BY ADAM GRACE
PROP & MODELMAKER
This article is intended to give the reader an idea as to the type of varied work a science fiction production might require of its model and prop makers. A show such as THE MATRIX can keep a team of over twenty model makers, prop makers, sculptors, molders, and metal workers busy for nearly a year. Often model makers are required within the art department months before the production begins in helping realize the many designs and concepts that may be envisaged. Their three-dimensional constructs help the many departments in planning the construction of sets, designs for lighting, and how scenes may be shot. These pre-production models are the first steps towards creating the final objects that will go before the cameras.
MORE THAN A MODEL SHOP
The MATRIX modelshop not only produced helicopters and dead security guards. During the twelve months of its operation, the modelshop produced a wide variety of custom props and set dressing pieces, closely working with the various departments within the film production, and with outside contractors.
Items ranged from Keanu Reeves’ sunglasses, hand-made in brass, to an oversized ‘bug’ in a corresponding oversized bowel cavity. The bug was a hand and rod puppeteered latex construct operated in a gel-filled translucent plastic surround. Over seven hundred acupuncture needles, silver-soldered from brass and spring steel, were individually wired with a blue LED. Cypher’s laser gun, the elevator bomb, and the bug case were all made from various materials such as aluminum, brass, acrylic, stainless steel and urethanes. The bug extractor was a pneumatically operated aluminum and surgical glass assembly incorporating explosive squibs to shoot out an extracted bug into a glass vial. The pod wall, when seen in medium to close-up shots, was depicted by a huge steel frame covered in specially designed and prepared pieces. The pods were large vacuum-formed shells set inside custom fitted steel frames designed to hold the weight of the pod when filled with water and dummy figures.
The reclining chairs seen within the Nebuchadnezzar Main Deck set were cast in aluminum, derived from patterns produced by the model shop. The chairs were rigged with pneumatics so as to move and adjust to each actor. Flat LCD screens had special vac-form housings made to give them a generic look, and to protect them when painted to match the set. Tank’s training console was a collection of electronic parts and scratch built components mounted on a machined aluminum arm.
The model shop produced various parts for the make-up effects departments to complete their illusions. These included neck sockets and spinal syringes. They were made by machining a pattern in aluminum and brass, then molding in silicone rubber and casting in urethane resin. The pieces where then plated in nickel in different hues. The “cod pieces” for the figures in the pods were cast in flexible urethane derived from molds from a plasticine sculpt.
Computers and telephones kept many modelmakers busy. Some computer props were built that matched the real computers used on set, but allowed for a rear projection screen or a different monitor to be incorporated to achieve a particular effect in-camera. Other computers were scratch built from designs supplied by the art department. Mobile phones were rigged to open on cue by the actors, or built twice size for holding better depth of field for a scene of a phone falling away from the camera.
The list includes hundreds of rifles cast in urethane foam, a machined and nickel-plated ‘DocBot’ claw, scratch built controls for the Nebuchadnezzar, sewerage tunnels laid up in fiberglass, and the lion’s head details for Morpheus’ armchair.
Each of the many items required presented its own challenge in some form. The method of construction or choice of materials used would often be dictated by the requirements of the model or prop, how it was to be filmed, and when it was due on set. THE MATRIX certainly had its fair share of challenges, but when approached with patience, creativity, skill, and often sweat, the results were worth the effort.