Interview with Trevor Smith (Prop Manufacture Manager) from The Matrix Reloaded and Revolutions (2003)

By Paul Martin May 14th, 2012, in Official Interviews, The Matrix Reloaded, The Matrix Revolutions

Archive interview with Trevor Smith from the official Matrix website.

THE ORIGINAL FILM

MATRIX: Having been involved on the original film, can you compare and contrast from then to now?

TREVOR: It’s the same amount of stress but it was organized a lot differently. This has been by far the best organized movie I’ve worked on; the first one was framed together a little bit at the last minute. There’s a lot more money spent on this project compared to the first one, which means that we’re doing a lot more interesting things and a lot more larger things, which has been good. On the first film we had probably between 20 and 30 people in Prop manufacture, and on the sequels the most we’ve had is 65 at one time, which is double the amount of what it was last time.

The time frame turn over of sets has been pretty intense because it has been a 3 or 4 day turn around, so we’re just trying to keep one step ahead of everybody. On the first one, we seemed to have a lot of pre-production where there was a lot of thought about what was needed at the time. The only thing that happened that was really insane on the first one was right at the end where they had a certain amount of time to finish the remainder of the sets and it was a nightmare, whereas this one has been methodical. It’s another set, then another set, then another set, and you just have to keep up with it.

MATRIX: What was your reaction on first seeing THE MATRIX?

TREVOR: That it was outstanding, a landmark; there have been many movies since then that have copied the effects THE MATRIX had when it came out. I’m very proud to have worked on that movie; it made all the hard work worthwhile, which was just fantastic.

MATRIX: Between the original film and the sequels, what have you been up to?

TREVOR: I have been working full time. I have my own company so I still manage to do that, even now, and I’ve worked on about 4 or 5 movies, which have kept me employed full time since the first film. I’ve worked on Star Wars, Down Under, The Thin Red Line, as well as small TV shows and cop shows; whatever comes around. My company does prop manufacturing and miniatures, similar to what I do when I’m employed fully on movies, but unfortunately I can’t devote as much time to doing that because this is my real love – I love movies. I try and do that on weekends and evenings and employ people on the sideline. At the moment, for instance, there are a few cop shows that are on channel 7 and channel 10 and I’ve done acid dip guns, fake guns, soft weapons, soft props for stunts, dead bodies, and things like that for them.

MATRIX: What were some of the more memorable props you produced on the first film?

TREVOR: Everything that we did was memorable. We did the Bug Extractor, the Ecto Chairs, the bomb the first time around when they’re in the lobby, the pods, all the ships; it was just amazing. Being a prop manufacturer, it has been perfect – not all movies have this amount of props.

If you take the Bug Extractor, it took one person probably 3 or 4 months constantly working on it to machine all of that up. It went through two or three prototyping or design stages, then it had to be practical – it had to actually work – it had to be put into a box, pulled out of a box and used in the back of a car and in a dark situation, and it had to be easy for the actor to use. When you make something, it doesn’t always have to be those all things, so the development stage on the Extractor was happening right until the end. When it was shot we had to make allowances for certain things they wanted to do. There were lots of attachments that were put onto it that made it do the extra little things and updates.

MATRIX: Can describe what worked on it, because its degree of functionality is not clear in the film.

TREVOR: No, it wasn’t given the air time it actually deserved for the amount of money that was spent on it. It had probably about 50 or 60 miniature and subminiature micro ADs inlaid into the actual head of it. It also had spring loaded claw arms that could actually attach around a part of a human body, but not strongly enough to pierce a human body, so there was a lot of playing around with all of that. The piston was all hand made, and the up and down movement once the trigger was pulled was all air driven, the rams couldn’t be purchased so they were all hand machined and hand made. The handles all flipped out and all the lights came on; it was an amazing little thing. I believe Geof Darrow [Conceptual Designer] did the original sketch and then Owen [Paterson, Production Designer] passed it on through the Art Department.

