MATRIX: How did you get the gig on THE MATRIX sequels?
SUZANNE: I’d just come off a large job and was doing a freelance website, and I made a call to an old friend and asked if I could have a job. I had done some film work with her before and I’ve got a really varied history with all sorts of design and art making practices. I didn’t hear anything for three months and thought I’d go back to lecturing at The College of Fine Arts [part of the University of New South Wales in Paddington, Sydney] and then I got a call for an interview… which was possibly the worst interview I’ve ever had. The next day I got a call and I was on the job; I’ve been here since July 2001.
MATRIX: What is your background besides lecturing?
SUZANNE: I come from a visual arts background in photo media installation, which means I studied photography for three years. But I actually came from a painting background originally, so in a photo media degree that gets incorporated into making installations through whatever means you want to make them. I started doing graphics probably eight years ago as a sideline to make money because I worked out early on that I couldn’t waitress the rest of my life.
From getting lucky breaks and doing really cool jobs, I got asked to lecture within a photo media department and worked off and on there for about three and a half to four years. I continued to get interesting jobs that added layers to my graphics skills; I never formally studied design but a lot of my work is graphic orientated in that it’s very stylized and very Japanese clean work. I have done anything from producing metal anodized aluminum feet to posters as part of an installation.
MATRIX: Have you ever had an exhibition?
SUZANNE: Yes, I’ve been showing for ten years. The last show I had was a collaborative piece at Gitte Weise Gallery in Sydney, with another artist called Prue Murphy, and I took a whole room and basically created a porn shop. It wasn’t hard porn, it was just a take on the façade of Japanese culture, with a very proper top layer and a very insidious bottom layer of fetish and little girls and things. We did things like bellybutton ticklers, and fancy rings called finger ticklers; we did things like origami pleasurables, and little seats you could sit on that did things. It was set up like a shop including a door chime – when you walked in a little song played. Basically that whole show was graphic space because we made every piece of packaging in the show and sold it as shop goods.
GRAPHICS IN FILM
MATRIX: Where will we see your work in the sequels?
SUZANNE: There are hero graphics where you’re either working with the Props Department or with Set Decorating to design a particular thing, maybe a hand piece or some wall art that is essential to the part of the storytelling. For the majority of pieces, if they weren’t there your eye would miss them, and you’d question it. So it is doing anything from, say, in the Merovingian’s Great Hall we did a vinyl replica of the floor piece, so photos were taken and we recreated it.
MATRIX: That was the Terrazzo?
SUZANNE: Yes. Even though the Scenic Artists had made MDF [a type of wood] look like Terrazzo in marble, we had to then create a stunt floor that was soft enough for the actors and the stunt guys to fall on so that visually, once it was composited, you couldn’t tell that they were actually falling onto a vinyl soft mat. That piece is featured, so it is something graphic that you would notice.
Other pieces are things like in some of the train stations where there’s a lot of signage – exit, entry, no smoking, surveillance cameras, directional signage – that you probably wouldn’t regard as anything design oriented, but if it wasn’t there you would say it was just a set. Part of what I do is make something believable and make it look real.
MATRIX: For the posters in the stations, what kind of direction were you given from the Art Director and Production Designer?
SUZANNE: Because it’s the Matrix and aesthetically it’s a very set look – we’re not trying to create real life essentially – it’s always muted colors, it’s never bright. We have our color guides of no blue and no green in certain areas – no blue in the Matrix and no green in the real world.
The idea of the posters is for them to not jump out, although in normal promotional advertising you’d want your poster to reach a lot of people. This is so that when someone sees that scene their eye knows it’s advertising, but they don’t really look at anything; nothing jumps out to them because we’re not copying any brand. Copyright is a huge part of doing graphics, I have to get everything cleared: names and towns and artwork and references all have to get cleared before we’re allowed to actually get them printed.
MATRIX: Who is responsible for that?
SUZANNE: The Clearance Department at Warner Bros. in America. We send off an email with all the artwork in there asking if it is okay to use it, and saying where I got everything from. I ask if I can I use this work, if I can create this business name, if I can create this street name etc, and they say, yes, no, yes, yes, and then you’ve got your list of what you can use. With the posters, it’s essentially my job to make them look interesting but to also look like advertising.
