Interview with Production Designer Owen Paterson

TheMatrix.com: What is your role in the production of ‘The Matrix’?

Owen Paterson: I am the production designer for the art department, responsible for taking visual concepts the directors have and turning them in to real environments for the actors and directors to work with. On this film we have two sections, one of which is the Matrix which has been computer simulation. This has primarily been designed within our art department from locations we have based it on, and discussions we have had with Larry and Andy. Then we have had a series of development concepts for what we call the ‘real world’ which we have had to shape and build from a drawing to a reality.

TheMatrix.com: I was impressed that things that I never would have thought have all been constructed for the film, such as the lion head chairs.

Owen: We had a slight problem with the fact that Laurence Fishburne is a tall man with broad shoulders (as all heroes should be, I guess), and after fitting a number of people into chairs we decided that we really needed to make a chair that was slightly wider. We drew up some sketches that involved the lion’s head that we had seen on a chair in an antique shop, and had a pair made.

TheMatrix.com: It is impressive that they look aged.

Owen: Yes, that is a cross over into various areas of the department. Peter Collias, the scenic artist, was pulled in to age a lot of this stuff. With these sets we have a fortunate mix between contemporary society, which is the glass and steel of the Matrix world, and the world where the city has moved on, which the computer is ignoring because it is irrelevant to this particular time frame in the Matrix. It has a more dilapidated look, an aged look with rust and peeling wallpaper. For a lot of our sets, like in the Lafayette Hotel, we have had the opportunity to be able to distress the walls, carpets and curtains so that everything within them feels like a rotting, wet, urban, repulsive, maggotry.

TheMatrix.com: Has it been interesting for you? With the two realities, it must almost be like working on two films?

Owen: It is a great opportunity. It is like the character that Keanu Reeves plays, very few films give an opportunity to be two characters. One is in the Matrix and one is in the real world. At some point he goes back into the Matrix, after having been reborn into the real world. In a sense it is strange that we have two directors as the creative minds as well. It is my role, along with the 160 people in my department to try and bring their ideas into physical reality. In this instance we have two worlds ? the real world and the Matrix. It is a real challenge to try and get differentiation between the two. The Nebuchadnezzar is a military craft that has been floating around the sewers for at least 150 years, it has a quasi retro feel about it. We took references from old barber’s chairs to get a physical image that relates to what the directors and Geof Darrow had in mind. So it is almost as if they are Escher?esque, physical objects converted to an Escher world. We built the chairs on a computer first so we could see how they would actually work, having to reshape them constantly, creating up to Mark 14, before eventually we felt they functioned and we had the concept the directors had in mind.

Another process that we had to deal with was that in the Matrix itself we had to have both the new and old. In our ‘real world’ we had to have a world that has seen a lot of decay over the last 150 years, so we distressed the Nebuchadnezzar inside and when the CG is done of the external of the Neb it will also be distressed. We needed to find some way that if, say you were cutting from the Nebuchadnezzar to the same character, but in the Matrix, you would be able to know that you were in a different place. We have tried to express this through color. The Matrix has a predominance of green, all the washes that Peter has used have had a green base to them. Wherever it was possible and practicable we took the blue out, we even took it out of the sky of the translight in the government building. In the real world we tried to push blue as much as possible, so there is a blue base to everything; the Nebuchadnezzar has a blue base. There are other colors used in the film, but it is a relatively monochromatic palette that we have used throughout, with small hints of other colors for definition.

In the last stages of pre-production we built several sets and sat down in a studio space with a sample of each of the colors that we were going to use throughout the film, so that we could compare them and see if they were going to be different enough to distinguish the two worlds. When we build environments to shoot in, they have to be practical for filming, you need to be able to move a wall to film an object. Because it was difficult to work on real roof tops, we built our own. These roof tops require our heroes to run great distances on them, but at the same time allow our crew to be able to shoot them. As much as possible we try to consider where their physical filming requirements would be, where the camera would be based.

