Interview with Rpin Suwannath (Pre-Visualization Artist) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin March 21st, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archival interview with Rpin Suwannath from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: What has your primary role been as a Pre-visualization artist on THE MATRIX sequels?

RPIN: I was brought on the show around the end of July 2000. In that time I’ve been working a lot with Geof Darrow’s art, taking his conceptual drawings and turning them into 3D environments that Owen [Paterson] the Production Designer can actually take mathematical data from and give to a Set Designer. From that data, they can begin to plan and figure out what part of this amazing illustration Geof has created that they’re going to build.

We take the concept drawing into a 3D environment, and using Maya and Power Animator we start blocking in the volumes. Once we have enough of that structure built, we can sit down with Larry and Andy [Wachowski, Writers/Directors] and start blocking some of the shots. There is no moving animation or anything yet, we’re just blocking some of the shots to figure out which part of the set is going to be virtual and which part we’re going to build in the Art Department. Once we figure those pieces out, since it’s basically all math that we’re dealing with, we export that data and have physical models made, for instance foam core models.

MATRIX: The technology you’re using is a recent development, what is its history so far?

RPIN: Most of this technology, until within the last couple of years, has mostly been used in visual effects post-production to actually complete and execute visual effects shots. The technology lends itself to be used in the Art Department and the beginning of production because it gives filmmakers a chance to use tools like real world lenses, and to basically pre-visualize their environments and their shots before anything gets built, months before the cameras start rolling. It’s much easier to do a lot of exploration when you’re sitting in front of a monitor, instead of having a crew where you’ve built something, which is really difficult to change. In the computer, changes are relatively easy to make, it gives the filmmakers much more flexibility. So, to use these tools at the beginning of the production, instead of the end in post, is a fairly new concept.

MATRIX: What are some of the shots chosen to be executed via the computer?

RPIN: Most of Zion is going to be virtual. The Dock and the Bottomless Pit, where basically all of the people live, those two environments are going to be almost entirely virtual because of the scope of those spaces. They are huge, although we will be building a fraction of them, but it’s a very small fraction. The other thing is that the geometry of some of the environments becomes really complex and, from a traditional illustration point of view, it’s really difficult to illustrate these environments that have twisting and repeating elements that go on for a huge distance. The great thing about the computer is that it’s really good at repeating and being very precise. So we can create a section and duplicate it and repeat it, and it almost creates its own aesthetic, which is interesting because it’s something you realize after the fact, rather than going into it with a clear idea of what it’s going to look like.

For example, the Dock was one concept drawing that had a wide over view of what the entire space was supposed to look like. When you get a drawing like that it is overwhelming because it’s so incredibly detailed… where do you begin? You block it out into the major pieces and then once those pieces get blocked in and positioned, then you can start adding the detail. It’s like chipping away at a big piece of rock until you get something everyone is fairly happy with.

MATRIX: How did you approach one of Geof’s incredibly intricate drawings?

RPIN: With Geof’s work I try and take the big pieces first, the big shapes that define the perimeter of what he has drawn, and then block those out in three dimensions. It’s kind of like a funnel: the big pieces first, then the smaller ones and the smaller ones. We only take this modeling to a certain level because we’re not trying to complete the shots, we’re just trying to get enough information there for the Art Department to be able to build something, and the Directors to be able to block and create animatics with this geometry.

Another really great thing about using this technology is that once you’ve modeled these environments, it’s then really easy to put cameras in there, and from there it’s pretty easy to put 3D models of characters and props, and the next thing you know you have a little scene. The obvious stage then is to take it to the animatic level where you work with the storyboards. One of the other things I’ve done a lot is take Steve’s [Skroce, Storyboard Artist] storyboards and start blocking those and figuring out timing, like how exactly the camera moves from board A to board B.

MATRIX: How did the pre-visualization team come into THE MATRIX mix?

RPIN: When we started I was the only pre-viz artist in the Art Department, I think my first assignment was the Mjolnir. I blocked in the Mjolnir, and after I finished that Geof was done with his drawing of the Dock. I started that and then more and more concepts started coming in so we hired another two pre-viz artists, then the PLF [Pixel Liberation Front] guys came on to do the freeway. Our department is now about 7 people. In the beginning we focused on the environment and the modeling, then it went to key frame shots. For key frame shots we basically frame up a still and take that, which is still really rough, into something like Photoshop, and paint over it, almost like a mini matte painting. From there you have an accurate key frame of what the camera is really going to see of this environment you’ve created, and you can fill it in with people and atmosphere and lighting etc.

MATRIX: Have you done some of those?

RPIN: I’ve done a couple, as have some of the Concept Illustrators. Marc Gabbana did some based on key frames taken off the 3D models we created.

