MATRIX: What is your background?

DAMIEN: My background is architectural; a lot of us here have architecture degrees. From that sort of background you do both manual and computer work and both 2D and 3D. All of us are very literate in those departments.

MATRIX: Were you ever a practicing architect?

DAMIEN: Yes, I was a practicing Architect for a few years. The move in some ways was quite accidental. I was running my own business, and was invited to come in and work on Farscape because they needed some sets drawn. That became more and more part of my work until the architectural jobs I was doing at the time were finished and I just continued to work on Farscape. After Farscape, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace came up and before I knew it I was accidentally working in the film industry.

It’s a good change, and it’s a very similar process from design, through design development, through construction drawings, and management of the construction. It’s almost parallel, but the product is different and the requirements are obviously different.

MATRIX: What are some of the different requirements you would have from architecture to set design?

DAMIEN: Firstly the film product, in the set form at least, is very temporary, so the structures are designed and built in such a way that they don’t need to last the same time period, for instance, they often don’t have to be waterproof. The typical life span of a building might be forty to a hundred years, and a set might be a matter of days or weeks. So there’s a fundamental difference there in the way you go about building things for their longevity.

The basic principle in set construction is that it’s all about the finished face, which in a way is a kind of façade-ism – there is nothing beyond the finished surface of the set – the flat, whereas buildings are solid through. In film we are practiced in finishing 4mm ply to look like brick or metal or some other material, whereas in the real world it is often brick or metal. It’s very much about that inner skin, which is the skin that ends up on film.


MATRIX: In film the designers consider the minutest details, do you concern yourselves with door knobs, etc. in architecture?

DAMIEN: Yes definitely, in some respects probably even greater detail because it has to last for a lot longer. There’s a whole series of specifications that might go along with waterproofing or door hardware or fit out. The film process has to be quicker because the timeframe is not as great from design to completion, and subsequently there’s a lot of finishing detail in the design, but the detail you go into in the building process might not be as extensive all the time.

The details differ. A lot of the sets I’ve been involved in haven’t necessarily been very architecturally elaborate, for instance the Rerouting Facility. Those environments are very much Matrix generic environments, and as such have to look very much like flat real world environments. The Rerouting Facility Corridors and Offices are in many ways what you’d expect a very generic office fit out to look like. Architectural experience there is quite relevant because a lot of the details are how they ought to be from doing practical office fit outs outside of the film industry. But it’s not architecturally very decorative, it’s a very flat MATRIX environment.

The differences to a traditional fit out come back to other requirements like special effects or stunts. The Rerouting Facility sets had ceilings which were a lot higher than a normal office – a normal office would have a two and a half meter ceiling [approximately 8 feet] or thereabouts – for lighting, stunts and special effects, our ceilings were a lot higher and the doors were higher. Aspects of that are cheated to effect the requirements of the film rather than getting hung up about what would be the normal way of going about something. The standard details go out the window when the other requirements come into play.

MATRIX: As an Assistant Art Director, does your job essentially finish once they start filming?

DAMIEN: It depends on the set. While they’re filming we often field questions from our on set Art Department, and also from other departments. For example in the Rerouting Facility Corridors there were a lot of ongoing discussions with Visual Effects and Lighting about how best to deal with the glass on the exterior of that set.

The glass on the exterior part of our corridor set is to match a building in Sydney city, which is a location, and there are a lot of different shots to do with the building façade and Trinity crashing through that building façade. We had a lot of different types of glass on standby to deal with the different requirements of Visual Effects – clear glass, green glass, mirrored glass – because for the different shots there were a lot of different technical requirements for Visual Effects to achieve the shots they needed to.

Lighting also had some comments: in some cases we needed to light through our set wall, but the aesthetic glass – the reflective or blue-green glass – wouldn’t have been appropriate because it would have cast a light on the actors or the set. But at other times when we need to look out through the glass or at the glass itself, it had to be the right color to match the location.

MATRIX: Have you worked on a lot of sets with special effects?

