BY HUGH BATEUP
SUPERVISING ART DIRECTOR
It’s hard to remember dates when you’ve been working years on THE MATRIX! I’d have to say I started on the sequels somewhere in June 2000, and we spent a year making the first film, in 1997 and 1998. I went over to America in 1998 and we did a press junket at the Warner Bros. lot in Los Angeles. We took the Nebuchadnezzar over, and I got to stay and go to the premiere of the first film in West Hollywood. As soon as we saw that, Joel Silver started talking about the next films.
Larry and Andy always said when we were doing the first film, that there were three stories – how the first one went would determine whether the next two would go. So as soon as it was out and well received, and the DVD did what the DVD did, I think Larry and Andy talked to Owen [Paterson, Production Designer], some time in 1999. Then it was just a matter of time before the start date came, and off we went.
Owen and I have a great working relationship. We’ve been doing it for so long now, it’s just how it works. He does what he does and I do what I do. I don’t think there’s anybody else besides Larry and Andy who knows the script and the scene breakdown as well as Owen. Probably Owen, James McTeigue [1st Assistant Director] and Victoria [Sullivan], the Script Supervisor, John Gaeta [Visual Effects Supervisor] and myself, have had the most time on the film’s scripts and storyboards.
We spent a lot of time in America. I think Owen started in Australia in about March 2000 – there was an office at Fox Studios – and then went to America around June. From that point they had Steve Skroce doing storyboards and Geof Darrow doing conceptual art, and about sixteen other artists… and the scripts. I started doing some script breakdowns and budgets in June 2000, and eventually went to America on the 6th of October. There were about twenty people there working on the concepts. From that day we were pretty full on into the overview of THE MATRIX, so to speak.
We had constant access to Larry and Andy in those days, and they’d go round to the artists a couple of times a day with Owen, to see what they were doing. They constantly worked with Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce developing ideas over that six month period – it was fairly intense. That was when they worked out the different sequences and put the whole thing together.
My role then went off on a little bit of a tangent, in that I helped facilitate getting the film made. I’d go through the budget process, while Owen concentrated on the design, and then on how we were going to structure our department: what sort of people we needed, how many we needed, and what time frame. I don’t have a lot to do with the design, I have a lot to do with logistics and getting things done. To understand how we’re going to get everything done, I really need to understand what it is we have to get done, so it helped to be in the same office watching all the concepts develop.
Owen and I work together pretty closely. He had the overview and is the head of the department, overseeing the whole thing. I implemented from a design point of view, through the system, to actually get the sets in sound stages for when the crew turned up.
When we started on the first MATRIX – Owen was also the Production Designer on that – there were two Art Directors, Michelle McGahey and myself. Michelle had had a bit of experience working on larger American shows, but I hadn’t had so much. We read the script and went… oh yeah, okay, better read that again. When we got the concept drawings, that was when we understood what it was we had to do and how many sets would be needed. For a period of time we were like ducks, our heads above the water calm and cool, and our feet going flat out under the water, swimming like crazy.
It wasn’t so bad the second time round, as the experience we had helped us cope a little better with the, lets say, surprise.
From a budgetary standpoint we didn’t treat this show any differently. It’s the same as making anything, you just have to make sure that you cover everything. Owen and I did separate breakdowns and then compared. While he was in America doing his breakdowns he had a knowledge of what they were doing, whereas I was sitting at the computer trying to do a budget off a script. You have to be methodical. There were roughly 144 sets, so our spreadsheets with the sets and budget papers, just in the Art Department, were fourteen pages long. Once you break it down into every point, it’s really the same as doing everything else in terms of logistics. You just have to put an amount of money next to everything you have to do. You can then add it up and divide it, and figure out how many people need to do it.
We knew it was going to be huge, but we also knew that if we let ourselves be daunted by it, then we would fail. So we always set ourselves tasks: we’ll just get through this and we’ll be okay. We got there, so let’s set the next step; if we get ourselves through that – alright. We didn’t try to design the last sets in the film along with the first. Some of our sets were huge, so James had a massive task – a schedule also had to take into account the stages we had, which is another part of the process. When you keep your process happening, and cut it up into little blocks and move the blocks around, then like a jigsaw puzzle, it fits. When we did our schedule board, we cut things up once again into blocks and divided it up into people and areas, then someone would take care of this, someone take care of that. We knew we couldn’t totally have control over everything, so we had to pick (which was a process in itself) the right people to cover the right areas, so they could report back, and you know that what they’re doing is in line with what you want to do.
