Interview with Peter Collias (Scenic Artist) from The Matrix (1999)

By Paul Martin February 15th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix

Archival interview with Peter Collias from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: What is your role in the production of ‘The Matrix’?

PETER: I am a scenic artist, basically we take care of the aesthetics. It all starts at the concept stage with the designer drawing up some ideas, the director sees an idea that he likes and the whole process goes back to the designer who transfers the drawings to the draughts people who build it. And then we come along and make it look beautiful.

MATRIX: How many people are doing the scenic art?

PETER: On this film there were 16 at one stage. I have worked with more, it depends on the nature of the job.

MATRIX: What talents does a scenic artist need?

PETER: Every scenic artist has their own style and their own way of doing things. There are no real schools actually, so you can’t go and learn it, you just get trained on the job – the more work you get the more you learn. There are processes required, like anything else. You have to know how to make a better color or show a bit of movement. Ultimately there are not many jobs where you are required to make things look older or beaten up, it is normally the other way. On this film we are doing a lot of breaking down, imitating materials like metals and raw minerals for instance, fabricating polystyrene to make it look like wood or granite or whatever is required. The actual scenic art itself where backdrops are required has become a bit redundant since the green screen technique has been implemented. Basically we’re painters, with a few little artistic tricks.

MATRIX: But there is definitely art involved.

PETER: Yes, definitely. Particularly because of the randomness involved. Even when you are rusting a boat or rusting a piece of metal there are all sorts of rust, and it might not look like rust – it could be so obscure that it looks fake. So there is a sense of unique balance and color to make it work. Sometimes you see mountains or piles of rocks that don’t look real, especially if you are within this industry: you are looking around and you see things that you wonder how the painter got away with such bad workmanship. Sometimes reality looks more fake than what you can make it look painted.

MATRIX: That’s the way it is on every film, meaning this film must have been particularly interesting.

PETER: Exactly. [smiles] Which is further complicated by my definition of reality and how I perceive it, how I see it to look real. For me, rust is not just a natural process of metal oxidization, I can really go into it, into the fine grains where I examine the oxides and try to get the density of color. But the average person sees rust and thinks that it is just a bit of orange and a bit of brown. So what I mean is that one person’s reality is another person’s abstraction.

MATRIX: This piece is amazing, it looks like a part of a machine, but is actually plastic.

PETER: This is a shared aesthetic, a visual sensation, something that has been conditioned in us. We have a general understanding of reflectivity, we see metal and know it has a sheen and is metallic, that is a learnt thing, so unless someone told you it was plastic you wouldn’t know otherwise. Our job on The Matrix was to make this piece look as heavy and as deep as possible, which is where the art process is required, because it is not as simple as putting a bit of silver on black and making it look like metal.

MATRIX: And especially in this case where everything has to look so old.

PETER: There are many affecting elements on that piece of metal: for example, there could be grease spots or oxidization occurring. It is interesting as well as being hard. If we are not careful we will end up with something looking state of the art which, in this case, we didn’t want. A lot of the discord thing is random, like having something unusually heavily aged or whitening it up a bit like it is iced… its like life, a little chaotic.

MATRIX: So not everything is going to, or needs to, look exactly the same age or have the same amount of oxidization?

PETER: You could have a big blob of rust or a big blob of acid, or erosion or something and it could trickle off into nothing. Basically you need to balance things up. Some people like to put things in little boxes they…keep it nice and regulated.

MATRIX: How long have you been doing this sort of work?

PETER: Nearly 15 years.

MATRIX: What are some of the other paint jobs you have had to do? I guess none of them are typical.

PETER: Because there are so many different mediums, sets and periods, I have worked on everything from a cave to olden day interiors.

MATRIX: What are the basic materials you use?

PETER: Basically we work with wood and polystyrene as the two major building materials. But it varies. If we are doing high tech stuff we tend to go for the more angular materials that are light and that can be applied to. So we are limited to those basic materials, to create granite or stone or whatever the designer requires.

