Anna Marchant [PROP MAKER]



MATRIX: What is your background?

ANNA: I basically started off in the film industry having done a university degree in teaching design and technology, so I had all the kinds of workshop experience, and somehow I got into film after that. I’ve now worked on several films here at Fox Studios Australia, from Mission: Impossible II, to Moulin Rouge!, and then Star Wars: Episode 2 – Attack of the Clones, and now THE MATRIX.

MATRIX: Have you always been part of the Prop Manufacture Department?

ANNA: Yes, Models and Props, and also Costume Props. I met Pete Wyborn who is the Head of the Prop Manufacture Department [Prop Manufacture Supervisor] on Star Wars, and a really lovely guy and also got to know different guys who work in the department, so when I asked for a job on THE MATRIX my skills were needed, and I got it. It has been about six months now that I’ve been working on this production, and I’ve been having the best fun on this film; it’s really been good.


MATRIX: What are some of the things you have been creating in Props Manufacture?

ANNA: My first major job was working on the scene in the Great Hall of the Merovingian’s Chateau: me and a couple of other guys made all the weapons that went on the walls of that Chateau. All up there were about three hundred different weapons, and probably about twenty or thirty different styles, and then replicas of each style. We made the originals out of various different materials, then handed them over to the Mold Department in Props Manufacturing who molded them, and then we produced several replicas that all went up on the walls.

MATRIX: Where did the designs come from for the weapons?

ANNA: It’s all part of the Art Department. In Prop Manufacture we actually work underneath the Art Department, so all the designs came from them and also from Sec Decorating because they’re going to be dressing the sets. They decide how they want the room and the sets to look.

MATRIX: Do you make a prototype of each design to get the correct measurements?

ANNA: Yes, although it varies. When I was working with the weapons, for some of them I might be given a sword and they would say they want a sword exactly the same length as that and the same diameter, but thicker or thinner, with different qualities. So I might have to engrave it, or I might have to just make different styles. Sometimes I would start off with a cardboard cutout just to give a rough idea, or I might be given a sketch or some references from different books that they had, or different ideas that they had. The Art Department does lots of research and we are just given the designs, although with the weapons there was quite a lot of allowance for creativity on our behalf.

MATRIX: How challenging was it to make the weapons look heavy?

ANNA: I started off just making the originals, and because they were going to be molded and we were going to make several copies of them, they could be made out of anything to start with. A lot of them were MDF timber – that was the main product we started off with because it was so easy to shape and cut. Then they were cast up in Fast Cast for the most part, which is a plastic substance that starts off as just a two part liquid, and as it sets it goes to a hard plastic. It is quite brittle though, so for all the weapons that were going to be left on the wall and not touched by any of the actors it was a very suitable material.

Some of the weapons were going to be used in action, so they needed to be breakaway weapons, and that’s when we started working with the Special Effects Department as well. We also handed all of the weapons over to the Scenic Department so they could make them look like they were metal. They’ve just got lots of secrets – I don’t know how they do it, but they just work their magic. You hand something over that looks very plain and boring and all of a sudden it looks as though it’s made out of iron or gold, or whatever.

MATRIX: Did you have anything to do with retractable swords and things like that?

ANNA: Yes, we would make whatever they needed, but we tended to make soft weapons for a lot of the stunt scenes. There were some special rigs that had to be made and Special Effects handled that, so we might need to make the handle for them. We would make all the pieces that were standard, and that were going to be the same as the others, but anything that was very specific Special Effects dealt with.

MATRIX: Do you have any idea where the inspiration came from for the weapons?

ANNA: I’m not quite sure how they fit into the scene because they’re pretty secretive with the plot and story line, which is great because you wouldn’t want anyone just knowing, but there’s definitely a medieval feel to that scene. As I walked in there I felt I was in a medieval chateau, with the huge marble sculptures on either side of these huge staircases that went up to the top, and on all the walls were all these hundreds of weapons.

MATRIX: What kind of weapons besides swords were you creating?

ANNA: We made several different shields, and then around the shields there were spears, and swords in many different styles and shapes – some that were very unusual. We also did balls and chains and flails, as well as spiky clubs. All of them were quite menacing, although I think a lot of our actors and all the stunt people had a lot of fun working with these weapons. They really had a ball because the ones we gave them were all soft and rubbery, and you could hit each other over the head and it wouldn’t matter.

MATRIX: So how much time did you guys spend working on these weapons?

