MATRIX: What does your role as Assistant Art Director entail?

KAREN: It entails, basically, set design and the follow through of that design, as well as getting a set built and getting things approved. I also talk to other departments about what they need – Visual Effects, Lighting, Grips, Camera – and I incorporate that into the design. Lots of changes happen during that process, so they need one person to monitor what the Art Department wants and what everybody else’s needs are so that you get a coherent design.

MATRIX: How did you get into the film business?

KAREN: In 1995 I finished studying architecture at university. I had been working all the way along, so I’d seen what it was like and felt it wasn’t really me, although I enjoy design and it’s what my passion is. I happened to start drafting for commercials for a friend of mine, who was a designer, and worked a lot on small Australian films. I was drawing things for him on the weekends or at night, and then he asked me to work on a film, so I did that, and ever since then I’ve been working on films.

MATRIX: Having come from architecture into set design, were there things that you had to unlearn?

KAREN: Yes. It’s such a good grounding because even when you’re building just a part of a building – like an interior set – the columns or the beams need to go somewhere. With that knowledge you need to know how big they would’ve had to have been to hold up that sort of building, and in what sort of larger environment would you find this small space the actors are contained in. In urban design terms you need to know how wide the street would be, and how tall the buildings are.

Architecture is a good grounding, but sometimes you can be a bit rigid because of it. You can say that something wouldn’t work or it’s not feasible like, say, a span in a building. Then you think, well, it is a movie and people do require these things, so you make it work… although sometimes your head thinks it’s not feasible. I think architecture is a good grounding for this or anything design-wise, like furniture design or industrial design, because your passion is design.

On a film you never design the same thing twice: you’re asked to do a house or something, but it’s always a different brief or a different character. You could be any type of designer and bring yourself to film design. As an architect you’re basically designing a certain amount of types of buildings and there are definite rules, but with set design there are no rules.


MATRIX: Did you find it difficult to see the first set you designed get pulled down so quickly?

KAREN: On these particular films, the first set I designed was a group of sets. I haven’t done any Zion sets, I did a lot of the Matrix sets, so they’re real environments. I, fortunately for me, got to do things like the Le Vrai Restaurant, which was a very big, very detailed set. There was a two line description in the script and it immediately came into my head what that would be. I talked with Owen [Paterson, Production Designer] and we thought granite and stainless steel, so I started going crazy with it and had a lot of fun designing it.

It went up quite slowly because of the way it had to be built on different levels, and the way the action worked – there were three sets in one. Then when it got pulled down it had been there for so long that I felt it was time for it to come down – that it was time to move on to the next thing.

I tend to get really excited and interested in what I’m doing and in making sure everybody is happy with the set, that it looks gorgeous when it’s ready to shoot. We walk in on the first day of shoot and show which walls break away, explain why we did something, and show how everything works. After that we walk away and really never look at it again because there is no point in being attached; you know it’s going to get pulled down. It’s that first day when you walk on set and people either say they love it or whatever – that’s when I let go.

MATRIX: What is your personal design process?

KAREN: You have to adapt yourself a little bit to each Designer that you work for. Until I’m designing something myself solely, I don’t think I’ll ever be able to develop my own process. Here in particular, with a lot of the sets I was involved in they’re real environments and often not storyboarded or conceptualized.

A size is often worked out, like when Owen and Hugh [Bateup, Supervising Art Director] sat down to doing the budget two years ago, they decided that the restaurant could be this size. From getting that size, from the description in the script, and then with a few little chats here and there with Owen about what he wants out of each set, I go away and start researching. I start thinking about what sort of characters are in there and what they’re doing, and I’m already thinking about the textures and colors.

I tried to sneak in a little bit of color here and there – there’s some pretty mad red in the restaurant. Everything in the Matrix world is very green and black, and got a red in the Restaurant with some upholstery, trying to bring a bit of warmth and a little something. On a set we’ve just done, the Industrial Loft, there’s a billboard which is in the background of the shot the whole time, which has a woman in a red dress, in an attempt to throw something a little bit left field in there.

