Catherine Mansill [ART DIRECTOR]



MATRIX: How does it feel knowing that each set will be destroyed as soon as filming is finished?

CATHERINE: It’s part of the process when you’re working on a film to learn to get over being precious about things. I think there are about one hundred and twenty sets on these films, and I’m overseeing at least forty, so you learn to not get distressed when it gets dismantled. The life of film is on celluloid, and more and more on something digital, so the life is beyond the actual set that we build. I’m trained as an architect – a lot of us in the Art Department are trained architects – where we think that buildings stand up for a long time. What you have to face, even with architecture, is that buildings don’t last more than thirty years these days, so a film set is just a more condensed timeframe – although on film/DVD/CD, etc. it lasts far longer.

I have fun just designing things. Each thing is like an experiment: you see what works, you see what doesn’t, you learn from each one, you move on to the next job, bringing new ideas to the next one. It’s a great job. It’s great creating spaces that create atmospheres. That’s my approach to design: I’m just creating an atmosphere for both the characters and the viewers to enjoy being in.

MATRIX: How long were you an architect for?

CATHERINE: I practiced for two years after I graduated. I was designing a nightclub for someone and it was going quite well, but it was a very, very slow process with lots of restrictions, so I decided to design a set for a friend at night. It was designed in a week, built in a week, and dismantled in a week (which was very hard to deal with), and from that I thought: film is so much more exciting. The main thing was that it was about pushing boundaries: with filmmaking and film design you have to push design, working with directors in a way to create a really interesting world.

I think many films influence other forms of design. You see more and more architects and interior designers mimicking things from films, and it’s the same with fashion.

MATRIX: What other films have you worked on?

CATHERINE: Before this I was Art Director for Owen Paterson and Hugh Bateup [Supervising Art Director] on Red Planet. And before that I worked on Australian productions like Radiance, which was about three aboriginal women; that was based up at Bundaberg, which is a sugarcane growing district. I’ve done another Aboriginal film in Alice Springs, and then some smaller Sydney-based films], Terra Nova, many short films and television productions.

To start working on American films I went back to my skills of drafting, and started drafting on films like Street Fighter, The Phantom, and Race The Sun, which Owen was the Designer on. I built my way up to Art Director from there, but I always went back and designed smaller Australian films at the same time. So I gained two levels of experience: I learnt to be creative and budget conscious on the Australian films with no money, and then learnt about scale and designing BIG on the American films.


MATRIX: Where are we in the world of THE MATRIX trilogy?

CATHERINE: We’re in one of the sewer pipelines that are connected to the world of Zion. This particular pipeline and where we’re positioned here is when the Mjolnir has landed to aid the Logos. They’ve landed and they find Niobe and the crew hiding in a pipe, so they fix the Logos and keep on going. In this pipeline they discover dead Sentinels as well, which is one of the creatures that’s behind me.

MATRIX: What kind of backstory were you given on this set in order to create it?

CATHERINE: I was told, in terms of design processes, the sewer is a huge structure, a sort of world woven above the world of Zion. We have to imagine ships going through the tunnels that are almost a hundred meters long [328 feet], so the sewer main has to be even bigger than that. We’ve created a small part of this world for the actors to perform in. The rest is created by the Visual Effects Department.

We had to create a concept for this small part of the pipeline, so we thought that maybe this part of the pipeline has been damaged somehow. I kept on thinking of it like the San Andreas Fault – like a little chasm within a bigger world structure – so that’s why it’s so degraded. There are other parts of the sewer main where it’s all very together and very well formed. It’s the same with the sewer main where the Nebuchadnezzar landed as well, where Neo stops the Sentinels.

MATRIX: Were there illustrations done to help realize the sewers?

CATHERINE: Yes, all the information we got came from the storyboards and concept drawings that Owen [Paterson], the Production Designer, had worked closely with the artists and the Brothers to construct what was happening in the story. I worked closely from the script and the storyboards, knowing I had to follow the story from that.

We also worked closely with John Gaeta [Visual Effects Supervisor] when we were developing the Sentinels. For the design and the full size structure of those we had to get the initial drawings that were done for the first film. In those drawings the Sentinel was huge, so we had to talk about ways of making it smaller, of bringing it down in size. Then from those sketch drawings from the first film, we developed them into construction drawings to actually build the Sentinels.

When I started working on this a year ago [February 2001] there was already a whole crew based in Alameda and Venice Beach [in the United States], so we communicated mostly via email and the telephone. It’s a fantastic way of communicating across the world – it makes the world a lot smaller as well.

MATRIX: Was the scale of it something that surprised you when you were first introduced to the set?

