MATRIX: How long have you been building models?

JAMES: I’ve been doing models for about five years, pretty much since I came to Los Angeles to pursue it. I wasn’t somebody who did models as a kid, that wasn’t my thing. I started out as a fine artist, drawing, and then moved my way into sculpture, and did a lot of kinetic sculpture. I got frustrated with my lack luster techniques and the way I was fabricating things, I thought I needed to become a little bit more refined, and I got sick of painting for school, so I decided I’d go and get paid instead, and came out here.

MATRIX: What got you into film work?

JAMES: Like most kids, I went to see Star Wars, but I was more enamored with how they accomplished what they did, than with the film itself. The film was amazing to me at the time, as a child, but I was always like, “Who built that robot? “How’d they get that robot to work? “How’d they do this, and how’d they do that?” I’ve always been extremely fascinated with the process of things. Definitely one of the more interesting things in my life is how things go together, and how things come apart; how the overall thing is accomplished.

MATRIX: When you started building models, did you begin to look at films differently?

JAMES: Yes, and sometimes I regret that. A good example, recently, was when I saw the Director’s cut of Blade Runner. I was all psyched, and I was just sitting there, and all of a sudden I start recognizing the nernies [3D parts which add detail to models], all the little bits of detail that just killed the scale instantly. The suspension of disbelief is sometimes ruined. Now, I sometimes end up finding myself veering away from seeing effects driven films, and am more into things of substance. I’ve vowed not to see anything I work on anymore because the films definitely don’t catch my interest, or hold it.

MATRIX: What are some of the other projects you’ve worked on?

JAMES: A job is a job, and the part I make on it is usually pretty interesting. Some of the most fun I’ve had so far was designing and making props for Wild, Wild West, it was great. There was a big pile of brass parts on a table and they said to just go to town, milling and soldering. I also worked on End of Days. The things I get to work on have always been interesting, if you just extract exactly what it is I’m working on. The film in its entirety, sometimes it’s good, and sometimes it’s bad, you just don’t know.

MATRIX: Whatever one thinks of the film, many of the sets and props in Wild, Wild West were spectacular.

JAMES: Exactly. A lot of the films I work on, if I could sit there pushing the fast forward button, and mute them, they’re great films. One of the good things about Wild, Wild West was what I made – everything I made, made it into the film, except a pair of binoculars. I was like, “I wonder what happened to the binoculars?” They were this fabulous pair of binoculars, everybody liked them, and I thought they came out quite spectacular, and I found out later they just went straight to the directors desk, they never even made it to the film; a good prop for him to have.

MATRIX: What do you find interesting about working on THE MATRIX sequels?

JAMES: This is my first opportunity to be associated with the artists so directly. It’s also the first time I’ve ever been involved with an Art Department, not just the hustle, bustle of the production end of things, where I’m building something that gets filmed and how ridiculously quick and dirty that has to be. Some of the things here have been an interesting challenge for me, because a lot of times, when you make something to be shot on film, you over-exaggerate the details, so when it’s painted you can actually see it. This is much more subtle, and much more in tune with the design aspects, rather than just using this washer because it works perfectly. So that has been very interesting, as well as being around, and inspired by, all the other artists and talented people. It’s helping to rekindle my own juices a little bit too. I find myself thinking about my own ideas more than I have in the last few years. I definitely appreciate my opportunities on these films.

MATRIX: How long have you been working on them now?

JAMES: I’ve been on them for five months – the longest two weeks I’ve ever had.

MATRIX: Could you walk through the process of creating this model?

JAMES: This is an elaborated section of the larger model of the upper level of Zion. In particular, we’re focusing on the center section, where there’s a crane and a large deck, with bunkers. They’re going to generate several sets that descend down these levels, this pattern repeats itself as you tier down. There are girders and structures we’re trying to represent via the information we’re given, what’s been decided by everybody involved in the process of what they need for this set, or the possibility of this set.

We’re trying to give them, visually, a 3 dimensional representation of what they’re asking for, and what’s been determined. We have all these pieces and parts, and when we represented Zion the first time, the scale was so drastically small, half of it never really became realized. So you blow this model up, and you see all the gaping holes, what has to happen, and how to create interest in these spaces. You get layering of all these parts that, when we’re given it, it’s just a flat plane, and you can’t just have a big old flat plane up there, because it’s pretty boring – you have to come up with something that’s an interesting space.

We’re working with everybody involved, working with the CG artists and Owen and everyone to come up with something that matches the aesthetic of the film, and helps push the idea forward of what they want to get across. This particular shape, from what I gather, needs to be used in many different applications. There is one elevator on this side, there is a large elevator on the other side, where these big doors open, and on the other side, there are two smaller doors, so you’ll be able to use this set for more than one application.

