Interview with Sandy Stanton (Grip, Second Unit, USA) from The Matrix Reloaded (2003)

By Paul Martin June 19th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded

Archival interview with Sandy Stanton from the official Matrix website.

MATRIX: Could you enlighten everyone as to what a Grip is?

SANDY: Grips do a couple of things, we cut light in front of a light source, be it the sun or a light, we make shadows, and we also make the light softer. Anytime a camera is moving, or rigged in a strange place, like on top of a Condor [crane], pointing straight down from the sky, or on a car, truck, motorcycle, techno crane, crane, dolly, whatnot, it’s a Grip thing to make the rig.

MATRIX: How long have you been working in film as a Grip?

SANDY: I think it’s fifteen years I’ve been a Grip now. It shows in my hands, I’ve got a fair amount of calluses to prove that. I enjoy every minute of it, and every once in a while you get an assignment and you think, “Great!” I liked the first MATRIX, and I think this one will be just as good. I’m proud to work on it, you get lucky every once in a while.

MATRIX: In film, people often juggle from one position to another, but you’ve been a Grip for 15 years?

SANDY: Yes. Generally speaking it’s good to stick with one thing, we have a particular way of thinking. Occasionally I’ll go and help the electricians, we’re very close departments, but the Grip thing is its own little specialty. I love my life as a Grip, what can I say?

MATRIX: Do you remember what it felt like the moment you got the call to work THE MATRIX sequels?

SANDY: I thought, “This is great, I’ll be working on a film I might actually like to see.” Not that every film you do you don’t want to see, but most of the time you sort of wait till they show up on reruns on your television screen. This is one I’d actually go into the theatre and see, absolutely.

MATRIX: What are some of the other films you’ve worked on?

SANDY: I can’t even remember how many films I’ve worked on, but for memorable films, The Rock is a memorable film to a lot of people. I’ve worked on any big action film that has come through San Francisco: Nine Months, Mumford, A Smile Like Yours, many films.

MATRIX: The Rock is a big action movie, how does what you’ve seen for THE MATRIX sequels in the last few months compare?

SANDY: This film is a little more cerebral than that, I think. On this project we have more interesting looks, and what we’re doing is more interesting, the motorcycles are more interesting. Not to say that The Rock was a bad film or anything, but let’s face it, I haven’t really seen The Rock, and I’m not really interested. One of these days I’ll see it, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing THE MATRIX 2 and 3, or whatever they’re called, even if they’re only called THE MATRIX 2 and 3.

MATRIX: What made you decide to get into film?

SANDY: I probably wanted to direct many years ago, and then your life happens and reality sets in. What I like about what my job is that we get to solve complex problems on the spot. Sometimes we have advance notice and can be more prepared, but it’s a very hands-on old world meets new technology craft, and that’s what I enjoy about it. A lot of this film has to do with effects and things we have to do in order to achieve effects, but they still have to be done in the real world, and that’s what we’re here for, to make sure it all happens right.

MATRIX: How long have you been with the production now?

SANDY: Since the beginning [First Unit began filming on March 26th 2001]. We started about two days after First Unit started, I believe, and we spent a lot of time on the freeway doing the chase scene. This is the culmination of that, at least for us, today. Today is the last day for the Second Unit here in San Francisco, then we’ll have a couple of days of wrap. And then it’s off to the French Riviera, where most Grips take their holidays!

MATRIX: Describe the set up being shot now.

SANDY: We’re shooting this shot straight down, and it’s going to be matted into the shot with the twins’ car exploding. Although sometimes cars explode upon impact, it’s funny how in real life, often times, cars just don’t burst into flames. But it wouldn’t be a fun movie without that kind of shot. The explosions have been getting bigger and bigger throughout the day, I hope this next one is the big explosion, because everyone wants to see the big one. We were all a little disappointed when we only had a small one at first. I guess it’s that building crescendo of explosions idea. We protected the lens and the camera in flame proof materials – you don’t want to hurt those sensitive cameras, they are just a tool, but they’re a very important tool in the filmmaking process, so we’ve done all we can to protect them.

MATRIX: In all the films with explosions you’ve done, there has to be a time when the precautions taken to protect the camera were not enough.

SANDY: Yes, sometimes cameras take it. Generally speaking, you put Plexiglas in front of the lens or around the whole thing, and you can build boxes around the whole thing too. But physics happen, and sometimes things get hit and sometimes things get burned, that’s why they have insurance. If you want the shot, sometimes that means you have to sacrifice a piece of equipment, although that doesn’t happen very often.

