Interview with Robert Barlow & Aaron Gordon (SFX Department) from The Matrix (1999)

By Paul Martin February 29th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix

Archival interview with Robert Barlow and Aaron Gordon from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: Aaron, what is your role in the production of ‘The Matrix’?

AARON: I was only called in in the last few months to help with the government lobby explosion, and for two weeks previously to work on the helicopter explosion because it had to be pushed through, they needed a lot of expediting on site. The thing was that we needed to evacuate the area around it for about half a kilometer.

MATRIX: For the location shooting?

AARON: Yes. Because of the loud noise, there were quite a lot of explosives that we were letting off and they had to evacuate race horses and families and things like that. They even had to send two hire cars to some addresses because that family’s cat would not travel in the same car as their dog. They had organized this whole gag and it came down to the last ten minutes, which had to be shot between 12pm and 12-30. The camera guys were having trouble all morning and we were counting down saying come on guys, you’ve got to give us access to the set; in the last ten minutes we were still making up detonating cord connections. We ran back to our bunker and said that we were ready to shoot, they were just about to pull the pin on it, then decided to shoot it, and it worked perfectly the first go. It was a real rush when we saw that. The chopper went in and then pow! It was all over so quickly that we thought something had gone wrong. And of course when we saw the slow motion footage, it looked great.

MATRIX: Was that a one-take scenario?

AARON: Yes, one take, one day.

MATRIX: How many cameras were set up on that?

AARON: There were six to eight cameras, one of them was the photosonic 300 frames per second. There were two cameras looking directly into the building, two from above and two from the side and another couple on a tower.

MATRIX: And just one of them was super slow?

AARON: The others were all 120 frames per second, there was one super slow, and all the others were still pretty slow motion.

MATRIX: In order to capture it?

AARON: Yes. It is one of the biggest gags that has been done in Australia, so the green screen set was just huge. The green screens were 30 meters high, you think that 100 feet is not big, but it was like a bright green canyon. As soon as the sun got into it you had to wear your shades because you couldn’t really see anything else.

MATRIX: What have you been doing in ‘The Matrix’ production, Robert?

ROBERT: I was employed to build up the helicopter rig, so at first I was welding, then I had to put on everything else that came along with it.

MATRIX: And the construction of the actual helicopter itself?

ROBERT: No, the rig that was on top of the building that moves and controls it. So I have been three or four months on site.

MATRIX: Just on that?

ROBERT: Yes.

MATRIX: Any interesting stories?

ROBERT: It was all pretty straight forward, everything worked pretty smoothly, there were no big dramas. We built the main structure which the helicopter comes down off.

MATRIX: Readying it for the crash?

ROBERT: No, not the crash structure, the full scale one. When the chopper moves around the government office the tail goes up, which took a bit of fine tuning.

MATRIX: But it worked okay?

ROBERT: Yeah. No one has been hurt by the chopper so far! They were worried about the weight, whether the booms could hold it.

MATRIX: How much did it weigh?

ROBERT: I’m not sure, maybe between 2 and 3 ton.

MATRIX: You didn’t know whether you would be needed any more after that?

ROBERT: No. After that I thought my use by date was up and that I would be out of there, but they asked me to work on the quarter scale chopper, where it blows up into the building. I helped set that up.

MATRIX: Setting it up for the explosion shot?

ROBERT: Yes, I welded the main structure into position, got it at the right angle so that when the helicopter came in it was correct.

MATRIX: And it was a one shot deal.

ROBERT: Yeah, it was one shot, so it had to be spot on. I helped the pyrotechnics guys out, not exploding anything, just giving them a hand.

MATRIX: Essentially you were setting up the structure that the explosions were going to happen in?

ROBERT: Yes, a lot of steel work and metal work.

AARON: They had taken around 200 trial takes for the helicopter explosion. It was a sequence that had taken a long time to set up for each shot. On the actual day we had the worst conditions of all. We had had pretty pleasant weather which was cool, but calm with no breeze, and when we got to the location, around 1am, there was an absolutely howling wind. They could only take the shot between clouds, when the sun was out and would give the right amount of light.

MATRIX: Were there thoughts at any point that the filming might have to be delayed till the next day?