ANNA: On that particular project I started working right at the beginning, and went all the way through to the end. Pete Wyborn came to me at one stage and asked if I could coordinate that project, leaving all the weapons in my and Trevor Smith’s hands [Property Manufacture Manager], so Trevor and I worked together on that. All up it was about three and a half months that we worked on just that one scene.

MATRIX: Were you on set with the weapons as well?

ANNA: I wasn’t on set because we have a standby on set crew. Because it was so specialized and there were a lot of Special Effects people involved in it, they had a lot of on set people as well, so we weren’t required. I think they shot it for about two weeks to two and a half weeks all up, I’d imagine that would be five minutes worth of film.

MATRIX: How many of you are there in the Props Manufacturing Department at the moment?

ANNA: It has varied over the six months I’ve been there, but I think at one stage there were about forty-five people. At the moment there are about twenty-five or maybe thirty people.

MATRIX: What kind of equipment did you use to create the weapons?

ANNA: We used very basic workshop materials. I tend to work mainly in timber, and we have a mold making workshop within the Props Manufacturing area, so they deal with a lot of the chemicals and making all the molds. We get quite specialized within the department, I think Pete hires people that have very broad skills, but he knows also which areas we’re particularly good at. I don’t deal very much with the metals area because there are so many guys in the workshop who are great at doing welding and working on the lathe. I just tend to deal with timber, so I use things like the band saw, the timber lathes, the table saw, disc sanders, drop saws, and things like that.

MATRIX: How many women are in the Props Manufacture Department?

ANNA: There are four of us. There’s myself and another girl, Amanda [Amphlett, Prop Maker] who is very talented in the metals area, and there are two girls in the Mold Making Department.


MATRIX: What other projects have you worked on?

ANNA: I did a little bit of work on the Hel Night Club scene. There were a series of couches that needed to be upholstered, so myself and another couple of girls from the Set Decorating Department did all the upholstery. There were five amazing pieces and they were all different shapes and sizes. We started off with a really beautiful chaise longue and stripped the timber back and painted it silver. Then we polished it up to a really high sheen, so it actually looked like this really beautiful curved organic shape was actually made out of silver; it was a really nice effect. And then on the area that had previously been material, we cut out hundreds of little squares from a metallic type of fabric and stuck them down in a patchwork effect.


Now I’ve been working on the scene with all the Hugo Weaving [Agent Smith] body doubles. We’ve made one hundred and five dummies – a hundred of which are on set – and then there are one hundred and ten heads to match them. This project has been a huge collaboration within not only the Props Manufacturing Department, where we’ve got several very specialized people in to do these dummies, but with the Wardrobe Department and the Hair Department, and we’ve also worked with the Breakaways Department [part of Special Effects], who helped us cast out the bodies. The one hundred dummies on set will stand in front of fifty humans wearing Agent Smith masks and suits, and the humans will operate two dummies each with the mechanism in the back of each dummy.

MATRIX: How long was that project?

ANNA: I came into it quite late in the game when all the pieces had already been made but they were still all very separate: we had all these heads, we had all these bodies, and we had all the mechanisms to fit inside them, as well as all the hands and the feet and the shoes. Initially my role, working with a group of about six, was to keep an eye on everything and work out where everything was supposed to go. Because there was so much work in between departments we had to make sure we didn’t lose anything – like no heads went astray – and that everything got done on time.

I’ve probably only been working on this project for a month now, and most of the time has been spent putting the bodies themselves together, helping Wardrobe dress them, and helping them be transported onto set. Now my role is to be on set to help move them around and do maintenance work on them – we have to make sure that they don’t rust and that they work properly.

MATRIX: What kind of tests the final puppetry mechanism was decided upon, particularly with the view the mannequins would be standing in pouring rain?

ANNA: We had a couple of guys who worked for many months on the actual mechanisms themselves, and they’ve been made out of products that are supposedly antirust. We make sure we wipe them down at the end of each day so all water is off them, and then spray them down with WD40 to make sure the actual mechanisms are always lubricated.

MATRIX: How are they holding up on set?

ANNA: Fantastic, actually. Everyone is really happy with them, they’ve been getting some really great feedback. There were a few things we were a little bit worried about, like how the paint on the faces was going to hold up – for that we got a special Prosthetic Makeup Artist team in [Rick & Charmaine Connelly] who have done a fantastic job. There are also certain points on the neck where the heads turn – that’s the motion the mechanism in the back does – that tend to wear on either side of the neck. But Rick has been there on set also to do any touch-ups, and so far it hasn’t been a problem. With all the rain and everything else you don’t tend to see those tiny little details, but we know that they’re pretty perfect.