We were pretty lucky; we were all the right group of people. The Art Department has been a very cohesive team since we put it together. It also helps when the Directors have such a clear idea of what they want the film to look like and you implement it. Everybody still gets to put some design into it, but it’s very clear where that design is going.
While it helped that Larry and Andy’s vision is really clear, it wasn’t just that; everybody pushes the design and everyone likes to put their stamp on something. Sometimes someone will go a little too far with something, but it gets shown to Owen and eventually Larry and Andy, and in the end everything ends up how it’s supposed to be.
144 sets in twelve different sound stages over a shooting period of forty-two weeks, is a little logistical nightmare, and nothing that we’ve ever done before. The achievement will be a feather in everyone’s cap. One of the reasons we were able to do it was because Grant and the studio, or whoever makes those decisions, allowed a good period of pre-production, where we could plan how to do it. This is a great example for whomever makes decisions on how to make movies and how much pre-production to have; this is a perfect example of what happens when you have enough pre-production and you get it right.
Few films have the length of pre-production THE MATRIX sequels were allowed. Usually, you go in and you’re designing and building sets on the fly. The Australian film industry has been great over the years, because we have finite amounts of money and finite time to do things, so you get fairly lean and mean, and you need to know how to do things. There’s a rule of thumb that for every week you shoot, you have a week of pre-production. So you get to plan a week in a week, depending on how much you have to do. Grant and Larry and Andy were realistic about how much pre-production was needed for people to be able to do what they wanted them to do. Larry and Andy are fairly realistic people.
As far as setting up a structure for the Art Department, we had an American contingent, and Mark Mansbridge was the Art Director over there. He is a really experienced man; what he didn’t know, there’s not around to know, really. They had a Set Decorating team and Construction Department over there. Mark and Butch West [US Construction Coordinator] both have experience on big films, so they know how to deal with it all because that’s what they do.
I was impressed with the way they got the Freeway set together; building a mile and a half freeway. In the end it turned out to be probably the cheapest set per square foot on the film because we built so much of it.
We built three big sets over there, so for me being in America and watching the scale of what Butch and Mark were dealing with and how they were dealing with it, was a really good education for me. I came back from America and talked to Phil Worth, our Construction Supervisor, about how Butch works within his group of people, and we implemented some of the ways he works into our Construction Department, because it worked. There were things over there that I don’t think worked as well as they do here [Australia], so we didn’t implement change.
We’re probably the biggest Art Department that’s been around in Australia, I think, although it’s hard to say – there are all sorts of statistics. It depends on which day of the week you’re talking I guess. A lot of departments in Australia come under the Art Department. For instance we have a Prop Manufacture unit who manufactures the things like glasses, and they also build the jacks that go in the back of people’s heads. They’re sculptors and artisans. Pete Wyborn [Prop Manufacture Supervisor] and Trevor [Smith, Prop Manufacture Manager] dealt with that area for us.
The Set Decoration Department here has been pretty flat out with 144 sets. We’ve had a few different people in that department because the emphasis changed from Matrix-world sets to real-world sets. Because we’ve been operating in Australia for a year and a half now, we structured the departments in a way that they could have different people at different times. That has been good because you can get different people in with different skills, who don’t get tired of the show. It’s very easy for people to get tired on a show of this scale, size and period of time. Brian Dusting has been the Set Decorator in Australia, with help from Marian Murray [Assistant Set Decorator].
The different subdivisions interrelate really smoothly. Prop Manufacture sort of works under Set Decoration, and crosses over with building things for Construction. For instance, the Construction Department on this film builds all the sets. We have a Steel Department, Plaster Department, Timber Department, and Scenic Art Department, all in that Construction Department. On this film we’ve built a few ships – the hovercraft – the crossover there is what the interior of the ships looks like, which is part Construction and part Prop Manufacture, who make like the controls and the chairs. It depends where you divide those things up on any particular show as to where people with those skills lie.
This goes back to how critical it was when Owen and I were trying to decide how to set our department up – putting Brian together with Pete Wyborn together with Phil Worth and Tony Bardolph [Construction Manager] and Terry Lord [Construction Manager], and our Scenic Department was a mix we also had to get right. There was no clear line as to who did what, so every Monday we had Art Department meetings where we solved those problems.