Because we’re working to such a tight schedule and I tend to be really, really busy, sometimes we do a block of clearance names. For instance, three months ago we got something cleared and of that list twenty names were okayed, I’ll reuse those because your eye won’t pick it.
It is the same with a lot of the graphics: because everything has to be cleared we can’t use clipart and certain fonts can’t be used. I do sneaky things like go and get stills from the actual movie and use them as photos because we don’t have to check for copyright because we own the photos; I change them enough so they’re not related to a scene. That is one way I’ve got ‘round the copyright issues. Sometimes I do what I call a courtesy clearance, where I say what I’m doing, even though I know it’ll be fine. Other times, especially with names and business names and that sort of thing or where I have got an influence off the web – say I need a picture of a toaster to be able to recreate it – I have to reference that and they check whether it’s too close or not. All copyright issues get sorted before we even go to print.
MATRIX: How do the names come into being before you even send them off to be cleared?
SUZANNE: It depends on how important the scene is I guess. I will talk with anyone from the Production Designer because he might have a particular idea about something, to the Art Directors and the Assistant Art Directors, who will give me direction. I get them to fill out a little form that tells me what they’re doing so I’m ordered and organized. For instance, with the Nebuchadnezzar plates in the first film where you saw a really corroded nameplate for the ship, we’ve done those for every ship following that look. There was an in-gag that came from the first movie that they were based on biblical passages in the Bible, so I would get on the net, look up “thunderstorm”, see which passages had a corresponding phrase or passage out of the Bible, and we’d use those numbers.
So that is sometimes how we do naming. Other times, like in the Rerouting Facility for instance, where I had to do all those buttons with words on them, I looked up engineering pages and things like that. We know the camera is never going to go close up, but why not do it as properly as we can? I even have to get those cleared, so I’ll get the names off the web, change them, change the numbers, change some of the code names, and get that cleared.
If I haven’t been given a particular direction, like with the railway stations, Owen [Paterson] the Production Designer told us that it was somewhere in Chicago. So I researched Chicago transit systems and looked for particular types of names, knowing that it was a Polish area. I made up all the names, and then run them past Owen or the Art Director, and we go from there. In this case the Directors actually made up a name – we don’t know what it means but it’s probably an amalgam of a few things.
MATRIX: The crew also like their in-jokes; where can we see crew members’ names?
SUZANNE: Brian Dusting, the Set Decorator, likes to play a lot of jokes with his crew. We created fake newspapers, so we had the Dusting Daily, and in the Oracle’s Apartment we had a book called Ten Things To Do With Toast, which was to do with Marian [Murray, Assistant Set Decorator] and Hannah Knowlton [ Set Decoration Buyer/Dresser]. We do little things using crew names because we’ve cleared their names. If we made up a John Smith who wasn’t actually someone here that signed off saying we can use their name, John Smith out there could sue us.
In the Rerouting Facility we had to be particularly careful with the security guards’ names on their security cards. We took a photo of the actor and we got the whole Art Department to sign off their names saying that we could use their names, so each actor actually had his own photo, but with someone from the Art Department’s name on there, so they became a character.
MATRIX: The security room in the Rerouting Facility looked eerily real with all the everyday details, like sticky notes and breadcrumbs on the desk.
SUZANNE: It’s interesting that you said it looked real, that’s the whole point. By the time each person fulfilling their role has come together – I have given Set Decorating the things they need as props, and then they fill it in with sticky notes and crumbs and dirty dishes – the whole thing comes together to look like a messy room for security guards. The things that we did were a lot of the hanging notes, timesheets, the punch-cards, phone lists, car registration lists, the sign-in, and all those little office things. None of it is really bought; it’s all made.
THE SUBWAY STATIONS
MATRIX: For the train station there was also a Burlyman poster created.
SUZANNE: Burlyman is the working name of this production. Instead of saying I work for THE MATRIX, I say I work for the Burlyman production. I think it’s a leftover from the first film; a lot of these artworks were done in the first film. The Directors like to have a lot of fun with what they see, because they know that it’s not necessarily in camera or in shot, and you might see it for half a second if that. They can afford to have their own in-gags and things happening in there, and I think that keeps it interesting.