Sometimes when things aren’t storyboarded it’s confusing because you’re to and fro with a design and with people. You get your first model built and everyone thinks that is what is going to be built, then all of a sudden you start to think it has to be built – that’s the end of the line. That’s when I start to get worried, although eventually it always turns out to be okay, and inside you know that it will be, but as soon as that first cardboard model is built and everybody thinks that’s it, there’s no turning back almost.

It’s scary, but I enjoy that time between the model and the painted finished set. In that process you’ve gone to the workshop a million times, you’ve spoken to the Painters and they’ve come up with a new finish that they think you’ll like, so things evolve and change. That changing process is really interesting and exciting.

MATRIX: The audience has to know in a split second what sort of feeling there is in a scene; how do you utilize color to get that across?

KAREN: I had a lot of experience in architecture, but I don’t think I ever got far enough into it to have been able to understand the use of color and texture skills. As a young Architect you’re really working for somebody; often you’re drawing somebody else’s design, and you try and sneak in little bits and pieces of your own kind of design. Through set design I really started to look into it, and I’ve worked as a Set Decorator as well, although mostly as a Set Dresser. Those things were important always, so now when I look at set design I look at it from both angles.

With the restaurant we made booths within the design and construction so they didn’t have to buy or make any furniture, and I asked for them to be upholstered red. I think my decorating has led me to use color in my designs and to also think about it a lot. I think a lot of people choose colors after they’ve designed sets, and sometimes that works, but sometimes it doesn’t. Colors change, but if you have an idea of it in your head from the beginning, they can change subtly but I tend to believe that they don’t. However, if you select something at the last minute, not really thinking about it but because you have to, then it’s sometimes really ill-conceived and doesn’t necessarily work.

We have these amazing color rules in THE MATRIX with green and blue. Because I’ve only worked on sets in the Matrix world there’s a green bias, and there’s never any blue. Green and red notoriously work fabulously together, so I’m able to use some weird colors – sometimes even a bit of purple. In one of the latest sets I have used pink, it’s very aged but it’s in there – people have noticed it. Knowing the green thing, it has actually been a real challenge to kind of do something a bit out there within those sets of rules, but they’ve been really good to work with and they make the film look really interesting. There’s a real theory behind it, we don’t just use red because it looks fabulous – it’s because of the green and the blue of THE MATRIX.

MATRIX: When you have put in those splashes of red, why did you feel the set needed that something extra?

KAREN: For the Industrial Loft, that particularly shot was storyboarded and storyboarded in a way that somebody had just crashed through a skylight, so we were looking up. A lot of the time in some of these interior sets you don’t actually know where you are, so by putting a billboard up there and a wall obviously behind it, we feel like we’re on top of a building. You automatically take on this when you walk in and see there’s a building next door and see he’s standing on the roof of something; otherwise it could have been a house in the country because we never see the exterior. That billboard was used to establish a bit of context.

We were a bit cheeky with the billboard in the industrial loft – there’s an assimilation scene, and the character is on the phone during that scene – the poster is an advertisement for “City Phone” and it says, “DIAL YOUR FUTURE NOW”. So it’s kind of a joke as well – we seem to get away with a lot of jokes on these films.

On a lot of the sets I’ve done, the train stations especially, there have been billboards, they’re an interesting bit of texture and they add something to a set. Luckily on these Matrix sets there have been a lot of graphics as well, so often the numbers mean something, or have something to do with the character. We use 101 a lot, we use 1 a lot, and 3 for the Trinity. You won’t really see what these things say – they’re just a texture thing – we’re almost just entertaining ourselves by doing it. It’s good when the crew walks in and they see it and they think it’s funny, it adds to the whole thing. Set design doesn’t stop with the ply walls and the paint job; it goes further than that.

MATRIX: In what regard do you liaise with other departments?

