MATRIX: How did you become involved with the MATRIX sequels?
MICHAEL: I was just finishing Scooby-Doo, and Jules [Cook, Art Director] asked me to come and work on THE MATRIX. I came on as a Set Designer and in about a month they made me an Assistant Art Director. I’m actually a lapsed architect; all the Assistant Art Directors are architects, which I think is a really good thing. Probably the best course you could do to be a Set Designer would be an architecture course, or to become an Assistant Art Director, or a Production Designer, or an Art Director as well. Architecture is such a fantastic course: it gives you a good grounding in design and running teams, logistics, the money involved, and schedules, which is all very important in the movies.
If you want to do Set Design there are slightly different things, and theater is probably a long way away from architecture, although the movies are very close to it. Basically, you do a design drawing with dimensions on it and we don’t have to go into services and the electrics – we have departments to look after that, and a Construction Department to make sure it stands up, so I find it a lot more fun.
MATRIX: What pushed you to make the move from architecture to film?
MICHAEL: I’ve always wanted to work in the movies since I was a little kid, and I’ve always wanted to be an architect as well. I saw Batman Forever in 1996 and just sat there going, wow, look at that fantastic city and all the design, so I decided that was what I really want to do. At that point I didn’t even know that Set Design existed, I wanted to make miniatures – I loved the Thunderbirds and all the James Bond films. When I was working as an architect it could be very dry and a bit limiting – you don’t always end up designing a super hero’s or super villain’s lair.
I had no idea what or how to go about getting into film, and the first person I ran into the next day was a friend who was head of design at University of Technology on Broadway, and I told him what I really wanted to do and he had a Production Designer friend who needed an assistant. So the very next day I was working on a movie as an Assistant Production Designer. So it happened really fast, and I’ve been working on movies since then – six years.
MATRIX: Did you have to unlearn any architectural “rules?”
MICHAEL: The only thing I had to unlearn was being important as architects can be. That’s a gross generalization of course, but they have a bit of a self-importance thing and can be a bit pompous, thinking their building really matters … and I had that. On film you do something and then in three weeks they pull it down. At first I felt like they couldn’t pull it down – it’s a really cool thing. Then when you get over that it’s really liberating because you always know there’s something new to design, and I really love that phase of the design. The exciting thing is getting a brief – in this case a script.
MATRIX: What was it like the first time you read the second and third scripts?
MICHAEL: Every film is different. This one is very well organized and I was very impressed with the organization of it; it is very heavily storyboarded. If someone doesn’t know, that’s a little drawing of what each scene is, and in those drawings, which are usually very actor-based, are quite detailed backgrounds. So Owen [Paterson, Production Designer], who is just fantastic, and a group of Concept Artists have pretty well drawn the film.
You read the script, then you read the storyboards, and then you get the sets you have to design or look after, and basically make them work. You make sure that the crew can get in, and the shots that they want can happen. And then you add all the extra bits, like the layers of it, to make it look real. This project was great because it was all worked out. On some films you just get a script and then you have to work out the concepts, which is also really good.
MATRIX: Does the amount of pre-production depend on the size of the film?
MICHAEL: It does. On smaller films you tend to do a lot more things. For instance if I’m a Set Designer on a smaller movie, once I finish designing the sets, I might help with the set dressing or make some props. On a bigger film it is more departmentalized. The sheer size of this thing is huge – there were one hundred and forty-five sets we had to do in a year, so there was a lot of pre-production, but we couldn’t have done it without it. We knew what it had to look like and what it had to do; we had to make it fantastic.
MATRIX: What is the process before you even put pen on paper; how do you know what shape you’re drawing for any particular set?
MICHAEL: It depends; it can be generated by the Sound Stage it’s going into and the scene being shot. Obviously, if it’s a small room, you have to make it look like a small room still, but make it big enough for people to get in and out of. In which case, if it has to be a really small room, you make the walls come off so the crew can get in. Crew access is very important, and it’s important that they can get in and out comfortably without tripping over sets or falling out of them. Basically that’s what we’re there for, to help them get the shots they want.
I did a lot of the Zion sets, particularly around the Zion Dock, which had been heavily concept drawn because we were working with a lot of visual effects on those, so it was kind of already designed.
MATRIX: How important are Model Makers these days in this world of 3D computer technology?
