Want to feel old? Then consider the fact that The Matrix is 15 years old this month. This film was made before the turn of the century, before digital projection, before the 3D craze, and before any of the Star Wars prequels were released. It was a groundbreaking film, not just for its innovative action sequences but also for its brainy nature compared to many contemporary action films.
One of the early releases on DVD, The Matrix was loaded with special features, including multiple commentary tracks. The original concept by The Wachowskis was to have two separate commentary tracks: one with philosophers who liked the movie, and one with film critics who did not. After wrangling with Warner Bros. a bit on this decision, those commentaries did not appear on the original release (though they are available on the Blu-ray and more recent DVDs for your listening pleasure).
Two commentaries were recorded, including a music-only track commentary by composer Don Davis, and a traditional cast commentary, which has the most production information and trivia rather than analysis. This is what we’ll be covering here. However, I encourage fans of The Matrix to check out the additional commentaries on the Blu-ray for the philosophical and critical analysis that the Wachowskis originally intended.
The Matrix (1999)
Commentators: John Gaeta (visual effects supervisor), Zach Staenberg (editor), Carrie-Anne Moss (actor), written introduction by The Wachowskis (writers/directors)
1. The Matrix began as an idea in the late 1980s when The Wachowskis were living in a “cramped Chicago apartment in a room with a view of a brick wall.”
2. The Wachowskis’ vision of The Matrix was to break the mold of action movies being “idea-less” and idea movies being “action-less.”
3. The opening fight with Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) took about six months of training and four days to shoot. Part of her original screen test was to fight with a wire team from Hong Kong for about three hours. The Wachowskis wanted to make sure the actors could perform in most of their fighting sequences, which was uncommon at the time.
4. The film was scheduled for a 90-day shoot, but it went over schedule to 118 days.
5. The effects team coined the term “Frankensteining” to describe the digital manipulation of someone’s body in post production. In particular, this was used when Trinity jumps through the window during the chase sequence of the first scene. The effects team had to move around her arms and legs a bit to make her look more natural as she glides through the air.
6. The club where Neo (Keanu Reeves) goes to meet trinity is an actual S&M club in Sydney. The extras were all patrons of the club who were instructed to wear their gear.
7. For good fortune on the production, Yuen Woo-Ping and his Hong Kong crew performed a Chinese ritual, including the roasting of a pig, outside of the set on the first day of principle photography.
8. One of the rules used when shooting the scenes inside the Matrix was to avoid all blue colors, which were symbolic of the real world. All scenes in the Matrix were shot with a green tint to them.
9. The bug extractor that Trinity uses on Neo in the car was a real working device that model makers spent 12 weeks building.
10. Gaeta claims he gets a lot of credit for scenes that were practical effects or stunt work. Most of these scenes don’t use actual visual effects beyond wire-removal.
11. Most of the acupuncture needles in Neo’s body are stuck in a prosthetic that covers Keanu Reeves’ chest. However, the needles on his ear are real. They were inserted by an actual acupuncturist on set.
12. The Nebuchadnezzar, which draws much of its inspiration from 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, was designed and drawn by “Hard Boiled” comic book artist Geof Darrow.
13. The shot of the machines harvesting bodies from the power plant during Morpheus’ (Laurence Fishburne) explanation of the Matrix took a year and a half to completely develop.
14. For his research on editing the film, The Wachowskis gave Zach Staenberg a huge stack of Hong Kong kung fu movies to watch.
15. The scene in which Neo falls during his first jump attempt was modeled after Wile E. Coyote.
16. During the agent training program, most of the extras are twins that can be seen duplicated in the background. This was done to show that Tank (Marcus Chong) took some shortcuts in designing the population in the program.
17. Most of the visual effects were done by CGI rather than miniatures, which was uncommon at the time of production. The only miniature used was the helicopter in the sequence where Trinity and Neo save Morpheus.
18. John Gaeta considers the people morphing into Agents as some of the worst effects in the film. This is mainly because he hates the generic look of morphing.
19. Because Sydney didn’t have the poverty and ghetto structure of many American cities, it took a long time for the production to find locations that would work as run-down areas, like alleys with graffiti.
20. The shootout in the lobby took about ten days to shoot, and all of the effects were practical, with the exception of wire removal. Moss did her cartwheel off the wall in one take, which was the goal because it took six to eight hours to re-set and re-dress the blown up columns.
21. The shots of Neo and Morpheus dangling from the helicopter were shot with stuntmen, with the exception of the times you can see Fishburne and Reeves’ faces in the closer shots. Zach Staenberg claims they had to “literally re-write the laws of Sydney” in order to get all the flying shots.
22. The production blew up a 1/4-scale model of the building that the helicopter crashes into.
23. In order to achieve the bullet-time shots, the production had to design a customized and standardized lens for the still cameras. This was done because still camera lenses aren’t standardized the way motion picture camera lenses are, so they’d make it difficult to edit shots together smoothly.
Best in Commentary
- Gaeta: “The opening of the movie was important because mainly we wanted to alter the logos of the studios mostly because we thought they were an evil empire bent on breaking the creative juices of the average director or writer.”
- Gaeta: “Laurence Fishburne’s voice kicks Darth Vader’s ass.” / “I just want to say that Laurence Fishburne kicks holy ass.””
- Gaeta: “We’ve sort of lost our way a little bit in visual effects movies thinking that everything that you do has to be never seen before, and that’s wrong. It should be a design tool to move the story.”
For a commentary track that does not include the directors, this is pretty well put together. Carrie-Ann Moss is mostly silent through the film, possibly feeling she had less to contribute while Gaeta and Staenberg had more intimate knowledge of the full production. Still, her contributions were interesting, and I would rather have someone be quiet on a commentary track than talk just to fill the void with noise.
Speaking of voids, there are long stretches of the commentary where the speakers check out almost completely. These usually happen during action sequences in the second and third acts, and the most likely explanation is that the commentators were into watching the movie instead of talking over it. I can respect that, and the balance of their discussion was plenty when they were talking.
Zach Staenberg gave the most sobering commentary while John Gaeta seemed more cynical than one might expect. However, during the final foot chase sequence, Gaeta dumps a huge amount of information from his job into the commentary. All of that is left out of this article mainly because it’s a very dense description of the interpolation techniques and the software used on the production. However, if you fancy yourself a tech geek, you’ll definitely want to give that a listen.