AARON: We had from twelve to twelve thirty to make the explosion, at quarter past twelve we were still setting detonators, we were saying come on, come on… at twelve twenty they were just about to call it off and do it another day, or drop the shot completely. Then just after twelve twenty we said we were ready, so they turned on the warning siren, which stuck on, it wouldn’t turn off – they wanted it off so they could shoot – finally the shot was taken with the warning siren sounding.

MATRIX: Which isn’t so big a deal for what they were shooting.

AARON: They were just supposed to sound the siren to warn everybody, then it would go off for the shot, and then they would sound the all clear. But as it was, they couldn’t turn the siren off, so they just left it running while they decided whether to shoot with it going.

MATRIX: Would it have been very difficult to re-stage if the stunt had gone off badly?

AARON: A reset would have taken a few weeks because of the damage to the set afterwards. All the windows were blown out, bar two. The helicopter was totalled.

MATRIX: Could it have been rebuilt?

AARON: Well, we did have a second helicopter standing by, but it would have taken a while to model make everything and get it ready, so it would still have been a two week reset. The expense of evacuating the surrounding houses again would have been huge.

MATRIX: Did anyone protest at being asked to leave their house?

AARON: Yes they all did. I mean, how would you like to be asked to leave your home from 10-30am till possibly 2pm?

MATRIX: Were people compensated in any way?

AARON: They were taken out for a meal. A lot of people had thoroughbred race horses, so they took them down to the local race track and set them up with a slap up meal.

MATRIX: Was it a suburban area?

ROBERT: It’s country, 50km from Sydney. People have got 5 acre properties all around there.

MATRIX: So how many people were evacuated?

AARON: It was only about 15 households.

MATRIX: What was the rough date of that?

AARON: The 9th of July. We’ll never forget it! There was a bit of pressure.

MATRIX: So it was a hectic day?

AARON: I was supposed to be put onto it about a week and a half before, and at that time I didn’t realize what a huge task it was. They needed someone there just to co ordinate the work force, get things happening, so I was asked to do that. There were a lot of people – all highly skilled, they all knew what they had to do – I just had to make sure that they had all the equipment, help and access that they needed. Even such things as coffee, food and water, because it was in the middle of nowhere. So I was running around everywhere – I had people that wanted to take the lights away, so I had to fight them off – it was one thing after another.

MATRIX: You are saying that you were a week and a half in preparation for that shot?

AARON: No, I was dumped in it a week and a half before. They had been working on it for about 7 or 8 months: the tests for that shot, the construction, everything. And it literally came down to the last ten minutes. If they hadn’t made that 12-30pm cut off, they probably wouldn’t have shot the shot at all. We had an insulated container as a bunker, and we had organized a fire pump because we had thought there was a chance of fire. We had remote monitors, because if the shot had gone off, if something had failed to detonate and you sent somebody in there to put out a fire, and it then detonated, it would have been like having a shot gun full of glass fired at you. So we had to have remote fire sprays of water, and I remembered just as I ran to the container that we had forgotten to do that, so I ran and did it, and when I got back, someone, I am not sure who, pushed the button.

MATRIX: How much firepower was actually used?

AARON: Not very much by blasting standards, about 1 kilo of high explosives. Not a lot in blasting terms, but a lot for a special effects job. When it went off it peppered all the green screens, there were shards of glass through and into the green screens, they were like huge bits of sand paper.

MATRIX: Was it real glass?

AARON: Yes it was real glass, it wasn’t break-away glass. It was the same glass that you would really get in a skyscraper, believe it or not.

MATRIX: Why was that?

AARON: Because it was the only stuff that broke realistically. When they tried using break away glass it came away in huge chunks, so they had to use something that really shattered, and toughened glass was the only kind of glass they could find that did it.

MATRIX: So that is why you needed that many explosives. Was it a concentrated kilo?

AARON: No, it was spread throughout. Through the helicopter and all across the face of the window.

MATRIX: Cumulatively, how much did you need to blow out glass that is that thick, to give it such a huge kick?

AARON: Well that was it. Three quarters of a kilo was used to blow out the entire window, and the rest was in the model helicopter. It exploded as it came into the building and was blown to bits after the event. That is why there is a charred wreck of the helicopter hanging there.