DAMIEN: Yes, nearly every set in THE MATRIX, being the kind of action film it is, has got special effects and stunts in it. On a lot of the sets we’ve had to coordinate closely with the Special Effects Department in regards to explosions, breakaway walls, breakaway columns and certain things that get destroyed in fights.

The Rerouting Facility Security Bunker Exterior, for example, we built probably half as much of the set again as a breakaway set, or an exploding set, to mirror the “beauty set,” such that every aspect of the exploding set mirrors the finished beauty set. To that end we effectively almost built two of the sets: one to blow up and one to keep and shoot with the actors in it. For reasons of safety and practicality you can’t physically blow up your finished set because it contains many hard, sharp objects, so we had to build a breakaway special effects Security Bunker, which was largely made of materials which wouldn’t be injurious to crew or cast if a piece of it got away.

Obviously the crew and everyone was at a safe distance, but regardless of that the set you blow up can’t contain things that would become projectile. The special effects Bunker was built out of foam and other soft materials purely for the frames where it’s exploding. Right up to the point where the Bunker explodes we’re filming our practical “beauty” Bunker, then it cuts pretty much at the junction of the exploding Bunker such people aren’t aware of the changeover. So it actually goes from being a hard physical set to a soft special effects exploding Bunker.

MATRIX: The set explodes and bits of foam go everywhere… but foam doesn’t look like concrete.

DAMIEN: No it doesn’t. That comes back in many ways to the art of the Editor. And also, as far as possible the bits of foam and other elements were made to look like real material, so even when the concrete blocks blow away, all the foam is cut, and painted, and finished as if it were a concrete block. Right after that explosion, even post explosion, the real materials are dressed back into the same position as the Special Effects materials may have ended up, so it looks like real materials and it looks like post explosion. So it’s very much a piecemeal operation of, you know, putting the different bits together in the different requirements.

MATRIX: Does the Special Effects Department build the exploding part of the set because it’s so specialized?

DAMIEN: The Construction crew built about two thirds of it, and then the Special Effects Breakaway Department built the soft elements that physically blew away in close coordination with us, because their background is effects and ours is practical building. A lot of discussion goes on about how to make those breakaway bits look as much as possible like the real thing.

MATRIX: Are the allowances made for the special effects in the set design stage?

DAMIEN: Most of that is clarified through meetings and discussion. We put everything we can on the drawings in terms of the parameters of the set: we might indicate a line for where we want the set to remain and the exploding set to disappear. Then there are a lot of subsequent meetings to discuss how that is going to be brought about: where the bits may end up, which bits will break away, which bits will remain.

MATRIX: Being an outdoor set, did you have any problems with Mother Nature?

DAMIEN: Yes, we had a lot of rain so it was touch and go, but as always we got there. I think we had about five clear days during the construction of the set and it was a major build, much to the frustration of the Carpenters who were working out there in the open in the rain. It was a really laborious process. After the Chippies were finished the Scenic Department, Special Effects Department, Set Decoration Department – everyone else was yet to come in. On the last couple of days before crew call there were four or five departments working in and around each other to get the set finished, so it was pretty dynamic time.

MATRIX: Did you actually see the explosion go off?

DAMIEN: No I didn’t. I wasn’t there for the explosion because it was a night crew call and we’d been there all day for two days finishing the set, so I saw it at rushes. Which was a lot better picture. Most of the crew and all the public were kept a long way from the explosion, so it wouldn’t have looked nearly as dramatic as it does on film.

MATRIX: Have the full range of sets to do with this sequence been shot yet?

DAMIEN: The Rerouting Facility Computer Room will be shot shortly, and it’s peculiar because instead of having a very large Effects input in terms of Special Effects Breakaway elements or Stunts or Wirework elements, it’s very intensive for our Props Manufacture Department. We had to build a set that looked as far as possible like a real computer room, so we’ve got a lot of LED displays, LCD displays, and rear projection plasma screens with computer information. Our Screen Graphics Department had a lot of work to do in creating graphics that you would see in that kind of power management installation. We actually did a reconnaissance to a real installation here in Sydney to look at exactly what kinds of things you’d expect to see there on their computer screens.

