Interview with Peter Robb-King (Department Head of Make Up) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin July 6th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with Peter Robb-King from the official Matrix website.


MATRIX: How long have you been with the production so far?

PETER: I started in February [2001]. We started off prepping the film in Los Angeles then moved up to Alameda, which is near San Francisco, and we’ve been shooting here for about three and a half months. We are shooting THE MATRIX 2 and 3 concurrently – two shows being shot at the same time in America, then Australia.

MATRIX: This is a fairly large production and we’re only at the beginning; what has it been like so far?

PETER: It’s very interesting because of the scale of the film, it’s a very, very large scale production. We’re actually doing this interview on the last day of shooting in America, but for me it’s not the last day of shooting at all because we’ve got a long way to go, we’re only approximately a quarter of the way through. So it’s a very interesting challenge to take on a job that’s this long, and to be able to prepare everything as you go along. Obviously we’re not able to prepare the whole film in the time we were allocated, so we basically find out what is needed and then we set that up for the future. The future on this film is much longer than a normal film, we’re still looking at next year, and next year in film terms is pretty unheard of… unless you’re filming in December.

MATRIX: Initially, how did you get involved in the production?

PETER: I got involved in the production because I did the last two Keanu Reeves movies, and on the second movie we did together last year [2000], he asked me if I’d be interested in doing this production. I said yes because who wouldn’t be? It is a great opportunity, but it is also a very long time, so therefore one had to consider that. I have family and children to consider. I don’t regard this as a business where you can decide where you want to be, the business decides where the films are going to be made. So I normally go where the filming is, and on this occasion, it’s America and then Australia. I’ve never been to Australia, so for me it’s a very interesting opportunity to go there.

MATRIX: What is your background, and what got you into the work you do?

PETER: I’ve been doing this a very long time, I started in the sixties on The Avengers, which most people know. I was very fortunate to start on a show that’s as well known as that. I didn’t have any background in the industry, but I knew I wanted to get into the industry. At the time I applied there were absolutely no opportunities because the business is not an easy business to get into with no connections. The very short version of my story is: the year I applied they were considering doing a training scheme within the studio system, which was still in existence, so I was able to come into the industry through a training program financed by the industry. I was the only person that ever came in on that system. They took two people on after interviews, both on probation, one didn’t continue, I did, and then after that, for financial reasons within the industry, they stopped the system again. It was great for me, it was just lucky I was born when I was born to come in when I did, because that’s how I got in and I’ve been doing it ever since… pretty much since school.

MATRIX: There must have been a large number of projects that followed The Avengers.

PETER: I’ve done a lot of different films, I’ve been very fortunate. Going back a long way I did things like The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Tommy, three Ken Russell movies in the seventies, then going on to things like Outland, Indiana Jones and Star Wars movies. I’ve done things like Aliens and Alien 3, then I was lucky in the seventies to do The Man Who Would Be King, an extraordinary example of an epic film, which you don’t get much chance to do nowadays, although THE MATRIX is an epic film. This is probably the second epic film I’ve worked on, it’s a similar type and scale. I’ve worked a lot with specific actors: I worked a long time with Harrison Ford and Sean Connery. The last thing I did with Sean was Entrapment, then I met with Keanu and I’ve been working with Keanu, that’s how I’m here. I haven’t gone through all my films, there are other ones in between – I don’t have a photographic memory for them. I’ve done a lot of movies, movies are what we concentrate on.

MATRIX: Do you have more fun with small pictures, or giant movies?

PETER: It doesn’t concern me, I don’t consider the project size to be relevant because I do the same type of work, the same quality of work, on a small film or a large film. My ideal is to make it look good, and to make it not look like make up. I don’t actually like make up to be seen, I like it to look real. I like people to say the film looked good, not the make up looked good. I’m not interested in the make up being good, I’m interested in the people looking correct for the part, that’s my philosophy. Some people go the other way and like to put a lot of make up on, but I don’t, that’s the difference between different make up artists.


MATRIX: In THE MATRIX films there are very varied looks for the same character – Neo goes through different looks.

PETER: I think a lot of it is cause and effect. There are a lot of reasons why people change their looks, and on this film it takes place in real time – a very short space of time – but the amount of changes within that space of time are enormous, as is the concept of the project. There’s an incredible amount happening that you have to keep up with. The way we approach it is, things happen in real time really quickly, but in the movie there’s a certain element of space you’re given in which to create the effects and everything you want to do to show the progression. There’s an enormous progression in this because a lot of different things happen to a lot of different characters. I’m in charge of coordinating and designing those changes, that’s what I enjoy doing, it’s very wide ranging and there’s a lot to consider. It’s getting bigger… as I said earlier, we are in America now, but when we move onto Australia there’s a lot more to do. Although this has been a marvelous time here, we haven’t shot an enormous amount of different scenes, so we’ve got an awful lot more to do, and a lot more interesting make up to do.

