Niamh Murphy [KEY DYER / AGER]



MATRIX: What are you working on at the moment?

NIAMH: I’m just about to ombre dye one of the sweaters for Morpheus that he wears in the real world. The first thing is to get it completely wet, then we have rigged this fantastic bungee cord system whereby we can keep the costumes suspended and dunk them into a pot of boiling dye. Then I get to pour hot dye all over various parts of the sweater, which will help make it look old and grungy and dirty and not like a brand new sweater, which is what it was very recently. The longer I keep each sweater in the dye pot, the more intense the color of the bottom of the sweater becomes; which, when it’s completed, just looks like dirt and age. Eventually it won’t really look like it has been dyed. After being dyed it gets rinsed and rewashed and then continues to the paint stage. Most of the sweaters stretch out when they’re wet and look really long, but they bounce back when they’re dry.

The only trouble is I have to do the same thing for all of these sweaters because there are multiples for the same character that all have to look exactly the same by the time I finish, which is the difficult part of the job. For example, Morpheus wears various different sweaters throughout the show, and this particular one I’m going to age quite roughly because he wears it towards the end of the movie when he has been through a lot of different adventures. It will have to be aged to match whatever action he has been through. For some of the sweater multiples I’ve done eight sweaters, and some of them have just been just two or four, but never just one.

All of the costumes, especially the sweaters, have gone through so many different techniques to make them look like how they are on film. Most of them start off as a brand new white sweater and we’ve dyed them, then we’ve stitched them, ripped them and made holes in them, using sandpaper and pumice stones. We have also re-stitched them and darned them, then poured more dye on them until we finally age them with paint to make them look greasy and grimy. The more layers we put on, the more interesting the costume will become, and less like a piece of regular clothing.

MATRIX: Do you know what these sweaters are made out of?

NIAMH: These ones are made out of mostly linen and hemp. They’re all natural fibers and they take the color pretty well, which is good. I believe most of the costumes are made out of natural fibers.

MATRIX: Were the sweaters made here in the Costume Department?

NIAMH: No, we had somebody else make them. We had quite a few sweaters, so it would have taken a long time.

MATRIX: Could you elaborate on how “multiples” are used on this film?

NIAMH: Multiples are two or four or eight different sweaters that are identical, which an actor wears throughout the show, or that his stunt double will wear. They’ll be changed along the way so that when you first see the sweater it looks brand new and clean, and then the second time you see it the character has been fighting with someone and has got mud and dirt all over it, or he has been working really hard so it gets sweaty, and maybe next time there are holes in it. But because we shoot out of sequence, we have to have the sweaters with the holes in them all ready at the same time as the brand new looking sweaters, so therefore we need to make many multiples, which is the whole crux of the job. Each time I put a character’s sweater in the dye, I have to do exactly the same motions on them and try and get the same amount of dye absorbed so they’ll look the same when they’re dry. When they’re wet you can’t see much, it all looks black.

MATRIX: How can you remember the process you have done on each?

NIAMH: Because I’ve done hundreds of them by now. For our extras, we had hundreds and hundreds of sweaters and tops and t-shirts to do. Thankfully we did all of those first and then we worked on the principal costumes, so we got lots of practice in. For the principals, most of them had about four or six sweaters each, and then there were about twelve to fifteen principals, so that’s at least eighty sweaters right there that we’ve been working on in multiples.


MATRIX: Describe what it means to “age” a costume.

NIAMH: It means taking a costume from its raw stage when the tailors have just made it and maybe staining it to take away the whiteness or the brightness of the colors, and then maybe adding color or pouring dye onto it to create effects on the fabric to make it look less like a piece of clothing and more like a costume that fits in with the action of the movie.

MATRIX: What kinds of dyeing effects have you been doing here on THE MATRIX sequels?

NIAMH: We’ve been doing lots of ombre, which is immersing the costume in very strong dye in such a way that it grades the color intensity. We’ve been adding very strong color at the bottoms of all the skirts and pants and at the edges of the sweaters to make them look dirty and look like the people of Zion have been wearing them for years and years. We also want to give the impression that they’re living in rags and sweating in them and working and toiling, so that the garments speak for themselves.

MATRIX: Has there been anything on this film that you’ve had to develop?

NIAMH: I’ve been making some sort of mud for a particular scene, and I’m trying out a few different materials right now. I think I’m going to go with something that’s a combination of a fine dust that we use and wax that I’m going to paint on and crinkle it up, so it’ll hopefully look like it has been dried in mud. I also have to make some costumes look really greasy and slimy, so I have a fantastic textile paint that dries shiny and it looks like oil and grease, but it’s not greasy to the touch, so the actors prefer that. I often have to make fake blood and paint it on so it looks like it’s a fresh blood wound, but in fact it’s dry paint.