That set had a very big component of Props Manufacture manufacturing screen bezels, buttons of panels, and indicator lights. We had to design a lot of things there to make it look as real as possible, but to reflect that really stark Matrix environment. It’s another environment, which is contained within the Matrix as opposed to the real world.

MATRIX: How close did you work with the Props Manufacture Department?

DAMIEN: Very closely, we created drawings specifically for Props Manufacture in some instances. There were set drawings of the Computer Room, but there was a whole series of drawings, which I did, that were purely to do with the bezels, the indicator panels and the wall panels that were in the set there – a lot of those things are what we term “non-practical.” For instance, if you went up to a cabinet door to try to open it, it won’t open, and it again comes back to that notion of the inner skin, the façade of the set.

Often we’ll see something in the real world that is very expensive; for instance, if we were to go and buy an LED indicator panel or a bank of lights it would be cost prohibitive. So we have a team of people here who can manufacture things that look for all intents and purposes like the real thing, but at a much reduced cost. A lot of our drawings mimic real world components that wouldn’t be feasible to buy, and we recreate them as closely as possible through the Props Manufacture Department. A big team of people was involved in the practical fabrication of bits and pieces there, but Brad [Burnet, Props Maker] oversaw the fit out of the set and coordinated most of that work.

Once the set was built and finished by the Scenic Department, Props Manufacture and the Set Decorating team came and put in elements of the set that could, I suppose, be considered set decoration. Because we’ve manufactured the elements they often involve careful installation and fabrication. Then the Set Decoration team will come in and deal with, say, computers, keyboards, paper shredders – all the day to day elements that you would expect to find in an office or, in this case, a computer room facility.

The Power Station Security Booth is coming up shortly as well, which is a scene with Niobe. It’s a very quick and very small set, but she comes powering in one door and out the other door, and fights a couple of people. Again it’s mostly a small build with a lot of Props Manufacture bezels and controls. This is meant to be the Security Booth – the monitoring booth – of the Power Station, so most of what is displayed there on the monitors is closed circuit TV footage of areas in and around the Power Station.

MATRIX: Was video created for the monitors?

DAMIEN: Yes, our Screen Graphics Department photographed different parts of different buildings to mock up what would be closed circuit still photography. It’s not the real location, but it looks like it might be.


MATRIX: Do you remember the first project you worked on for THE MATRIX sequels?

DAMIEN: The first set I think I did was the Chinatown Teahouse. It had been conceptualized in the States with Owen [Paterson, Production Designer] and the Directors [Larry & Andy Wachowski], and when it came here it was a basic 3D model. Then in further discussions with the Directors and the Wire team here in Sydney, we established the extent of the physical requirements of the set for the Wire team, and all the subsequent processes of developing the Chinatown Alley for exterior shots leading up to the Teahouse.

MATRIX: What were the requirements for the Wire team?

DAMIEN: The set was actually finished and complete then we had to make a fairly major alteration to the roof of the Teahouse to get more elevation for the fight. The choreography had developed more towards the time that we came to shoot, so the set ended up with a raised roof section when originally it was a much lower space. It got a raised central portion, in some ways similar to the Dojo set from MATRIX 1, which was to get elevation in the fights and to contain the actors within the set when they’re fighting across the top of the tables and doing their stunts.

MATRIX: Had the sequence in the Teahouse been storyboarded?

DAMIEN: There wasn’t a great deal of storyboard information for the Teahouse. There was some 3D conceptual material and some discussion about what would ensue in there, but it wasn’t as meticulously or thoroughly storyboarded as some of the other fight scenes. And I guess part of the reason was because they wanted to develop it in the actual space.

MATRIX: Where did the inspiration come from for the Chinatown Teahouse?

DAMIEN: We looked at Chinatown here in Sydney and we had images of Chinatown in San Francisco. We also found some images from Hong Kong and the old city of Kowloon that had a grimy other-worldly kind of look to it, which is now demolished.

MATRIX: How did you translate the 3D Teahouse onto paper in order for it to be built?