It has been a unique opportunity to work with both Larry and Andy and trying to deal with the vast concept they have in mind. All the people in my department have worked together in a really cohesive manner to fulfill the director’s dreams. The art department has had to build a lot of sets for this film, which obviously have to be lit, some have required wire work (a team came from Hong Kong), others have required stunt work, some physical special effects work; but basically each department has to deal with the set that we create. For instance, the subway is a very large set which had to deal with very high speed photography, fast shutter speeds on still cameras and the photo grammatical work that John Gaeta will be doing in reproducing the bullet time. It had to be a flexible set with the constraints of a New York subway.

TheMatrix.com: How long did it take you to build the subway set?

Owen: It was pre built in the workshop by the construction manager Phil Worth’s team over a period of time before Christmas (1997), and after the Christmas break they put it in. It took about three weeks to be put in, including the painting. So 90% of that set was built in a module then they took it to the location.

TheMatrix.com: The Nebuchadnezzar is really impressive, you can walk into it and the chairs are all in place. How long did that take from beginning to end?

Owen: That took about two and a half months I think. Again, all those pieces were pre built. All of those elements were made separately and brought in as units. Because it was for visual and special effects, it meant that the set had to be built from the core out, all the flooring had to be done, the walls and the ceiling had to be able to float. The first thing that was put into place was the ceiling, we put it on chain motors and took it up to the ceiling, built the set around it and then lowered the ceiling into it. It was an immense set, a very complex object. In the end we didn’t actually use the floating walls as we had planned, but the facility was there. They did float the ceiling for one shot which enabled the grips to move the camera in a circular pan. This was to work as a counter position to a circular movement in the Lafayette at the point where our heroes come into room 1313: the camera moves around the room and there is no one there, then it moves back and they are there, and at that moment you can see the same characters in the Nebuchadnezzar sitting in the chairs. They are both here as well as there.Marcus Smith, our steel guy, had to work closely with Ray Brown, the grip, because when they built the core, not only did the core have to support the chairs which were hydraulically manipulated, they had to be able to take the top off the core, which is just a façade, and mount a camera mount there which then enabled them to move a crane arm around to get the circular shot I just described.

I think everyone excelled in their ability to be able to work with other departments to make their little bit of the whole chain. Filmmaking, especially one like this, is a very cooperative exercise. People say to me that the sets are fantastic, but everyone needs to know that there are a lot of people behind that, people who have drawn it in the first place, sketched it, or done the construction of it and then painted it. In many ways the set construction on this film is very similar to the first idea of what the Matrix was about that Larry and Andy briefed me on 12 months ago. It is like looking on a road map, then turning the page and seeing the actual piece of road in reality that you have been looking at on the map. If you stand outside a lot of these sets, which have been beautifully distressed and dressed, all you are looking at is a plywood flap. Then you step through the doorway and you are in another world, so it just like the MatrixS this is an illusion.

A film like this gives great opportunity to manufacture things and dream up objects that you haven’t necessarily seen before. Our chief model maker, Tom Davies and his guys have made something called a bug extractor, which had to perform a lot of tasks. It had to be able to be manipulated by the actress and made to look like it was doing something: Trinity extracting a bug out of Neo’s stomach. It had to be able to both pump as well as have a relatively dramatic movement as it shoots down and the bug comes out. It had to be able to extract an object from the prosthetic stomach, as well as fire a second prosthetic into a little glass tube which you could then see wriggle about, all the time seeing an image that looks like a futuristic ultrasound. There were hundreds and hundreds of hours spent making that object that wasn’t the sort of prop that you might be able to fake everything with, it had to be something that you could physically do those three things with: pump, suck and blow. And at the same time play back an image for you, besides giving Carrie an opportunity to make some action with her hands so that she looks like she is really doing something.

TheMatrix.com: The video display was pumped from off-set?

Owen: Yes, this was a complicated shot. The model department made a hand puppet of the bug and we set up a shell bath with polystyrene intestines. Linda Brown got under the bath to work the bug and I got above it with a digital video camera to shoot the sequence of the bug. What we wanted to do was to try and get the idea of intestines moving around this object. The bug is very true to the conceptual drawing that John Gaeta and his team have been working on, you will almost be able to cut between that image and the one they will create in CG and think it is the same object. Animal Logic did some tweaking for us to give it an ultra sound like feel. They took all the color, solarized it a little bit and suddenly we had an image of a bug crawling around inside a stomach, and we were watching it happen.