Things I have had to develop for other films are grass stains and sick stains, and horrible muck and dirt – all sorts of bad things really. They usually get concocted at the last minute out of all sorts of materials. I keep a stock of all sorts of everything, it’s almost like a kitchen because I have flour, and salt, and sugar, and vermiculite, and sawdust, amongst other things. Those things are usually mixed with a paint or a binder and painted right onto the costume.

MATRIX: What are your tools of the trade for aging?

NIAMH: We use a lot of pumice stones on this show, as well as sandpaper. We have belt sanders and hand sanders – we’ll sand down a whole garment and make the surface of it look completely different. We have these really rough leather tools that I use for gouging leather or scraping it up, but you can also use them on a sweater to really mess it up, or on a pair of jeans. We also go through razor blades and tons of paintbrushes. Often we’ll put things in the washing machine with costumes, such as lots of salt or heavy duty washing powder, which will break the garment down a lot. Sometimes when we dye a costume in a particular way, it’ll make the surface of the costume look really dirty too. I have hundreds of little things that have a million different uses, and usually they scrape or cut or rip something.

Earlier, Frank [Morales, Costumer] was using a fork to age the sweaters. We had to try and make the sweaters look really old, so we went through lots of different things and it was taking forever, then we eventually figured if we put two forks together and used them like eating spaghetti, we split the knit to look distressed. It was perfect. It was so simple.

We’ve been darning all of our sweaters on the show, so I’ve had eight people here doing stitching and darning and painting. Everyone has just been great – jumping in and doing whatever it takes. It gets difficult when you have to do the same stitching on five different sweaters and you have to get it exactly the same each time in the exact same place, so it has been trying, but the fork technique helped. We’ve also been using lots of safety pins, large crochet hooks and embroidery hoops.

It helps to be multi-talented, you have to pick an idea out of anywhere and see that it works. Pot scrubs are also great. For the sweaters we razor bladed some of them and they got really trashed, which was not good, so we started stitching them from the inside and pulling knots in them and that worked really great.

This is one of my favorite aging tools, it looks like a potato but it’s a stone. I use it to make knee marks, and elbows; it travels everywhere with me. We also have lots of pliers, lint rollers and hammers, which come in very handy. We use schmutz crayons to make grease and dirt on the sweaters too. They’re especially good when we have last minute aging on set and we have to scramble and put some dirt on the sweater while the actor is wearing it, which is often the hardest thing to do.

We have sprayers that we use to spray paint onto the costumes, and an old trusty hair dryer and burners for heat. I use the burners to melt the wax that is going to make mud. I dab the “mud” all over and it goes on thick and gunky – this poor guy looks like he’s fallen in the mud while he was fighting and got it all over himself but didn’t even notice because he was fighting so much – and when the waxy mud is dry, I crackle it and it looks like real dried in mud.


MATRIX: Today is quite special – 960 extras are here for the Zion Temple scene; what went into their costumes?

NIAMH: It has been incredible, we’ve been working for almost six months non-stop trying to get through all the costumes. We’ve worked on about two thousand five hundred pieces alone, and each piece has been dyed and painted and sanded with sandpaper, or ripped up then stitched and darned. There are so many different things that have gone into this project, and each piece has been touched at least two or three different times. It’s really amazing – if the garments could talk they’d have quite a story.

MATRIX: Have you been directed to use specific colors for this scene?

NIAMH: For Zion we’ve been using a lot of very earthy colors, so a lot of the garments are hit with cool blues and gray-brown colors. All the colors have been radiating from the earth up, and fading out to real soft creamy colors. A lot of the costumes are creamy white and the color fades out and grays down, and then goes to strong dark blues and browns. For the more aged people we have warm sandy brown colors. Then we also have shots of burgundy and red-browns and golds – no greens.

MATRIX: These extras have been put into groups; what are some of the different groups of costumes?

NIAMH: We have people like the priestesses, who are wearing amazingly intense blues and are very beautiful and regal looking. They stand out so we made their costumes really special – they look like Madonnas in blue.

We also have the councilors who are supposed to be wise sages as well. They have very ornate robes with a lot of detail in them: they’ve got lots of little beads and embroidery and layers and paint, and really rich, intense colors. Some of the people who have been chosen for those roles are so amazing, they just bring everything to life.

Another group of people are the warriors who are in these beautiful wool costumes which we block printed and then aged, so we changed them a lot from what they originally were. They’re all in burgundy-brown colors. The ships’ crews also have uniforms that they’ve been in for a long time, so they’re pretty beat up and aged and they look quite different again.