DAMIEN: I did some sketch development with Owen and then we further developed the 3D computer model in VectorWorks with one of our Set Designer draft people. What tends to happen in the process is we have a concept drawing – although not all cases – whether it’s a manual drawing or a 3D drawing. It is then developed in discussion and further sketching, often manual drawing or freehand sketching. After that it is passed on to one of the Set Designers or Draftspeople to prepare the final working drawings for Construction. And that’s usually – although not in all cases – on computer, so there’s a split between computer working drawings and manual working drawings.

MATRIX: Even though the set is a 3D computer environment, can the computer actually print out a flat drawing?

DAMIEN: Yes, it depends on the program. Some of our computer designers don’t do 3D work, they do purely 2D drawings, so often times the 3D computer model is used just for discussion to clarify the extents of the set or the action. When that is confirmed and approved, there is really no need for a 3D computer model because we need to prepare drawings for construction, which are all 2D documents that the Carpenters and Set Builders can take and prepare the set.


MATRIX: From beginning to end, what is the process each set goes through?

DAMIEN: Some of sets were conceptualized in the USA, although not all them, and because of the range of sets, Owen will have developed with the Directors and the Concept Artists a set sometimes to the point where it’s a 3D or 2D set. In other cases there isn’t a concept so we develop that set from scratch with Owen here in Australia. In pre-production some sets were clarified and others were not to such a great extent.

Once we have that concept, we have discussions with Owen, the Brothers, the DP [Bill Pope], and various other departments to establish the requirements of that set. It will slowly make its way from a sketch drawing into a working drawing: a 2D dimension drawing which shows the flats, the flat positions, the size of the set, and a stage plan, which would show its position and scheduling in one or other of the stages here at Fox or another space around Sydney. The working drawings would consist of plans, sections, elevations of the set flats and detail drawings.

After we’ve done that we would normally prepare color and finishes boards so that as the carpenters are building the set, the Scenic Department can prepare elements of the set for painting and finishing. Of course, prior to the point where we issue it to Construction, the Brothers and Owen will sign off on the documents to say that it is what they want. A lot of discussion happens thereon in, like I mentioned with the Teahouse. It’s not signed and sealed the day it goes out for construction but we have to start building because of the schedule requirements, and if the parameters change after that we have to deal with that as best we can. For instance, if it gets bigger or smaller or we have to add an element on for whichever department.

Often times with the time requirements of finishing these sets, we’ll get a document out like we did for the Power Station Security Booth which has some notes to do with paint finishes and textures on the drawing. After that we prepare a formal color board with the proper color swatches on it. The drawing with notes works well for the Scenics because they can see the 3D space, the different colors on it, and our notes about how we want to go about it.

As a set gets closer to finishing, elements of the set would be brought into the stages. They may be pre-finished or partially finished. Often times because of scheduling, the final finishing of the set will be done in a stage, so it will be put together and the Scenic Department will finish that set in the stage. When it’s painted, Set Decorating Department turn up, put in all their props, props dressing and dressing elements. There’s a lot more discussion then with Owen and the Brothers and DP will visit the set, talk about lighting and make sure their parameters are correct. It’s obviously much easier once you have a physical set there for them to understand what may be required, and they might do rehearsals in the set.

As we move closer to the shoot day, sometimes things change, sometimes they don’t. It’s a constantly evolving process right up to the shoot day.

MATRIX: Is the color of a particular set important?

DAMIEN: The way it has been divided up here in the Art Department, the Art Directors and Assistant Art Directors each have a block of sets, and we all look after all aspects of those sets. In discussion with Owen we establish the colors and the finishes and prepare those boards. We have a team here who helps us enormously in physically preparing the boards and cutting out the color swatches and sourcing materials. So in many ways our job is coordination to make sure that all happens. We interface with Owen and the rest of the department to get all the drawings done, the color boards done, and field from Construction and other departments. Our time is divided between doing some drawing ourselves, preparing color boards ourselves, and coordinating a lot of other people to do the work as well – Set Designers, Draftspeople, our fabulous PAs and everyone else.

MATRIX: How many people there are working in the different areas of set design on these films?