THE ECTO CHAIRS

MATRIX: The Bug Extractor won’t be seen in the sequels, but the Neb’s Ecto Chairs live again.

TREVOR: In every ship in some way have used the chairs, and if not the chair, the skeleton frame that actually supports all the cushions. The cushions have been replaced and they’ve been oriented different ways in the chair for different ships. They’ve been used a lot but they were built so well for the first film that even though they’ve traveled the world they’ve now lasted another 17 months, which has been fantastic. Basically, the rest of each Main Deck is similar; the monitor bezels have changed – there have been lights replaced in them – and other subtle changes like color changes, but the headrests and the jacks are still very much the same.

MATRIX: What was some of the process in building those chairs?

TREVOR: At the time, they weren’t built to last, they were built in the best way that we knew how to support somebody and to have the hydraulic rams push against bare metal. We didn’t want them to break and we knew that there was going to be a lot of acting around them on the Neb Main Deck; there was a lot of action in that set, with effects and stunts. Like the Bug Extractor, the chairs were one of those things that we had a lot of preparation for, so the design stage started very early on and we went through 4 or 5 prototyping stages. We had fittings on steel frame chairs and we made patterns and adjusted the patterns, then we had it all cast and machined – everything was built from scratch, the stainless steel components and everything, there was no expense spared. Ultimately they were made to last, but not because we knew they’d be used again; we never knew there was going to be a sequel then.

MATRIX: Do you remember the time frame it took from prototyping?

TREVOR: I’d say at least 3 or 4 months working solid, from the first time I saw a sketch of this very organic looking thing that Geof Darrow drew, to the time when Sergei [Chadiloff, CAD Computer Modeler] did his renderings of what he thought it would need to be made to actually fit a person. Sergei had to make sure someone would be comfortable in the chair, that there was lumbar support, headrests, and that you could adjust from a 5 ft person to a 6 ft 5 person; there were so many different things. Someone can do a beautiful sketch but that doesn’t mean it’s going to be practical, so there were about 3 or 4 months of prototyping and then machining. The Steel Department was involved and Prop Manufacture was involved, it was a big project.

MATRIX: Film crews often like to subtly make their mark on a film; how did you find the opportunity to make your mark on the Neb?

TREVOR: Very subtly – on the foot plates of the chairs my initials are incorporated into the design – not many people knew even then. Basically, myself and one other person Dion Horstmans [Prop Maker] made the patterns for the chair, and before we sent them off to the foundry it was just one of those unique opportunities that are very rare where you can do anything. It started off with people doing other things – there are other names on the chair like Sergei’s company, Liquid Motion Design – so I was given a foot plate, which was a template the size of a foot. I thought I’d put some tread in it and I imagined the tread would still be there but it would be dressed in a way to do my initials, which worked out quite well because even if you stare at the foot plates you can’t see it until it is pointed it out. People don’t realize because you take a lot of things for granted on a set; you’re not looking at one individual thing.

MATRIX: What was your first reaction when you saw Geof’s illustration of the chair?

TREVOR: I thought he needed to get help because he was asking too much, but in all seriousness you have to go through that creative stage. The hoses make up a lot of what he drew in that first picture and what we were making was a chair, so we needed to get rid of all that and make a bare skeleton of a chair and then all the dressing came on after. When you see the first sketch of a finished set as dimly lit as it’s going to be shot, you have a lot of questions, which is good; it gives you a good test.

MATRIX: Originally, how many chairs did you make?

TREVOR: Six, and then the Operator’s chair; so there were seven all up. We haven’t made any more Ecto Chairs, but we’ve copied chairs and we’ve had to make fake ones to deal with the different units that have been shooting at the same time. We’ve made six “Son of Ecto” chairs, which are the Command Center chairs where we have taken the same cushion style and we’ve copied the cast look of the Ecto Chairs. They’re not floating, they’re four legged, and they sort of span away from each other so it looks like they’re floating.

