Mark Mansbridge [U. S. ART DIRECTOR]



MATRIX: This is a very big project.

MARK: Yes, it’s a big project all the way through, from the beginning here in the United States to taking the majority of it down to Australia. We have three major sets we’ve almost completed now, which are probably some of the biggest sets I’ve ever dealt with. One being the Freeway, another being the Park set, a tenement complex, and the other being the ZionTemple. Each set is an amazing set within itself.

MATRIX: How long have you been with the production?

MARK: Almost a year, I started in July 2000, and now it’s slowly coming to an end at this end of it, we’ve got a few weeks yet to go.

MATRIX: I understand that you were the first person Owen Paterson, the Production Designer, hired for the US end of the production.

MARK: Yes. We had talked originally about a month prior to him calling back and saying, “I’d like to have you”. I was on another project at that time, he gave me a holler, and I was able to get out of that project a little earlier and come and do THE MATRIX sequels. It was a little more interesting than the project I was working on, Ghosts of Mars. Ron Reiss, the Set Decorator was on that as well, and he eventually came on to this show under my suggestion to Owen.

MATRIX: What is your background?

MARK: My father is now retired [John B. Mansbridge], and is 84 years old. He was a designer and the head of Disney Studios in the Art Department end of it for, I believe, 27 years. Not that I originally wanted to do what I’m doing, which is exactly what he did. I was in the architectural end of design, then one day it dawned on me that I grew up with it, and it was a natural kind of thing to do. I became an apprentice in an apprentice program way back in 1966, and stayed at Universal Studios for 8 or 9 years, then started going out independently taking jobs. I now have a son, Brook Mansbridge, who’s doing a television series at the moment, he’s a general foreman for a coordinator, and he’s hooked on it. It’s like the circus, the family just keeps going.

One of the first projects I started on was The Andromeda Strain as a Set Designer. I worked as a Set Designer for about 8 or 9 years, then moved to an Assistant Art Director, and then an Art Director. My first show as an Art Director was the original Smokey and the Bandit. We were all green behind the ears: Hal Needham, it was his first time as a Director, Bob Byrne, it was his first time as a Cinematographer, and me as a first time Art Director. We had a good time, it was a lot of hard work, but we made it happen, and it happened to be a fairly decent movie for the box office.

I’ve done a number of shows up here in the Bay area, The Rock was one of the first ones, and then Sphere, Bicentennial Man and now this project.


MATRIX: For Smokey and the Bandit, it was an all location shoot.

MARK: It was all practical locations we used, there was no construction involved with it. We were able to close a real section of a piece of freeway in Georgia. We tried to do that on this project, but going to Akron, Ohio, became difficult logistically: the weather and the climate, trying to close down the section of freeway they were going to let us use, and then do all the things we had to do, could have been a big nightmare, so we fell back into this situation.

I believe Locations came up with an idea of a runway that we could build a section of freeway on, and we just went from there. I drew a little doodle for Owen one day, and I said, “What do you think if we took it this way and then bent it off that way” – the freeway just evolved from a little doodle on a piece of map of the Alameda Naval Base. From there we went into drawing and developing it more, from overpasses to what would be practical, as far as what the script originally said. It just became bigger and bigger and bigger, and because we were drawing it on a very small piece of paper we didn’t realize that that piece of paper represented a mile and a half of freeway.

It was amazing when we got out here [Alameda Naval Base], the brothers wanted to see the freeway on the runway, so Butch, the Construction Coordinator, and myself laid it all out with cones. He and I flew up here on a Friday, rented a bunch of highway cones, and we started laying this thing out with a 100-foot tape measure. We started going down the road on one side, then back the other. It took us a whole day to lay these things out every hundred feet, make the correct turns and indicate where the overpasses were. That was the first time we realized how big a mile and a half of freeway was.

Then we started budgeting for it and broke it down. I can’t remember how many sticks of two by six plywood we had, it looked like two or three lumber yards here. We had a big kind of factory operation going, a production line, where we made up jigs and patterns for the wall, 16 by 16 flats, and we started stacking them. It really was amazing. We eventually got them out to the runway and got going standing them up on the barrier rails, which were concrete rails we had an outside company come in and do. One of the problems we had other than weather, because weather was a factor a lot of the time, was using outside contractors. They didn’t realize the importance of set times and dates for us – freeway builders take years to build freeways. So it was a little bit of a struggle in that regard, but it all turned out swell.