MICHAEL: Extremely important. On smaller movies I’d be making the models as well, which I love. As you’re making a model it really helps you get it in your head if you’re drawing it up as well. It is such a great way to see space because not everyone can read drawings very well. They weren’t always used a lot though, and they used to be very theater based; you’d make everything in a theater set design. Now models are in films as well, I wouldn’t do a set without a model, and Owen won’t either. I think it’s so necessary to have them made because they’re a great way to communicate visually what a set is actually going to be. When you take it to the Grip Department they can see what we’ve got and how big it is; you can even put miniature people in and see things in relation to the other. You can also pull bits of wall out to see if the crew can get into where they need to.
We tend to make the models white because it’s faster, but I like to put the colors in once, so if we’ve got an okay on a color I’ll put it in. It’s great for sets with carpet and curtains because as the dressing goes in you can really see what it looks like.
MATRIX: Are you a computer based designer, a hand drawing based designer, or a bit of both?
MICHAEL: Hand drawing designer. I did computer drafting for architecture and didn’t mind it, but I wasn’t in love with it. I found it weird, with the idea coming from your head, and being so used to drawing through the pen. With a computer you’re actually pushing buttons and a mouse, so what you’re working on is over there [referring to screen]. Here the Set Designer who did all the Dock work did it on computers, which was excellent because there was so much repetition. It was so big we couldn’t have done it without the computer.
MATRIX: Where did you get the inspiration from in order to design the Zion world?
MICHAEL: It is heavily in the plot – like a subplot – that Zion was built by the machines. The people living in it think they built it themselves, or they’re not really sure. In actuality it had already been there, and there have been six lots of people living in it, so it’s probably a thousand years old. The thing is that the machines built it, so we went to the Industrial Revolution in the 1890s, when suddenly there was this explosion of mass-produced steel things. If you look at things like the Crystal Palace [from the 1851 Great Exhibition in London], and some of the major things built at that time, they had an element that they reproduced that ends up being quite inhuman; it’s out of scale slightly, and quite uncomfortable. The Crystal Palace is what we used a lot for reference – it’s huge as is the Zion landing area for the hovercraft.
The city is underneath the landing area, and goes down for eight hundred meters, which I worked a bit on as well – it’s sort of a mass production of units, and that kind of dehumanizes it. All the balustrades come in components, so there’s a kilometer of balustrades and there is no relief. All the edges are mass produced, so it looks quite weird, but you can’t quite put your finger on it why it’s so cold. It’s actually very cold and inhuman, and everything repeats. It’s the biggest clue to it having been inhabited before – everyone has died five times – I think this is the sixth lot of people living in Zion.
There are also a lot of clues in it, in that it looks way older than it could possibly be realistically. There are hundreds and hundreds of years of rust in it and it’s really decrepit. One clue, when you get down to the Residents Area, is that it has rock flowing over the fronts of the residences, and that takes hundreds of years to happen. But no one in Zion, I think, gets that they’re not the first ones there. They all feel like they’ve been freed from the machines, but in fact the machines have known all along that they’ve been freed and they’re just in another machine environment.
The other subtext then is that there was never any time that they weren’t actually free. The scene in the first film about Morpheus telling Neo that there was a time when we were free and there was a war, was actually a machine construct as well. So every memory they’ve ever had about being free is not true. It’s just something the machines have put in, and the machines have known all the time; it’s all about what reality actually is.
MATRIX: In the sequels you think we will be challenged more with the ideas of what reality is?
MICHAEL: I think the first film was the introduction to make people think that what they’re seeing isn’t real, and also that you can create your own reality; for instance, Neo doesn’t believe this is real, so he can stop bullets and fly. A lot of spiritual people say that, and lots of people say that this isn’t real, but this reality is what you make it.
Then the second film starts alluding to the past more and just blows it up bigger, introducing actual programs that live inside the Matrix, like the Merovingian and the Oracle. I think when you actually get into Zion and see it, the clues are all there that this isn’t built by humans. Humans would not build something that is eight hundred meters deep with unrelenting repetition, and build everyone the same apartment, layer after layer after layer. It just wouldn’t happen. When people are designing we put some relief in, but in Zion there is absolutely no relief. It’s like the machines have gone: this works, here you go, live here.
MATRIX: What other elements were there in Zion to help us believe it is much older than the inhabitants believe?
MICHAEL: The amount of rust on it would be the other one. It had a huge amount of rust that you wouldn’t see in something that was a lifetime old. There was even rust that they’d painted over, so it was kind of lumpy. Every couple of incarnations someone would paint it, but it’s a pretty dreary place, really.
MATRIX: Where did the colors come from for the Residents Area?
