MATRIX: What brought you into model making?

BEN: I’ve been creating projects for industry work, theatre work, and artwork for pretty much my entire conscious life, or post adolescent life. I’ve pretty much found myself in the niche of designing and making models from designs, filling in the blanks to create realities of different scales to prove architectural ideas -– it’s difficult to describe, it’s my life.

MATRIX: How long have you been building models?

BEN: I started getting paid, when I was fifteen, doing theatre work, and got into Hollywood doing movies five years ago. I designed theatre projects all through school and shortly after graduating school I did some work in the theatre world. I did models when I was a kid, so it is interesting to find that again as an adult; I found it a marketable skill to bring out.

MATRIX: Did you build sets when you worked in theatre?

BEN: I designed sets, built sets, painted sets, did scenic work , whatever.

MATRIX: How different is theatre work to film work?

BEN: It’s always a matter of degrees whenever you’re dealing with business, the more people have riding on something, the more control is put over it, or the more tight the concepts need to be. Theatre exists more in a vacuum, you can express yourself in a different way. Most of the film work I do tends to be more engineering oriented: solving problems, presenting problems, or allowing the forum with which problems are solved. Models are a pretty easy way to deal with spatial issues, everybody gets it and there’s not much deception if you can place yourself inside of it.

MATRIX: What are some of the movies you’ve had an opportunity to work on?

BEN: I finished Pearl Harbor this year, and I also worked on Minority Report. Doing models and visual effects I have worked on The Fifth Element, Alien: Resurrection, Supernova, a bit of work on Pitch Black, and various other projects as well. I’ve done a lot of space ship / sci-fi type work which always has a similar sense of detailing, problem solving and how it’s put together.

MATRIX: Could you describe exactly what you’re doing for THE MATRIX?

BEN: We’re making developmental models for the Art Department, which could be a number of different problems presented, or solutions. For example, the first thing we did out of the gate here was create, in miniature, mile long freeways so the car chases could be developed. These models provide an easy background, so small cameras can be put in and, if you have the right scale cars and the right equipment, you could pretty much capture whatever you would capture from a helicopter shot, all the way down to a car to car shot or something like that.

Second category work is when we develop pieces which are larger than anything that could ever be realized, visual effects applications. That would be, for example , the Dock that we made, which a 747 is literally engulfed within, but we can create via scale. We can make the entire space in a tangible way that other people can later work off of. Probably the most interesting aspect is flopping back and forth between the artists and ourselves, the digital artists and ourselves and the Pre-visualization Department etc.

The third type of work is what is, typically, the staple for the Art Department model maker, which is taking the larger concepts or the locations, and presenting them so that discussions can be made as to what’s physically built, versus what will be a comped reality. That’s been the focus of our last projects. For instance, depending on where they want to go with them, we can develop the sets pretty much all the way through in miniature, then drawings and construction takes place from there. Another model we’re doing is an aid for construction, so an entire crew can visualize what they’re working on and the complex environment, like the Zion Temple we’re doing in Alameda, for example.

What we’re doing is pretty much illustration in 3D.

MATRIX: Pre-visualization is a relatively new innovation in developing a film, and this is a fairly heavily dependent CG film; is there synergy between the model makers and pre-viz?

BEN: Usually pre-viz establishes the parameters to which we’re building towards. However, on a project like this, where the pre-viz is so integral to the project and how many visual effects shots are going on, how much green screen comp work is going on, it’s a more flexible medium. The Dock is one of the finest examples of a built environment we’ll problem solve here, and that will affect the pre-viz, or the pre-viz will affect us, but it’s a complete flopping back and forth. Most interesting, in relationship to this, is different perceptions of reality or different ways of solving realities of space, scale, perspective, etc -– the available tools are too fantastic to not take advantage of them.

MATRIX: Are model makers the first people to represent the conceptual illustrations?

BEN: No. The genealogy of the Dock is a really fantastic genealogy. There is, of course, the impetus behind the idea, that’s obvious, then Geof Darrow was the first to touch it, as far as I know. I’m sure diagrams are given and he develops the concept, which is a very analogue process. Then that idea, or fetus, is tested or tried in the digital realm: the pre-viz model is digitally built, digital space can be flown through, making sure it fits the parameters of the specific shots intended by the brothers. From that work we developed a smaller model which very quickly proved it in a physical realm.

MATRIX: Geof’s illustrations are intensely intricate, I would think there are spatial issues that need to be addressed.

BEN: On the Dock project, spatial issues have been pretty much busted through in 3D modeling, in the 3D modeling phase. What I was leading up to earlier, is that pre-viz is integral in this process and constantly referred to, but flexible and bendable at the same time; a reason will develop further topics to be looked into deeper, and force changes.

