for twelve minutes?

MARK: This is probably six months worth of work. Twelve minutes worth of film and the bulk of that is actually the freeway scene which is, I believe, only about six minutes of the film.

THE FREEWAY

MATRIX: What have been some of the bigger, more challenging stunts or special effects that have been done for the freeway sequence?

MARK: We had four cars flying through the air at one time and one big explosion; that’s probably the most dangerous one. We’ve dragged cars on their side with people in them and had a motorcycle flying in front of a semi and landing in traffic as they’re driving forty miles an hour down the road. I’ve had cameras that were driving down the road heading straight on into drivers and then ripping the camera out of the way just before contact. Those are pretty hairy stunts because there’s no room for mistakes. The other ones are stunts, but it’s the camera that would get destroyed, so it’s not that bad a deal if a camera gets destroyed. It would be a shame, but it’s easy to replace a camera, it’s not easy to replace somebody.

We’ve had stunts that have taken two days just in shooting time, and wind up less than a second on film. It’s the ones that are the really quick flashes that you don’t realize how much work goes into them. Some cost hundreds of thousands of dollars for a second, or maybe two seconds on film.

MATRIX: What are some of those one-second effects?

MARK: There’s a scene in the movie where the two tractors are driving together. The tractors colliding wasn’t a big deal, but getting the shots of the drivers just as you approach the tractor was tricky. The shot in the story has the two tractors about to impact and the drivers, since they have turned into Agents, don’t care. They can die as they see this as a chance to crush one of their enemies.

They wanted to get the expressions on their faces up until the moment of impact, so we took a camera and drove it straight at a semi driving down the road and basically took the camera right up to the window. Those are big money shots because it takes a lot of planning to be able to get something like that out of the way and not get anybody hurt. In the film he’s driving the rig towards another semi, but in reality he was driving it towards another camera.

MATRIX: How sharp can you stop a semi? That’s a pretty low margin for error.

MARK: It’s within milliseconds. The camera was within eight feet of the truck — we did go a little bit slower, probably twenty miles an hour, although I’m not sure. This camera was getting out of the way in less than half a second. There was a camera truck with a swinging arm hanging out the side of it. On the end of the arm there was a camera, and the camera was driven straight at the oncoming semi. Now the camera car, arm extended out, is going to pass the truck, but the arm has a big pneumatic ram hooked up to it to yank it out of the way. At the last moment a pyrotechnic charge is blown and rips the camera out of the way. You just hope you hit the button at the right time.

MATRIX: Did the camera get damaged when it was blown back?

MARK: Actually the camera was damaged. The camera itself wasn’t completely hurt, but the main priority was to get the film. They used a relatively low cost camera, but there really aren’t low cost cameras for this kind of work, so they had to send it back to be fixed each time.

MATRIX: How do you safeguard the film from exposure under those conditions?

MARK: We use a lot of tape and hope the whole camera doesn’t fall apart. If the camera opens up there’s nothing you can do, but as long as the film gets out of the mechanism and into the magazine, you’re fine.

The other thing you have to realize is in a shot like that there are a couple of hundred people driving other cars, so they’re sitting there all day just to drive by and be seen for a split second in the movie. I’m not sure what end time in the movie we were actually averaging per day, but it was a couple seconds per day on film.

MOTORCYCLE SHOTS

MATRIX: What is the shot you’re working on with the motorcycle?

MARK: That’s a scene where Trinity and the Keymaker have jumped onto a semi truck and it happens to be a car carrier full of Ducati motorcycles. They’re trying to escape, so Trinity jumps onto one of the bikes, the Keymaker jumps on the back, and she drives it off the front of the truck into traffic. To get the angle from the driver’s perspective looking out onto the freeway we did the shot for real with the bike flying out and landing in front of the truck. It was still done with cables but it was a real shot. However, for the next shot we needed to be looking at Carrie-Anne’s face; we didn’t want to risk having her on the bike in traffic going forty-five miles an hour, so we’re doing that one on blue screen. They want to get the camera within a couple of feet of her face, so we couldn’t have done that on the freeway anyway.