KAREN: On the sets I’ve been involved in there were not a lot of visual effects, but there were a lot of stunts and special effects done in camera. So, on my sets particularly, I’ve had a lot to do with physical effects – or the Special Effects Department – which includes the Breakaway Department, as well as Lighting and Camera, which has been really interesting; I’ve learnt a lot in the process.

I tried to incorporate a lot of practical lighting when I was drawing the sets, so that we didn’t have to buy a light fixture because somebody wanted a light here. Early in the Restaurant design I tried to establish that there was a lot of light behind perspex, or somewhere within the design, which the DOP [Bill Pope] loved because he had excuses for light everywhere in the set. It was a hyper modern set, so we used a lot of cutters in the design as well, which were like blades that had light in them. Working with the Lighting Department on these films I’ve learnt a lot about what I can use with my set design in terms of using light properly, and not just sticking a light fixture on the wall.


MATRIX: What was the concept behind the Chinatown Alley?

KAREN: Early in the film I was involved with a set called the Sub-Metro. In the sequence Neo ran up out of the Sub-Metro, came up into a room, then in turn into an alleyway, which is a very dark and dowdy alleyway that is called the Sub-Metro Access Hall Alley. I designed this first and it was filmed, then we were going to design a separate Chinese Alley, but we decided it would be a good idea to reuse the pieces from the Sub-Metro Alley because they were tall, and re-gig them into another type of alley.

Another Set Designer had done the exterior of the Chinatown Teahouse set, so we stole the exterior of the tiny alleyway, which was all footway, and re-gigged the alley using some of the flats but not using some of the others, then I took out doorways and put in shop fronts. I had a really fun time wandering around Chinatown in Sydney, and got some photographs from Melbourne and some things from the United States from New York Chinatown and from San Francisco.

The Graphic Designer [Suzanne Buljan] , the Set Decorator, Brian [Dusting] and I had a lot of fun. The three of us got together and I designed the shop fronts, Brian dressed out the shop fronts, and Suzanne put lots of signage and color in – she did a fantastic job with the signage there. We put lots of lighting in the windows, and we put chickens in them and ducks, and we had a fish tank in one shop front. But basically it was a re-gig of the Sub-Metro Alley. The alley was originally brick textured, so we threw plaster on it, painted it (I got a bit of pink in there again), then painted some murals saying spiritual things like awakening, and other things related to the action in the new Alleyway. Brian’s decoration in there was very religious, and we all know that in THE MATRIX there’s a lot of religious iconography and subtext going on throughout the script, so we tried to reinforce that.

We’ve been lucky enough here to have some Production Assistants, Chris [Tangney], Nick [Tory] and Diana [Valia Chen] who help us in the initial design stages. Always, when I’ve done a model and sketch, I put together a color Photoshop rendering with one of those three PAs; they’re like little elevations. They’re always really pretty and you can sell people on color with those, because when you put texture on and put some people in it, it really starts to live. I hand that out to the Decorator and to Suzanne, the Graphic Designer, and she gets inspired by those colors and uses them in her work, as does Brian for his Set Decorating.

I put together a book to describe the set to people, whether it’s the DOP, or the Lighting people or the Grips, and in that book are those Photoshop renderings, so they really get a feel for it. Everyone works within that, which is nice; if you just give black and white drawings, there’s no feeling. We did the same with the train station at Everleigh: I always had a Photoshop rendering in the book of information I gave people so they really had a feel for it before they got in there.

The PAs do a beautiful job with the renderings, and we’re very lucky to have had that support on this film, which is rare. It has been fun; technology has been helping us a lot here with getting the message across.


MATRIX: What has been one of your favorite sets?

KAREN: I can’t say; I’ve liked them all for different reasons. Either because of what I’ve learnt on them, or the feedback. Often what you think is your best work people don’t comment on at all, or people really comment on it – like the train. I did the train interior, and I thought that was an incredible challenge; it was so hard for so many people. The Draftsperson, Simon Elsley, and Set Designer, Philip Thomas, worked with me on that early on, but the concepts were sort of thrown out, so Simon and I drew it up in the end.