MATRIX: The look of the principal characters was defined in the first film, and now you are dealing with a number of new characters; what is the process of design?

PETER: There’s a concept that the original characters were established in the first film, but in fact it’s already moved on. It’s very hard to explain the concept of what is design and what’s not design because there are different people on the film, and different people doing the film. Therefore elements of those designs have gone into the new film, so it is not an exact copy of the original film in any way. Certainly for Neo and Trinity, the look is not the same as for the first film and for Morpheus it’s similar, although not identical, but of course they’re recognizable because it is a trilogy. Even Smith is a different character again, he has moved on. They’ll be recognizable from the first film, but there are many elements on these two productions that enable us to move forward in both the looks and the concepts.

I think everybody we’ve established here in America is going to work in Australia at some time, some of them are going to be there for a long period of time and some of them will be there for a much lesser time, but they will all continue. Nobody is really finished – no character has actually come in, worked in America, and finished the show. That’s very interesting, because a lot of times you would have people who only come in for a couple of days and that would be it. We haven’t completed any one sequence with any one character.

There are characters in the next film, the twins being an obvious example, which are very extreme. They were conceptualized and then created – we have a lot of team effort between the three departments, between costume, make up and hair – and they are extraordinary characters.

MATRIX: How did Larry and Andy Wachowski, the Directors, convey the look they wanted for different characters?

PETER: It’s really a combination of different conversations. The Costume Department was on board a long time before we were, so they had the opportunity to read the script and do conceptual drawings earlier. That’s really the Costume Designer’s job: they present options, probably many options. Sometimes directors are absolutely certain of what they want, and then they present an option to the Costume Designer. Normally it’s a collaboration between the two, so they would discuss images and imagery at that point. Sometimes that’s without an actor being cast, sometimes it’s early enough to be just a concept. Once the actor has actually been cast, the Costume Department gets them first for fittings, then we meet them. At that point there are sometimes major changes; sometimes an illustration is not accurate when you see the actor, and sometimes actors come with different ideas of their own. So again, it becomes collaborative with different people as well as the Directors to decide what the final look is going to be.

Normally, some of the imagery from the drawn designs comes into our area, and we decide how we can achieve that with wigs or with make up or with shaving. We knew the twins certainly needed to be pale, we knew they needed to be slightly surreal, and we knew they had a particular type of hairstyle, which is unique for the particular type of people they are. It required a little research to find out how to achieve that look because it’s not a normal look. There was nothing normal about getting their look, you don’t just ring up somebody and say, ‘Can I have two of those please’, because they certainly don’t come of the shelf. They were designed from scratch because they’ve never been done before.

A lot of things in THE MATRIX 2 and 3 haven’t been done before, which is what makes filming exciting, because you’re always moving the goal posts or pushing the envelope. We realized there would be a better way to achieve the twins’ look, which was to use an airbrush technique. Their faces are actually totally airbrushed, which is not unheard of in make up, but it’s not commonly used. The reason we decided we needed it was because it gave a better finish for the type of skin we were trying to achieve for these particular characters, it gives them that slight edge, you’re not quite sure what they really are. And it worked. I designed the nails because we wanted a particular look on the nails, and we went from there to the lips.

MATRIX: To present a character look to the Directors, is each actor put into full costume and make up?

PETER: We normally do a presentation, it’s commonly called ‘show and tell’, but it doesn’t always have to be called that, it can be called a dress rehearsal, it could be called anything. Basically, at the point where you think you have achieved a look that is acceptable, you offer that up to the Directors for their approval. They will then make changes: it might be a slight change on the costume, it could be a change of skin tone, it could be a change of lip color, or eye glasses or sunglasses.

Some of the actors don’t get that, they don’t get the prep because they don’t have time to do show and tells. They literally get cast, even though they may have been cast in advance, and they are brought in near the shooting dates, so we only get very last minute opportunities to fix their look, so you don’t do a show and tell. A show and tell is normally filmed, not always, but if they are filmed, then obviously it is an opportunity for everyone to look at it and say this is what we’d like. If they’re not filmed, it’s an opportunity for the directors to say verbally change that, do this, and then we take that on board as well and create the image, as I say, in combination with those other elements.


MATRIX: We’re on the last day of the US shoot, what were some of the make up challenges for the three sets filmed here?