We busted out the first small concept model just to get a physical sense of the space. Set designers are developing off of the digital model, they’re developing parts or they’re developing the base documents, which will eventually become sets, as well as parts for the larger Dock model. From that work we build our model, and then that’s fed back to the illustrators and the set design world. The digital model is the base template for the painting done of the Dock, which was pretty much our prime design document in building the large model. It is then brought back again into the digital world, and comes back to us to develop at a larger scale as a stage set, then is again illustrated from. So there is a constant dialogue and a flopping between people who work in all different ways. It’s really the process and the dialogues that are the coolest part of the job by far.

MATRIX: How many different models have been created thus far?

BEN: We did the Akron freeway model [possible location shoot for the freeway sequence], the freeway models for the build in Oakland, and some white models of the build they’re doing up in Alameda of the tenement house, the Park set.

Another digital interaction is a topographic model for the big Zion Temple build up in Alameda, and then the Dock itself. We did the small Dock, we did a larger Dock, we’ve done some car work which was off the cuff, and this is our second Dock model we’re finishing; there are two more Dock models to be built. JD [Sansaver, Model maker] is doing another set for Australia, I believe.

MATRIX: Why are there various Docks?

BEN: They’re all going to be full scale builds in Australia. We can build more in a model quicker to give the entire picture of what the actual setting is after the comp, etc.
For the next phase of the full scale Dock model there will be conversations between Owen [Paterson, Production Designer] and the brothers, shots taken of it and, I’m sure, the Visual Effects team will have their say and try to work out how best to accomplish what they wish to accomplish in this space. Whatever won’t be built, or will be omitted, we’ll spray paint green, and it will become representational.

MATRIX: They’re obviously not going to build the entire full-scale model as a set.

BEN: No, they’ll build a third of the model. Again, spatial perception is where it’s at: different ideas of vastness and hugeness, and each one presents its own problems. If you look at the people in the model, it’s still fifty times smaller, a hundred times smaller than it would be in reality. It’s massive, all of the pieces are massive.

MATRIX: How long did it take to make the full scale Dock model?

BEN: The time cards reflect twenty man weeks, it’s all relative to how many people we have working on it. It took us five weeks, but we had four guys working. I could do that model in a day if you give me enough people, and if you do something to make the glue dry faster.

All models take different time. The Akron and the Oakland highways were not a design issue, we were just duplicating highway plans. The Akron model was mostly figuring it out, developing it, and versing myself in how to communicate; how to build a highway using the original documents and aerial photographs. From a civil engineering point of view it was probably one of the more interesting parts of this job, learning how freeways are built, how to document it, and how you communicate that. There is a huge scale shift – dealing on the level of architecture is nothing in comparison to fifty miles of highway and fifteen bridges going over it. Engineers have their own language and their own way of going about business.

MATRIX: On past projects you have worked on, did you ever get an opportunity to walk on the sets?

BEN: It all depends. Typically, my job is a pre-production job. Recently, many of the projects have been built elsewhere, that’s the nature of Hollywood. Most of the design work is done here [Los Angeles] and the project is built in Mexico or another location. I understand what you’re leading up to, and that is probably my favorite part of playing in this realm – with spatial perception you’re dealing with interjecting yourself, trying to imagine space, and then when you finally find yourself walking in that space, you’re absolutely unaware of how large you are in relativity, you could be 1000 feet tall because you’re used to dealing with this object like so. In the model JD is working on, we have three different sizes of people walking in there. I like the game, the spatial game.

MATRIX: You have to keep the headset of perspective on whatever piece you’re working on and, I would imagine, you have to be very aware of the scale.

BEN: Yes. It would be much more fun to do my work on something where you could create the digital model like so, then be able to enlarge it and float through the space, and be able to adjust, fix and change space. Then be able to suck it back down into a Rubik’s Cube size, and look at it from an outside perspective, where your position within reality becomes completely relative to where you happen to be standing at that given moment. There are a lot of fun mind games, because the concepts of the film allow you to explore those ideas even further. That’s the nature of what we do, the scale play makes it a lot more interesting than merely making objects. When you can see something as an object, it is relative to your hand, it’s relative to your mind, but scale makes it little bit more interesting, a little more abstract.

MATRIX: What did you think of THE MATRIX film?

BEN: Gorgeous and brilliant. They accomplished so much with the resources available. This goes back to the idea of really using the tools that you have: boards, storyboards, pre-viz etc, to lock down what you’re looking for, and then we can all be very, very specific. It’s a mantra, most definitely.

MATRIX: There wasn’t nearly a tenth of this pre-production for the first film, there are a lot more resources being put into the development of the sequels, are you getting a sense of these films being taken a lot more seriously?

BEN: My perception is that this is an atypical sequel, in the sense that nothing has been created post facto. If the resources were available, I think this is everything that the brothers wanted to be said from the very get go. In the first film we merely saw one panel on the side of an X wing fighter, and now the resources are allowing the Wachowskis to show, essentially, everything. That encapsulates it. It’s the everything-ness of it that is the fun of the idea. It’s beautiful, suspension of disbelief is firmly established, you can really go anywhere and get away with it, and it looks like they are, which is nice to see. But there are limitations as well… everything is limited.

MATRIX: Thanks Ben.

Interview by REDPILL
February 2001