This Is What The Matrix Looks Like Without CGI: A Special Effects Breakdown

Those of us who saw the The Matrix in the the­ater felt we were wit­ness to the begin­ning of a new era of cin­e­mat­i­cal­ly and philo­soph­i­cal­ly ambi­tious action movies. Whether that era deliv­ered on its promise — and indeed, whether The Matrix’s own sequels deliv­ered on the fran­chise’s promise — remains a mat­ter of debate. More than twen­ty years lat­er, the film’s black-leather-and-sun­glass­es aes­thet­ic may date it, but its visu­al effects some­how don’t. The Fame Focus video above takes a close look at two exam­ples of how the cre­ators of The Matrix com­bined tra­di­tion­al, “prac­ti­cal” tech­niques with then-state-of-the-art dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in a way that kept the result from going as stale as, in the movies, “state-of-the-art dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy” usu­al­ly has a way of guar­an­tee­ing.

By now we’ve all seen revealed the mechan­ics of “bul­let time,” an effect that aston­ished The Matrix’s ear­ly audi­ences by seem­ing near­ly to freeze time for dra­mat­ic cam­era move­ments (and to make vis­i­ble the epony­mous pro­jec­tiles, of which the film includ­ed a great many). They lined up a bunch of still cam­eras along a pre­de­ter­mined path, then had each of the cam­eras take a shot, one-by-one, in the span of a split sec­ond.

But as we see in the video, get­ting con­vinc­ing results out of such a ground­break­ing process — which required smooth­ing out the unsteady “footage” cap­tured by the indi­vid­ual cam­eras and per­fect­ly align­ing it with a com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed back­ground mod­eled on a real-life set­ting, among oth­er tasks — must have been even more dif­fi­cult than invent­ing the process itself. The man­u­al labor that went into The Matrix series’ high-tech veneer comes across even more in the behind-the-scenes video below:

In the third install­ment, 2003’s The Matrix Rev­o­lu­tions, Keanu Reeves’ Neo and Hugo Weav­ing’s Agent Smith duke it out in the pour­ing rain as what seem like hun­dreds of clones of Smith look on. View­ers today may assume Weav­ing was filmed and then copy-past­ed over and over again, but in fact these shots involve no dig­i­tal effects to speak of. The team actu­al­ly built 150 real­is­tic dum­mies of Weav­ing as Smith, all oper­at­ed by 80 human extras them­selves wear­ing intri­cate­ly detailed sil­i­con-rub­ber Smith masks. The logis­tics of such a one-off endeav­or sound painful­ly com­plex, but the phys­i­cal­i­ty of the sequence speaks for itself. With the next Matrix film, the first since Rev­o­lu­tions, due out next year, fans must be hop­ing the ideas of the Pla­ton­i­cal­ly tech­no-dystopi­an sto­ry the Wachowskis start­ed telling in 1999 will be prop­er­ly con­tin­ued, and in a way that makes full use of recent advances in dig­i­tal effects. But those of us who appre­ci­ate the endur­ing pow­er of tra­di­tion­al effects should hope the film’s mak­ers are also get­ting their hands dirty.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix: From Pla­to and Descartes, to East­ern Phi­los­o­phy

The Matrix: What Went Into The Mix

Philip K. Dick The­o­rizes The Matrix in 1977, Declares That We Live in “A Com­put­er-Pro­grammed Real­i­ty”

Daniel Den­nett and Cor­nel West Decode the Phi­los­o­phy of The Matrix

Why 1999 Was the Year of Dystopi­an Office Movies: What The Matrix, Fight Club, Amer­i­can Beau­ty, Office Space & Being John Malkovich Shared in Com­mon

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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