MATRIX: How does seeing the first film affect your ability to tackle the huge task of the sequels?

TREVOR: It helps to understand Owen, the Production Designer, a bit better because we worked together before on the first film. Understanding the finishes and the lighting of the sets is helpful so you don’t spend more money and time on something unnecessarily, like the Bug Extractor, which didn’t really get the air time. In hindsight we would have made it a lot simpler… but then we got grilled on the price of the chairs, which have paid for themselves over and over again.

THE SEQUELS

MATRIX: Has your role changed from the original to the sequels?

TREVOR: No, I was doing the same job I am now, the titles have changed, that is all. On the first film I think my title was Leading Hand or Foreman, which was the highest you could go before Supervisor. On this movie, because of the scale of it, they tried to place more distance between the levels and because there are so many more skilled people – Engineers, Steel Fabricators, Laborers, Foremen, Leading Hands and Managers – and that’s what I ended up being on the sequels [Property Manufacture Manager], and the Supervisor is still the Supervisor. Back then I oversaw all of the jobs that were coming in, ordered for all the jobs and did labor allocation, but I was still on the floor making props. At the moment, I’m overseeing all of the sets and not doing so much making. I do miss it a tad, but you can’t do both – it’s impossible.

MATRIX: What have been some of the challenging props you’ve worked on for the sequels?

TREVOR: The working conditions on these sequels have just been fantastic. I couldn’t have asked for a better partner [Peter Wyborn, Prop Manufacture Supervisor] to work with for the last 17 months; we basically just took to each other and jumped from one set to another. The quantities of some of the props that will be happening this time around will be quite impressive. The APU itself has taken quite a considerable amount of time from prototyping, construction and then animation, which has been a learning process on set, similar to the chairs and the Bug Extractor. There was only ever one made so it’s going to be hard to visualize the fact that we made one when you see it up on the screen and there’s this war going on. There would have been an APU Department if you had to make more than one because it was such a monstrous project. The ammunition loaders that we’ve made that load the ammo into APUs, have hydraulics and pneumatics involved, the same as the APU. We’ve also done a whole range of endless Sentinels – we’ve brought them to life and made more Sentinels than we care to imagine – there’s an army of them.

MATRIX: Were conceptual illustrations done to show the guts of the Sentinels when they’re damaged?

TREVOR: Yes, in Geof’s drawings; he did very elaborate drawings, but it was impossible to completely recreate that because we didn’t have the money. It’s like the baby in the first film: we made a rubber shell of a beautiful baby, and no one believes that there were pneumatics and hydraulics inside it, as well as cable controls. With the Sentinels, like at the end of the first MATRIX, we had to go in there with plastic buckets and recycled garbage and hoses and pipes, and dress it to look like guts. That was all done in about two weeks, with goop for all the guts. We tried to use the original sketches and to understand that its outer shell is essentially like a tank but it’s like a living being on the inside. But then again it’s computer made, so it’s an interesting idea when someone gives you a brief like that, it sort of freaks you out in a way… you’ve got a couple of cups, a couple of hoses and you’re off! Painting really helps as well – the Scenic Department has been fantastic on these films. We’ve got some people working that department who could make a cup look like a lethal weapon just by airbrushing and painting it! It’s really the whole process; it’s the design, it’s the drawing concept, it’s the prototyping and the manufacturing and then the painting that helps it become a real thing and believable.

MATRIX: How does it affect your work to hand a prop off to the Special and Visual Effects Departments?

TREVOR: We have always done that; although it is developing more these days. The skills of the visual effects team are getting better, but they still can’t quite achieve the perfect model, so that’s why we’re still involved. I took 6 months out between Mission Impossible and another movie to do a 3-D animation modeling training course, so I learned how to do all of that, which has helped me understand why they put dots on people and to understand what they need. It has helped us on these films as well because you have no idea what they’re doing – you see something done with green screen and you wonder why – working together as a team is the ultimate goal. You try and achieve the same thing together, rather than being in separate departments and headlocking. Everyone has been quite approachable on these films, which has been quite good; as big as it is everyone is still able to talk to each other and help each other.