MATRIX: That’s what is so fascinating about it, it is a set, but it took much of the effort it would take to build a stretch of freeway.

MARK: Yes, it actually was built like a freeway. We had the contractors that came in, and the pavers, and the excavators to build Trinity’s overpass, which is a practical overpass. The other overpass was built for foot traffic, we couldn’t put vehicles on it. Trinity’s overpass was real, so we literally had to make big berms to take the road and actually build it up, and bring it over the top. For that we used flat cars from railroad yards, six of them, and we welded them all together and asphalted it. It was much like building a real freeway in certain respects. We poured a lot of concrete and had asphalt pavers and the whole nine yards.

MATRIX: At the end of the day when you were able to golf cart down that freeway, what did it feel like?

MARK: It was amazing. For a long time nobody came up from LA as we progressed with it. As it grew in vertical scale, you had to turn at the ends of it, and as you drove it every day on a golf cart, or even a car, you could easily get up to 65 miles an hour, to freeway speeds, and drive it quite for quite a distance before you had to slow down and come to the end of it. When the brothers came up for the first time to see it, I think they were amazed. We had the majority of the walls up, in fact I believe all the walls were up, but both the overpasses weren’t completed yet. They were quite amazed at the amount of freeway that they had to use.

We were looking at Akron for the possibility, which was about two thirds the distance of this, and they thought that was workable. We actually gave them another third more freeway to use, with a turn in it, so you could go in both directions. Being very symmetrical, so to speak, it mirrored from one side to the other, so you could use the freeway and still continue in one direction, then you could turn the camera around, turn the vehicles around, and keep going, it never stopped. That was an interesting aspect to it too, it gave them more freeway than they needed.

MATRIX: How much of a challenge was the color scheme with no blue?

MARK: At first it was very hard to get into our heads because you look at a color, a normal color, an everyday color, a blue, and you don’t pay attention to it because it’s an everyday color. Owen would pick up on things and say, “That’s blue!” You’ve just got to train yourself to hate blue. You like green, but you hate blue. It was a hard thing to get used to, but now I’m very used to it. I’d look at the cars everyday on the Freeway set when all the extras would come in with their cars, and you’d just start scanning them – “That one’s not good, don’t let that one run today”. Actually, a car that wasn’t blue, you started to see blue in it. Owen has a very sharp eye in regards to that, he’ll look at a color and say, “There’s too much blue in that”, but to me it looks green. It took a while, but now I’m used to it.

MATRIX: You’ve had a wealth of experience working on sets, how do THE MATRIX 2 sets compare on the level of challenge?

MARK: There was challenge in the scale, because I’ve never done anything with that kind of scale, I’ve never built a freeway before, so that was an immediate kind of a fun challenge. The Park was a straightforward set with windows and walls and brick, and structures like that, out of the three it was the easiest one to do. The Temple was just incredible. I’ve done caves before, and caverns and what not, but not necessarily with stalagmites and stalactites to make it look like it’s absolutely real. On The Rock I built a cavern underneath Alcatraz – which there is none – we just made that one up. The scale of the Temple is huge, it’s probably the biggest one I have ever seen, and it was all built out of styrofoam, a material that I’ve never used before in that way.


MATRIX: Is building sets with styrofoam a technique that is often used in the US?

MARK: It is. Butch [West, Construction Coordinator] had just finished a project with foam, and he was the one who suggested we build the entire set out of styrofoam. I was impressed with what he’d done before and I’d seen work done similar to that. I said it would be fine to sculpt the stalagmites, stalactites and the columns out of styrofoam, then make them perfect with A-B Foam, two-part foam you shoot through a gun, but why not build walls out of stick and mud? Stick and mud is typical and what I’m used to doing. Butch said, “No, we’re going to do the whole thing in styrofoam”. We wound up doing some rag [large sheets of cloth hung from the ceiling] and shooting A-B Foam on it, which was one of Owen’s ideas because he had done that in Australia. I’d heard of that being done, but I’d never seen it done here, so it was all new to me in the material end of it.

