In 1999, the Wachowskis wrote and directed The Matrix.
One of the most recognizable features of the film is the ever-present, downward-flowing green code. Designed by Simon Whiteley, a production designer, the code is comprised of half-width kana characters, Western Latin letters, and Arabic numerals. The color is representative of the green used in monochrome computer monitors. Many fans will see the similarities between the opening sequence of The Matrix and the Japanese cyberpunk film, Ghost in the Shell.
It is said, Whiteley used Japanese sushi recipes for the basis of his code.
Color also played a distinctive role in the differentiation of the real world and the world within the computerized matrix. The “code-green” color is used a lot for the scenes depicting the simulation while blue is used in the real world. The sets had a more lived-in, grid-like feel for the simulation scenes. For the real world scenes, the actors underwent far less styling and their wardrobe had more texture and a bit more color. Longer lenses were used to soften the backgrounds and highlight the actors during the more realistic scenes.
Kym Barrett, costume designer for the film, used a green dye-bath to tint the white shirts worn by the agents. Because the scenes within The Matrix has this color associated with it, this bit of simple movie “magic” furthered the illusion.
Unlike ships in the Star Trek universe, or even those more lived-in ships of Star Wars, those of The Matrix had a feeling of being cobbled together from all sorts of parts. The viewer got to see the different connecting wires, tubes, and other pieces of the computers and working parts. Even the birthing pod Neo wakes up in was made to look as though it had been used before. This was a deliberate design choice to convey the overall feeling of the mixing of man and machine.
Filmmakers would look, again, to outside inspiration for one of the most striking visual effects of the film. Otomo Katsuhiro, co-writer and director of Akira, a Japanese animated cyberpunk action film, was credited as artistic inspiration for “bullet time.” This refers to the effect which allows a shot to progress in slow-motion while the camera appears to move through the scene at normal speed. John Gaeta, a designer and inventor, approached the Wachowskis to allow him to work on the film. After being accepted, Gaeta created a prototype utilizing an older type of art photography called time-slice. This was achieved by setting up several different cameras around an object and set off at the same time. Each camera captures a single image, contributing one frame to a video sequence. This gives the illusion of camera movement, as the object stays still. Of course, Gaeta’s method was much more involved and incorporated different techniques.
A previsualized 3D simulation helped position the cameras and determine their exposures. Instead of all the cameras going off at once, each one was delayed so they could capture the action. This created a super slow-motion effect when the frames were put together. Regular moving cameras were placed to capture the normal speed, as well. Photo-realistic backgrounds were incorporated into the “bullet-time” scenes, making the entire sequence much more believable.
The effect took one hundred and twenty cameras to achieve.
In a similar way, Manex Visual Effects used a “cluster farm,” which is a set of computers working together as a single system, for many of the film’s visual effects. “Computer clusters have each node set to perform the same task, controlled and scheduled by software.” (Wikipedia) Manex used these cluster farms to create and move the Sentinels and various machines in the real-world portions of the film. Animal Logic, an Australian animation and visual effects digital studio, created the code hallway and the agent which explodes at the film’s conclusion.
In a strange sort of marriage between visual and practical effects, the scene in which the helicopter impacts the building required extensive research. A quarter-scale helicopter was used to collide with a glass wall wired with concentric rings of explosives, triggered in a specific sequence from the center outward. The ripple effect was done using digital effects but months worth of research went into finding the right sort of glass and the proper explosives to achieve the wave-effect.
The film was not without practical sets, either. The scene in which the agents are chasing the leads, was shot in a tall, narrow mechanical set, which the actors were harnessed into. Cameras mounted on cranes moved along with the actors as they scaled the set. The harnesses were in place for the portion where the agents find them and Morpheus leaps out at them, leaving the others to fall down the shaft.
Many of the sets were practical, so the actors could interact with their environments. The various teams could control temperature, lighting, and other variables. Practical sets helped with immersion for the audience, as well. Excessive green-screen sets often lack natural shadows, which were sometimes difficult to animate in 1999.
The rooftop set in which Trinity flees Agent Brown was a leftover of Dark City, adding to comparisons between it and The Matrix. Over thirty different sets were constructed and/or used for this film.
Were it not for the improbable film, Howard the Duck, some of the effects in The Matrix might not have been possible. Production for the previous film had difficulty with making their special effects look credible. Traditional methods for movement were not working, as there was no practical way to hide the wires in certain scenes. Even blurred, the surrounding surfaces drew too much attention to the wires. Production called on ILM’s Graphics Group for help.
A process called LayerPaint allowed the special effects artists to draw in transparent layers over the actual footage of the scene, thereby erasing the wires. This process of using a digital laser scanner was a predecessor of Photoshop and made it possible to modify the different background colors and textures on a frame-by-frame basis. This process would also be used on the hoverboard in Back to the Future Part II and the bike jump sequence in Terminator: Judgment Day.
Action choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping, shaped the majority of the fight scenes for the film, transforming the actors into fighters capable of doing their own stunt-work. Glenn Boswell, an Australian stunt coordinator, helped, as well. After four months of training, the actors were put in their wire rigs and the scenes were shot against a green screen. The same process of LayerPaint was then used to edit out the wires, making it appear as though the characters were performing super-human acts. Because of his work on the film, Yuen took the process back to Hong Kong, making it possible for Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon to do similar effects. This process of removing wires made stunt-work for both professional stunt people and actors much safer because it allowed for thicker, sturdier cables to be used on the harnesses, preventing accidental breakage.
All because of Howard the Duck.
Dane A. Davis, a sound editor with over 150 film credits, created the sound effects for The Matrix. The ‘whipping’ sounds of punches were achieved by recording the movement of thin metal rods and editing the speed and depth of the sound. The closing of the birthing pod required the composition of over fifty different sounds.
Don Davis (Beauty And The Beast 1987 series), an American composer, conductor, orchestrator, and trombonist provided the score. Because of the many mirrors in the film, Davis based a lot of his score on the theme of reflections. Elements of choral, orchestral, and synthesizers were used to differentiate scenes between humans or machines. Musical contributions from Rob Zombie, Rammstein, Rage Against the Machine, The Prodigy, and Lunatic Calm were also featured in the soundtrack.
Underground comic book artists, Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce were hired to produce a 600-page, shot-by-shot storyboard for the entire film. This storyboard was used to create precise angles, actor-movements, and filming sequences. In this way, the Wachowskis were able to achieve their vision without much compromise. Many of the storyboarded shots made it into the film, some almost exact copies of the drawings.
In spite of this film being remembered for its visual effects, they comprised only twenty percent of the finished product. It isn’t surprising, The Matrix won Academy Awards for Best Effects, Sound Effects Editing, Best Sound, and Best Effects, Visual Effects. It also won a Saturn Award for Best Science Fiction Film. In many ways, The Matrix revolutionized special effects and made so much other film magic possible.