The Burlyman poster was a file left over from the first film and we just changed some of the names around on it and printed a big poster. It fitted the requirement of being ambiguous, nondescript, muted colors, and it looks like advertising – it has enough information in the graphic to look like something, but it’s not anything really. It’s just for the people who know about it.
MATRIX: Were all the names made up in the subway map you created?
SUZANNE: Yes, we looked up what was happening in Chicago and what they called some of their things, then I changed them slightly so they sounded similar but we couldn’t get sued for copyright for someone else owning the name, and sent them off to get cleared. For things like the actual map itself we created a background that looks like everything you’ve ever seen, but it’s from nowhere, and the train lines are just shapes with color coding. Essentially, once you put all those things together with the City Rail logo and a legend at the bottom it looks like any other rail map you’ve ever seen.
MATRIX: Are you responsible for creating the City Rail logo?
SUZANNE: No. And unfortunately I didn’t get a CD when I arrived saying this is all the work from the last film – a lot of it had to be recreated and re-sourced. I did things like City Power for this film because it wasn’t on the first film, but City Rail was used in the first film because they had a train station scene. Luckily I’m dealing with the same company that produces those final media and they had the file. Once you put all the elements together you can trick someone into thinking that it’s real.
MATRIX: How much time did you spend on the main train station set?
SUZANNE: From the time I started it, probably two and a half to three weeks, and that’s with Diana coming in and helping me do research and clearance and things like that. You tend to work either dressing a set like that with advertising and posters and things, or actually physically creating menus and hand props and lighting details and elevator panels, etc. So Diana also got to do some set dressing elements as well.
MATRIX: Recently a scene was shot in a real train station in Sydney; how do you deal with signs that are real?
SUZANNE: That was St. James station. The signs were covered up and we made fake ones. As Hugh [Bateup, Supervising Art Director] joked, the No Smoking sign got covered up with a No Smoking sign. With the power station for instance, when they signed to do a location shoot, that particular power station gave them in their contract rights to use the image of it. I’m not sure whether it was the same with St. James. We actually created every sign and stuck it over the top. So if it was a directional sign, the name of a platform, a no smoking sign, a surveillance sign, they were all signs or stickers, or fake advertising again to go in the billboards, and fake City Rail maps. Everything was stuck on at five o’clock in the morning and taken off again that night.
MATRIX: Signs are all completely different sizes; how did you make the right number of signs and the right size?
SUZANNE: It gets very complicated – that’s why I have a little form and am quite tough about getting people to fill it in correctly, because then I can go check, check, check, I’ve got it right. This set was with Karen Murphy, one of the Assistant Art Directors, and she went on location and did a reconnaissance and measured everything, including all the signs. Then I got a list of all the signs with all the sizes written down and how many, ie: there are six No Smoking signs at 330 x 365.
MATRIX: Do you try and visit locations before starting on the graphics?
SUZANNE: Often I try and go down to the sets, but it depends how busy I am. If I have a look at what a set looks like, I’m influenced by the color, and even though you get color boards and concepts for things, it’s often much better to go down and physically see the set.
Scale is also very important. For the Rerouting Facility Exterior, I had to do No Parking stencils and things like that. In your mind you think they’re a certain size, and when you actually get the measurement you may think that’s too big, so I either go down to set to see the scale, or I do large printouts in black and white to scale so I can see from a distance that it looks the right size. Nothing would stand out more than if the graphics weren’t the right scale. It doesn’t matter how nice the design is, if it doesn’t look big enough or small enough, it doesn’t sit right.
MATRIX: How did the Tastee Wheat posters come about?
SUZANNE: I was asked to put in some preliminary concept ideas to the Directors for what kind of billboards they would want. Obviously we used our Powerade and Heineken promotional merchandising, so we got graphics from them and they were some of the posters. The Directors came back saying they like in-jokes, like in the first film in the Neb Mess Hall scene where Mouse talks about Tastee Wheat. From that we got the script and had a look at the other words used in that. It’s a cereal, so I researched cereal boxes to see what they all look like and chose to go with a kind of caricature fun fifties look instead of a photographic look because photos are always so hard to clear, and this all has to be original. I have been so busy that I have had Diana [Valia Chen, Art Dept Production Assistant] helping me with a lot of work, and this was something she worked on.
