Well, this has been an interesting project for me. There were hurdles like the rest, but this one posed some real brain twisters. I had shied away from doing a Matrix parody back when it was originally released because I was involved with other projects and no ideas struck me and said, "You HAVE to do this." So, I let it pass and actually didn't see that many parodies crop up - maybe I missed a couple, who knows? Anyway, Reloaded was about to be released and I revisited the original. For some reason I got quite a few ideas that time around. Shortly afterwards I caught Reloaded and it solidified my plot. What was the first version of the Matrix like? What were the predecessors of "The One" like? It's easiest to write about the production broken down into its five respective scenes.
I traveled about an hour to where my brother works to get these shots. I needed a typical office. I wanted sterile - you've seen the movie. The beauty of this is that the interrogation scene was shot in the same building. I had my brother scout around the office and snap some pictures. It took about 5 or 6 hours to shoot that Saturday. The air conditioning proved quite a problem. It was rather cranked up and my shotgun microphone is especially sensitive. I redubbed the office dialogue. The cell phone drop was most likely the thorn of that scene. I even had to go all the way back another weekend to get some pick-up shots and one of those was a background plate for the cell graphic shot. Sometimes you just forget things after 6 hours, maybe it's just me.
The Alley Behind Hooooters
This is a swank little location downtown that I've used before. I dig it. The problem here was the amount of outside air units. Sound again was a major problem. A good bit of redubbing later eased the pain. It's a great looking location and I just happened to pick up some lizard footage that I ended up using creatively. You never know.
As I stated before it was in the same building as the office scene. The room worked out very well. I rearranged it to meet the needs of the composition. The air conditioning was even louder in that room. It sounded horrible in the headphones, but not as bad later. It still needed cleaning up a bit. All in all the scene came together nicely on the timeline.
Anthony and I choreographed this for a few weeks. We would come up with "bits" and try to string them together. I would write out this awful heiroglyphic code of the action that was quite useful to me (because I could read it - most of the time). Now, you must also bear in mind that this scene took place OUTSIDE in the middle of SUMMER down in good ole southern MISSISSIPPI. For three days over two weekends we got the footage. It was the most grueling to date. The "sweat was hard to keep from your eyes" kind of hot. The heat doesn't show up that much on the screen, but believe me it was harsh - trenchcoats didn't help combat the inferno. I think some people would have said, "Screw this!" and gone home. I know we all thought it, but we didn't verbalize. I'm pleased with our modest kung fu action extravaganza. Did I mention it was hot? I did, ok.
We shot at Eddie Kalil's building downtown for the sequence. He has a knack for clutter and it worked out perfectly. I was glad that he didn't have a monster AC unit but that sentiment was not shared by those in costume. It was still quite humid there. This is also where the two cutaways of the agents "informing" Neo during the fight scene came from.
Well, that's a basic breakdown of the scenes. Now, a brief write up about what I lovingly dubbed "Budget Time." We are all very familiar with the Matrix, its special effects, and more importantly John Gaeta's work entitled "Bullet Time." It captured us all - one of the most spectacular special effects of contemporary cinema. How do you capture that magic with ONE camera? Well, the answer is "You Don't," but you can make a full-assed attempt at it.
I presented Eric with a few ideas of how to recreate the effect and the problems I was coming up against. We had numerous lengthy conversations about this. We would go back and forth on different techniques and eventually end up eating our own words having come full circle and reinventing square one. I had already chosen the action of the shot and the basic camera movement. We would eventually go out twice to do test shots of these techniques. These test shots added many hours to the conversation's time log. Eventually, we had something that could work based on what was available. It all started with this semi-elaborate array of lasers for lining up elements and a system for measuring tripod movement. We got rid of the lasers, but wouldn't that have been cool? Lasers, man, lasers. Anyway, to set up the camera we had a rope that I held in position and used that as the centerpoint for our circumference. Using that we labeled the ground with an almost 180 degree arc. To create the Crane Kick shot I had to stand on a stool, which we had an arched piece of wood for the foot, and self-animate the rise frame by frame as the camera was moved along 28 equidistant positions on the arc. There are two plates - an actor plate and a background plate. There was a tennis ball that hung behind my head in the actor plate that was used to stabilize the background plate. There was quite a bit of Photoshop work done by Eric Kohn and I'll let him divulge that aspect below. I'm pleased with our Budget Time. For only having one camera I think it turned out quite well. Hell, it only took countless hours for less than two seconds. The other two "Budget Time" shots were done using a steadicam.
I have a green filter, but didn't use it for the entire shoot. The 3-Way Color Corrector with a Color balance filter was used in FCP3. I desaturated the image and not only tinted it green, but also pulled out a little of the red and blue.