So the next step is taken to a more elaborate representation of the key frame.

Right. It would be impossible, at this stage, to put all the detail in Geof’s illustration into the model. In terms of work flow, we need to keep the model fairly light because we are outputting a fairly large number of shots for the animatics. For example, some of these storyboards, some of these environments are incredibly complex, so we can frame up some shots for the Storyboard Artists so background elements are all there, and then they can basically draw in the action that’s supposed to happen on top of that. With this technology and traditional illustration, the interaction we all have is really seamless.

MATRIX: Is the majority of just about everything turning digital?

RPIN: Pretty much. Even if something is drawn traditionally, it’ll get scanned in, and once it’s scanned we can use it as a background image; sometimes we frame up to a storyboard that Steve Skroce has drawn.

The two main environments again are the Zion Dock and the Bottomless Pit, where everyone lives, and then there’s also the Machine Level. The Machine Level was pretty interesting, and there were a couple of illustrations done that tried to capture the feel of what this environment might look like. Based on those, taking elements from them, I created a kit of pieces that we reconfigured and came up with something different, but had evolved from the original illustrations. If you look at the two environments you’d still be able to see elements from various illustrations, but they’ve all come together digitally in a 3D world as far as composition and how all that was figured out. The Machine Level and a lot of the tunnels and sewers the ships fly round in were composed in the computer. We’ll even take real locations they’re going to shoot somewhere, and do little camera moves and shot planning. This technology doesn’t only lend itself to environments that don’t exist.

MATRIX: When you take an actual location, do you 3D model that out as well?

RPIN: Sometimes, most of the time it’s just very simple blocks. For instance, a cube will represent a building, we won’t get into too much detail because there’s no point, ultimately you’re going to go shoot film.

ANIMATICS

MATRIX: You previously mentioned animatics; describe what they are.

RPIN: Animatics are a moving representation of the storyboards. They can be as simple as taking two dimensional drawings, cutting out pieces, and moving them in a program like After Effects so you have a very simple two dimensional representation of movement. What we’ve been doing is actually a 3 dimensional representation of the storyboards. The 3D animatics are basically simple animations that represent the shot, and a lot of times involve camera moves and block animation for characters to get a sense of timing.

MATRIX: Have animatics become more detailed over the last couple of years?

RPIN: It tends to be that way because of the tools available; we have started to play with things like lighting. Some animatics get pretty sophisticated because, in order to really get a sense of the story you’re trying to tell, a lot of times you need elements like lighting, which can describe everything from an explosion in the shot, to helping to give a sense of scale and depth. Often, in order to get a sense of the story you’re trying to tell, the animatic tends to get a little more detailed than you initially planned. An animatic is using animation on some level to help tell a story, it’s the next step from the storyboard really. And how sophisticated that is, is totally dependent on the time and the nature of the shot you’re trying to create.

MATRIX: Would you say the animatics for THE MATRIX sequels are more detailed than typical?

RPIN: Definitely. Many of the characters, for example the APUs [Armored Personnel Units], have a lot of movement, and we have to be able to represent a fairly substantial proportion of that, otherwise the story is not going to be told correctly. The joints of the APU are very articulated, so that requires some fairly descriptive animation. The Sentinels with all the tentacles are pretty involved characters, often we’ll animate just the head and ignore what the tentacles are doing; that’s an example of something being way more time intensive than we need to tell the story at this stage.

MATRIX: Do you see technology reaching the point at which pre-viz will be clean, detailed animation?

RPIN: Probably, it will be fairly close I think. Whatever the technology is though, for most filmmakers these days, at least if you’re constantly pushing the technology, the technology is never going to be enough. So you’re never going to be able to do the entire thing at the beginning because, as good as you can get it, hopefully when you take it into post and a whole other team gets their hands on it, they will make it better. I can’t really imagine losing that post-production element at the end and replacing it with something, I think the pre-vizes will continue to look better and better, but so will the visual effects at the end – they chase each other.

MATRIX: It’s a style unto itself. Who is to say you couldn’t do animated shorts using pre-viz techniques?

RPIN: Yes. I would say a lot of pre-viz will probably approach what game animatics look like, and game animatics will start to look more and more like film, where things are currently. One of the things you don’t get too involved with in pre-viz is texture. It’s really hard to make something look photo-real without texture maps, so that’s not something we deal with because there’s really no need. The focus of the animatics really should be on timing, composition and camera moves.

PRE-VISUALIZING SHOTS & SETS

MATRIX: How complicated are Larry and Andy’s shot designs, because those heavily influence what you’ll be doing?