CATHERINE: Yes. Looking at the concept drawings the Sentinels looked like they were quite small things, and the concept drawings showed them quite far away from any human, so you couldn’t really work out the sense of scale. When I started getting these drawings I wondered if they were right, whether they should be this big. But because they’re so large we’re able to put a lot of detail into them when they’re built. There’s a lot of detail around the eyes and the mandible, and all the legs and feelers, then finally the tentacles and the claws that are at the end.

We did lots of research with the Sentinels, like how to do the tentacles. We were playing with different things like the pool dividers that float along the water separating swimming lanes, and things like that. The tentacles had to have joints that weren’t quite universal joints, which is where the pool dividers were such a good idea. But in the end we had to design the tentacles ourselves, and get them made in our fantastic model shop. The Art Department did a lot of drawings and then worked very closely with the model department on how to build a tentacle, actually making them swivel and things like that. I think we started working on this in about July last year [2001] – so that’s about eight months.

MATRIX: What scale are the Sentinels that have been used on set?

CATHERINE: They are full size. If you look beyond the tentacles and just look at the body, it’s quite massive – it’s four to five foot high.

MATRIX: A year ago when you first discussed this set, were physical Sentinels going to be a part of it?

CATHERINE: No. We expected everything like that to be CG, and then as everything evolved we were asked to put these elements in. Then looking at the storyboards and reading more of the script we saw there were meant to be dead Sentinels lying around, and if you build any set you try to build every object in it, you try not to leave things out for Visual Effects to do later.

When I started working on this set I did a script breakdown of every element, and I would do a lot of little sketches both based on the storyboard images and the script. I laid out a general plan of how I thought the process went of, say, running away from the Neb. They run from the Neb, it explodes, they run up the hill, they stop the Sentinels, then later the Mjolnir lands, they run through there, they kick a Sentinel, they find Niobe, they run to the Logos, and they get into that. I would almost do a timeline and a plan of where they go, so very mechanically in a way write down at which point we need what.

If I was unsure about whether we’d put something in the set or if we’d do it later as a computer graphic, I’d have meetings with Visual Effects, with Owen, with Lighting and with Special Effects, determining what we had to put in the set and what we could get away with. For example, for the Neb Cargo Bay set we realized we had to have an explosion, which would be done by the Visual Effects Department. But we still had to have the characters running out, so we’d still have to build it, but that part didn’t have to be connected to the sewer main part where Neo stops the Sentinels.

MATRIX: This is a huge set; did it get larger as you had more discussions?

CATHERINE: No, it got smaller. When I first started drawing it, it was about a hundred and fifty feet long, and this sound stage is only about sixty feet at the most. We couldn’t find a stage large enough to film that size set, so we had to split it up into two stages. In this stage we can do this component, and then in another stage at a later date we’ll do the other component of the sequence where they run through. Particularly when they’re running out of the Neb, we have to build that separately, and the sewer pieces around that. We’ll actually re-use some of the parts from this set and take it to that set… so that’s a bit of a trick for people to look out for.

MATRIX: Because of the random chaos of items on this set, will continuity be a concern when you build the next part?

CATHERINE: A little bit. It was very dark in here, the way they shot it, and there was a lot of what we call swamp gas. It was more a matter of creating an atmosphere almost , and that’s why this space where we’re sitting with the curved ribs is very contained and quite unique, and a separate look to the other set where Neo, Trinity and Morpheus climb. I hope that people look at it for the atmosphere it evokes, rather than try to pick out a little piece there that isn’t the same as that piece there, or that they’ve seen that piece before.

MATRIX: What is the set made from?

CATHERINE: The pipes themselves are made with a fine malleable wire in the middle, and then covered in a foam, which is like what you use at the gym, and then it’s painted and coated. The floor is made of a hessian covered plywood base with rough shapes cut from ply and Styrofoam. It is then coated in spray concrete. This is a sewer, it’s all made of concrete and sludge, it’s almost like things have petrified over the hundreds of years of being here.

MATRIX: The Siege Set must also be very expansive.

CATHERINE: Yes, it’s a complete contrast to this. A lot of what we have to build for that is being created for visual effects purposes, so that they can do extensions from what we build. They take the textures of what we build and the colors and expand on that to create the rest of the world. It’s actually a nice contrast from working on this chaos to the Zion world, which is much more controlled.

MATRIX: Which was the most challenging set you worked on?

CATHERINE: I think the most challenging was probably the sequence in the Merovingian Chateau series of rooms, because we were going through a progression of spaces, from one to another very quickly. There were a lot of stunt requirements, particularly in the Great Hall all around the staircase, of things smashing and people flying. That was a whole new experience for me, learning about how the wire team work, and coordinating their requirements with other stunt needs, special effects, lighting and the visual effects team. It was great seeing all those sets come together – and very satisfying for all the departments of the Art Department – including the set designers, decorating, construction, set finishing and prop making teams.

MATRIX: Thank you very much, Catherine.

Interview by REDPILL
March 2002