We had to work with an Australian train, so we had to rip everything out and start over. It wasn’t a set we could control, it was actually a very solid steel box that we had to fit out the interior of; we couldn’t take the ceiling off, take a wall out or put a light in, and the train had to move, so it had to have the electrics on a caboose so that it moved with it. It was a real design challenge trying to get that to look like an American train interior within the constraints of an Australian train. But I think we did a good job; a lot of people walked into it and said it felt like a subway train. Again, Suzanne did a great job with the graphics in there, although it was a particularly bland paint job because it needed to be; it was part of the brief.

The train was an exterior and an interior set in one, like a vehicle, but with picture vehicles you have more freedom because you can take out windows. With the train you couldn’t do anything: it had to run on the tracks, it had to go out on the main line to be turned around. We also had to get people from the SRA [State Rail Authority] to approve what we were doing. If we were to do anything too controversial like take more parts out of the structure of the train, then they wouldn’t have approved it to be run on the main line, so we had to work within their constraints as well.

Those train stations and the train were possibly the most enjoyable part of my process. Within the realm of one set we had to have two sets. One was a clean set, which was the Matrix Construct, which is Mobil Avenue where Neo gets stuck in between worlds, basically. That had clean tiles and the train he came in on was clean with light everywhere, everything was white. Then we had to grunge that train up and give it a new feel so it felt like the subway station that you see the Trainman running through, and the stunt person running in front of the train. For that we worked within the same set, but created two different very different looks.

I worked with Hugh on that one; he was my Art Director, and he’s such a busy man he gave me a lot of freedom with it, and had me hold meetings and talk about what we were doing. That was after Christmas [2002] and took almost three months of planning, building and painting. They actually took one part of it to a location, and I did every single part of it, which I really enjoyed: really understanding what the action was and what the Directors wanted. Design-wise that was probably not the most beautiful-looking set, but the most logistically interesting.

MATRIX: The subway map Suzanne created looks great.

KAREN: Yes, that was kind of a cross between the London Underground map and a Chicago map. With the names of the stations, it came already based on the Chicago names, which is a preference of the Directors [Larry & Andy Wachowski]. Often we’ll offer them up something and they’ll say it has to sound more like something else, so we go onto the Internet and look at all those names. The amount of graphics Suzanne had to put into those sets was incredible – at the end of the day there were six sets within those two environments – so logistically it was an interesting thing.

MATRIX: How were the decisions made for the train and station graphics; why was it decided to go with “steak” and with “Tastee Wheat?”

KAREN: The Graphic Designer in the United States had done some work on things like “steak,” and general public notice type things, so I gave those to Suzanne as a basis and then we decided to experiment. We also had some product placement as well for Powerade and Heineken, which we had to get in somewhere. We didn’t want anything to look too much like advertising, so we had signs say “City Power” and “City Phone,” or something like that so it looked like a general announcement. We created very generic-looking signs to give it that bland subliminal advertising message look. Suzanne would do some designs, we’d talk about them, then we’d give a package to the Brothers and they chose what they liked.

We chose Tastee Wheat because in the first film there was a scene where one of the characters refers to a product called Tastee Wheat. Obviously, the scriptwriters [Larry & Andy Wachowski] made up a product because they couldn’t use something like Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. We decided to take that one step further and design a Tastee Wheat packet, and now we’ve also got Tastee Wheat in the kitchen of the Oracle’s Apartment being thrown all over the floor. So these things evolve through various people and various people’s input.

MATRIX: I noticed the Set Decorator had his name on one of the newspapers sold in one of the train stations.

KAREN: Yes, and the Coordinator from Set Decoration [Joanne Tastula] is on the billboard in the Industrial Loft. She is the woman in the billboard because we couldn’t get anyone else’s face cleared by legal. We sent her down to the Hair and Makeup Departments and she got dressed up and had her hair done, and she became the girl on the City Phone ad. Often Art Department people end up immortalized somehow… or they think they are but they’re not really; the audience never sees the names like the Dusting Daily [the newspaper on the subway platform], but we know they’re there.