MATRIX: What else did the Grip Department do in today’s set up?

SANDY: There is a condor with two cameras hanging down from it, pointing straight down so they can get the balls of flame rising up from the explosion. We made the rig so we could hang the cameras off the condor, and then we made them safe so they didn’t fall on the ground and hit people, or much worse than that, hurt the camera! Key Grip, Dave Childers, supervised the rigging, made sure the rigs were all fine, and everything has been going great all morning.

MATRIX: Talk about some of the technical challenges shots on the freeway presented.

SANDY: Pretty much every day out there we were thrown another challenge. Sometimes they were big challenges and sometimes they were little challenges but, on this show, we’ve rigged cameras just about anywhere you can imagine. We’ve rigged cameras on a moving truck, put cameras inside a semi truck as they smashed head on together, rigged cameras off the side and underneath a truck, on the front of a motorcycle, as well as on the side, and on the rear, also everywhere on a car, and on a car that rolled over. All those cameras have to be put there, so that’s pretty much what we did. We did a little lighting as well, but most of the lighting was done by Mother Nature… not to take anything away from our fabulous Second Unit Director of Photography, Kim Marks. We had work to do in the lighting department, but a lot of times, when you’re doing big exteriors, Mother Nature does the lighting.

MATRIX: There must have been days when the sun wasn’t out.

SANDY: Yeah, we waited on the sun a few of times, but remember the sun is always out, there might just be something in front of it. If it’s daytime, the sun is up, it’s that pesky cloud cover you have to worry about.

MATRIX: What would you say was the most challenging day you had on the Freeway set?

SANDY: We don’t just rig one vehicle and then sit around and wait for that to be done filming, then do another one; we have two or three or four or five going on at once. I think the single most challenging day was when we had five or six vehicles rigged, and they wanted us to rig another one. We were literally down to our last couple of parts to be able to do it with. We didn’t say we can’t do that, we don’t have enough equipment, no Production Manager wants to hear that, so we just had to make do. When that rig was done we literally had, I think, two pieces left over on our truck, and that was it.

MATRIX: Using that as an example, what were the parts you ran out of?

SANDY: When we mount a camera, the idea is to come up with a stable platform for the camera so it’s not subject to vibrations, other than what the vehicle itself is doing. We use an aluminum pipe called Speed Rail, with Speed Rail fittings. It’s called speed rail because it’s quickly manufactured – assembled and disassembled. Using these metal pipes allows us flexibility. In the old days you would have done a lot of this with wood, cutting wood and whatnot, but that wasted a lot of wood because you’re making a custom rig, then throwing it away and making another one. With the pipe, you can use it over and over and over again. That day we were running out of pipe and fittings, for the most part. We had to be very creative at the end because we ran out of all the easy pieces we needed, and we had to be more creative than usual in coming up with materials to make it happen.

MATRIX: For the shot where the semis were driving towards each other, as I understand it, there was a rig that pulled the camera back at the last minute.

SANDY: Yes, the snap back rig. That was a very interesting rig, but that was mostly a Special Effects Department rig. They were the people who had the arm that, just as the camera approached the other truck, the guy pulled the trigger, or it might have actually had a sensor, I’m not sure which, and the entire arm snapped back at an amazing rate of speed in order to clear the oncoming truck. That rig wasn’t at the actual smash, we did another rig inside that truck too, during the actual collision. For us it was just a matter of mounting onto their existing rig, and then making sure we did the usual things so the magazine in the camera didn’t shake around – you don’t want any movement other than the movement of the vehicle itself, so you lock it all down.

There was an amazing amount of pressure on that snap back rig. Inside each camera there is a pressure plate that keeps the film in the film plate at a very precise point. It’s not an easy thing to get in and out, it’s designed that way so the film won’t just plop out. The pressure of the snap back rig dislodged the film plate, and the Camera Assistant was worried that might have presented a problem, but calling the lab the next day they said they would have never known, everything worked fine. But we can’t take credit for that rig, that was the Special Effects Department, what those guys do is truly magic.

MATRIX: The freeway sequence presented some dangerous scenarios to both camera and people; how was it when you had to be right there in the action?