PETER: The freeway sequence is unique because very few shows build their own freeway. The challenges for us were to create a look that enabled the people to look like they’re in THE MATRIX, which is slightly unreal, although they look real. It’s very hard to explain the reality of the business, but the situation is, without giving anything away, there are an awful lot of characters in this who we’re not 100% sure what their origin is. Therefore we try to create a look whereby those people would be seen to be driving cars, but in fact there are a lot of other things happening on the freeway. It’s an incredible sequence, just unbelievable, probably the most exciting that’s ever been filmed.

We progress from that to an introductory scene with the Oracle, which is very much a part of the core of the movie, it was Keanu’s first scene on this side. We went from when she leaves there to when suddenly Smith arrives, and a whole fight ensues, which was again one of the biggest and best fights ever filmed, and took place over a long period of time. We had to achieve a look of having multiple Smiths, which is again unique. We were asked to see if we could make it happen, because to enable them to film it in the best possible manner, the more we could make the doubles look like Smiths, the better it was for the company.

We basically pulled it off, which was great because we were dealing with actors who were chosen for their skills, not for looking alike. They weren’t look alike doubles, they were actually stunt men who had trained for months to do the fight. For us it was a big challenge to do that, and it involved a lot of fairly complicated haircutting and styling, and changing of facial appearance, which we really enjoyed doing and worked well.

MATRIX: What did you have to do to achieve that?

PETER: We had to rearrange their hairlines because we’re matching Hugo Weaving who has a particular look. We had a pattern, but Hugo is unique, and to achieve a look that was similar to that we obviously had to do a lot of modifications on the people we had. We chose to do a little judicious work with the razors, a little hair cutting that was fairly extreme and then, using wigs and other make up, we were able to pull it off.

MATRIX: How much warning do you have for something like that?

PETER: On most major productions now you get the minimum amount of time. We don’t come onto the film as early as some of the departments, so we’re always working to very severe deadlines to get things manufactured. You’re often putting people under enormous pressure, we certainly put people under pressure to get the wigs made. Initially it’s a struggle to get everything done within the time frame, but once it’s set, then we just employ the right number of people and it works… I mean, this worked beautifully, it was very smooth thanks to a good team.

MATRIX: Color is a really big deal to Larry and Andy; how much have you discussed or been prepped on that?

PETER: We work in combination between Larry and Andy, the Costume Department and the Hair Department, so it’s a collective discussion point. We take a lot of our options from the color palette of the costumes, so there’s a naturalness about it. In Zion it’s freer than it is in the Matrix, the Matrix is a more stylized look, but we still try and keep it away from anything that is particularly… vibrant isn’t necessarily the right word, but things that wouldn’t look correct. It’s not a completely neutral palette either, but it is definitely not too extreme because, when you do need to make a real statement, you have the opportunity to drop something in, which I think we will be doing later. So there are elements of that within the design frame as well, but yes, they are very particular, so we discuss it all.

MATRIX: I know that blues are avoided, is that prohibitive at all to you with the makeup?

PETER: Not in the same way as it is for sets and costumes, because we don’t use specific colors by choice. I think if they had have said to me we need to use these particular colors, that would affect some of the sequences we’re shooting, then we would have had to do extensive tests to decide which shade would work and which shade wouldn’t work. But because, fortunately, most of the colors that would be a problem for that type of work we’re not using, for instance on eye shadows, or on lipstick colors or facial tone colors, we haven’t really had to address that.

What we have to avoid is people coming in – which is inevitable with a large crowd of extras like we had – where they want to add their own little item to their skin. We have to control it because a wrong lip liner, a wrong eye shadow, a wrong eyebrow shape, or mascara that is in the wrong place, or too much of it (and everything is like that), it affects the look. Besides the fact that you don’t want to lock down to a time period, you also don’t want to let somebody slip through the net. We had to have patrolling make up artists dealing with that as well, because people are always encouraged to believe that that one little thing will make them the star. We’re not here to do that, we’re here to keep an overall control over the whole look, so it’s important to us that we don’t let that happen.

MATRIX: Are there any interesting stories of somebody smuggling in lipstick?

PETER: There are always interesting stories – most make up artists would tell you the same stories. We have to control the ladies rooms because they will go into there to change their make up, so we have had occasion to cover up mirrors for that reason. It’s normally more obvious on a period film, where they’re actually not wanting to be made up in a period look. They think it doesn’t enhance their beauty, so they want to go back to a modern look. That’s normally the case, but on this we were doing a more natural look in some ways, there wasn’t an excessive amount of anything. People always want to add more. My theory in make up is less is more. The interesting thing on this film is that the actors, the principal actors, are also in the same loop. Trinity’s look was very much a natural look, and so is Niobe’s. The general palette is very similar across the board, which is good, and that’s what we’re trying to achieve.