DAMIEN: We have three Art Directors and four Assistant Art Directors, and I think we’ve had up to seven or nine Set Designers and Draftspeople. Earlier on in the production we had a lot more people drafting the sets manually and on computer; we have less now. In the whole Art Department we have had about fifty people, including Set Decoration, our PAs, our Designers and Accounts. The Art Directors, Assistant Art Directors and the Set Designers look after the process of getting the physical construction drawings out.

MATRIX: Do you have any idea how many sets this team is working on in Australia?

DAMIEN: The number is reputed to be between about one hundred and forty and one hundred and sixty. The sets are of varying sizes – some of them are small, some of them are enormous – but I think we’ve probably got about fifty or sixty sets each in blocks that have been divided between Art Directors and Assistant Art Directors.


MATRIX: The Matrix City Street must have been a challenge to accomplish with the rain and the Smiths.

DAMIEN: There were a lot of different requirements there again, and yes the water was a big problem. It was difficult to try and ensure that our set would hold up to the amount of water that we were putting onto it over a long period of time. Our shoot started before the Christmas hiatus and resumed again afterwards and during that time the set was damp, so we were a bit fearful about how the set would physically stand up through the shoot, through the Christmas hiatus, and when we came back. But it all went well.

We used a lot of waterproofing products that we would use in real building installations to make sure that our flats and our road surface, as far as possible, would look like the real thing. We needed the set to remain waterproof to the amount of water because there were thousands and thousands of liters dumped onto that set over a number of weeks. The road was difficult because it did get a lot of water on it, and a lot of foot traffic from crew and cast. It was difficult to make sure that our road looked like a road, and continued to look like a road through the shoot with the amount of water.

The road was made of a mixture of different products. It was a mixture of vermiculite, which is a mineral, some rubber chips, some bitumen products – it needed to have the texture of a road – and then we finished it we painted it to make it look as far as possible like a road. We had to keep painting it throughout the shoot to keep the color and tone in it because of the amount of water and foot traffic on it.

We couldn’t put a real bitumen road down because we were dealing with a space where you couldn’t get conventional road laying equipment into the Sound Stage and up onto the rostrums that we have the set on. It may have been the best solution to have a real road, but we couldn’t put down a real three or four lane road in our studio.

MATRIX: Why was the decision made to have the set on a rostrum?

DAMIEN: Largely for drainage reasons so the Special Effects Department could get water away from the set. There was so much water coming down from the rain rigs that we had to dispose of that water through drains and fairly elaborate plumbing away from the stage and the set.

The most challenging sets so far for Jules Cook [Art Director] and I as a team have probably been the Matrix City Street and the Matrix Crater because they’ve both been very Effects intensive. There was a lot of water, a lot of mud, and a lot of coordination with the Visual Effects Department and the Special Effects Department. The sets themselves were not complicated in their architecture or execution so much as getting all the requirements accommodated so the subsequent processes that go on in post-production can occur as smoothly as possible from our physical set.

MATRIX: How was the mud made?

DAMIEN: I didn’t get too involved in the mud, but we did go through a process of getting a lot of samples of different kinds of mud made by the Special Effects Department. There was a lot of discussion about how that mud would perform when it was in the bottom of the crater and how it would slide down the walls. Jules has a lot of little pots on his desk, which are mud samples that we looked at for that process. We had to look at the practical considerations too, that for long periods of time Keanu [Reeves, Neo] and Hugo [Weaving, Agent Smith] and their respective doubles have to be in that mud, so it had to be safe. It couldn’t contain bacteria or pathogens or real dirt; it was manufactured mud so that it could be used safely on the set.

The Matrix Crater particularly was physically an enormous set. We used a lot of different processes of molding real rock as well as sculpting rock out of foam and spray foam so that it looked a particular way. Owen wanted the Crater to be a very harsh environment, like it really looked like somebody had torn a chunk out of the City Street for Neo and Smith’s penultimate fight. So we tried to sculpt and create a really jagged harsh environment around the edge of that Crater like there was a lot of upward movement in the rock, and it really looked like the thing had been torn apart. Hundreds of hours of sculpting and molding went into creating the walls of the crater. There were a lot of detailed special effects requirements as well as getting the aesthetics and the look of the crater exactly as Owen and the Brothers wanted to see it.