MATRIX: The Oracle’s Apartment was built for the original film and had to be recreated for the sequels; how much of a challenge was that?

KAREN: What happened there was the magic of DVD. We basically found the original drawings, which were quite piecemeal because, as often happens in set design, the drawings were done and then an Art Director or someone went down to the set and changed it. In most cases a set will never be used again so it’s not important to update the drawings, and often there are not enough Drafters to do the work so changes are not documented.

We issued the drawings to Construction and frame by frame went through the DVD, snapping frames, trying to piece together what furnishings were in the room from the DVD and people’s memory – there are a few people here from the first MATRIX. Funnily enough, the Decorators managed to find some of the original furniture still in a junk shop in Newtown. Generally when we couldn’t find bits of furniture, I’d have them drawn and made. If Keanu’s head was next to something on set and I knew his approximate head size, I knew approximately what size that piece of furniture would be. Basically, we pulled the DVD apart a million times.

We didn’t get everything right: there is one wall that was never seen in the first film, which was a feature wall with wallpaper on it, and no one can remember it. Someone said it had flowers, someone else said it had trees, then someone else said it had some sort of geometric pattern, so we put some cheesy bamboo seventies paper on there and painted it. But generally the Apartment looks as it did – when the crew walked in there, they felt like they’d gone back to three years ago. It’s also a feeling thing too: we created the same space, but if we couldn’t find everything then we made it up and put in things that were appropriate.

The Decorators knew we were doing the Oracle’s Apartment from day one, so from then everyone within Set Dec had a brief of things to find. Whenever they were in the shops looking for anything else they’d always be looking for things for the Oracle’s Apartment as well. They had a year to do it, which was lucky because we were still trying to find things right at the end.


MATRIX: Talk a bit about the concepts behind the Hel Night Club.

KAREN: Hel Night Club was drawn in concept by Marc Gabbana in the United States. In the concept you went from the car park to the Hel Coat Check to the Night Club, so you went down, basically, down into Hell. We wanted the Night Club to feel really subterranean, where there’s obviously no natural light and it’s all about dark, like catacombs, it was quite spooky. We reinforced those ideas as much as we could. Michael [Turner, Assistant Art Director] and I went a bit overboard in the bar: we put little crosses everywhere, and crosses of light, and for some of the lighting design the lighting guys had gobos made [light fixtures with designs etched onto glass or metal], which are upside down crosses. With the process of going down from the car park to the Hel Coat Check down into the club where everything feels heavier and heavier and more laden as you go down. There are columns, then there are bigger columns, then right down below in the Hel Night Club it’s a big heavy base holding up all the above floors.

It was good to be able to work on three sets that are linked so importantly in the story. One of those was a location [the car park], so we had to work within particular constraints but still make them feel like they’re the same series of spaces.

For the Hel Night Club, we reused part of another set – the Sub-Metro – we refinished it, reclad it, and redid the floors. It’s another challenge to try and reuse something and make it look different and feel different, and I think it worked there. We cut some holes into the set and changed it a lot, but kept the basis of the shape.

MATRIX: How did it feel the first time you walked into the Hel Night Club set with the two hundred and fifty Extras in costume?

KAREN: The first time I saw that was in rushes. Usually I walk onto the set for the first day, make sure everything is okay, and then run away because those guys on set know what they have to do, and it’s not really part of my job to be there… although it’s interesting to watch if you get a chance. When I saw it, it really felt like a nightclub; it was pretty bent. We always knew it was going to get bent just looking at the costumes that were floating around the studios, and listening to all the chats in production meetings about what people were going to be wearing, what the whole vibe was, and the music.

MATRIX: They use different film stock on different films, what allowances do you make for that in regards to color?

KAREN: Here on THE MATRIX we know that that all of the Matrix world sets were going to be graded green, so by using muted colors on set they pick up that green, which enhances all the colors that are there. A lot of the time we age things so much that they’re really muted; they start off strong then they go muted and the green will come out. For instance, the Hel Night Club was gray with a bit of red in there, but that is going to feel green once it has been graded. We knew there was no point in painting it green, it was going to become green anyway, so we used this really soft concrete color so the whole thing feels like a concrete bunker, but the green will come out.

