With Revolutions hitting theaters, Steven Mirkin delves into The Matrix trilogy to reveal the evolution of the story and the visual effects on this sci-fi milestone.
Fans of the series say bring on the final installment. All photos © 2003 Warner Bros. Ent. U.S., Canada, Bahamas & Bermuda. © 2003 Village Roadshow Films (BVI) Ltd all other territories (all rights reserved used by permission), unless otherwise noted.
How do you follow a movie whose stylish, ground-breaking visual effects and savvy jumbling of genre made it a milestone of cool, discussed with equal fervor in classrooms and chat rooms? Well, judging by The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, you dont.
The final two movies in The Matrix trilogy couldnt hope to have the impact of the first; the 1999 release redefined a genre. Still, despite their waning dramatic appeal, the two sequels continued to push the vfx envelope.
For John Gaeta, the Academy Award winning visual effects supervisor, Reloaded and Revolutions retain the pure pleasure of discovery. When we worked on the first Matrix, we never considered ourselves as guys who worked on definitive moments in film history. But the success of that film created an approval for risk-taking behavior, which was basically liberating for the entire Matrix team: You can be rewarded for taking chances. This gave the special effects team license to take even more risks, the results of which can be seen in Reloaded and Revolutions.
This meant improving on the Bullet Time effects of the first film, creating what Gaeta describes as a virtual camera in a completely simulated world, allowing for angles, shading and detail unheard of in previous films. But Gaeta says that the visual effects team didnt start work on the two sequels with the attitude of what can we do to top ourselves? because as a visual effects artist you must use the script as your blueprint.
Anyone who saw the Wachowski brothers first feature, the elegantly designed thriller Bound, can attest to their visual panache; with The Matrix they were more than willing to spread their wings. While the brothers have insisted they always thought of The Matrix as a trilogy, Gaeta says that in the beginning nobody thought of anything besides the first film. Then again, he says, the brothers hold their cards pretty close to their vest; they dont really clearly reveal what inspires them. Still, it was obvious to him that the brothers had ambitions for Neo beyond what was shown. The final image of the first Matrix, with Neo taking flight, represents for Gaeta, the characters self-actualization. Going over the scripts for the two sequels, he understood that the visual effects needed to depict Neo as a superhuman doing superhuman things. If some have found the morphing of Neo into a stolid superhero as dramatically problematic, Gaeta sees it as justified. All three movies, he suggests, take place inside the mind theyre subconscious acts that are occurring. Its a display of will. That gave the effects team full creative license to move the camera wherever we felt, move people and things at impossible speeds, have gravity and all aspects of physical life bend as we saw fit. And he adds, stylistically, we wanted it to look cool.
Dramatically, Gaeta sees the effects as reflecting Neos display of will. In Reloaded, sequences such as the freeway chase and the Burly Brawl, where Neo battles a seemingly unending parade of Smiths, show his coming to terms and beginning to harness his powers. Revolutions takes Neos tale to an almost Christ-like level as he tries to end the war between men and machines with spiritual force.
The Wachowskis decided to have that climactic battle take place in extreme weather, a choice that upped the ante for the visual effects crew. It was a bear, Gaeta says. Revolutions was different in the way that light fell upon all these wet surfaces, Gaeta continues. With every blow, every hit you can see water shaking off, you can see glimmers of light in the fine wrinkles of the fabric. Everything had to advance with the rendering of the humans, particularly with the cloth and the hair, and everything had to be adjusted for a wet look.
The rendering of Zions final battle, and the maze that Niobe must pilot through to save the city was also a challenge. To create the underground world, Gaeta gave his crew exercises that in their gnomic aphorisms mirror Morpheus advice to Neo. I would ask them to see if they could create a space that is defined by pipes but is not a tunnel itself; then take chaotic patterns and find ways of distributing them with orderly patterns.
If this sounds like something you might use a joystick to navigate instead of watching in a theater, its not a point that Gaeta would argue. Then again, given that the popularity of the series was driven by video games such as Animatrix and people discovering the first film on DVD (unlike most series, the second Matrix outgrossed the first in theaters: $285.1 million vs. $171.5 million) this is not unexpected. While each of the Matrix films pushed the envelope of what is possible in visual effects, Gaeta sees this as only the beginning. As far as films are concerned, the only extensions were going to see is going to be purely in the imaginations of directors who chose to use effects to make a dramatic point. Were going to keep seeing something engaging, something unexpected in the spirit to make new drama.
But running parallel to what is going on in feature filmmaking are whole new formats, he says, and immense evolution is still possible. Virtual simulation of all sorts is still out there. Theres an endless frontier for folks in our industry to step in if they choose to unless they are working on dramatic pieces.
Within the next decade, Gaeta sees the intersection of hi-res visual effects with interactive content. There will be incredible crossing of the lines. But this could be to the detriment of the studios, as they see the talent moving into the gaming world, and instead of making movies such as The Matrix that inspire games, skip the middle man and create the games directly.
Given the theme of The Matrix, this can only be seen as ironic. A movie about the battle between man and machine inspiring a generation where man uses machines to recreate experiences once found in movies.
Steven Mirkin is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer. His work has appeared in Variety, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, New York Post, Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly and other publications.