What is actually being done here is the blue screen setup of her riding the bike down, that’s why the bike is running back and forth on the set. It’s controlled to the point where it can land smoothly and look like it’s flying through the air. After this they’ll record the camera moves, we’ll go back out on the freeway, and they’ll take the camera and do the exact same camera move driving down the freeway and just superimpose her on it. To get this whole shot to work we had to fly her and the bike and the Keymaker all at once, and this is not a light bike; with two people on it this is a pretty heavy rig so there has to be a lot of control.

MATRIX: Why wouldn’t it have been easier to shoot the footage with the bike doing a real jump?

MARK: First off the motorcycle is a high-speed bike, not a sports bike, and the truck is about ten feet tall. If you tried to jump somebody off that you would just break the bike in half. Plus you couldn’t jump the bike for real to begin with because you would be landing in front of a moving semi, so if you did wipe out, the semi would drive over you. Add to all that the other cars within just a few feet of where the bike lands, and everybody’s driving at forty-five miles an hour. I’m sure there’s somebody who probably could jump it, but it’s so risky I don’t think anybody would really want to do it.

MATRIX: When you started out on this blue screen rig, you used stunt people on the bike at first for the rehearsals and then the actual actors; is it a dangerous move?

MARK: It’s not dangerous. Once everything is working fine it’s really safe, but when you first start out it’s better to use people who are used to getting tossed around a little. It’s perfectly safe but it’s just better to test with stunt people on it before you go in and actually use the actors. If you hurt the actors they can’t finish the film. Besides, some actors really aren’t into doing their own stunts; they’d rather concentrate more on acting, which is what they should be doing. Stunt people generally work out a lot and they’re really flexible, so if they do get hurt then they don’t get hurt as bad, and that’s the kind of thing they like to do.

MATRIX: How has it been working with Debbie Evans, motorcycle stunt Trinity?

MARK: She’s tried everything we’ve asked her to do, and she’s an excellent bike rider to begin with. I mean, she’s actually jumped that bike, although not this height, but it’s a bike that’s not designed to be jumped; it’s designed to just drive down the freeway at the most ridiculous speeds you can come up with. She’s actually put it up in the air a couple of times and controlled it, which is pretty incredible.

SPFX AND VFX

MATRIX: Could you define the difference between special effects and visual effects for film.

MARK: The line is very blurred right now. I’m actually partially doing visual effects because we’re doing camera moves that are basically impossible. That reminds me — we have one rig I forgot about — it’s called the “Jesus cam”; they are shots in the movie where Trinity is weaving her bike through freeway traffic in the wrong direction. We built a camera that mounts to a motorcycle and it’s chasing her actually weaving through traffic after her. When you watch the sequence you’ll see shots where the camera gets down on the ground and follows her and then goes up in the air, but what is really happening is the cars the camera is moving through aren’t real. Since that’s actually a visual effect at that point, it’s kind of a blurred line.

Anything that’s practical that is done on stage is usually considered a special effect, if it’s an effect. The visual effects primarily are playing with film and playing with imagery once it’s already produced. However, visual effects has to plan everything out so they have to tell us what they actually need on film, which means it’s a completely blurred line right now. I don’t even think of visual effects and special effects as being separate because it’s all the same thing now.

MATRIX: That blurring between the two fields has just been in the last few years?

MARK: Definitely. The term visual effects didn’t even really exist until six or seven years ago, because it just didn’t matter; everybody thought of it as the same thing, and it really is when you get down to it. It’s just that some people are working on computers, some in photo labs, and some people are working blowing things up.

MATRIX: Do you find it a little sad that things are moving more and more towards the computer generated effect rather than the physical?

MARK: No, the computer is much better. It’s not taking away from the amount of work first off, and it only looks better in the end film. The thing I don’t like is when there’s work put into something and then the budget gets cut back near the end of the film, so they don’t spend the amount of time they should finishing the film, and then it just it doesn’t look good because of that. Fortunately I don’t see that happening here; the directors on this have a pretty solid idea of what they want.

MATRIX: Not having read the script, do you find you’re working in the dark not knowing the complete picture?