All those guys and girls have to have some direction, which comes from the Art Directors. So there are three Art Directors who have taken care of the implementation and design of the film under Owen and myself: Jules Cook, Catherine Mansill and Charlie Revai. Each of those three come with particular skills, and they each have proved to be just great at their jobs. When people see the film they’ll know what I mean.
Each of the Art Directors has different skills, so we divided the sets up into three, which I did randomly with a list of the sets and three highlighters. As luck would have it (which happens a lot on THE MATRIX – there are a lot of coincidences when you’re working on THE MATRIX), those three people got the sets they were most suited to. Now I didn’t do that on purpose, and I’m not really superstitious… except when things like that happen. Each of them had forty to fifty sets to do, and that’s a lot of sets for an Art Director to accomplish.
If you were to ask me how the number of sets we had to deal with on THE MATRIX compares to an “average” film, it’d be hard to relate the two. On an Australian film, there are half a dozen to a dozen sets, and then locations. I guess it’s not the size that matters, it’s the shooting time. Films that we worked on, up until a few years ago, would go for six to ten weeks, or however many shooting days. What you can achieve in a shooting day dictates many of the things you do and what the budget is.
Underneath those Art Directors we had a good group of Assistant Art Directors who would take care of the design of the sets, then pass that down then to the group of Set Designers & Draftspeople. They were Cindi [Knapton], Karen [Murphy], Damien [Drew], Jacinta [Leong], and Michael [Turner]. Our Assistant Art Directors were the ones who designed sets under the Art Directors, and the burden was spread all the way through to the people who had to churn out whatever was needed to keep construction going – there were plenty of those people. So we had to have a system for a year and half that meant that people could actually go home after ten or eleven hours a day, have weekends off, and sort of have some semblance of a life.
Now, on a six to ten week film – you don’t do that. In the film industry, I don’t know why, but it is the way it’s done – maybe that’s why people work here – most people end up putting in a lot of extra time and effort. Especially in the Art Department, Production office and… Visual Effects always do, as does Special Effects. The On Set Crew have their hours set and they do overtime; in the Art Department, we have our set hours as well, but in pre-production we tend to end up at work for longer periods than you would think necessary. Or humanly possible. We really wanted to not burn anyone out, and we wanted to figure out the right mix of people; that was important. If we could get that right mix of people together, we wouldn’t have dramas of people burning out and having to change. We didn’t want our team to change because we got a really good dynamic happening, so we wanted to make sure we kept the people we had who were working really well. Altogether, we had a really good group.
The Assistant Art Directors come to the meetings as well, then they go and actually start the drawing process. The Art Director would then move onto one of their other sets while the Assistant Art Directors took that set.
In terms of the Art Department, I was working about three months ahead. The Art Directors were working a combination of three months ahead, and on a day to day basis. The Assistant Art Directors would be designing for three months ahead and also getting things built in the immediate moment. They’d check the paint job, check the samples, and check that things were being made. Once a set was finished, you picked another set from three months and one day away, added it to your list, and started working on that.
In the three month period we had to design the set, get it approved, get it built, prefabricated, painted, and ready to go in a stage. We had a big workshop over at the Redfern rail yards – because we didn’t have enough room on the lot – where all the sets were prefabricated, built, painted, taken down, then moved to the studio and put back up in the stages. For that process to happen we had to be three months ahead.
The pressure on the design team was intense, so Trish Foreman, our Coordinator, had her own group of people to help facilitate all their work. We tried to give youngsters who haven’t had a lot of film experience jobs in this area. Our Executive Producer, Grant Hill, was receptive of this idea early: to get together a group of young people who’d done film school courses or were interested in film. We have Nick [Tory, Art Department PA] and Christopher [Tangney, Art Department PA] who do a lot of our Photoshop work; we also had a young girl Shari Finn [Assistant Concept Modelmaker], who helped make conceptual models. Trish hired Helena [Donohue], who worked on Queen of the Damned, as her Assistant Coordinator, Diana [Valia Chen, Art Department PA], Angus [Wray, Design Runner], and Lauren [Wilbow, Art Department PA].