MATRIX: Like the columns in the government lobby scene which look like granite, even when they are split with gunfire.

PETER: Yes that was paint on foam. So anything basically. It is imitating reality in a lot of cases. I think the art process comes into it in the way that we interpret it. I keep referring to something that looks used or old – when you try to imitate reality, it is very hard to make it look strong, like it has the power of something that looks old. Sometimes when I am looking at references out in the street, looking at a real building that is very old, I think that if I was to paint something like that, people would question it. They would see it in a movie and think that it looks painted, that it is so over the top it is ridiculous, but that is how things look. That is chaos isn’t it? Things do look over the top sometimes. It is hard for me to modify something like that to make it look realer than real.

MATRIX: And of course in the real world no one takes the time to stop and look at that building.

PETER: No, no one would, unless you were me trying to dig up some reference on how I might use it.

MATRIX: But in the film there will be people sitting in a chair looking at it and looking to see if it is real.

PETER: That’s right, then we get back to the other argument that it is only their interpretation of what they perceive as being real which determines how successful your job has been. I am not here to please everyone, for some things I do I feel that time is against us, or for whatever reason we haven’t quite executed it as we would like. As long as they are acceptable, I would never get to the point where I would let something go by that I did not feel was adequate. We are all struggling perfectionists that try to get the most out of what we do. It is self indulgence really. I paint my own stuff as well, I do expressionism and dabble with a bit of abstract painting. I have just been introduced to the computer in the past few years, which has been a new medium that I love to tackle.

MATRIX: Are there stories about any of the specific sets of the Matrix? Was anything particularly difficult to capture the reality of?

PETER: The interesting thing about the Matrix is that with a film like this you have a bit of license. Take the Nebuchadnezzar for example, the vehicle that travels through the sewers: it has these weird mechanics which we are not exactly sure how they are made, what they are made of or what they run on, so the sort of seepage and corrosion that you would get is not definite. We wanted to do something that is a little bit more interesting than your average rust spot or oxidization. So these decisions have been left up to us up to a point. We have done some oyster-like things, some funny little weird shapes that have emerged just for the hell of it, like some sort of lichen growth. Instead of having everything in linear fashion, we have tried to have something growing. Just little things that the average person wouldn’t even notice. I guess it keeps the interest up for us, we are always trying to think up new things, the point being that with any sci fi movie or anything that is fabricated, you have a license to toy around and try new mediums and new techniques. I am really specifying the pods we made in the Neb, basically a metal structure which is what I have been focusing on. We have done other things such as the Layfayette set, an old period set which needed a lot more molding, a lot more greens.

MATRIX: You also did the set for the subway sequence?

PETER: The subway is concrete and graffiti… yes that was rendered much the same, but it was a bit wetter.

MATRIX: I have seen the dailies of the subway scene and you can really believe that you are in a subway.

PETER: Yes, even though it is a wooden shell, but that is the trickery of the camera, that is what film making is all about as far as sets go. I am a big believer in the way CG is going, although there is a lot to be said for sets. You can still create a poignantly wonderful environment in a contained set, you can still really push out the spheres. You can try to replicate live action using CGs, but you can’t quite do it yet. So I think they will be pushing towards going that far, which is a good aspiration to try and achieve. But as far as this set goes, there is randomness on every inch of it which is an incredible amount of detail. It is not cost effective at this stage…but I am sure it will be.

MATRIX: I don’t think it is an issue or process at this point. I think it is more what you are describing, the limitations of that, that for some things the reality is difficult to capture.

PETER: Even the spit out of someone’s mouth as he speaks: those sort of details are so subtle.

MATRIX: Those things you feel but don’t see.

PETER: Yes. I get excited about every project, but the Nebuchadnezzar was one that I found a little bit more interesting.

MATRIX: Being so involved with the aesthetics of the film, what do the concepts of The Matrix mean to you?

PETER: It is what you want it to be. Does it fabricate you or do you fabricate it? There is a fine line between what we know to be real and what we perceive to be real.

MATRIX: Thanks Peter.

Interview by Spencer Lamm

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