MARK: If we knew what the whole story was we would probably put some of our own spin on it, and that’s one of the reasons we don’t know about it. It’s better just to tell us, “This is what we want on film at the end,” and then let everybody else sort it out. If you get too many people thinking about it, then there’s going to be mass confusion. The other reason is the film doesn’t come out for two years, so if everybody on the film knew what it was they’d start talking about it, and by the time it came out everybody would know what the story is about.

WEBSTER TUBE SHOOT

MATRIX: Last week the Webster Street Tube was shut down for MATRIX filming; what was that shot?

MARK: There’s a shot where Trinity is driving down the tunnel and the Twins are chasing her. They’re driving through the Webster Tunnel [also known as the Webster Street Tube] in Oakland, and they’re shooting at each other as they pass each other through the tunnel. The problem with this is that the tunnel is only two lanes wide and we wanted to get a camera directly in between the two of them, but the lanes are already too narrow to drive cars through, so to stick a camera between them would mean there’d only be a couple inches of clearance on each side. We’d also have to be moving at least at forty miles an hour, just to get the bullet hits to look right and get all the pyrotechnics to work and the glass to break.

The shot actually starts out as you’re looking at the ground and it slowly starts to pan up; right as you get to the cars, all the glass is flying and you’re looking right at the actors. They wanted a really neat ending for it, so the camera ends up passing over a set of police lights on a police car that’s chasing them.

To get the actual look they wanted, the camera had to pass within an inch of the police car doing forty miles an hour, and it was within probably four inches of the actors leaning their heads out the window driving beside the camera. It had to be a completely motion control shot, which is actually winding up being a visual effect because of the light in the tunnel. It didn’t make any sense for us to try and light the tunnel because the city would only let us have the tunnel for a specific length of time, so they couldn’t get in there and light the whole thing. The set was actually two thousand feet long, so it would have taken thousands of lights to get it lit. The visual effect actually came in that the camera had to film the cars driving by, and then film the tunnel. It was so dark you didn’t see the walls of the tunnel in the original shot, only the cars, so we repeated the same shot at a much slower speed and opened up the lens and try and get the walls of the tunnel. Then they’ll actually lay all those films together.

MATRIX: So they literally just let the exposure sit open?

MARK: Yes, driving at a really slow speed. So for this minute long shot with all the explosions going and bullets firing we shot it once, then either shut off some of the lights or changed the look a little bit in the tunnel and then repeated the same camera move over, for instance, an eight-minute period. It looked like we were standing still, but the reality is that the camera was moving really, really slowly and rolling just about all night; we went through a lot of film.

MATRIX: What was the specific role you played for that sequence?

MARK: I controlled the camera. We put a winch on the camera and built a mechanical mechanism that lifted the camera up and down. It could have just been a camera move but it’s certainly not a normal rig; it was definitely a stunt, and they usually come to effects or the stunts department to get those kinds of shots. The camera operators usually don’t want to get involved with doing something that close because it’s just too risky. So we had setups where we could yank the camera out of the way really quickly.

MATRIX: And you worked out the timing so that the camera came up at the right time?

MARK: Yes, so that it came up at the right time and didn’t actually go through any of the cars as they’re driving down, basically guaranteeing that the camera move matched what was safe. Had any of the drivers sped up a little, or had the camera not worked, we would have had to abort the shot, otherwise the camera would’ve gone right through the rear police car since it was only clearing by an inch.

MATRIX: You mentioned that the cars were going at forty miles an hour because the bullet shots looked good at that speed; how did you know that?

MARK: Sometimes we film stuff really slow just to make it safer and easier to do, and also to get the exposure right on the film. But if you shoot it really slow and, say, the cars were driving at five miles an hour and somebody is sitting there shooting a gun at somebody else, when you speed the film up to make it look like they’re driving at forty miles an hour, the gunshot would be so instantaneous it wouldn’t make any sense. Gravity has a weird way of playing tricks on you like that.

The reality is everybody that was working on that shot knew what had to happen because you can’t fool time the wrong way on camera. There are certain things you can change and certain things you can’t. If something is going to explode, you can’t film it really slow or really fast and have it look normal.

MATRIX: Thanks Mark.

Interview by REDPILL

May 2001

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