MATRIX: Did you also create the catch phrase for Tastee Wheat?
SUZANNE: That was from the script – you use things you can draw things out of. It’s close enough to look like any other cereal advertising slogan, but when you read it it’s not very true – it’s not everything your body needs. But it looks like it should in real life and it’s from the script, so the gag is there. People in the know will get that, as well as fans who are obsessed by the first MATRIX. Other people will miss it entirely.
MATRIX: Those are life-size subway station posters; how did you go about getting them manufactured?
SUZANNE: For budgetary reasons there are different areas that you try and cover. If you know that it’s going outdoors in potentially wet weather, you do a sign in vinyl that looks like a road sign or a name sign, because then it’s not a problem. Or you do bus or vehicle decals because they’re easy for the guys to rip on and off on location; they’re not trying to get something sticky off. Other things like billboards or back-lit billboards are sent out. Any supplier we use to create large pieces for us that we can’t possibly create in-house (we can only do small things in-house) we get to sign a confidentiality agreement, and then they’re legally bound to protect what they’re doing for us.
MATRIX: So you use companies who produce posters?
SUZANNE: Yes, they’re just like any company that say, Toyota, would get a five meter billboard from. We ask them to do one for us and we pay commercial rates.
MATRIX: Do they ever look at you askew and wonder what you are asking them to do?
SUZANNE: We’re very picky, compared to a more commercial company advertising their car. If they see their poster up on a highway they’re probably going to be pretty happy with the resolution and the color from a distance, whereas we’re very, very picky about samples and color and how it fits. I think we’re probably a little more difficult as a client in that way. Our turnaround requirements are always the next day, and these people are commercial vendors so they do things how they do them, which is often a four day turnaround, so we’re always pushing them to get it done quickly.
MATRIX: To get the colors right do you check the colors as they come off the machine?
SUZANNE: Sometimes we do. With the floor in the Great Hall we had a lot of trouble because different resolutions affect color, and different media affects the way a color comes out. We had a definite floor we had to match to, it wasn’t as though we were creating a billboard where if it’s a slightly different green we don’t care. In this case where we were trying to match it, even the resolution affected the look of it and we had to get that redone. We had something like fifteen color tests done where we’d be looking at each piece of the design and matching, asking them to swing the color this way and swing the color that way, until they got it right on a six to seven meter print [19 to 23 feet].
MATRIX: What material was it printed on?
SUZANNE: It was printed on vinyl, like those awful plastic tablecloths, but a bit heavier. All these media are coated with a receptive film that will accept the ink and the color. The vinyl was stuck down on foam so that when they were coming down it wasn’t a hard floor they were falling on.
MATRIX: With the number of vehicles on this show, you must have had to create numberplates [license plates].
SUZANNE: Yes. I always thought you couldn’t reproduce numberplates, but apparently we are allowed; it’s a given. There are different avenues: you can either do the artwork and send it to a company and get the physical metal numberplate made or, what we’ve tended to do here because our turnaround is so quick, is actually vac-form a numberplate and totally recreate the vinyl. I’m doing one now where I have to adjust the letters so they fit to something that’s already existing so that when you get it, it looks right. We have to physically mold the numberplate with the bevels and the numbers that are beveled into it, and then put vinyl on top so it looks real and you can see the depth of bevel in there. If it looks okay within a meter, you’re fine.
MATRIX: Does Prop Manufacture produce the numberplates?
SUZANNE: Yes, they have a molding area with people that are very, very good at molding. Depending on what it is, say, making ten copies of an existing plate we already have from America that we shot in the highway scene, they would do a mold of it, give me the mold, and I’ll measure it all and make the letters fit and do the vinyl. The one I’m doing now was recreated from scratch, so they got the letters off me, made bucks [stand-in numbers] out of MDF and molded them into plastic. Then they gave it back to me, and I am doing the graphics to fit it, because once you put dimension in there it changes what a flat graphic looks like.
MATRIX: Where do the numbers on the plates come from?
