BY ADAM GRACE
PROP & MODELMAKER
THE MATRIX is a sci-fi adventure blended with martial arts, where reality may not be what it seems. To portray the worlds in which it is set, an impressive spectrum of visual and special effects was employed. To produce the varied models and props for THE MATRIX, the film production set up a miniatures and modelmaking department under the supervision of Tom Davies. The modelshop was responsible for producing action props, weapons, special set pieces, as well as models for three particular effects shots that were to be realized through miniatures.
One sequence required a helicopter to be fired upon and damaged, causing it to crash into an office building before exploding. This required a 1:4 Bell 212 helicopter and office building façade. Also built at the same time was a 1:1 replica helicopter for action sequences shot on stage.
The second sequence required a lobby foyer and open elevator car to be engulfed in a fireball following a bomb explosion. This set-up required a 1:4 lobby miniature with figures of dead security guards.
A third sequence showed the roof of the ‘Nebuchadnezzar’ being ripped open by the Sentinels. This scene utilized a 1:2 section of breakaway roof paneling to match the CGI exterior.
One of the first projects for the modelmaking department was the construction of a replica helicopter. (Sometimes I wonder if the term “modelshop” is a bit misleading.) It would afford the production greater flexibility and control in shooting scenes not practical with a real helicopter.
The production located and hired a helicopter body and spare parts from a restorer. While the modelshop prepared the body and produced molds and castings, the steelworking department fabricated a steel frame to mount the cast panels upon. It was also fitted with three cable tie-off points to enable the special effects crew to “fly” the helicopter using overhead motorized cable drums on a track. The internal steel frame also housed two DC motors to spin lightweight rotor assemblies. It was decided further into production that the rotors would complicate filming, and so removed. The rotors were achieved via CG in post-production.
Although we had a real helicopter to work from, it was far from complete. Many of the pieces were missing or damaged. Foamex sheet was used to repair or replace missing panels. Foamex is an expanded PVC sheet that is easily cut and bonds extremely well with CA adhesives. Items that were built from scratch included both front doors, rear stabilizers, inlet scoops, and engine exhausts. The doors and stabilizers were built up from Foamex and MDF sheet. The intakes and exhausts were carved from styrene and urethane foam respectively. The styrene foam was sealed with aluminum foil, then both patterns were fiberglassed and finished off.
To facilitate molding of the underside of the helicopter it was hung by chains from the workshop roof. The separate tail section and engine cowling assembly were set up on stands. Before molding, all holes and vents were sealed with plasticine or aluminum tape. Plasticine was used to fill in any undercuts on small fittings so that the mold would not “lock” onto the body. Details such as drip pipes, lugs, and mounting spigots were built up where necessary with plasticine into cone shapes so as to ensure an easy release. When recast, these were either cut off and replaced with real pipes and lugs, or sanded back to the correct shape.
Once the various assemblies were prepared, mold separation lines were decided upon. Mold walls were achieved by hot glueing strips of Foamex to the panels and sealing any gaps with plasticine. The area to be molded was repeatedly waxed and buffed with mold release wax then given three coats of PVA release spray. We definitely did not want our molds sticking! When dry, spray gelcoat was applied with 2-part foam then glassed over to add strength to the mold and reduce distortion.
During the molding of the helicopter body sections, molds were also produced from the patterns of the doors, rear stabilizers, inlet scoops and engine exhausts. All large pieces were molded in multi-part fiberglass molds. Smaller items that could be removed from the helicopter such as handles, knobs, hinges, lights etc., were molded in silicone rubber, then cast in urethane resin.
Patterns for the curved upper and lower windows were produced by carving and shaping Styrofoam blocks to the window opening contours. The foam was sealed and fiberglass molds were pulled from the pattern and frame. From the molds, plaster-filled fiberglass ‘bucks’ were produced and then sent out to a commercial vac-forming company.
After waxing and fiberglassing for over a week, it was time to demold and start waxing and fiberglassing again! To prepare the molds, edges were cleaned up, and any defects were patched. The molds were given the wax and PVA release treatment, then sprayed with gelcoat and backed with fiberglass cloth. As each section came out of the mold it was trimmed and attached to the steel frame with self-drilling screws and rivets. The sections were also glassed onto the frame from the inside for added strength. Joins were blended together with automotive filler, or left as a natural panel join. Adhesive ‘bump-ons’ — small, self-adhesive urethane hemispheres — were applied to restore rivet lines that were sanded off when joining panels.
Special requirements for filming necessitated that parts of the helicopter could be removed. This included both forward doors, all windows, windscreen mullion, floor sections and interior wall panels. External vents, gauge ports, and floor tracks were opened up with Dremels, power files and routers. Aerials and antennas were fashioned from steel rod and tube and bolted to the shell. The various cast urethane details were screwed or bolted in their appropriate places.
A fully detailed interior was produced to complete the helicopter. The dashboard was cast in fiberglass from a mold while the instrument panel was made from MDF and acrylic sheet. The gauges were produced as artwork sandwiched between acrylic discs. Hand and foot controls were either molded cast pieces or scratch built and cast in resin and attached to working steel controls. The floor was embossed aluminum sheet riveted to flooring ply. The walls were clad in MDF and detailed with strips of Foamex, rivets, screws, and fittings. The chairs were constructed by the metal department and fitted with canvas covers. The ceiling was first lined in thin MDF, then vac-formed instrument recesses were cut in and then fitted with a quilted lining.
The interior was painted and weathered to achieve a used look, and then masked off to enable the exterior to be sprayed to match the actual helicopter used for flying sequences. Finally, the helicopter was completed and then hung on stage in front of a huge backlit transparency. It looked impressive, and achieved its purpose in enabling the film-makers to seamlessly cut between the exterior and stage photography. Approximately four months in the making, it was the biggest ‘model’ I’ve worked on so far.