MICHAEL: That actually another piece of subtext. In the first film in the Power Plant when Neo woke up he was in his red Pod; what we had there was a solid core with the red Pods sticking out. And Zion is a hollow core with the red pods – residents’ homes – sticking in, which is another clue back to the machines having made where they’re living. The round lids, we called them, have all these tubes coming out of them that we’ve built as service pipes, and there are way too many service pipes. When you look at them they’re actually the same thing as with the Pods – they’re plugged in the same way. That was a brilliant concept Owen and the Brothers [Larry and Andy Wachowski, Writers / Directors] came up with. You sort of don’t know until you see it. I also think that there’s more than one Zion, so all around the world there would be others, but they think where they are is all there is. There’d be more Power Plants as well, but they don’t know that they’re there.
MATRIX: Who did you discuss those ideas with?
MICHAEL: The Assistant Art Directors have all got quite a few things to look after, so it’s like Damien [Drew, Assistant Art Director] has actually been working on another movie because a lot of his sets were in the Matrix and mine were in Zion. So the Set Designers I worked with and Owen and I talk about everything because Owen is really into backstory and he helps us understand why something is a particular way. We also read into the script what we think it means as well. Apart from the Pods and the Industrial Revolution there’s a ship-like quality to Zion as well, which is to do with the war and the battles.
MATRIX: Did you find any of your sets more challenging than the others?
MICHAEL: I really liked those in the Zion Dock area because I like the idea of the Industrial Revolution and the fact that it’s so inhuman and out of scale. When you’re an architect you’re designing to be human and to make it feel good, so this was kind of the opposite.
I also like that things are sort of there but not there – it’s like there’s something there that will irk you when you see it, but subtly. Things like in the cement Bunker there’ll be bullet sprays that have been patched over, so you ask why. They’ve never had a battle before, but you can see bullet holes or big chunks where Sentinels have come and pulled bits out. These people are living this life wondering what those holes are and we know why. It’s all there, but no one in Zion realizes; they’re so happy that they’re free, although they’re not really.
MATRIX: Why and how was the Neb Cargo Bay set reused?
MICHAEL: It has a lot to do with the scheduling as well as everything else. We made that set to film the scene where the Neb is being chased by the Sentinels and they quickly land the Neb and run out. The rest of that scene will be CG-ed in later – the explosion off camera will be seen in CG.
MATRIX: What was the challenge of the Neb landing sets?
MICHAEL: We had to try to make them look the same. Where they come down and walk out had been filmed and then we had to match what they walked out of. So they walked out and walked about fifty meters where they were actually in another set. That second set had to match it, so it was made of the same material and set pieces, the same lighting, atmosphere and special effects. As they kept on walking they were about a hundred meters away from where we filmed the first bit.
MATRIX: What kind of timeframe was it from when you first took on the Zion Residents Area to it actually being filmed?
MICHAEL: Probably six months. I worked on that probably in September or October of 2001, but in a real design drawing stage. We didn’t start drawing that up until March. It all kind of flows through, so you’re working on it but not full time; you’re working on four or five things at once in different stages, and overseeing other people drawing things up.
MATRIX: Being an Assistant Art Director now, do you miss illustrating as much as you did as a Set Designer?
MICHAEL: No one has said I’m not doing what I’m supposed to do, but I’m very conscious of doing what I like doing, and I like doing like the drawings and the designing. Different people have different strengths, and I can and do organize people well, but what I really like doing is the design drawings and then working with a team of people to get them drawn up. I’ll come with ideas and then work with people to draw them, and encourage them, and actually get them to put their ideas into it as well so it’s fleshed out, and then Owen will have his input. There’s a bit more backwards and forwards until a design is refined – and I love doing that, I love working with people. You come up with a bigger, greater thing because everyone has put their good ideas in.
On the scheduling and budgetary side of it I’ve Art Directed things, but only to say that I’ve done it, because I’m not the least bit interested in that. Some people love it and that’s what they do, but in an Art Director’s role you can do this or that. I’m aware of all that and keep a handle on it, but it’s not the reason I’m here.
HEL NIGHT CLUB
MATRIX: Do you have any backstory on the Hel Night Club?
MICHAEL: I worked on that set when I was a Set Designer and Karen [Murphy] was the Assistant Art Director, so I worked very closely with Karen. It was fantastic; she’s great to work with, and we work really well together. The Directors and Owen wanted the Night Club to be subterranean and have vaults in it with a very specific shot set up; a very classic shot. I think the shot was from another film, which is really interesting that the Brothers use things from other sources, even the first movie. There are a lot of scenes in the first movie that they’re doing again, but they’re bigger, which lends you to that ‘it’s all happened before’ loop. Even the first film was set up, and in the sequels it’s happening again, but like a computer game it’s a different level they’ve got into – there are levels and levels and levels.