RPIN: They only have six shots that they use so it’s really easy! But seriously, Larry and Andy know what they want, so working with them is actually a pretty painless experience. If you have a tool you can do unlimited things with and you don’t know what you want, it can take a really long time to find something you want. You can explore forever and you can try an infinite number of combinations, but if you know what you want ahead of time and you’re using the tool to visualize it, it’s a very efficient process and it’s a very beneficial process. There’s always room along the way where, through the process of doing something, you might discover a better solution. It’s really helpful with Larry and Andy because most of the time they have a pretty clear idea of what they want, it’s just a matter of getting all the nuances correct.

MATRIX: Pre-viz was barely used in the first film; are they enjoying the process? Do they get excited?

RPIN: I think for filmmakers it must be really exciting to be able to see, even if it’s in an animatic sort of cartoony level, your vision moving. You can even start cutting it together if you want to and see how sequences you’ve had in your head come to life, relatively quickly. A lot of issues Directors might have can be solved way ahead of time.

MATRIX: When you’re handed a 5 page storyboard sequence, how long will that take to pre-visualize?

RPIN: If the boards are very precise, the time frame always varies. There is no formula like: the stack of pages is about 2 pounds, so that will translate to two weeks worth of work. The factors that come into play are, how complicated are the shots and how many new elements are in the shots that don’t exist in our library. When I say that, I mean our library of sets, characters, props, etc.; how many of those elements need to be created new and how complicated is the animation that’s in the shots? Five panels can be anything from a day to a week.

MATRIX: How extensive is your library?

RPIN: Pretty extensive, I think we have a 3D representation of just about everything in the movie. Everything from steam coming off of the digger to the little wheelbarrow that the Kid pushes when he needs to reload the equipment.

MATRIX: The elements within the settings as well as the settings are all isolated?

RPIN: They exist independently of each other or in a scene. When you start to do the work you bring all these pieces together, and then that’s what you’re working with. It’s like being on the set, but instead of having 6 different departments all responsible for bringing in whatever they’re responsible for, like props, you have all that and your stage is the work station.

MATRIX: There are approximately 150 sets being built; who works with the sets first and how much communication is there between departments?

RPIN: A lot of sets, after going to the Illustrator for a general concept drawing that’s more a study of what the environment could be, come to the pre-viz team. What we’ll do is figure out the volumes and try and create the general feeling from the illustration, turning it into a working 3D environment where the ceiling can only be six feet tall, or whatever set restriction Owen has. We’ll try to incorporate elements of the illustration into a set that’s buildable, and after that stage, after everyone is happy with the general 3D sketch, we’ll either develop that further in pre-viz or we’ll send that 3D data to the Set Designers. Owen has used a lot of CAD Set Designers, so we just send them the file and they start dimensioning it and doing construction drawings off of the 3D models.

Sometimes after that stage, while the Set Designers are working, we’ll reframe our environment to match the illustration, and send that tiff file back to the Illustrator, who will then do a new illustration based on the new geometry. Sometimes Owen comes to us with thumbnails, with a pencil and a scratch pad, and we’ll take that and work with him and create an environment, or work with an Illustrator. For instance, I worked a lot with Simon [Murton, Conceptual Illustrator] who designed and did a lot of the concept drawing for what the ships would look like in the interior. I took some of his illustrations and got into the reality of what the set construction was going to be, and blocked them out.

MATRIX: As a pre-viz artist, do you feel you’re more involved in this production than those you’ve worked on in the past?

RPIN: Probably more so on this one because of how much Owen is relying on the 3D work to solve problems. It seems to be the trend more and more; the more films I work on, the more involved this is becoming. I think a lot of filmmakers who are used to doing things the traditional way are seeing the benefits of having this new Digital Art Department and having the 3D work in the Art Department. The great thing about people on this production is they see the technology for what it is, and they know how to use it to help tell their story. It becomes a tool, just like a marker or a pen or a drafting table, you’re not intimidated. The technology doesn’t drive the production, it’s the other way around, it’s just another tool or asset.

MATRIX: What are you working on at the moment?

RPIN: The first completed pass on the Dock that was taken and modeled from Geof Darrow’s illustration. We did a fly through, which doesn’t necessarily represent any shots from the movie, but gives everyone a sense of the scale of the space that we’ve created. We chose to render it in this hidden line view so you’re not distracted by any lighting or texture. You really want to evaluate just the model, and it also is, coincidentally, similar to Geof Darrow’s black and white line drawing. You start out looking at all the main doors that lead to all the access tunnels, and there’s a central platform with four bridges going to it. Surrounding the platform are landing platforms, which are very similar to decks of aircraft carriers on stationary structures that the ships land on. In the center of the platform there is a crane and gun array. It’s pretty detailed, but as detailed as it looks, it’s missing texture, and it’s missing the small things like hand rails, a lot of the things that will give it even more human scale. It looks really detailed because there’s a lot in there, but as much as there is, there is probably 50% that’s not there in terms of the little stuff.