TheMatrix.com: That is happening on the actual unit?

Owen: On the actual unit as we are doing it. The director of photography wanted a bit of light to come down on the stomach, so lights had to be built into that so there was a bit of light for Carrie Anne, because it is supposed to be a dark wet night when it all happens. So a lot of work and cooperation went into making that whole thing happen. There have been some other fantastic objects created. One we haven’t filmed with yet is the cerebral needle that goes into the back of Neo’s head in the power plant. When you study that object it is a cross between a piece of engineering and kinetic art, a moving piece of jewelry. You couldn’t or wouldn’t want to wear it, but it is such a beautiful although terrifying object. I had drawn an idea in Simon Parker’s mind that Phil Shearer our illustrator developed, then Simon built it into physical reality from Phil’s illustration. We wanted a driving mechanism in the center of it that could spin really quickly and then push out a set of three fingers that would expand slowly so you would get a counter movement. One thing happening very quickly and another happening slowly: it would twist and then the cerebral needle would come out of the back of the prosthetic head. I think it will be a really great, very terrifying moment.

TheMatrix.com: These objects that really fascinate me. New mechanisms from scratch that actually have to function.

Owen: That is the unique thing about them, they do have to function. There are some wonderful concepts from Larry and Andy’s work with Geof Darrow, and we have tried to maintain the essence of the genius that has gone behind those ideas.

TheMatrix.com: What was your reaction when you first saw the Geof Darrow drawings?

Owen: They are really intricate. The thing that terrified me the most was how we could ever build that intricacy, that mechanical nature into it. Everybody has achieved a great deal of that intricacy, all of these things are possibleS money makes them possible I guess. In this film we were able to get a realistic budget and time frame to be able to deal with what we had to create. A lot of what is behind Geof’s illustrations is the 20th century industrialization of the world, even those objects that are not for the Matrix. He takes every day objects and works with them to create something extraordinary. So everyone in the art department has had to take those drawings and turn them into a 3 dimensional reality, that in some instances has to work.

TheMatrix.com: Geof Darrow’s drawings are amazing, particularly his take on the pods. I remember thinking ‘How is this going to be made physical?’

Owen: With regard to the pods we did four or five tests, testing people in this very slippery, thick goop. We had to test for clarity, and for the iris being able to open. There are physical things that have to happen in the film making to help tell the story: Neo has to break out of the pod. The original concepts that Geof drew were very gelatinous and non-supportive. Some things were developed over a year ago, and then when we came in we developed the ideas further. The best that we could do was model this shape in the computer using a 3D drawing tool called Form Z, which enabled us to visualize these complex shapes in 3D form, and get and idea of its volume. We decided to minimize the volume around the human being which would reduce the weight.

After that the construction manager and the steel workers worked out how they could put one and a half tons of liquid in the air unsupported except at the back end. As a result, the engineers built the drain that goes out the back of the pods as a truss, and off that there is a secondary truss that goes into what we call a spine. Half inch acrylic has been used for the skin of the pod which works very well, except that we got a clean, gel-like look on the outside. We then took the goop that is inside the pod and dressed it around it to go back to this more glutinous state that Geof had in mind.

There were a lot of things that had to be developed; for example the nodules that connect into what are supposedly the needles and the jacks have perhaps gone from one thing on paper to another thing physically. This is because we had to be able to make them pop off, so they had to have a mechanical mechanism to allow them to pop off at various times. It would have been wonderful to take a lot of the objects that Geof had in his drawings and put them on the walls as he did, but for economic reasons we have had to go towards what people would know as reverse garbage. Tom Davies and his boys have combined garbage into objects that Peter Collias and his team have painted and metalized. You would never know that underneath it all is red, white and blue plastic. We have tried to revert to this Darrow-esque carburetor, something that is mechanically joined together that might be an organic form on one side, but then there will be a square section with pipes coming in and out of it. We have gone towards a mechanical line as opposed to the organic that has been used in some instances. The fact that the pods repeat as regularly as they do, makes them an organic sort of structure anyway. I have photographed our pods several times and put them together in photo shop, you get a repeat quickly that is quite interesting. We have tried to make something that when it is repeated makes sense.

TheMatrix.com: Thanks Owen.