MATRIX: Prosthetics are being used on these films; talk a bit about them and the materials they’re made out of.

PETER: We’re using a variety of different prosthetics. We’ve got a lot of different things to achieve and a lot more to achieve, so we’re in the very early days of this show as far as that’s concerned. So far we’ve probably used everything that’s available at the moment. We’ve used foam rubber, gelatin pieces, we’ve used Dermaplast pieces, we’ve touched on some silicon pieces… basically we’re using all the elements of what’s available for different reasons. We’ve done chest pieces, we’ve done pieces around the plugs and the sockets that are on the characters in Zion, and we’ve done a lot of injuries on people. Some of them are being made here directly, and some of them are made outside and sent to us, then we apply them. At the moment we don’t have a full time prosthetic team on board, but we have out-sourced some supplies, and we’ve certainly done a lot of pieces for Zion.

MATRIX: Many of the 950 extras on the Zion Temple set wore plugs; what were they made of and how were they applied?

PETER: Two different groups of people made them. We needed a lot of them so we basically went to different companies. They, of course, are based on the original pieces from the first film, and surprisingly, although the first film was not that long ago, a lot of stuff is not available, it’s not archived. There were samples, but there weren’t hundreds of pieces left, so when we came to do them they had to be remolded, which is what we did. We remolded them initially, then because of the number of pieces we needed, we out-sourced to another company to do additional molds. What we have done is lightened them so they are less heavy than before, and therefore easier to apply and stay on for longer. That was something we were trying to achieve, to make them so they’re more comfortable to wear and less time consuming to put on. Because the scale of this film is much greater than the first film, the numbers are much greater, the volume of people is greater, and the number of elements they get involved in is of a greater scale.

Basically, things have moved on and that’s why we’re trying to reduce all the time elements to the minimum because it still takes a long time to do prosthetics. You want to be shooting, you don’t want to be in the chair doing that in the morning. The prosthetics continue, we’ll be doing a lot more in Australia. There are definitely things on this show that will be pretty unique, and we are soon to be in the process of designing some of those pieces. I have some concepts about what I want for those, but that will be in discussion with the brothers [Larry and Andy Wachowski, Writers/Directors] and we will be involving the actors as well. The actors are very important, especially that they understand and appreciate some of the situations we’ll be dealing with where there will be some restrictions in their movements. We have to build into each design all the necessary points that make it possible to work. It’s no good covering somebody with something if they can’t move properly.

MATRIX: When the production moves to Australia, how are you going to ensure the scenes after those filmed here will have continuity?

PETER: I’m actually taking my Key Make up Artist [Maggie Fung] with me who does Trinity [Carrie-Anne Moss] and Smith [Hugo Weaving] and Niobe [Jada Pinkett Smith], so that situation is covered. We are also taking the Make up Artist who does Laurence [Fishburne, Morpheus] and Cas [Gina Torres], so we are lucky we are not going into a country to pick up completely new people to deal with characters who have already been set. With a few exceptions, we are basically keeping the same make up crew who worked on the characters here in the US for continuity purposes. Of course we have a lot of new characters, and some of us will be doing them as well, and some characters will be with new make up artists. So I’m fortunate in the sense that it’s not going to be as difficult as it may have been if we were only going to be taking one person there.


MATRIX: It’s expected to add adornment to an actor to create a look, I noticed a lot of extras in the Zion Temple scene had to have their tattoos covered up… talk a little bit about what you have to take away.

PETER: Most of the tattoos that were approved were tribal or of a tribal origin. One of the background concepts in the film is that the characters have not just come out from a tattoo parlor locally. Locally in San Francisco, or locally anywhere in the world. What we wanted to do was, again, get away from any chance of that being seen on screen. Most modern tattoos are colored, they’re multi colored. Both Larry and Andy’s idea and my own was that we should get away from that and go to original colors of tattoos, which is really dark blue or black. We wanted to do some Maori tattoos as well, with a process that’s not been done before. We did full facial tattoos with a new tattoo process to enable us to recreate some characters we believe we’ll be able to have for real in Australia. It just ties in to what the film represents.

As far as the imagery was concerned, we wanted to get away from anything that could be seen to not be in keeping with this show, so therefore we did cover up an awful lot of tattoos, either by costuming or airbrushing or camouflage. Some of the people in this area have got fantastic full body tattoos, but very few have full tribal, they’ve got other types, or they’re all mixed up. Again it was something we discussed in advance. We talked to the extras when they were being cast, talked to them during the fitting process, and took photographs, then any areas that needed to be covered were covered on the day. That enabled us to get this overall look.