MATRIX: Did you have any part in teaching the fifty extras to turn the mannequins’ heads?

ANNA: Yes, it was quite a funny experience that day. We were on set and Kevin McManus [Prop Manufacture Leading Hand], who oversaw this Hugo project, was leading the “puppeteers” with the microphone. I was there with a couple of the other guys from Prop Manufacture seeing if we could help in any way to get the head turning action really fluid and smooth because you don’t want any jerking around. The guys operating the dummies caught on really well.

MATRIX: What did the fifty “puppeteers” go through each day on set?

ANNA: I keep talking to them, asking them if they’re okay – they do have wetsuits on underneath the Agent Smith outfits, which is the shirt and suit, but by mid afternoon they start to get a little bit cold, and they starting to really feel it by the end of the day. Having to just stand and be absolutely rained on must be very difficult, because it is really, really heavy rain. This is actually one of the biggest rain and lightning rigs that has ever been set up in Australia, so they’re kind of making film history in a way as well. They’re holding up really well and they’re all in really good spirits; I don’t think anyone has dropped out yet.

From what I understand, we actually have four different types of Agent Smith on this set. We’ve got the real Hugo Weaving, who is the real Agent Smith, we have fifty (there are actually sixty of them because there are always ten on standby) operating doubles who just have the prosthetic masks on, we have one hundred dummies, and there are about ten or twenty stunt double Agent Smiths, who have their hair done like him, and once they have the glasses on they look like him. For example we did a shot today from behind, and they look like the real Agent Smith.

There’s one shot we’re doing in the near future where all the Agent Smiths have to look up, and if we were to use the guys who are wearing the prosthetic masks you’d actually see the join line on the masks, so we’re using our dummies – I think that’s why they wanted them, and also so they wouldn’t have to have so many extras on set. By using our dummies you won’t see that line, so it won’t be quite as obvious that they’re not real.

MATRIX: Have you had the opportunity to see any of the footage?

ANNA: There are monitors around the set so I have been watching as they do each take, and you can really start to get a feel of how it’s all going to work together. It’s amazing the way the Directors can fore-think what it’s going to look like. They’ve got real vision. They seem like really nice guys, but they’re incredibly busy: they seem to be popping in between First Unit and Second Unit all day – they’re not always just on one set. But they seem really relaxed, often joking around with the actors and the Camera Operators.

I haven’t met Hugo Weaving either, although I’ve come very close to him. He always smiles, and looks like he’s having a great time, which I’m sure he probably is. The dummies we’ve made have all got these incredibly harsh expressions – one has a really grumpy face, one is quite neutral, the one that is smiling also looks quite frightening – but the real Hugo Weaving is always smiling.

MATRIX: You’re wearing wet weather gear; have you been running onto set?

ANNA: Yes, we have for the last couple of days. We have all our wet weather gear on so that we can be right there in the wings, on the side of the set, so we can run on at any stage. It has been raining all the time, and they bring back the rain so it’s only raining lightly, which gives us a chance to run in there, check anything and change anything that needs to be done. It often happens at the beginning of the day that there are a few things we have to tweak.

MATRIX: What kinds of things do you find yourself tweaking?

ANNA: On the mechanisms themselves we have these little things that we call stops – it’s a round mechanism loop that sits in their back – so the “puppeteer,” if they wanted to, could turn the handle and keep turning it to turn the head all the way back to front, which would look a bit weird. So we set the stops so that they can only do an appropriate head turn, and as we move the dummies up and down the street throughout the day, we sometimes have to change those stops so they’re looking in the right direction.

MATRIX: Of all these projects, what has been one of the most challenging aspects?

ANNA: I’d have to say all of them have had a certain challenge. What I like about making pieces in general is that you’re given a problem, and you have to learn how to solve it. I’m working with some fantastic people who are always really generous with their knowledge, so you can always go up and ask them if you have any problems, or if you want to run an idea past them. Also, the concepts, ideas and designs that come through from the Art Department, and from the Directors themselves is their vision of what THE MATRIX is going to be, which is great. Just to be involved is a fantastic opportunity, and I loved the first film, so that makes it even better.

MATRIX: Thanks Anna.

Interview by REDPILL
December 2001