The Night Club was underground and it was called Hel, and Owen worked out it was Hel because the ‘p’ had fallen off the Help sign in the lift. There was a motif running through the whole thing of inverted Roman Catholic crosses – a circle with a cross through it. When you strung it all together it became the balustrade and these friezes behind the bar. We went with that motif, which was Hell, anti-christ and upside down crosses, but in a really subtle way so that we weren’t going to offend people who would be offended by that.
It was all cement, and kind of grotesque in a way that everything, again, was a bit oversized, and very lumbering and heavy. It was really good to get a motif like that in because it was quite refined, otherwise it would have been very heavyset and overpowering. You came down in the lift then down some stairs and through an area with a big vaulted ceiling into a much bigger, two-story space. You could also go up to the mezzanine where Trinity has a showdown with the Merovingian. Part of that ceiling had to come out because there’s a scene where the gun goes up, and bits came off the sides of the set so everyone could get in.
That was a really good set. If we took that set and looked at how it was created, I think you could teach that in Set Design School. We had a really good concept that worked for what they wanted, and it went down the line with everyone contributing something, and it came together really well. When I walked in I felt the set was great; that it was really good teamwork. When the Set Decorating department came in with their S&M things – it was a very heavy S&M club – and the lighting came in and with the music they were playing, it was great to go there; it was like a real nightclub.
MATRIX: Were there any extra safety considerations made knowing there were going to be 200 plus extras on set besides the crew and actors?
MICHAEL: When you’re setting it up in the Sound Stage you’re aware that entrances and exits are really important. We designed large entrances and exits on either side of the set so they led straight out through the big garage doors [which exited the Sound Stage] – getting people in and out was a fire concern. There were also quite big side hallways that didn’t really go anywhere, but in a nightclub they could have gone to the toilets or some other labyrinth thing, but in this case you could exit the set from. The major concern from our point of view was that people could get in and out of the set really easily, which helped the crew too because I don’t think a lot of the walls actually came off that set, besides the roof. After a set is made it moves into the Safety Officer’s realm of looking after the people and the set.
MATRIX: Do you have legal requirements that you have to meet in set building?
MICHAEL: Yes, you have to leave at least a meter [3.3 feet] clear all around the set, which does actually affect the design quite often on some of the bigger sets. At Fox Studios there are not enough bug Sound Stages, so we have been squeezing a lot of big sets.
When the set is up the safety people come in and take over. For instance, the Temple Entrance was all foam and highly flammable and had candles and lanterns but then, apart from us leaving that around, the safety people took over. That day they had the Fire Department down there, and everyone was very strongly briefed before they went in the set. If there is going to be any danger they let the crew, actors and extras know.
ZION TEMPLE ENTRANCE
MATRIX: Did the crystals in the Zion Temple Entrance set symbolize anything?
MICHAEL: That set was interesting in that we had to match to something they’d already built in LA, so we used all the colors that were already established, and the rock formations. It was located down at the bottom of where the Residents live and, again, we only built so much of it and the huge other bit was CG-ed in later.
Owen wanted a kind of crystal opening and it was to be very pure. This was almost the only really clean set we had done. It was like the only nice place in this kind of depressing world they live in, so the crystals were clean, and the water was pure. The pools were where they washed their feet; they saw it as a cleansing area or a purifying place. It wasn’t like the womb, but it was their special human place, and it was the only place in Zion like that.
MATRIX: The irony of that set though was the beauty and purity in one direction, and in the other there were huge metal barricades.
MICHAEL: Yes, that was dressed over for the end of the third movie where it’s like the last stand off, and the Sentinels are there ready to come in. Somehow the Residents have found all this steel and made a barricade. We put all the steel in, then it came out, and then we used it on its own, so that steel is not always there. So it was two sets in one.
MATRIX: Once a set is sitting in the Sound Stage, do you have to worry about it as an Assistant Art Director?
MICHAEL: Not really. Traditionally you should be there to hand it over to the next department, like the film crew. And that’s about it because we have Standby Carpenters, Standby Painters, Standby Props, and a whole lot of crew on this film to take it from there, who are briefed that this is what it has to look like. If they change anything they’ll let the Art Directors know, but as an Assistant Art Director, there’s not a lot we do after a set is handed over.
LE VRAI RESTAURANT
MATRIX: Was the Le Vrai Restaurant an elaborate set to work on?