SUZANNE: They’re all biblical passages. Trinity’s motorcycle plate PS356 is psalm 3 dot 5 point 6 from the Bible. I’ve forgotten what it means – it’s something about the revolution and power, but it’s all related and has essentially been drawn from the script. It’s good to have a guideline when naming. You could make any number up, but it’s certainly more fun to do something like that and have something that people kind of get.
MATRIX: What experience have you had that has prepared you for creating numberplates?
SUZANNE: Art making. I have painted a twenty meter [65.5 feet] wall with latex and made hospital gowns out of latex – I just make things. If you can think in 3D, that helps you to translate things. It’s quite different from, say, being a magazine layout designer and always thinking in 2D and page layout. On this job it’s essential to be able to think in 3D and see how something is going to sit in a different media, like metal or plaster or something.
MATRIX: Did you also have to label all the trucks with business names?
SUZANNE: Yes, those were created because we can’t have a business suing us because we used their logo or sticker, so they’re all made up logos. There’s City Metro (that’s the bus company we made up), there’s City Waste. Everything is City – something; all the facilities are “City” related. There are also City Rail, City Post and City Power. We make the decals out of vinyl, as you would find on any vehicle, and that’s how it’s done in real life, so that’s why it does look real.
MATRIX: The Residents’ Area apartment doors had a red plate with Braille on it; where did that idea come from?
SUZANNE: Brian Dusting, Head of Set Decoration, came to see me and said he needed some doorplates made but that they didn’t want numbers, they wanted something different – he was thinking Braille. I said great, I’ve done Braille work. I played around with the idea, he liked what I did so we got them etched into metal.
MATRIX: Does the Braille say anything?
MATRIX: Is there a significance to the door number?
SUZANNE: Yes, each of them has a different pattern. Logically it doesn’t make sense, you have to know where you live unless you understand your pattern, but it’s trying to indicate a different language or a different way of reading something that is not door numbers, because there are a lot of door numbers in this film. This was something different because it was in Zion, so we could do a look that would have that aged appeal and look a bit more primal or tribal. Like it had its own culture, rather than just being a door number.
MATRIX: Commander Lock’s Office spoke volumes about his character.
SUZANNE: In terms of the actual set design I didn’t have anything to do with it, but in terms of Lock’s table and the hanging racks of old aged maps and graphics, that’s what I worked on. They’ve been living underground for a long time, and they’re trying to put together a strategy to fight the Sentinels that are coming down. They know they’re coming down; they’ve seen on their thermal printouts that they’re coming, so all those maps were different layouts of sewer tunnels and mainlines, and all ways in and out of Zion and where they can block the Sentinels off. They were meant to represent maps from thirty or forty years ago that would show them all the tunnels and things they haven’t used yet – all the lines they can get through – that’s why they were aged. Lock’s table, like the Dock Area, gives a bit of a hint of what Zion actually looks like in its place in the Earth. Lock’s Office was meant to look like a strategist’s room.
MATRIX: Did you design the map showing the placement of Zion within the earth?
SUZANNE: No, the look of Zion originally comes from the concept sketches, and that was then translated by Sergei [Chadiloff, CAD Computer Modeler] into a stylized look, and then I put it into a grid with a look of data output, like a plan. Sergei and I crossover a lot, we take things from each other, but for these ones he did the internals and he did all the sewer lines, working really closely with Owen and following the script. For instance, there’s a particular junction that they point to in the script, so of course it has to be there, I just put it together in a plan format so it would look like an old plan.
MATRIX: When was the decision made to etch it into glass?
SUZANNE: That was a discussion between Cindi Knapton, the Assistant Art Director working on that set, and Owen, and they decided that we were going to have that look. There was much discussion about that: initially we were going to have moving graphics, but we actually worked out through lighting and budget requirements to do it that way. It’s a process, your original idea may change due to various things.
SETS WITHIN THE MATRIX
MATRIX: How did you approach the Chinese Alleyway?
SUZANNE: The Assistant Art Director [Karen Murphy] gave me some background research material that she had done, and I have a particular love affair with Japanese and Asian packaging and the look of Asian graphics, so I already go for that look anyway. If you take a walk through any Chinatown around the world, it is a crossover of so many different styles, and that’s the look you go for. If they were all clean and all the same numbers on the doors it wouldn’t look right. So we painted some things on, we had some signs that were backlit, we had some sign written, and some things were vinyl on glass. So it all looked completely different.
