The Matrix Breakaways

BY JIM LENG
BREAKAWAY MODELS FOREMAN

Shortly after THE MATRIX commenced production in 1997, it was apparent that a gap existed between departments. Somehow a bridge was needed between the creativity and meticulous attention to detail provided by Tom Davies’ Modelmaking Department and the scientific and technical world of Steve Courtley’s Special Effects team. Having already been employed by Tom in the Modelmaking team, I was approached by Steve to form a new team — Special Effects Models, soon to be known as Breakaway Models. This was a new field for me, having been trained to patiently nurture a finished product, I was now being primed to blow it up, smash it in, or burst through it.

The first steps in the new voyage were to digest the script, and work out what was a model, a breakaway model, or special effect. For example, was the grimy toilet in the bathroom static? Yes — therefore it was a model. But it was going to be head butted in the first scene, therefore requiring a soft but breakable product. But wait — it was to be shot — Breakaway Models is now required to liase with the pyrotechnics department on a breakable substance that is safe for surrounding actors, able to explode realistically after the detonation of several “bullet hits”, and can be easily replicated to satisfy the required number of retakes.

The general rule for these effects was the preparation of several test pieces which were to be videotaped, approved and produced in quantities numbering between three and five for onset filming. If we were lucky, the first take would be a success, but invariably, anything we could produce would be filmed from every conceivable angle to maximise choice in the Editing Department, and to satisfy the Directors, Larry and Andy Wachowski that every possibility was exhausted. Some of the best results in many takes were the ones where a chance variable, be it lighting, movement of debris, or size of flame, made the shot just that little bit better than the four perfectly choreographed previous takes.

Having broken down the script as it stood then, I formed a small team of four to play around with concepts and test new materials. This grew to nine members by the end of filming, as the workload increased and new concepts developed by us made breakaway models a viable alternative to other methods.

One of the key ingredients in many of the breakaway models was expanding polyurethane hard foam. With several additions to this chemical product, many variations were possible. The mixing of a small amount of water made the result ‘weak’ — the addition of sodium bicarbonate made the expanding foam appear to bubble in a yeast-like fashion before it cured. The use of both these additions created a product we were to name ‘sugar foam’ — a hard, very porous product that retained a shape when cast into a silicon or fiberglass mold but crumbled easily under impact. With a film like THE MATRIX, these properties proved extremely valuable. Agent Smith could punch through it in the shape of a subway column, garbage trucks could burst through it in the guise of brick walls, and Morpheus could dive through it in the form of a bathroom wall. With the addition of balsa wood ‘splinters’ and a different pigment, sugar foam transformed from concrete impostor to an ideal timber substitute. Columns in the dojo scene could now be smashed through and newsstands in the subway could be crashed into with safety.

Safety issues were of paramount importance, so collaboration with the Stunt Department was necessary and frequent: can we fall into this bit? Crash through that? Which are the weak spots? These were frequently asked questions. Early scenes proved that we were continuing to overbuild a little in the strength department, and things really could be allowed to hang together, only to disintegrate with a puff of air. This enabled the lead actors to achieve many breakaway stunts as well as the fight scenes that they were accomplishing with amazing skill. Indeed, the two disciplines married many times with the Directors sending actors into walls, down wall cavities and through ceilings. Laurence Fishburne’s head butt into the urethane rubber toilet is a particular favourite, and rounded off a breakaway bonanza in the bathroom fight scene between Morpheus and Agent Smith.

Soft polyurethane also had many uses, as far as actor safety requirements were concerned, but one particular safety breakthrough was the invention of urethane ‘concrete’. The product was required to blow apart with repetitious bullet hits in the shape of granite columns (the Government Lobby scene).

The two main safety aspects were fire flashes and actor proximity during takes. Flame-retardants were mixed with the rigid expanding foam mixture, as were Q-cells, to lighten the debris, so it could strike the actors with a minimum impact. Vermiculite was also added to the mixture to bind the foam — preventing it from turning to dust on explosion. With correct pigmenting, this recipe was employed for concrete columns, brick chimney stacks during rooftop shoot-outs and office walls to be demolished by the nearby hovering helicopter. These are but a few examples of the use of this product.

Together with the conventional methods of breakaway manufacture — weakened plaster, Fibreboard, cork — and advanced molding techniques using fibreglass, silicon and the latest polyurethane products, almost any conceivable idea was possible on THE MATRIX. Many of the effects went unnoticed, which to us as a team meant the illusion was a success. The next time you watch THE MATRIX, take another look at many of the bathroom impacts, the crumbling walls and columns in the subway, the bullet shredding of the Government Lobby columns, laser exploded spaceship interiors to name just a few scenes where the breakaway concept was invaluable, and will continue to be so in further movies.

BREAKAWAY TEAM