That's it. Hope you enjoy it. It was grueling, but worth it. Read on for more on the "Budget Time" shot from Eric.
Eric's Write-Up on his experience with "Budget-Time"
Okay, so we didn’t have bluescreens, motion-control cameras, support wire harnesses, and an array of 30 individual stationary cameras. BUT, we did have some fishing wire, a tennis ball, some duct tape, and a piece of rope. Instead of “Budget Time” we probably should have dubbed the effect “MacGuyver Time.” Let me tell you, I haven’t studied this hard on a problem in years. Our first discussion on how to tackle the shot happened on the interstate as Todd and I drove down to Scott’s place for the Office/Interrogation shots. He presented me with his initial plan. It was some elaborate Dr. Evil thing involving “lasers.” During the 40 minutes that followed, we continued to complicate the method, strip it down, complicate it again, strip it down-etc. Problems were solved by solutions that only caused different problems. You get the idea. Long story short (too late, I know), we chewed on the mechanics of this shot for a while longer, shot some test footage, and began to get a better feel for what needed to be done. Finally, like Todd said in his write-up, we landed back at square one with only slight modifications and minus the lasers. Todd gave you a basic outline of how the final footage was shot in his write-up. I’ll tell you a little about the post-production on it.
Basically, I had two source elements to work with. The actor plate, in which I had shot the frame-by-frame arc around Todd and Anthony, frozen in place. (For laughs, ask Todd sometime how it felt to hold the “Crane Position” while the camera tediously filmed him from 28 separate positions. He gets a personal “hats-off” from me.) And the background plate, in which I simply shot a tennis ball hanging at Todd’s height along the same 28 point path as I had the actors. The idea of the tennis ball was so that not only would I be able to align the camera to the same position every time I moved it, but that it would also provide a visual anchor for compositing Todd over the clean plate. Despite all our careful measurements and calculations, the 28 frame background plate looked too jittery when viewed in motion. So the first thing I did was stabilize the background plate in Photoshop. This was done simply enough by superimposing each frame over the previous one, reducing the opacity of the top frame so I could see the frame beneath, and “nudging” the image until the tennis balls were precisely aligned. This smoothed things out considerably. Once I had a stabilized background plate to work with, it was time to start compositing the actors over it. This consisted of cutting Todd and Anthony out of each of their frames and laying them over the corresponding background frame, MINUS the stool Todd was standing on. Then I would anchor the actors’ positions each time by aligning Todd with the tennis ball. Again, I reduced the opacity of the actor layer and nudged things around until Todd’s ear was perfectly aligned with the tennis ball. Bring the opacity back up, and VOILA! Anthony and Todd are perfectly placed in relation to the background and the tennis ball is conveniently hidden behind Todd’s head. You may be asking - “Why didn’t you just leave Todd and Anthony where they were and paste a piece of the background plate over the stool each frame???” Yeah, well… we tried that in the test shots. The big problem with that is that we were working in an outdoor environment, and the slight variations in sunlight, cloud cover, etc., add up. Sure you can manipulate the brightness, contrast, and even color balance of an image or layer in Photoshop, but it’s very difficult to match it perfectly to the lighting conditions of another shot. There are shadows to contend with and all kinds of other little things that you may be able to hide in a still frame. But once you put all those frames into motion, the sum of all those little imperfections create a kind of “ghost image” at the spot where you did all your tinkering. Had we been shooting in a more controlled environment, say indoors where the lighting is always consistent, that might have been an easier way to eliminate the stool. But in the end, we also wanted the freedom of having the actors separated from the background in case we needed to make adjustments in position, etc. This leads me to the next point in the story. After viewing the finished shot, Todd and I agreed that it would look cooler to have him actually rise into the air as the camera swung around, instead of hovering at the same height for the duration. Because Todd was already a separate element of the image, it didn’t take much to change his position against the background plate for each frame. Had I been pasting pieces to simply cover the stool, this wouldn’t have worked.
I’ve got to say, I’m pretty happy with the finished product, considering how limited our resources were. Budget Time indeed. It actually turned out better than I expected it to. I still personally believe that there is another and probably better way of achieving this shot with only one camera, but we weren’t able to come up with it. And don’t think we didn’t spend hours studying on it. Maybe some of you out there have had success on your own with this effect using different means (but still only one camera). If so and you want to reveal your secrets, drop us a line in the SP Forum. I know Todd and I would both be interested in hearing about some different methods that work.
That’s about it. I will say that all of the stabilizing and compositing work on this shot was done entirely with Photoshop. For the final shot as it appears in the film, Todd did some slight modifications within Final Cut Pro to add motion blur and color correction.
Thanks and enjoy,