MATRIX: Where did you get the rocks that you took molds from?

DAMIEN: Some of the rocks were molded here on the Fox Lot in the rock cuttings that are around the studios, and some of the rocks we molded from a quarry out in Western Sydney. When I say rocks, they were mined rock faces, so they’re rock faces that have the appearance of a quarried or exploded rock face. We did a reconnaissance out in West Sydney and chose bits of rock that Owen liked the look of. The Plaster Department then spent days out there sculpting pieces as big as they possibly could on surfaces of jagged rock, and then we’d come back here and piece it all together and create many more bits of rock.

I think that it’s probably hard for some of the on set crew and the audience to understand how long a process has gone before they get to A) shoot the set, or B) turn up in the cinema. There are hundreds of thousands of people hours in creating the sets, shooting the sets, and post-production on the sets. In the same vein we wouldn’t understand all the processes that go into play in post-production and other aspects.

MATRIX: Do you remember how long the construction of the Matrix Crater took?

DAMIEN: I don’t remember exactly, but I’d say probably six to eight weeks from beginning to build it to bumping it into the stage and finishing it. With the Crater particularly, a lot of the work went on in the stage because we had to erect all the foam parts of the walls. A lot of sculpting went on in situ after we’d molded the rocks because it’s not as simple as just gluing it all together once you’ve brought all your pieces together. A lot of work went into finessing the rock and get it looking as real as possible.


MATRIX: Do you have a favorite among any of the sets you’ve done?

DAMIEN: One I particularly like is the Matrix Fight Building – again part of what we’re calling the penultimate fight between Smith and Neo. It was designed to look like a period – possibly turn of the century – warehouse space. It was a really fun mix of the set decoration, the set finishing, and the selection and detailing of timber and brickwork in there to get that turn of the century look, and to make it reflect the quality that was in the storyboards.

That set was fairly extensively storyboarded because it forms part of the final fight. The whole sequence in the Matrix City Street, the Fight Building and the Crater was exhaustively storyboarded, so we knew what we were dealing with in terms of shots. It also had a lot of Effects requirements: a lot breakaway walls and columns, and parts of the building truss got smashed away during the fight. There was flying, so there was a lot of wirework in the set. We had a lot to coordinate from the aesthetics through to the Effects and Stunt teams getting in there.

MATRIX: What special allowances do you make for stunt people on a set?

DAMIEN: It is different on every set. Sometimes we need to provide soft finishes, like if someone is going to take a hard fall. It wasn’t one of the sets I was involved with, but I know in the Merovingian’s Chateau, for example, they created a massive section of soft decorative floor to match the real floor because there were some pretty hard hits and falls taken by stunt guys.

In the Fight building, more specifically, we had breakaway columns and trusses that had to be soft to an extent, but when they break appear to break like real timber. You can’t throw an actor or stunt person into a solid piece of hard wood, even pre-broken, so we have to build elements of the set as real timber, or to look like real timber, and others to be breakaway.

We had breakaway walls and a special spider web wall: there’s a sequence where Neo pushes off a wall on a higher part of the Matrix Building and it spider webs out from the center. Again that was an Effects piece, but they have to deal closely with the Art Department to get the parameters of the piece of wall they’re trying to create that effect in. We had breakaway glass windows in the set, which a number of stunt Agent Smiths went through. I think we covered just about everything in that one set. Again, with the Wire team in there doing a lot of flying and elevated wirework, the design of the set changed quite late in the piece as well, to get extra elevation with the actors. You’ll notice in REVOLUTIONS that they fly at a very high level from one length of the Fight Building to the other. Behind them the ceiling space and the wall space steps up dramatically to accommodate them flying at a high level, and then Smith and Neo collide into each other in the center of the Matrix Building.

In the early concepts for the Matrix Fight Building we were looking at a space that had a much a flatter roof. The finished Matrix Building, which you will have seen in REVOLUTIONS, is a loft space with a very high pitched raised section in the middle, and pitched roofs at the side. The early designs were for flat roofed industrial spaces with timber trusses through the middle.

MATRIX: Thank you very much, Damien.

Interview by REDPILL
February 2002