MATRIX: So the green screen is shredded, there are shards of glass everywhere – what else was it like directly after the explosion?

AARON: It looked just like London after the IRA have made a hit – it looked trashed. Robert’s sunglasses were the only thing to survive! He left them round the back of the building somewhere. We actually looked at the footage hoping to see a pair of sunnies.

MATRIX: They were left on set while this whole thing was going on?

ROBERT: There was a lot of panic, we were all on a time limit, everyone was waiting to blow this thing up so we had to rush, and I left them there.

MATRIX: And they came through?

AARON: Uh… no. Somebody found some frames, but they were all mangled.

MATRIX: So you’re going to look for your glasses in the footage?

ROBERT: Yeah, on the second floor.

AARON: The model makers made up a chopper which had a mini canon that had been used to shoot out the executive office. They were working in a portable hut and they had glued this thing together there, but with all the bits and pieces on it we couldn’t get it back out the door. We lifted it up to carry it out and decided that the mini canon had to go. That got glued on on-site later, but it then came loose, and in some of the rushes you could actually see the mini canon being blown out of the helicopter.

MATRIX: Did it look like it shouldn’t have blown off?

AARON: It looked good.

MATRIX: But it was a total accident?

AARON: Yes. The helicopter and the chain feed all came off as one and somebody found it, but it wasn’t planned to do that. We have had a couple of interesting failures to ignite which are quite amusing. We are using fuel and gas to generate the flame front…

MATRIX: Which stunt is this for?

AARON: This stunt is the one where Keanu and Carrie Anne have deposited a bomb down the elevator shaft in the government building. They have left after having shot out all the columns, there are bodies just in front of the elevator doors, and when the bomb goes off the directors want a shot of a shock wave of flame coming through this demolished lobby. So it has to emanate from the elevator doors and shoot forward from there, that is what this set is for. Apparently they are going to use bullet time or some very slow motion cameras to pick it up, probably 120 to 150 frame per second cameras. The failures to ignite happen when the gas gets dumped and the emission system has gone off; because it is flowing so quickly the gas doesn’t catch, it is only when the gas slows down that it all catches.

MATRIX: This is the fourth test?

AARON: No. We stopped clapper boarding at test #72 here. We did another 150 tests at our workshop on a smaller scale set to get the look we wanted, and probably another 100 to 150 tests of different combinations of pyrotechnics.

MATRIX: So the differences between the various takes are the pyrotechnics: different combinations of gas?

AARON: We have used everything, fuel sprays, troughs of black powder, magnesium, flash wall, all sorts of things to try and throw up this flame front. Fuel and gas worked the best and it is repeatable, very quick to reset. It is all computer controlled because the timing has been odd on opening and closing valves; so we put it all into the computer, hit the space bar and off it goes.

MATRIX: This is a simulated elevator shaft, are the doors also simulated. How does that work?

AARON: This is a third scale of the set, the elevator doors are going to be CGI’d in and you will see them come rocketing along the floor and bounce off the columns.

MATRIX: They’ll be popped out in other words?

AARON: Yes, but they are not going to get us to do that because it is too hard and also because gravity is against us here. So they will CG those and we will basically fill this entire set with flame, a wall of flame. The shot is over as soon as the wall of flame gets to the rear edge, so then we’ll have to try and shut it down.

MATRIX: Does it really creep along?

AARON: It looks fantastic.

MATRIX: I heard John Gaeta explaining what they were going to do with the bullet time which sounds spectacular on top of that, but the way you are describing it, it is going to be spectacular without the effects.

AARON: They are using a motion analysis camera, a high speed camera which makes it look great. It looks like water if you look at it water under a jetty or a pier, and you see it flowing through the piles. When they slow it down it looks great, it looks just like liquid, it wraps around the columns and actually flows backwards and forwards a bit like a wave in some places. Where it rushes around a couple of columns and then washes back over itself just looks awesome.

MATRIX: What do you think of ‘The Matrix’ in general?

ROBERT: An amazing concept.

MATRIX: Thanks guys.

Interview by Spencer Lamm

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