Then we have the revelers who make up the majority of the crowd in the Zion Temple. They’re the people who live in Zion and they all have very diaphanous, gauzy costumes that had very subtle ombre dying, with lots of pale blue going through them as well as grays and browns. Again they had lots of little details like beads and sequins and darning and stitching.

There was also the band in the Zion Temple who were all glittery and black and red and really funky. They stand out and look quite different from everyone else. So there is quite a wide range of people in Zion and they all have different looks.

MATRIX: Did you strive to give each person a different look?

NIAMH: Essentially Kym [Barrett, Costume Designer] decides what the look should be, then she tells me how she perceives it and how she would like it to look, and I try and follow through with her idea.

MATRIX: Are you given colored sketches to follow for all the different types of dying?

NIAMH: Sometimes I am, but usually we’ll just talk and she’ll tell me what she wants her color ranges to be.

MATRIX: Is the level of detail you’re achieving on an extra costume standard on a production this size?

NIAMH: We’re lucky in that we had a lot of time to prepare everything and we were able to select some costumes for particular detail. Obviously we couldn’t get details on everything, but some of them we knew would be more featured than others and were more special, so we spent a little bit more time with them. That certainly doesn’t happen all the time and that’s what makes it a really interesting movie to work on – everything is so detailed and there are stories to every costume and reasons for them to be there.

MATRIX: Which character are you working on here?

NIAMH: This is a costume for a background character in one of the later scenes when they’ve been in a battle and have gone through hell. I’ve just painted on some puff paint, which I’ll let dry so it’s shiny and flat, and then when I put the hair dryer on it, it will go puffy and three dimensional and look like mud and dirt. Then I’ll paint over it with a little bit of dark, greasy looking paint and it will transform into some sort of oily, greasy mess on the sweater. There will be lots of that in this film.

This sweater, for instance, has been dyed and had lots of beautiful rips and holes put into it, then it had sweat stains painted around the neck line and under the arms, and all sorts of greasy, dirty marks painted all over it. It also got ombre dyed from the bottom up and a little bit at the shoulders so that it has an overall dirty feel. Hopefully it will look like the sweater of a soldier who has been through a major battle and is on his way back home to Zion.


MATRIX: What is your background?

NIAMH: I’m from Ireland originally and moved to Los Angeles, fresh out of college, with the hope of working in movies. First of all I had a degree in Textile Design, so that’s where my background knowledge came from, then I started working on low budget movies and learnt from the bottom up. I started aging and painting costumes and from there I went on to doing bigger and better movies.

The first big movie I worked on was Batman & Robin, which was fantastic because it had very flamboyant costumes and we did lots of hand painting and detailing similar to this film. We were given free rein to do whatever we could to make the costumes look beautiful. From there I worked on a lot of different movies like The Postman and The Patriot, which were big epic movies with a lot of scenes where we’d have to dust people down to make them look like they’d been fighting for months on end. I worked on Deep Blue Sea, which was underwater, so I had to do all sorts of aging on costumes to make them look like they had been working in the water, or like they had blood on them, or slime. More recently I worked on Artificial Intelligence: AI, which was a futuristic movie that had all sorts of amazing costumes and lots of plastics and interesting things to dye. And there have been many others in between.

MATRIX: Have you worked with Kym Barrett before?

NIAMH: Yes, we worked together on Red Planet, which was with Val Kilmer and also on Three Kings with Mark Wahlberg and George Clooney. Three Kings was set in the desert and was one of the most fun movies I’ve ever worked on. We had to make a whole bunch of extras look like they were soldiers in the desert and there was so much aging, and dusting, and dirt in that film. Kym is so creative; we had so many wacky little things to do, it was wonderful.

MATRIX: Has Kym done some of the costume details herself on this film?

NIAMH: She has – she’s been doing some really beautiful intricate beadwork on Trinity’s costumes and also on Cass’s and Zee’s. She has very dainty little stitches and tiny, tiny beads and it’s very tastefully done. It’s subtle but it’s definitely there, and it just makes the costumes.

MATRIX: Did you have the opportunity to read the script?

NIAMH: I’ve read most of the script, but I stopped before the end because I didn’t want to know what happened so at least I can see the last movie and it can be a surprise. I know what happens in REVOLUTIONS, and I have to try and make the costumes look like they’ve been in whatever action happens in the story, but the ending will be a surprise for me.

MATRIX: Are you a fan of the first film?

NIAMH: Yes I am, so it’s great to be able to work on this. We worked for so long in prep, and then when we saw the Zion Temple set on the first day of filming, all of a sudden it was like, boom, we’re in the Matrix! It was quite a transformation; It makes it all worthwhile. The sequels are going to be great. I think number two is going to be quite informative and very much related to the first one, and then number three is quite, quite different. Number three is really the one to look forward to.

MATRIX: Thanks Niamh.

Interview by REDPILL
May 2001