MATRIX: How many Lightning Guns were made for the first film?

TREVOR: Two or three, it was just Cypher’s gun for killing; his little hand gun that was hiding under a blanket, and now everybody has got one, like a mobile phone! Basically, it’s being re-worked for the sequels, and this time around there will be bazookas as well. The bazooka saves the day, in some way. All of the Lightning Guns were the benchmarks then for the style for hand guns. It was good working on the first movie because now you have an idea, as I was saying before, of the lighting and the finishing and the style that the movie is going to be set in. This time around, a lot of the hard work has been done, you know that all the sets are going to be heavily textured and all sort of grungy with exposed pipes and cables and hose. It was easier making guns and extra weapons and single barrel bazookas and double barrel bazookas because we’d already made the Lightning Guns.

It’s all well and good making a prop, but the finishing of a prop is another thing that makes it look like it belongs in the world. Someone has come along and repaired a panel, or someone has come along and because they’ve got a sore hand, they’ve put a bit of tape around one of the knobs because it was easier to use. Little touches like that make it look the part.

MATRIX: Do you look at each piece individually to try and come up with those personalities?

TREVOR: Yes, at least I hope that everybody who works in Prop Manufacture does, but unfortunately not everybody can have that sort of input. I’ve been very lucky. For instance, with the Logos Operator’s chair, I designed the legs and the base plates, and used the original base of the Neb chair, the cushion itself, and the main steel underneath straight from the Neb Main Deck. The difference is that we’ve floated that chair on a steel frame, so we’ve designed the legs so it didn’t have to float out from an inner core, and now it has 4 legs; it’s the same chair but redeveloped. That chair has been on two sets, although you wouldn’t know it. We had to re-dress it for the Command Center Operator’s chair, and now it’s in the Logos.

MATRIX: How many props get recycled?

TREVOR: On these films, with the amount of ships we’ve been on, thank goodness they didn’t want us to make all the chairs! We’ve still made a lot of chairs, and we’re still doing Virtual Control chairs that, towards the end of the movie, you would expect to be a grungy old chair. But no, the Virtual Control chair is a state of the art, pristine pure white chair that is floating on two little straps, which is an adjustable height thing, and dome bases and it has got all this rear projection lighting. They’ll be shot on a stage, but as a simple set construction of a little flat with the 6 chairs in there and the rest is in green screen. The entire set is white so it doesn’t make the model maker’s life any easier – it’s the worst color, white. Anything that is white is double the price.

THE APU

MATRIX: What was the time frame involved for the creation of the APU?

TREVOR: There was a specific team involved from 17 months ago that have stayed on the APU from the start, including Adam Grace [APU Foreman] and Martin Crowther [APU Engineering Foreman]. Basically they haven’t been able to work on anything else, it has been such a big and daunting project – so much labor and materials have gone into making the APU, it’s a pretty impressive prop. Safety has been one of our biggest obstacles to try and overcome, because we have to be able to maneuver it onto the stages, onto the platforms, and in and out of stages to different studios. The boys have been working around the clock because it’s not just staying in the workshop and making this thing look beautiful, it’s being able to make it come together and fall apart.

MATRIX: The first thing you made was the gun because it was needed for a shot done in the US.

TREVOR: Yes, that was a really good prototype for us. It was a prototype because it gave us a benchmark for finishing levels, for quality, and for what was needed. The amount of work that went into the gun would just be multiplied for the body, for the forearms, for the biceps and for the shoulders. That was a really good project because, as small as it was, it basically told us the process we’d need to go through and the size of the thing we were making – because the gun was 3 meters long [9.8 feet]. It had steel armatures inside and the patent was made, there were molds made, fiberglass shells were pumped out, intricate molds were made of all the nozzles and the tips, and all the bandoliers were made.

