“What is the Matrix?”
“Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream, Neo? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?”
Neo (KEANU REEVES) has spent most of his life searching for the answer to that question. It tortures him like a splinter in his mind, threatening to drive him mad. Neo believes that Morpheus (LAURENCE FISHBURNE), someone he knows only through legend, an elusive figure considered to be the most dangerous man alive, can give him the answer.
Neo is contacted by Trinity (CARRIE-ANNE MOSS), a beautiful stranger who leads him into another world, an underworld where at last he meets Morpheus. There, Neo, Morpheus and Trinity fight a brutal battle for their lives against a cadre of viciously intelligent secret agents. Every move, every second, every thought is crucial once Neo learns the truth about The Matrix.
It is a truth that could cost Neo something more precious than his life.
Setting the Stage
The comic-book and graphic-novel culture has long examined the dramatic possibilities of alternate realities – places where the laws of physics, biology or time are made to be broken. Larry and Andy Wachowski grew up exploring ideas that challenge the current perceptions of reality, and they began their writing careers developing those ideas. “The Matrix” grew out of the unconventional literature that they read and wrote, as well as their long-time interest in and knowledge of classic mythology and legend.
Say the brothers, “We believe passionately in the importance of mythology and the way it informs culture.”
Their ideas were further refined through their exploration of the developing world of the Internet. For writers and filmmakers who have come of age after the emergence of personal computers, the online universe is both an exciting and fertile new avenue of creative expression, and a ubiquitous and somewhat sinister element of contemporary life. The Wachowskis explored both sides of the technological revolution when they created The Matrix. Say the Wachowskis, “We began with the premise that every single thing we believe in today and every single physical item is actually a total fabrication created by an electronic universe.” The brothers developed this disturbing thought into an intricate story that blends action, stylish imagery and a complex consideration of what actually constitutes reality.
Although the Wachowski brothers first gained widespread attention and critical accolades when they wrote and directed the dark romantic heist thriller, “Bound,” they had already written “The Matrix” before they began working on “Bound.” They sent their completed script to producer Joel Silver, who has explored alternative futures in such hit movies as “Predator” and “Demolition Man.” He was immediately fascinated and acquired the property.
Explains Silver, “The Matrix’ is a very complex story; it takes place in the future but it is told in the present. Larry and Andy have spent years fine-tuning the script so the audience can accept and understand this story. Very rarely do you find filmmakers who know so exactly what they want and are as decisive as these two guys.”
The filmmakers’ plan for the movie was to combine their provocative dramatic premise with images, effects and action that would truly astound audiences, and fight scenes using Asian cinematic techniques of wire fighting that would break new ground with their intensity and style. Further, the Wachowskis sought out cutting-edge camera techniques to enable them to render entire sequences in ways that action films have never been seen before.
The Martial Arts
“‘The Matrix” is a movie with a lot of ideas, but it is unmistakably a rousing action-thriller at the same time. Many of the fight scenes in the story dramatically demonstrate the evolution of Neo’s character and the power of his adversaries. The style of these physical confrontations grows directly from the nature of The Matrix.
Explain the Wachowskis, “Once you start dealing with a digital reality you can really push the boundaries of what might be humanly possible. So if characters in ‘The Matrix’ can have information instantaneously downloaded into their heads, they should, for example, be able to be as good a Kung Fu master as Jackie Chan.”
This premise offered the Wachowski brothers a chance to work in another area of their particular interest – the fight choreography seen in Hong Kong action films. “We’ve always wanted to bring Hong Kong wire stunt and fight sensibilities into our Western story ideas. This was the perfect opportunity.”
Executive producer Barrie Osborne describes the difference between Eastern and Western-style fight choreography: “Most American stunt work uses rams or pneumatics to project a person through the air at a certain speed. With wire-stunt work, the stunts are far more controlled and very stylized. It’s almost like puppeteering, but using a real person. It takes tremendous skill and finesse.”
The brothers had long admired the work of YUEN WO PING – one of the top Hong Kong stunt specialists in both Kung Fu and wire-stunt work. When they mentioned his work to Joel Silver, they learned that he was also a fan of Wo Ping’s rapid-fire, stylized fight choreography, and that he supported their desire to incorporate Wo Ping’s work into “The Matrix.”
Barrie Osborne located Wo Ping in China and the filmmakers contacted him to ask if he’d join their team. Wo Ping agreed to work with the Wachowskis under only one condition: they would have to guarantee that their cast would train long hours to learn Kung Fu and how to work with the wires. Says Wo Ping, “The training is very intensive and not something you can go into without a serious commitment.
“First we had to train the cast to work with the wires, to balance with the wires, and we then began to hoist them up into the air. The most difficult part of the process is to land without losing balance, so it looks very natural, as if the actors have made that leap without any assistance. They then had to learn how to fight Kung Fu style.”
Say Larry and Andy Wachowski, “It was a big request for us to make. How do you tell an actor that they’re going to have to spend four months training and learning Kung Fu when they could make another movie in that same time? That’s what impressed us about Keanu. He understood why it was necessary and the dedication it required. In fact, the whole cast amazed us with their dedication to the training regime – it was incredibly rigorous and we were extremely proud of them all.”
