MATRIX: What does your role as the visual effects supervisor for THE MATRIX encompass?
JOHN: Both designing and planning shots that cannot be achieved in camera: shots that are a physical impossibility, or the subject matter is not possible to replicate in a physical way. Often it entails mixing photographic elements together. For example, actors who are supposed to be in proximity to an event that is either too dangerous, or too out of the norm. So there is a lot of green screen compositing and multipass as well as the coordination of the multi passes. If you are going to take a group of photographic elements into a digital environment, you want to get some nuances that you can manipulate. For example, common extra passes, besides green screen, would be background plates with no action occurring, background plates with pyrotechnics or other kinds of special effects occurring, and especially interactive light passes that relate to the computer graphics that are yet to come, but are not represented on set. Light, at the end of the day, turns out to be the glue that holds all things together. You just shoot as many passes as you need, to come up with the elements that you need to manipulate later.
MATRIX: How about describing a scene in The Matrix where light is used as glue.
JOHN: There is a creature called the Doc-Bot. It will be like a medical robot with big fish eye optics that represent its vision and will have lights hanging off of it. It is very intimidating as a creature, and when it is focused on Neo it means to interpret immediately as to why he has awoken. In that case, when we shoot that on stage, we want to represent light emanating from the location of the creature that is not going to be there, blasting it to Neo. The light would be moving since the creature is moving in the scene. Every single shot is an array of details that have to be planned. The more interaction there is by way of physical moving around of things and light, makes it more real, obviously. We have special passes that are for understanding the relationship of the camera to the subject, the camera to the set; they are like spatial aids.
MATRIX: Which is all done with the actors in mind.
JOHN: Yes. This is all technical preparation for the interaction. We have to know how big Neo is, where he is, where the set is, about the collision you need to plan out all your computer graphics with collision to the real sets in mind. You need to know where everything is, which is a big part of the preparatory work.
MATRIX: There must be a difference between total CG shots and those that include the actors.
JOHN: Right, when the event that you are shooting is very organic – when it is a stunt – you don’t know exactly how it is going to turn out, although you have a basic idea. You can go in with a certain amount of exactness, but if it is any kind of performance based thing, and/or pyrotechnics, in a live set with actors, anything goes. There are other kinds of shots that are more controllable, like the helicopter crash. The location of the cameras was based on the background plates of real city buildings that breaking glass needed to be inserted into. So you start with those plates and calculate which camera is first. Then you put your miniature cameras in exact locations and figure out and visualize the speed at which events are going to take place: the trajectory and which panes of glass the blade is going to break. We also work out the timing of the pyrotechnics, such as how fast the glass curtain opens.
MATRIX: Describe what went into the helicopter crash.
JOHN: In this case there is compositing and a little CG. For instance, a panel of glass actually simulates a portion of the skyscraper, all we are interested in is destroying the glass around the impact of the helicopter. Everything in this movie has some sort of surreal quality, even events like that. So when the helicopter first hits the building, it buckles as if it is a pebble in a pond and everything distorts. There are sound cues so that you know the building is being stressed, then all of a sudden the glass shreds outwards in a radial way from where the crash occurred. The whole composition of the event has been graphically figured out ahead of time, for this radial glass wave with pyro center and Trinity in front. The stunts would be one thing and the background plate would be another.
MATRIX: The concepts are maintained visually throughout each shot.
JOHN: There are some effects in this film that are not ground breaking, but are cool in that the brothers are using them as design threads through the picture. The physical properties of everything inside THE MATRIX are interesting, because nothing is what it appears to be, no solid object is solid. There are a lot of distortions of what you think you are seeing, in the way of reflections and mirrors and things that are bending, which make you know that you are in some sort of bad trip, or nightmarish situation. There are a lot of subtle effects they are using that might go by people and throw them off, making them unsure of what they saw, which is a cool way to use these techniques.
MATRIX: The first time they see it, anyway. The second time they see it more things will seem more obvious.
JOHN: Yeah, you need a second take. I think this would be a good movie to rent on video because you will be able to catch a lot of details.
MATRIX: There were a bunch of creatures designed for the film.
JOHN: Right, there is one 30 second shot in the film, which is an exposition of how a human comes into the world, that is going to be 100% computer generated and the complexity of the design is mind blowing. In that one shot there are four or five creatures that are as complex as any of H.R.Giger designs. There is a human fetus in there for which the objective was to make it look as real as possible for impact. A sizeable challenge for anybody anywhere.
MATRIX: A lot of what I am seeing is right on the edge, the kind of things that have only become possible recently. Some even seem to make a big leap forward.
JOHN: We wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t right on the brink of possibility. The fact that so much is computer generated with a lot of camera work, we decided we were just barely close enough to try it, so we went for it. You can do far more interesting things cinemagraphically once it is a CG object. For instance, we have pulled out of the pupil of the eye and made an insane spin around it. A lot of the designs are very good, particularly the Geof Darrow based designs, this has meant that many very talented animators joined the project because it was a challenge for them. That then increases the production value because you have attracted artists for bigger reasons than just another film to do. This creates a separate energy which shows in the film itself. The history program scene is a little controversial, it will surprise people. It is difficult to know if liberals or conservatives would be more angered by it, which means that it probably works.
MATRIX: What is your take on the scene?
JOHN: It is man and technology gone haywire, giving birth to more technology that pushes it past the point man supposedly would never, morally and ethically, go beyond – but in actuality we think man would go this far. The fact that we have put these ideas on the screen means that someone would think about it in the first place. I think it is the right kind of subject matter to consider. I don’t envisage a time when there will be hideous monsters plucking us from trees, but cloning is open to debate.
MATRIX: How far can technology take us visually?
JOHN: No one really knows what the threshold is that people can reach. Some of the techniques that we are using are part of a collective consciousness of techniques that are being used around the world. There are bright people who are working with digital equipment, who have a certain blend of backgrounds for computer graphics and photography, and can figure out connections between the two. Then the thoughts start to happen about how you merge these things together ? true photography and true 3 dimensionality.
MATRIX: Its really amazing how fast computers are changing film.
JOHN: This is a new frontier. The boundaries in the last few years were about creatures like dinosaurs, which have been done very well. Once that could be done, creating more imaginative creatures and synthetic humans is something people are attempting, but have not yet gotten to, so there are still boundaries to be pushed. The whole other side of visual effects that is still a frontier is this: virtual reality style cinematography.
MATRIX: Which is perfect, that it’s this film pushing the envelope on computer animation. There’s a wonderful irony there.
JOHN: It is perfect. That is why we went totally for it. The technique is about what the film is about. The backgrounds behind all the bullet time shots are not shot with motion picture cameras, they are complete fabrications of still images mixed with 3D geometry projecting back on those. It looks incredibly good, like you are in the set, because it is the set that was used to make it. To me, this is what the future is going to be.
MATRIX: So you are on the edge.
JOHN: With this technique, as I said, there are a number of people experimenting, so when an idea like this reaches its time, a number of people reach it collectively. People are experimenting more and more, so 3 or 4 years from now will be when film resolution digital cameras can get images at hundreds of frames per second. There will be 3D film making and cameras.
MATRIX: One of the things I find intensely cool about The Matrix is its insanely tight style, down to every detail.
JOHN: The directors are really great at the glue between scenes, the transitions – you never know what state of reality you are in. They layer it to the point that I can imagine the audience will be completely baffled about what is real and unreal – which is, after all, the whole point.
MATRIX: Thanks John.
Interview by Spencer Lamm