We made about 2,000 bullets from scratch and machined and painted them. We had to have clips, but we couldn’t actually use ammo and we couldn’t find shells, so we had to make the actual clips to hold all the bullets together for the guns by getting them laser cut and then getting them stamped out and patents made. Making an army-manufactured product in-house was insane, but it basically opened our eyes to the amount of attention we had to spend on the rest of the project. You couldn’t have something like those clips dangling outside of this thing [the APU] 20 feet up on set, it needed to be strong enough to support the weight of the gun as well as people and to basically uphold being shaken around.

MATRIX: What were some of the initial reactions to the size and the weight?

TREVOR: The Art Department made us realize the size quickly by putting up a couple of ply frames in the Art Department of the full size APU and until that point we were imagining where 15 to 20 feet [4.5 to 6 meters] was, and when we saw the actual prints laminated on boards sitting up in the Art Department it was pretty daunting. Basically they had a front elevation and a side elevation and it just looked like a monster. But everyone was excited, everyone wanted to be on the team because we were making this robot! In some way or another, every single person in the Prop Manufacture Department has done something towards the APU; they had to. It really kept us going, the APU just was always just ticking on in the background.

MATRIX: Do you have any backstory on how the APU was created?

TREVOR: Owen keeps telling us to imagine a Ford plant, or a Holden car plant – there’d be a Sentinel production plant and there’d be an APU production plant. These things were mass produced, but they were mass produced by robots, so we had to try to get our heads around that sort of idea. As I said earlier, the Sentinels have a tank shell, which has a cast kind of look. Owen is always pushing the boundaries, which means we’re always pushing as well.

MATRIX: Did he suggest that the APUs were made by the machines?

TREVOR: Basically the materials that were available were similar, so that was how the finishing sort of happened, but I’m not sure how they came about. I’m sure the people in Zion made them, they had a little factory down in the back and they just pumped them out, they had nothing better to do; they were sitting around in caves and flying around in ships.

THE LAST WORD

MATRIX: Will you have anything to do with the miniature shoot in Alameda starting later this year?

TREVOR: Yes, we’re doing 180 miniature Sentinels, 12 of those will be full hero ones and about 140 or 160 will be background. They’ll just be dropped where they get zapped by the EMP switch, when they fall like rain from the sky – we’re working on that project at the moment.

MATRIX: Were you involved with the Matrix phone?

TREVOR: The phones were done before I started, Peter Wyborn was commissioned to do the telephones about 3 or 4 months before we started up the Prop Manufacture Department. That was outsourced to companies around Sydney and they were manufactured here. The phones are fantastic; they’ve taken the original phones from the first film and made them unique, which is great. Hopefully they’ll come out soon and we can buy one! That will be exciting. It’s also great seeing the dolls and toys in the kids’ shops of what we made and designed. It’s actually surreal! Star Wars is the same, like working on Star Wars and going to the toy shop and seeing the guns that you made. It gives you a little buzz, just like seeing your name spit up in the credits.

We’ve actually been asked, for promotional uses for the opening of the sequels, to do quotes for twenty full sized APUs or two hundred 8 feet high APUs. It’s a daunting task; it would stop you working on any other project for 2 or 3 years, but we haven’t got that time so that project will probably just go away.

MATRIX: What is left for Prop Manufacture; we’re only six weeks away from wrap?

TREVOR: Well, first, second and third units are all doing the APU, so that’s still happening. The wheelbarrows are still happening, and we’ve got the Crash Logos set, the Logos Cockpit set, and we’re still finishing off the Logos Main Deck a little bit. Quite a bit of action goes through the Logos towards the end of the films. There’s also Machine City, and there’s Virtual Control… when we finish off and we’re there!

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

TREVOR: It’s coming onto 17 or maybe 18 months. I believe I’ll probably get a second birthday on it, which is going to be bizarre… all these unique things, working on one movie.

MATRIX: Thank you very much Trevor.

Interview by REDPILL

July 2002

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