The cast trained with Wo Ping and his team for three months in Los Angeles before moving to the movie’s Sydney, Australia location for another month of training before filming began. Asserts Keanu Reeves, “It was an honor to work with Wo Ping; I’ve always been a fan of his work and it was a wonderful opportunity to learn his techniques and style of fighting.
“In the beginning he worked very closely with us to see what we were good at and what we weren’t very good at. He then trained us around that.”
The Action Scenes
Super slow motion would be relied on heavily in the stylization of the action scenes in “The Matrix,” but certain moments in the script called for something special. These scenes required dynamic camera movement around slow-motion events that approached 12,000 frames per second. The Wachowskis called it “bullet-time photography.”
This “Flow-Mo” process allows filmmakersalmost unlimited flexibility in controlling the speed and movement of on-screen elements. For example, a fighter leaping into the air to kick his opponent could accelerate to the apex of his leap, appear to hover in the air, extend his leg in a lightening-fast movement, and then gently descend to the ground. Joel Silver describes the process as similar to “full-cel animation, only with people.”
The Wachowskis met with JOHN GAETA, the visual-effects director at Manex, a visual-effects facility in Northern California, to discuss their goals. Says Gaeta, “The Wachowskis are from the comic-book culture, and are therefore familiar with the Japanese animation style called anime, which we re-created with live actors for this movie. Anime takes advantage of ‘the physics of decimation’- it breaks down action into its components and allows those elements to be meticulously controlled to build the most dramatic effect from dynamic movement.”
Gaeta’s team and the filmmakers first blocked out the action that was going to be rendered and filmed the scene using conventional cameras. Then they scanned the images into a computer and, using a laser-guided tracking system, “mapped out” the movements of the camera that would capture the final scene.
A series of sophisticated still cameras was placed along the mapped path, each of which would shoot a single still photo. Then the photos were scanned into the computer, which created a strip of still images, similar to animation cels. The computer generated “in-between” drawings of the images – much as animators draw frames to move their characters smoothly from one pose to another – and the completed series of images could be passed before the viewers’ eyes as quickly or slowly as the filmmakers wanted without losing clarity.
The World of the Matrix
In addition to the groundbreaking action by human beings, there is a new world revealed in “The Matrix,” one that allows for the depiction of several fantastic creatures and landscapes.
Emphasize the Wachowskis, “Our approach to filmmaking is very concerned with images; film is a graphic medium – it’s about pictures.”
Many of their designs were inspired by classic graphic novels and the work of noted comic-book artists. They were especially pleased to have enlisted the participation of GEOF DARROW,one of their favorite comic-book artists. “He was responsible for the look of the Sentinels, the Pods, and the Towers,” recount the Wachowskis. “Geof is one of our favorite artists and we were really thrilled to have his involvement in this project. He’s from Iowa but he’s living in Paris right now, and we weren’t sure he’d be willing to work on this, but he was so modest -‘are you sure you want me?’ – and his ideas were just fantastic. He made great contributions to the movie.”
When the filmmakers began consideration locations for “The Matrix,” Australia immediately offered certain advantages. Says executive producer and native Australian Andrew Mason, “Australia has a vital film industry and a terrific talent pool.” Mason, who had recently produced Alex Proyas’ “Dark City,” also filmed in Australia, provided information and assistance in assembling a top-notch technical crew and securing several visually interesting shooting sites for “The Matrix.”
“The Matrix” was filmed on location in Sydney – on soundstages and, for two months, on Sydney’s streets and rooftops and in warehouses. Joel Silver enthused about using Sydney as a location for the production: “Filmmaking expertise, competitive costs and a great spirit of cooperation all enhanced Sydney’s appeal. We also liked the diversity of the city’s architecture and its general geography; it was an ideal city for our purposes.”
The task of creating the film’s many futuristic sets – a total of 30 in all – fell to production designer OWEN PATERSON. The two biggest sets were the interior of the Nebuchadnezzer, the hovercraft that is home to Morpheus and his followers, and the government office building, which was incorporated into an entire Sydney office block.
This set included an enormous translight, a huge backdrop that is lit to look completely realistic.
Says Paterson, “There’s a major sequence involving a massive shootout in an office building. Obviously we couldn’t accomplish that in a real location, so we built an enormous steel structure, almost like a modern-day skyscraper, within a soundstage. We then needed a backdrop of the city beyond the windows, so we used a translight.”
Adds producer Joel Silver: “This was without a doubt the biggest translight Id ever seen. It meant that when we were shooting in the office building set we could shoot right into the translight to give the feeling that we were actually in that location. We manipulated the background slightly, via computer-generated imaging, to remove the Sydney Opera House and Bridge, because the movie takes place in an unnamed city, not specifically Sydney.”
“I see ‘The Matrix’ as a ground-breaking movie,” Silver says. “The style and the visual effects within the action sequences are something that have never been seen before, plus we have fighting styles and photographic techniques used in this movie that weren’t possible even six months ago. We also have some of the most impressive stunt work I’ve ever seen.
“The Wachowskis are truly visionary filmmakers,” Silver concludes. “I like to think ‘The Matrix’ will re-define the action genre – it really is very spectacular.”