That was the challenge, other than to visually see the set, because all I ever saw at the beginning were blocks of styrofoam. Guys were working in different areas and different locations of this stage that’s 400 by 200 feet, and I was hoping they knew what they were doing. What they were doing, was building a lot of the ceiling pieces upside down – stalactites that looked like stalagmites – then they’d lift this thing up, position it and hang it, then we’d start building the lower walls underneath it. We basically had to work from the center point, or the deepest point, of the set out so we could use the heavy equipment to hang and work off of. They’re sets that we should all be proud of the accomplishment and the size and the scale, they’re good looking sets, and they’re being shot well too.

MATRIX: How did you commence with the designs for the Temple?

MARK: I’m antiquated, they hired me because I can draw with a pencil, so we actually brought in other people who are computer draftsmen. The Temple was computer drawn with stage sections every five-foot grid we did both horizontally and vertically. We took that drawing to an outside company and they laser cut the individual pieces for a model so we could visually see what we were building. Building the set, we came as close as we could to the model. As we built the set, it became a visual and sculptural decision to shift this column over a foot or two, so it’s not right on by any means, but it’s close; the model gave us a visual to go by.

MATRIX: Do you do the architectural plans yourself?

MARK: Yes, I can, but I usually hire people. I’ll do a quick sketch and then hand it off to a Set Designer, and in turn, they’ll draw it up with dimensions and all the different angles we need to build it with. Then we get the colors and the wallpaper, or whatever happens to be the surface texture. We took a field trip one day, Butch, myself, Nanci Noblett, the Assistant Art Director, and Joe Hawthorne, our painter, and went to some caverns about three hours out of here [Alameda]. We went to three different caverns and took photographs, talked to the cave people – the spelunkers – and looked at the textures to get the feeling for how we wanted to go about our cavern. Owen came in, the following week after we had been there, we showed him photographs, and he gave comments: “Let’s go with a different color here, I like this photograph here for color, this is another good sample of color”. That’s how we dealt with the Temple.

MATRIX: Apparently a part of the Temple set is going to be extended in Australia; could you talk about the logistics and preparation to ensure it won’t look like the sections been constructed in two different countries.

MARK: The extensions of the set are going to be done on computer CGI. The beginning of the cavern, so to speak, where people come in and cleanse their feet in a pool of water, is going to be built in Australia. We’re taking components of our set, some stalagmites and some stalactites and shipping them to Australia, so they can use the pieces we made as reference for colors, etc. Hugh Bateup [Art Director in Australia] and Owen will take those pieces to their painters, construction people and sculptors, and do the outer cavern, or the foyer, to the main Temple.

MATRIX: Will props made and used in the US also be sent back to Australia?

MARK: Props will be sent back. In the beginning, they actually sent us APU guns, and some of the lightning guns and whatnot, which will be shipped back to Australia, and there’ll be pieces from the military effort. We made some I Beams, some structural elements to guard the entrance to the Temple, which we’ll shoot a portion of here, then we’ll ship all that so they have the same design and colors to work with. We’ll send the fake I Beams that we made, and some shields that were made to look like metal. They, in turn, will use everything again, and probably add to that.

Other things we’re going to send back are cars, and we’ll probably send bits and pieces of the Park set, but not for shooting purposes, maybe they can use something for some other sets. Hugh is coming back this Monday, we’re going to sit down and he’s going to look through what we have to see if it’s beneficial to tear it apart, put it in cargo containers and ship it back to Australia. We need to decide if it’s economically feasible, because it’s labor intensive to take things down and ship it like that, when you can probably just buy it over there. Ron Reiss, our Set Decorator, will probably ship most everything, what we don’t ship will go to the Warner Bros. Archives, and stay there for as long as need be, as pieces from the first MATRIX did. Hugh and I went over to the archives when we first started and got a lot of stuff out of there.

MATRIX: How unique and difficult is it that the production is breaking into two countries?

MARK: That is very challenging – it’s a different time zone and there are different techniques we both use. It is probably harder on Owen and Hugh because they’ve got the majority of the sets down there, but we started here. I’m not going down to Australia, so the end of my show is here, I don’t have the problems that I can see they might have. I mean, I’ve done shows in Mexico and Israel, and it’s hard because they don’t know how we work, and I don’t know how they work. When I was in Mexico it was a learning process, a learning curve to know what they do and how they do it. Owen did the same thing, he came here and saw what we did to understand how we did it. When I was in Israel there was a building technique I’d never seen, they use metal and plaster because they don’t use wood. I said I want it to look like wood, and they said they’ll make it look like wood, so I said show me, and they did.


MATRIX: Can you elaborate on the Park set?