Most of this model is all prefabricated materials, it’s made of these really beautiful pieces of styrene with high tolerances of thickness and widths, and channels which allows you to make a very clean application of details. You can wrap it around to have beaming on the pipes, or you can make the segmentation around the bottom of this structure. There is some prefabricated girder work made out of the same material, and there’s a solvent you can use to weld it together, so it’s a durable piece.

My sculptures were an assemblage of found objects, with a bit of myself put into them. Where I really start to sing in model making is more when I’m dealing with the problem solving of found objects. I can fabricate things well, like most people can who do model making, but I like the assemblage of found objects, and reinterpreting them. I like taking a toy ladder, chopping it up, and putting it in, in a different way to create a shape that breaks up the space.

MATRIX: What do you count as a found object?

JAMES: I didn’t make this girder work, so that’s a found object. I didn’t make this ladder, so that is a found object. Technically, what we’ve made these models from is a found object, it’s much like a board, but because you’re manipulating it to create something, it’s less of a found object. There are also nernies, all these shapes and planes, used to make something happen, like the way this space was developed. When Ben [Edelberg, Lead Model Maker] came up with a design for a drive mechanism, it was just an assemblage of all these little bits and pieces from different model kits glued together, to make something that looks like it’s real. There are tons of model kits that we kit bash and use for all their fabulous parts.

MATRIX: Do you go into model shops to shop for kits?

JAMES: Yes, we go shopping and buy model kits. There’s a series of model kits we use more than others, with battle ships and tanks; they’ve been going on forever. Every show I’ve ever worked on has had huge bins full of plastic model trees that you just start plucking parts off of. When you find the really good ones, you take molds of them, so you always have those around, it’s part of the process.
For me, the main interest when I got into model making, was to learn more about the process and the materials. The materials especially, I’m a real big geek when it comes to materials, I love all the different types of materials out there. To make a mold, you need your pattern and your parts; whether it’s fabricated, or I built or sculpted it by hand and applied details to it, or whether I just need a bunch of the details to apply to the model in general. It’s just a matter of having your parts, building yourself a container, and taking a two-part silicone and pouring it over your pattern. Once that silicone is dry, you de-mold your part, and you have a mold. To make the part, you take a two-part urethane, usually, mix equal parts of it together and dump it in the mold, and voila, you have a part. Instant detail.

MATRIX: What did you think of THE MATRIX film?

JAMES: I really enjoyed the first film. I really liked the approach on a lot of the cinematography, and the way of interpreting an effect or a perspective I thought was quite fabulous. Anything that sets a trend like that, and you start seeing in Gap commercials instantaneously, just affects people. When something affects people that quickly, it’s hard to deny the power in its interpretation. I really loved the concept, especially as we are approaching an age that’s starting to really delve into consciousness of machines. I mean, they just built a machine that fuels itself on meat – there are some weird things going on in our society. The film was an interesting way to approach those questions.

Something we’ve been talking about here, is that it’s really interesting to have a film with no real rules, because when you’re in the Matrix you have this world that’s as we perceive our world, but then you start to realize it’s not real, and you can bend and play with those rules. One of the more interesting parts for me was, what becomes reality, what isn’t reality, and the play against it. There was also the pure joy factor of really beautiful, elaborate fight and action scenes you can’t help but enjoy. On top of that, if you choose to look at the film deeper, you can find more profound questions, deeper questions, in there about where we’re going and what we’re doing with our life, with our planet, with our society, and with these machines. Something I’ve always been intrigued with is, how much control are we going to give these machines? How much is it necessary? And what’s going to happen when we start to develop things that find their own consciousness? Are we still going to dub them machines? Are we going to dub them a life form? Are we going to give them the respect they deserve as a life form or not? Those are the kind of things that started to pop into my head in the film.

MATRIX: How did you get pulled into working on the sequels?

JAMES: One of the first elements that came up was needed practically instantaneously, in a week and a half, or something like that. Ben already had some really absorbing models he had to accomplish, and they had just counted this one into the mix. Ben and I have been friends for quite some time, and I was on this really horrible job, so he asked me if I would like a ‘Get out of Jail Free’ card. So I was brought in for a couple of weeks to help produce a model that was fully articulated. It was so much fun, we had such a blast working on it.

MATRIX: Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to seeing realized?

JAMES: Yes, I’m interested to see how the upper level of Zion finalizes. That will be interesting because it was such a deep process, there are so many layers. It wasn’t until I really got into it that I realized this stemmed back to Geof Darrow [Concept Artist]. I’m interested to see how the story plays out too, because I haven’t had an opportunity, or taken the opportunity to read the script and see where it’s coming from next. It will be interesting to see the Wachowskis’ ideas, and how they choose to elaborate on them and pursue them. I’m intrigued, THE MATRIX sequels will be one of the first things, in a long time, I am actually going to be excited to see that I have worked on.

MATRIX: Thanks James.

Interview by REDPILL
February 2001