In this film it’s particularly different because you know all your colors are going to be distorted a little bit, and we know from the first one what it looks like. This is a different scenario for me; I’ve never had to work like this before.


MATRIX: Describe the set design process.

KAREN: You can design in a couple of ways. To get the right size I often draw a 3D perspective of a space and work back from that. I’ll go from the size the set needs to be with all the constraints: it’s a three-walled set, it’s a full set, it’s got a ceiling, or whatever. I also try and look at a perspective view of the shot. Generally I put dressing and texture in the drawing, and then I’ll draw a very sketchy, very liberal plan, and we make a first model. Owen and I sit down and talk about it, then it will go to all the other departments, and then we’ll start drawing it when the Brothers have ticked it off or like it in some way. Either I’ll draft it myself with someone helping me, or someone will draft it and I’ll supervise them. It’s never cast in stone, so if anyone wants to change anything you can go back and take bits out. For instance, the column detail mightn’t be right but the column is in that position, so we’ll just draw another detail.

Within that process Lewis [Morley], our Model Maker, will make a model as we’ve drawn it so there are real dimensions. Lewis will make a proper model that can be filmed – we’ve got a little camera we can put into the models – and we can look at it on a television screen, or send a tape to the Brothers to say this is what the set is going to be like. When Lewis makes that model it’s pretty much the way the set is going to go. That is what is discussed around the table and is built.

MATRIX: What dictates the floor dimensions and the height of a set?

KAREN: With something like the Train Station, because it was not built in the studio, but built over a train track at Everleigh within a shed, I had a lot of constraints there, so that’s what determined my size: the length of the train and the columns in the shed that I had to clad round to put my columns in. There’ll often be constraints like that which are physical. Or there will be constraints like what sort of lens they’re going to shoot the film on, or what sort of lens they’re going to use to shoot a particular shot, like a wide angle, that will determine the size of a set. Often those constraints will be pre-determined way before we even get asked to work on THE MATRIX.

Sometimes within the Zion sets, which I haven’t had much to do with, the constraints could be quite arbitrary because that world doesn’t really exist, so it could be anything. But within the Matrix world, a street is so wide, an apartment is feasibly only so big, or a restaurant can’t be too small or be too big; the set has to function as a proper space. So you have that view in your head and then you start talking about whether it fits in the studio. If it doesn’t fit in the studio we’ll make it a bit smaller, or change the shape slightly. There have been so many issues, like studio size, the width of the train, and the normal width of a platform. I did a lot of research on how wide things should really be, whether that was on the Internet or actually getting information from the SRA.

There are always so many reasons why something should be a certain size and cost. The Le Vrai Restaurant was a set that was built right at the beginning, and we could spend money on it because there was a lot of dialogue in there – the set is the backdrop to three of the main characters’ heads. It was an important set, so it could afford to be a bit bigger. We had a lot of depth of field: we had a lot going on in the background, a lot going on in the midground, and a lot in the foreground. Luckily I got to do the Hel Night Club with Michael Turner, and that was also quite big. Like the Restaurant, it’s a space that can be big, and there was a lot of action, a lot of dialogue, and extras, which also helps determine the size. Sets that are just a few words exchanged and a punch up needn’t be as detailed.

MATRIX: Did you enjoy your time working on THE MATRIX sequels?

KAREN: When I took this job I didn’t realize I’d have so much fun and design so many different things. I feel really lucky I was given the challenges I was given. I don’t know how these things work out, but when I look back at more than a year’s worth of work I feel there has been a lot in there. And that’s amazing. It didn’t seem that hard, I didn’t feel that stressed, and it was just too much fun to be stressed. There were so many good support people on this project, and I think we work pretty well as a team here in the Art Department.

MATRIX: Thank you very much Karen.

Interview by REDPILL
June 2002