MARK: The Park set, as I said, is a straightforward set. Owen created it in his computer and, in turn, we took it and started working on drawing on it and the details. We took a lot of the tenement details from Cabrini Green, a famous housing project outside of Chicago, and a little bit of research from New York. And, of course, reading the script and visually seeing what the brothers wanted to put together for the Burly Brawl. Owen composed the tenement to be a park setting within a parameter of buildings. It was a fun set to build because we do those kinds of sets a lot. It was just a matter of the scale of it – that we’re going to go four stories up, and we’re going to take it to the perms [ceiling structures], and then, how are we going to hang it? That was a structural problem, which became a real fun thing to try and resolve.


MATRIX: How did you begin working with Owen?

MARK: Owen had started in Australia and came back and forth to the US a few times before I got involved with the sequels. Being that he had done the original MATRIX with the brothers, he was really in tune, and still is, with the brothers. I mean, they’re all like brothers. So it was just me fitting in, and figuring out how Owen wanted to go about doing things. He and I sat down and talked different methods, because I’m at one end of the world, and he’s at the other end of the world. Just understanding what he wanted to see in the designs, the realism. I try to pick up on that with every designer each time, each designer is different and they work differently, so you feel it out and see how he wants to work, and you go with that flow. I’m easy at doing that, it works for me because we get more production out of if we cooperate with each other.

MATRIX: What did you think of the first film?

MARK: THE MATRIX was a break through in different techniques, cinematography, angles, color and texture, and the visual effects, naturally. It’s interesting to continue that, but on an even bigger scale doing THE MATRIX 2, and on an even bigger scale probably on THE MATRIX 3, doing the same things, the Bullet Time, and all the words they have now got a vocabulary for. It’s THE MATRIX vocabulary for different techniques, how they shoot things, the speed of the camera, the film speed and how fast we’re going. Are we going 300 frames per second, which is extremely fast, 150 frames, or normal, or whatever. It’s fun working with both the brothers and Owen, and everybody else involved on the original movie. Then to continue on and keep going with it doing all those things and trying to improve them, in both real time, as well as in the computers.

MATRIX: How has the computer changed the way you work?

MARK: Basically, I’m computer illiterate, and this is my first show where everybody really is in computers. I’ve dealt a little bit with it but not to this extreme. There are some good things – dealing with certain drawings I can see where it is really helpful. The Freeway became very easy to do, because we could do it on a very small scale, and then blow it up to any size we wanted to, and we could change things. To do that with pencil on paper, you’d need a drafting table 50 feet long, so the computer became ideal for that particular situation, that particular set. The Park set was also done on the computer, although I felt it could have been drawn faster with a pencil and T square, than it was in the computer.

There are certain things I really like the computer for, and then there are other things I’d like to draw. There’s something natural about a very sketchy drawing, the computer is very hard line, straight and square. The Temple was done on computer too, but again, I felt that could have been done with a pencil, some nice angle sketches, and some nice freehand illustrations.
Computers are getting better and better as we go along. We hired a Computer Set Designer [Kristen Davis] who knows Vector Works, and as there are a lot of illustrators who are working on the computer, she was taking their illustrations, and pulling out drawings with the Vector Works program: three-dimensional drawings, and also workable, typical, architectural drawings, which was quite amazing to me, I had never seen that. She teaches a class, so she’s very good.

It’s coming to a point where the computer can do everything that we can do as far as drawing, although I’m still old fashioned, I do like the hand drawing better than the computer drawing, but a computer still takes an operator. Owen is like a designer operator. He’s quite good, he gets in there and plays and does his thing, it amazes me what he comes up with. It’s fun, I wouldn’t might working with computers again, and continuing to do it, although I’d like to go back to the old basic movies too. I like them all, every one is a challenge in it’s own way. No matter the amount of movies made, they’re all different, and they all take their own characteristics and ups and downs in where you go with them.

MATRIX: How do you feel THE MATRIX 2 went?

MARK: Great. Everybody on all the crews has been really helpful towards one another, no one holds anything back and everybody communicates well. One of the major things in making a movie is that everybody has to know what is happening in the next hour, or next twenty minutes. On this production, everybody seems to really communicate, from behind the camera, all the way to the PAs who are in production. It’s a good bunch of people to work with.

MATRIX: Thanks Mark.

Interview by REDPILL
May 2001