MATRIX: There was also Heineken sign on that set; how do you work with product placement?
SUZANNE: I tend to work with product placement with Hugh quite closely because he’s the middle man; he was the person talking to whatever company we’re working with. They come to us and say they’d really like a Heineken sign here and then we discuss concepts: whether we should do a round sphere like the Heineken sign itself, do the normal rectangle of a light box, or do the pill shape because that’s the gag we like using. You know, alluding to swallowing the red pill or the blue pill.
We sent off some concepts to Heineken and they liked the pill shape, so then I researched the different types of casing a light box could be made in, and we decided on more of a MATRIX-feel black rubber textured, slick looking light box would suit that graphic. Heineken sent the graphic for us to use, we didn’t make that graphic; they were very particular how they wanted their new can to look. We had to resize the graphics to fit, but essentially it was their design.
Once that was all done we got it made. Props Manufacture made the light box, and then we got together with the Lighting Department to make sure it could be lit properly and what sort of tubes needed to be put in, which affected the way the box was actually made. And then it gets dressed in on the set.
MATRIX: Do you take a photo of the set once the product placement is there and have that approved by Heineken?
SUZANNE: No, we have final approval of where it goes. It’s a courtesy consideration to run the design by them, therefore if there is any major thing that’s not done correctly, they can point it out before it has been made. Once the look has been signed off on, it’s up to us where we put it.
MATRIX: Which sets are you most proud of?
SUZANNE: My four favorite sets would be Le Vrai Restaurant, which is one of the first ones done. The Chinatown Alley was fun, the Rerouting Facility Computer Room was fun, and Hel Night Club was beautiful.
MATRIX: Tell us about the Hel Night Club.
SUZANNE: I didn’t have a lot to do on that. All the patterns and floor patterns were part of the Props Department – it’s funny how it gets broken up – it doesn’t mean that because it’s graphical-looking I necessarily do it, and vice versa. In the Hel Coat Check I did a sign that was cut out of metal that said Check Your Guns Here. So I would go down and make sure that was lit properly on set, and see that it got installed correctly.
MATRIX: Did you know that the set was going to have a metal-like look?
SUZANNE: Yes, you see the concept drawings and you see the plans. I always go by the plan; that’s how I know the size of everything. I’ll also talk to the person who has designed it about what look it has, and usually you are inspired from that. That set was concrete, so metal would look good with that – you wouldn’t do a nice carved wood sign for a place like that.
MATRIX: How much discussion is there before you go ahead and do something?
SUZANNE: Not a lot. I’ll get a request for something and I sort of know what it should look like and I just ask questions along the way. I usually try to put together a few options and then have a meeting because then there’s something to talk about. There’s not usually a big pre-design meeting, there’s a briefing, and it’s after I’ve done something that we have a point to go from.
MATRIX: Do you design the graphics on a computer or by hand?
SUZANNE: I’m traditionally a drawer; and I still always tend to map things out. My experience comes in with having been a researcher for ten years with a visual art practice: you know where to look for things, you understand color and you understand form really well, so you actually get quite quick at it. For instance, for the Industrial Loft I have to do a wall piece of old faded art, so I’m looking up fifties posters and Japanese Manga, I’m even looking up old tin boxes to get the look, and I brought some things in. Then I’ll draw some ideas maybe, or just do it on the computer.
With this job, being able to work really, really quickly is incredibly important. There’s not the conceptual research time to do a few drawings, then go and see Owen and get them changed. You have to pretty much have things on the boil and then get a few changes made. It is pretty much up to you to get the look happening, so I use a variety of things.
MATRIX: Which computer programs do you use?
SUZANNE: Primarily Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop. They’re the two main tools because you’re drawing and doing text and drawing again.
MATRIX: Were you a fan of the first film?
SUZANNE: Oh yes, it has been a great opportunity; I saw the first film ten times. I was obsessed with the look; I thought it was the sexiest film I’d seen in a long time and loved the look. What a bonus to be able to work on something that you really, really like the look of and the story!
MATRIX: Thank you very much, Suzanne.
Interview by REDPILL