SANDY: Occasionally we mount a camera that needs to be manned with a camera person, maybe they’re doing a chase scene point of view and need to be going in and out of traffic at high speeds. Even though we give the camera person safety belts and make sure they’re harnessed in properly, often times they’ll require one of us to ride along to hold onto them because their concentration is with their eye behind the lens, and they can’t pay attention to external forces.

That’s one of the most exciting parts for the Grips, and most of us did that at one time or another. So then it becomes our job to get ourselves strapped in, but we’re mainly there to hold onto the camera person, so they can concentrate on what they’re doing. There were definitely some exciting moments involved in that. It’s an exciting chase scene, even at the speeds which we shoot them at, which aren’t usually the actual speed we film them in real life. When we’re doing a POV, we usually slow it down a little. You’re doing these radical maneuvers on a vehicle that’s essentially a big steak back truck, with a bunch of people all over it. The driver is doing one thing, and it’s fine when you’re hanging onto the wheel, but when you’re in the rear porch of an insert car, the physics equations whip those forces around quite a bit, so it can become quite an exciting ride.

MATRIX: How often did you get a chance to do that?

SANDY: Numerous times, I can’t wait to see the shots. The shots are going to be what’s really great, because I can imagine having been there, and it’s going to look really good.

MATRIX: Having spent so much time on the Freeway set, is there one particular shot that stands out as being the most exciting?

SANDY: The most exciting shot for me in the whole freeway sequence is the shot where you’re looking underneath Trinity’s overpass, and you see traffic passing underneath, then all of a sudden, right past your point of view, pass these beautiful Ducatis on top of a double-decker car carrier. To do that shot, Dave Childers came up with the idea of suspending the camera from a single pole. So we built a little box the camera could fit in, and as the bikes went by I think there was six inches clearance on either side of the box.

That was a very real situation where the cameras were at risk, were it not for a great driver (whose name escapes me right now, but the guy who did the driving of all the big rigs is an incredible driver). He just threaded that needle so, as the audience will see, the Ducatis pass right by at camera height. It’s a beautiful shot, the best from a Grip’s point of view, the most exciting. We had to get the camera out there and make sure everything worked and figure out how to get the camera assistants up there to change the magazines and whatnot. We did a number of takes on it, but it went really smoothly. It was a very simple, but at the same time dangerous, shot.

MATRIX: How did they set it up to thread the needle like that?

SANDY: We measured very carefully where the truck had to be, got all our clearances right, and rehearsed it at extremely slow speeds, then built it up and built it up. We made a line so the driver knew exactly where his tires were, because in real life it was very, very close. You’ll see the shot in the film, it won’t last that long, but you’ll definitely see the shot because it’s a key moment in this sequence. I look forward to seeing that on the big screen, definitely.

MATRIX: Have you had the opportunity to see any dailies at all?

SANDY: To tell the truth, I’d rather see the film in its entirety. The best seat in the house is the audience’s seat in the theatre. I mean, we’re here, the cameraman has a good view, but I’m a big believer that all the magic comes together in the final film. Having made a couple of little films myself, when the music, the sound effects and the dialogue is going on, that’s really the time to see the film. It’s like watching a symphony, a few people can appreciate rehearsals, but the time to see it is when they’re giving the performance. It’s the same with a film, when the Directors release the film: voila.

MATRIX: There are three sets here in Alameda; have you worked on all three?

SANDY: Ninety percent of my work has been on the freeway. I’ve visited the other sets, but I haven’t worked on them, so I haven’t got anything to say other than that they are incredible sets, and what a beautiful job by the Production Designer [Owen Paterson] and everyone who built the sets.

MATRIX: Do you think the sequels will push the envelope?

SANDY: Definitely. I think the first MATRIX broke, not exactly brand new ground, but it made a statement in a way a lot of films haven’t for a while. I think it will be interesting to follow this story and see what happens in the next couple of films.

MATRIX: Have you had any insight into what the plot is?

SANDY: Are you kidding me? Those storyboards for a lowly Grip like myself are under lock and key! Every once in a while I’ve seen a little glimpse here and there, but I know a lot about the sequence we’re doing. It’s taken us quite a while to do that, so I don’t expect too many surprises there, but I’m completely ready to see the whole film. I’ll just be like Joe Audience. I look forward to going in and having my own view, I don’t really want to know to tell you the truth, I’d rather wait.

MATRIX: Thanks Sandy.

Interview by REDPILL

June 2001

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