That team supports the design team and also looks after miscellaneous things. On a job like this, there are things people don’t take into account: the fridges you need, the heaters you need, the power points you need, the telephone lines you need, because they don’t seem to go with the Art Department. They also coordinate the call sheets between the Art Directors and the Assistant Art Directors, and have been responsible for the distribution of every bit of information that we generate which needs to get to every other department.
As if that weren’t enough, Chris and Nick have even formed an “unofficial” department of their own within the Art Department: the “Matrix Crew T-shirt and Logo Design Department”. I don’t know how many they’ve got designed now, but there are around eighty-three different garments at the moment floating around that were either designed for the first film, for the American shoot, or that are actually being processed at the moment. I think Nick and Chris have designed about twenty or thirty T-shirts in the last six or eight weeks. We also created a limited edition Art Department umbrella, which most members of the crew bought, and we donated our profit to two charities.
We learned a lot about streamlining our production process from our experiences on the first MATRIX film as well as from subsequent American productions and from Mark Mansbridge and his team in the US. We also looked at how other businesses run outside the film industry, where you’re not just there for six or twelve or fifteen weeks. We were talking about setting up a work force that was going to spend many, many millions of dollars over a year and a half, which had to produce a lot of stuff. Basically we set something up that helped a crew shoot for, in the end, two hundred & ten days, and when the shooting crew gets going on a show as big as this, there are hundreds of people. You have to keep them shooting. It’s a juggernaut moving around. We didn’t want to get out of control. Once you start a snowball – you push it off the edge – it gets bigger and bigger and bigger and you don’t want that. What you want it to do is just go along sure & steady, because if you don’t in the end the snowball’s going to be really big and run you over, and you really don’t want that.
When you have a big crew, you can always cut back on your crew. We could always cut back the amount of weeks we had on people, but if we got off on the wrong foot, it would be very difficult to catch up. If we were wrong, we hoped we were wrong in the fact that we had too many people, not that we didn’t have enough people or not enough skills, or that the people don’t get along. From day one on the sound stages, it was proved that we did it the right way. Owen has being doing this for quite a long time, Phil Worth, our Construction Supervisor, has been doing it for a long time. Experience is pretty valuable: being able to look at something and know how long it will take you to build it and how much space you need to do that. Owen is a smart bloke, and Grant understood what the Art Department needed to achieve. He’s done some big films, so he knows what it takes, and he’s been very supportive of our process.
Another part of the Art Department has been the Screen Graphics Department. All the screens in the ships and on every one of our sets – like the Rerouting Facility and the countdowns to the lights going out – all have graphics designed by them. On the first film we had the screens done by an outside contractor. That didn’t seem to be the way to go on this because of the length of the project, and we needed people who could work full time, make a decision and get the work delivered. The graphics on the first movie were good, but we felt they could be improved by having our own people at desks tapping away.
We broke that department up into two areas. We hired Tim Ahern [Screen Graphics Technical Supervisor] who got a good grounding on Mission: Impossible and Red Planet, and was young and feisty, and he hired his offsider, Damon [Girbon, Screen Graphics Assistant]. What they don’t know about putting images on screens now, probably doesn’t exist yet, and I’m sure if it came up, they’d figure it out. They’ve excelled. Then we had Tim Richter, the Screen Graphics Design Supervisor, who hired a team of Graphic Designers and Programmers [Dylan Yeo, Martin Crouch, Carl Braga] who actually designed and programmed the graphics.
Tim Ahern and Tim Richter worked in tandem; once again they’re a good example of how we lucked out on getting together a team that got along. There was the technical side who understood the visuals, and the visuals guys, who’ve never been on a film like this before because there hasn’t been one, understanding the technical needs. I think they’ve put together around two and a half hours of video footage to go on all those screens. The first set we did on this shoot was the Nebuchadnezzar, which had around sixty screens.
Set Finishing comes under the Construction Department, they all work together. They’ve done a fabulous job on the sets – you can really see the detail. They have great technique. At one stage we had about fifty-odd people in that team. Up until they do their job, a set or prop is just a few sheets of plywood in a particular shape. Their part of the process is to turn that into what people see on film. With our ships and various other sets like Zion, it has been interesting because they came in and finished the sets to a point, then our Set Decorators and Prop Manufacture have to go in and add another layer.
