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Ideas and words drive the creative force of digital power that makes The Matrix Reloaded something special, even exceeding the new limits set by The Matrix, reports Andrew L. Urban. How was it done.

You can’t just dump The Matrix Reloaded into the ‘other sequels’ bin on your way out of the cinema, or chuck it on the heap of action sci-fi movies. And the reasons are simple enough: the film is made with greater imagination, larger pools of talent and heaps more money than anything in its genre. What’s less simple is the effort that goes into something as complex as this film, both in creative and technical terms. If The Matrix set new limits for the use of digital power in the pursuit of film fantasy, Reloaded exceeds them. 

"accelerated digital technology into creative overdrive"

But let’s start at the beginning: the word. And the word(s) comes from Andy and Larry Wachowski, brothers who made their first film in 1995 (Assassins) and followed it up a year later with the much acclaimed Bound, in which film noir is dressed in black leather and bent. Combining the cool toughness of a Tarantino with the humour of the Coen brothers, these two filmmakers bring their own kind of intellectual curiosity to the filmmaking table. To this high octane mixture they have added the rocket fuel of ultra high end digital creation. They have accelerated digital technology into creative overdrive. (Thank you Joel Silver for raising the money.)

Shot largely in Australia (with quite a few Australians in the cast and crew), inside the Fox Studios and outside on Sydney’s streets, The Matrix Reloaded is a giant conjuring trick with 1,000 virtual effects shots (The Matrix had 412). Bullet Time, born for The Matrix, was advanced for Reloaded, to create what they call virtual cinematography. Hardly surprising once you say it, but saying it isn’t the same as doing it.

The centerpiece of visual effects supervisor John Gaeta and company’s answer to the first phase of virtual cinematography is their creation of virtual, three-dimensional depictions of the main characters for the purpose of enacting their impossible super-human feats at a level of realism never seen before. To create virtual humans, the VFX team utilised motion capture (“mocap”), a technique involving sophisticated cameras that recorded precise motion data from reflective bodysuits worn by the main actors, Yuen Wo Ping’s martial arts team and the stunt performers as they executed the required action.

"the most motion capture ever created for a film"

Months’ worth of motion capture data was acquired for the creation of the Burly Brawl battle between Neo and Agent Smith’s army of replicas, the Freeway Chase and other key super-human events. A special capture stage – which, at the time of production, was the largest motion capture performance stage ever created – was operated for more than four months parallel to principal photography. The data recorded for Reloaded and Revolutions, as well as for the video game Enter the Matrix, is the most motion capture ever created for a film; the amount of capture needed to produce the most versatile of video games pales in comparison. 

“Working with motion capture was something very new to me,” says master martial arts choreographer Wo Ping. “It’s fantastic technology because it helps me to accomplish a lot of moves that can’t be done in real life. With motion capture, we can enforce the dynamic power and emphasise the beauty of the kicks and moves in a way that we couldn’t otherwise do.”

In editing the motion capture, Gaeta’s team literally fleshed out the virtual characters’ computer-generated bodies, adding photo-realistic muscles and wardrobe. Layering lifelike expressions onto the computer-generated cast involved another extreme innovation that the Matrix virtual artists have dubbed Universal Capture (“u-cap”). Five ultra-powerful high-resolution cameras were arranged in a semi-circle around each actor’s face. As the actor conveyed a range of emotions and expressions, the Sony HDW 900 cameras recorded the performance to the most minute detail – all the way down to down to the pores and hair follicles. 

Using these five real-time recordings to extrapolate the shapes of the characters’ faces to an extremely high resolution, the VFX team then applied the dimensional facial textures to the digital characters’ bodies, resulting in the most realistic computer-generated human images rendered to date. This is (in part) how dozens of Hugo Weavings can appear fighting in the one frame. 

“We felt if we could pull apart the barricades of physical rule that bind most action films to gravity and other forces of material reality, then we could start from the position of entertaining our total destructive imaginations,” Gaeta says. “It’s much more fun to destroy things in movies in ways that can’t ever occur in real life then to demonstrate how to cause havoc with average ingredients acquired from a local supermarket.” This guy’s definitely on the W brothers’ wavelength.

"breathtaking live action"

3D computer planning was used extensively in the choreography of the breathtaking live action and the virtual cinematography that propel the Freeway Chase. The planning of this scene was conducted for almost one full year prior to principal photography and involved every major designer and engineer on the film. As Gaeta describes: “Within the making of the Freeway sequence there are some incredibly impressive examples of using 3D advance planning to determine the paths and actions of high-speed vehicles and events. There were life-threatening stunts attempted throughout the scene and some major ones were mapped out to the exact mile-per-hour and footwork of all drivers in terms of near head-on and other large-scale collisions.” 

In addition to the virtual humans and super-human events that intensify the Burly Brawl and the Freeway Chase, Reloaded also presents an array of spectacular visuals such as the city of Zion, a vast, cavernous enclave at the Earth’s core, and an expanded visualisation of Neo’s amplified perceptual abilities. His heightened intuitive powers are conveyed in part through a dreamlike revelation of the code underpinning the Matrix as the camera glides through literally millions of shimmering code particles orbiting the shapes and constructions of the live action sets and characters.

In the tradition of contemporary Japanese animated movies, Reloaded presents photo-real 3D interpretations of natural phenomenon like weather, water and flame to impressionistically convey intelligence, behaviour and character. Scores of Reloaded elements from lightning to explosions were given a complete rethink on design, style and execution. “The brothers obsess on hyper-graphic depictions of supernatural events,” Gaeta reveals. “At every turn we’ve been striving to balance chaos and order, like putting a picture frame around a flash flood.” 

"break all animation-based boundaries"

Reloaded and Revolutions also break all animation-based boundaries in rendering the action of hundreds of thousands of marauding machine creatures, robots and tunnel storming electro-magnetic hovercraft. The creatures being driven by these technologies are all based on the extreme and horrific designs of Geof Darrow (creator of ultra-detailed comic book classics like Hard Boiled). Commonly-reviewed material at visual effects headquarters during the photography stages included Darrow’s conceptual drawings and films such as Alien; 2001: A Space Odyssey; Vertigo; Apocalypse Now; Koyaanisqatsi and Powaqqatsi (highly-stylized documentaries about life on earth); IMAX’s Blue Earth; 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea; documentaries on ultimate fighting, the Hindenberg disaster, submarines from the 1800s, undersea life, Rocky Marciano and other heavyweight champions; reality TV shows about car chases and crashes; high-speed car crash research and development films; information about robotics manufacturing, glass blowing, the making of the Chunnel (the tunnel that connects France and England), artificial intelligence and a reel of footage specializing in animé explosions of all sorts and sizes. 

“We’re all fans of Stanley Kubrick and Ridley Scott movies and the dark universe perfection that comes with their films,” Gaeta says with enthusiasm. “We hope to carry on their more refined, intelligent aesthetic with the most modern approaches available in this phase of computer-generated imagery. We want to scare people so badly that one day, when those damn machines smack us back, we’re ready.”

Published May 15, 2003

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