MATRIX: Has a physical 3D model been built of the Dock?

RPIN: Yes, the digital model was made at least a month before the physical model. All the complex pieces and details you saw on the computer were exported to a Set Designer in a digital format, and the Set Designer was able to take that and turn it into construction drawings the Model Maker could use. In some cases, the pieces were actually laser cut from digital files. This Dock is the Model Maker, Ben Edelberg’s, creation, taking the digital files we gave him and then translating that into real world three dimensions. Adding the missing details that I mentioned, things like this maze of pipes that are going to be added later, will be what Visual Effects does. Actually, on some of the animatics we’ve built little sections of this pipe because they’re integral to telling that part of the story.

BACKGROUND

MATRIX: What is your background?

RPIN: At the time when I started in the film industry, which was about 1995 or so, it was the big boom time for visual effects. I graduated from Art Center College of Design [Pasadena, California] with a design background, and my first job was on Batman Forever at Warner Bros. I started in post-production doing 3D modeling, and I stayed with Warner Bros. for a while. My interests have always been to take a lot of the skills and tricks I learnt in post-production and use them in the Art Department with concept design. I was pushing for a while to have an internal Art Department, kind of like what ILM [Industrial Light and Magic] has, down at Warner Bros., but it turned out that most of the production design work is done on the production side rather than in post. So it seemed that the next thing would be to leave post and work in pre-production, but still take these tools with me.

MATRIX: Had anything been developed at that point?

RPIN: At that point workstations were still really expensive and you needed to be at a facility. Fortunately, within the last few years, the price of equipment has come down, so I was able to assemble my own gear and approach a Production Designer showing what we can do with this technology. I told him he didn’t need to hire a huge production facility, he could have this technology in the Art Department. That seemed to work out pretty well.

MATRIX: Have you formed your own company?

RPIN: No. Like most people on a production, you’re hired for the job. I just started working in the Art Department next to the Illustrators and the Set Designers, so it’s almost like creating this new niche position in the Art Department. Slowly, what you’re doing applies not only to the Art Department, but also to the Visual Effects Department, so then you start working with Visual Effects Supervisors. Then it applies to the Storyboard Artists, so you start working with the Storyboard Artists, and with Directors. Pretty soon, it’s almost like pre-viz is a new department that should be part of production.

MATRIX: When you first started to communicate with Storyboard Artists, how were you received, being that you’re computer based and most of them are hand illustrators?

RPIN: I have a traditional drawing background, so I think that helps a lot, because they actually see you doing some Photoshop work where you’re actually drawing and you’re not just a programmer, they’re a little bit more receptive then. Most people respond really well because it’s neat for them to see what they’ve been drawing moving so early in the game.

MATRIX: What other films have you worked on?

RPIN: After I left Warner Bros. I started a freelance career. I worked at a company called SimEx and Art Directed a ride film which was entirely digital, all 3D on the computer. Working at that level there are a lot of tricks and work flow I learned by working with an old digital environment, which is basically what animatics are for the most part. After that I did The Haunting, X-Men, and then The 6th Day. On The 6th Day I worked a lot with the Director, who happened to be friends with Owen, so he introduced me to Owen, and Owen of course is the Production Designer on THE MATRIX, we talked and here I am.

MATRIX: Generally, how long is a pre-viz department on a production for?

RPIN: Usually pre-viz happens in pre-production. I think filmmakers are realizing now, the earlier they can get pre-viz on the project, the more beneficial it’s going to be for them. So, generally pre-viz is in pre-production and a lot times you go into part of production, because a lot of what you’re working on are scenes they’re going to be shooting later in the production schedule that they haven’t finished yet. Often, with the work that’s done in pre-viz, you become fairly intimate with the scene. Because you’re dealing with so many elements, you know the scene really well, so a lot of times it’s beneficial to be around on the day they actually shoot the scene. You might end up in post because there is so much digital data that you need to hand it off at some point, and to make the transition of handing it off smoother, it would be helpful to talk someone through all the models and finals. But most of the time you’re only in pre-production and a little bit into production.

MATRIX: Have you had the opportunity to read the scripts?

RPIN: Yes, that’s one of the first things we did. I was very excited to read the scripts because I really enjoyed the first movie. I was really interested to see where they were going to take it. From what I understand, it was always a bigger picture than the first movie anyway, which was really good to hear. The scripts are great, it’s really nice to be creating visuals and animations for a project that’s got a very creative origin and an engaging story. It’s not just about the visuals, the visuals support this idea. The scripts are pretty cool.

MATRIX: Thanks Rpin

Interview by REDPILL

May 2001

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