MICHAEL: That’s another one where I was the Set Designer and Karen was the Assistant Art Director, and it was a lot of fun. The establishing location was the Governor Phillip Tower [in Sydney] where they walk into a lobby, get in a lift, and then come up to the top of this eighty or ninety story building where the restaurant is. It is called Le Vrai, which means “the truth” in French, and kind of ties into the subplot – the Brothers came up with great names for everyone and everything that mean something.
So Neo, Trinity and Morpheus went to a restaurant called “the truth,” which is the Merovingian’s restaurant. The Merovingian is a program that lives inside the Matrix who can be anything he wants, so this time he has chosen to be a filthy rich French person who owns his own restaurant. He is rich and good-looking and Persephone is his girlfriend – I don’t think they’re married. We see them come out of the lift upstairs, so we built another lobby that matched the one they went into but it was black granite, just to add to like the evilness of it. Then they walk into the restaurant, which we tried to make kind of disturbing again, in that you’d never build a restaurant like this in real life because it’s just too hard-edged; everything was quite sharp. It was sharp in a physical sense – there were lots of hard edges, lots of hard materials, lots of black granite and lots of green. In the Matrix there were shades of green so the black granite was a green-black. There were also silver blades and things like that around that you could catch light on.
This was a scene that was set up in the storyboards and concepts drawings, so everything was done in the way it was shown there. The Brothers loved the characters walking through lots of straight things, past columns and things like that, so that was what we did. Then there was a big stained glass window, which was actually the color of money – and that was in the script – like the Merovingian had a money color glowing over him. To do that we took the code off the ship screens and multiplied it about a thousand times, and we got this amazing green pattern, which we did in different shades and intensities. The stained glass window behind the Merovingian is also code-like in that it has squares and rectangles that all stream down in different shapes and codes – so we have code with code in it. We play with things like that all the time.
We did things like have a lot of lines running around, and a lot of it is up and downs as well, and we also played with the idea of plus and minus signs – another kind of image with lots of lines running around, which we said was like switches and code again because it is in a coded world. We leave out a level of detail as well because it is still just a representation of the real world, so there were things missing. The really groovy balustrade was based on a Gucci watchband we saw and though looked cool. This set was fun because it had to be really over the top.
Most people will just see that as a stained glass window, and we’re going, heh, heh, heh, it’s a code. It keeps us amused in the long hours. The other thing we put in everywhere are the pills. Wherever we possibly can we use a pill shape, which is also to do with the Matrix – the red and blue pills. If you look really carefully there are pills everywhere: in the plans, in the floors, in the walls.
The Hel Night Club is a pill in plan, and it’s got pills in the walls near the DJ box and the DJ box is a pill. You can see, although they’re sort of in the background, these pills with the crosses in. In Zion there are pills everywhere: hatches are shaped like pills, and the whole side of the side of the Docks are pills.
THE LAST WORD
MATRIX: How do you feel about the way the Brothers have expanded upon their story?
MICHAEL: I think they were going to do the three all the time. I read an interview where Keanu Reeves [Neo] said the first film is the birth, the second one is the life, and the third one is the death, which is true.
In the first film they introduce the concept of being in a Matrix. In the second one they expand it even further, introducing new characters like the Merovingian and the Oracle, and expand the idea of the Matrix as something that is more than we first thought it was. The third film is not really in the Matrix – it’s in Zion – but it has developed even further in that machines have ruled always. The other thing is that every memory they’ve had is something that the machines have introduced, which made the design okay because this is set in 21 whatever, no one really knows. We’re using details that are Industrial Revolution era based, very [Joseph] Paxton, but mixed with high tech aircraft carrier details. So there’s a crossover but it’s okay because everything is something you can pick out of the machines’ collective consciousness.
I’ve read the scripts heaps of times and I’m still not sure what the end means – whether it’s over or they’ve reached some kind of happy medium where they’ll live together, which I think they have. It’s a bit depressing in that their – the Wachowskis’ – look at reality is that you can change your own reality, but how far is really the question. Then you ask yourself if a different reality is just another Matrix anyway and whether the machines are real. It’s all about how far you want to go.
MATRIX: You say the ending of REVOLUTIONS is ambiguous in the script; do you think that they are going to clarify it at the end of the film?
MICHAEL: I always thought it was not the ending they were going to use; that they’re going to shoot another ending so no one really knows – maybe that’ll happen but maybe not. I have a feeling there might be several endings or that they haven’t even worked it out, but I can’t see how it could be happy ultimately, because it’s so heavily set up that the machines are in control… unless they’re trying to say that it’s not such a bad thing if you work with them.
MATRIX: Thank you so much, Michael.
Interview by REDPILL