The other interesting point is that the people who are tattooed do not have plugs. That’s another thing from Larry and Andy, where there are certain concepts you only really discover as you get into a sequence and you finalize that last element that, you might think it’s that way, but they confirm it one way or the other. That’s what makes it interesting because, as I said before, they are the only two people who really know the whole story and what exactly we’re trying to achieve – the tattoos were a prime example in Zion.

MATRIX: You say it was a new process for tattoo application; what was that process?

PETER: First of all, it was all designed on a computer and it was done off site, which on this show is interesting because, as everybody would realize, there’s an awful lot of computer work done on this show. The person we used we knew did good tattoos, but what we didn’t know is if it could be done over a skull, which is not one-dimensional. To achieve complete clarity and also symmetry is very hard over a face.

Although we saw a lot of people with tattoos, hardly anybody has full facial tattoos, even here in America, even here in San Francisco, because it’s very hard to get work if you’ve got facial tattoos, so most people stop at the neck. We achieved two full facial tattoos, which enabled us to match back to what we will find in Australia. The process is a multi piece application. Pieces are applied individually and joined up with no over exaggeration, they’re flawless. People thought these extras were actually tattooed. They went home with the tattoos on, and people naturally thought they were real, that’s how good they are.

MATRIX: What is the new process of tattoo fabrication and application?

PETER: It basically has a backing sheet, so it’s a type of transfer process, but the backing sheet has an element that enables the tattoo to stay on longer. That is the new process they have achieved, which they are very happy to keep secret at the moment, because they’re the only people who can do it. There are many other processes of tattooing artificially, but with most of them it’s very difficult to get the fine detail, even though they’ve been doing tattoos for many years. Now, with computers, the lines can be drawn much finer. You can draw a fine line by had, but the difference is that you can transfer this fine line now onto the skin. We’re researching whether we can actually get them even finer because we’ve got some ideas for something else on the show where we might be able to get an even finer line.

It’s fascinating that 10 years ago when I did The Last of the Mohicans, none of this process existed, so we used tattoo artists, we were doing it for real – obviously not for real permanently, we applied them daily. You couldn’t keep tattoos on more than 24 hours without touching them up, which was the problem, it was very time consuming. If this process had been available then, it would have been superb, but we achieved what we wanted on the Mohicans anyway. It’s progress, it’s the cutting edge, we’re pushing the envelope all the time to move towards the next stage of make up.

THE MATRIX 2 and 3 are the cutting edge because everything we do has either not been filmed before, or uses technology which, for many other people, will be in the future. For us, we’re already in it, but most other companies will have to wait because they haven’t got to the point we’re at.

MATRIX: How long will one of those tattoos last?

PETER: You don’t apply them with the intention of keeping them. The reason why the extras wanted to keep them was because they liked them so much. I think they will probably keep for about three days easily. It depends again, and there are obviously hygiene factors as well – it depends on where it is on the body and how much you want to keep it. If it’s facial, which would be really unusual anyway, you’d probably want to wash your face more regularly than, say, if you had it on your arm. As an exercise, you could probably keep it for longer, but the body will eventually reject anything because everything we do is on the surface, we don’t go below the surface.

However real it looks, our job is to make things that are surface related, so normally they can be cleaned off at the end of the day. You can take these tattoos off instantly, within minutes, or you can leave them on for as long as you want – they will obviously deteriorate, and eventually have to be removed. The joy is that it was an idea we had we hoped we could pull off, because it’s very hard to do it on that sort of skin area and in the detail we wanted. And it worked beautifully.


MATRIX: In your estimation, are the sequels off to a good start?

PETER: I’d say they’re off to a fantastic start. It’s very exciting, it’s a very exciting project, everything we’ve done is state of the art. It’s always exciting to be on a show where they’re moving, where they’re able to move, in that direction… and to succeed. The results are there on the screen. It’s a very secret project, which also makes it exciting, because you’re not able to talk about it to anybody. You just want to see it on the screen when it’s finished because there are lots of elements that are added afterwards, lots of elements we won’t be involved in. We’ll be interested to see what they’ve done to what we’ve achieved, and then how they continue with some… one has to say magic, there are some magic things to be done. The show has been great so far, so let’s carry on and make the rest of it great. We’re finishing today in America, but we’re not in any way finishing the show, there’s a long way to go. Come back soon and I’ll talk to you about the next stage.

MATRIX: Thanks Peter.

Interview by REDPILL

June 2001

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