Like we did for the first film, there are a lot of layers in the ships, which is the same for Zion – the layers Geof Darrow years ago drew in his concepts. After the Set Decorators and Prop Manufacture finish, our Set Finishers and Scenics will come in and go over the set again to put that rust on, or whatever.
Eventually, if you look at the first, second and third films, the samples have all remained constant. The first film was done by a particular group of people, we have had a lot of those people on the second and third films, along with some different people, but I think if you watch the three films back to back, you’ll find the quality as good at the end of the last film as the opening scene of the first film. The consistency is great throughout the three films.
With such a large number of departments under the Art Department umbrella we eventually had to have our own Accounts Department; although they actually work under the Accounts Department in the Production Office, they work in the Art Department. We have Deborah Eastwood, who is the Art Department Accountant and, Vanessa [Edwards, Assistant Art Department Accountant]. Deborah oversees the millions of dollars we spend – keeping a firm hand on the tiller. That is a hard job because she has the responsibility of everyone under the Art Department umbrella. Every bit of paper sooner or later goes over Deborah’s desk.
We also have a Vehicle Department looking after the picture vehicles. In Australia, the Vehicle Department works in the Art Department as opposed to the Transport Department. The Freeway Chase is a pretty manic sequence, and the vehicle guys in America did a great job getting all those vehicles together. They painted the cars, fixed them and moved them. Some days there were two hundred cars on that freeway. We’ve only had a few dozen cars over here in Australia, which has been looked after by Anthony McNeil [Picture Vehicle Coordinator], along with the motorbikes.
As Supervising Art Director I had the opportunity to art direct all of the sets … but in the context of overseeing the other three Art Directors. The process had to end up with Owen, he and the brothers sign off, and Bill Pope, the DOP, gets to have a look at everything too. So the Art Directors got things to a point and then we had a meeting where we covered every set – I didn’t need to know every detail, I had more of an overview. I know a lot of details about everything because I did all the pre-production, and I knew what we’d talked about in America, so I had to get that information to them.
Charlie, Jules and Catherine concentrated more on their own sets, they didn’t know a lot about each other’s sets, although when we had our meetings, we tried to have everybody there so everyone knew a bit about every set. We also had full on production meetings where we would explain how we were going to do things, where we were setting it up and what the sets did, to every other department using our models (we made a model of every set). Owen would give everyone an overview, then each of the Art Directors would dissect the model and say what it is, then if something needed clarification between another department, I generally had some information about it.
As the period went on, as everyone got that information from Owen and I, they took it further, so they didn’t need that information from me. As the Art Department became bigger, my role in art directing diminished, till in the last six months I was just running a big department. Then, as the days went on in the filming, problems arose, and that became my role: to help solve the problems the three Art Directors and Construction Managers can’t solve, in instances where they need to go to Owen, the brothers, or to the production to deal with things.
We had fifty people designing and drawing sets, fifty in Prop Manufacture, then Set Decoration had twenty-odd people in the department. So all up, in design and the Art Department, we probably had close on a hundred and fifty people. Then in Construction and Set Finishing we had maybe two hundred. Overall we had four hundred and fifty people who came under the umbrella of the Art Department.
With all this growth I’ve had to make some sacrifices. On the first film I went to dailies every day. One of the things I decided I couldn’t do on this film was stay around until ten o’clock at night watching dailies. Owen stays for dailies, and passes that information on. And technology again comes to the rescue. Every day the rushes are transferred to DVD, so I can go down to the office, get a DVD, and sit at my desk and watch the rushes. We have never had that facility before. On the first film, if we wanted to check continuity when we were doing different bits and pieces, we could actually get something transferred to tape and then go and watch it. But now, the next day, by four o’clock in the afternoon, the guys in Editorial have a DVD down there and we just go down and get that, so we can just sit around watching them on our computers, or on one of the televisions in the Art Department.
Generally, the first night one of the Art Directors’ sets was up in the rushes, they would try and get along for that because they’d get feedback. The sets are related, so the feedback might have something to do with what they’re doing later on. But with the pressure they were under for the first year, you needed to be able to get a good night’s sleep to be able to continue your day, because as soon as you get to work, it’s all on.
Someone recently asked how we know what Larry and Andy want… all they really wanted to do was make the best action adventure, science fiction, kung fu, car chase, love story, romantic epic ever. That was our brief so we knew where we were going.
(Supervising Art Director)