How The Matrix Resurrections Used Visual Effects To Plug In
It’s hard to overstate the impact of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s 1999 sci-fi adventure The matrix, which raised the bar for technical achievement in film with its groundbreaking visual effects, editing and stunt choreography. The film’s mind-blowing introduction to a world in which machines enslave humans as organic batteries by keeping them docile in a vast virtual reality has not only spawned many philosophical debates about the nature of our own reality, but also a pair of sequels that continued to push the boundaries of what technical cinema and digital effects could bring to life on screen.
Almost 20 years later The Matrix Reloaded and The matrix revolutions seemingly concluded the saga of Keanu Reeves Neo’s hacker hero and fellow freedom fighter (and lover) Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, the pair returned in 2021’s aptly titled sequel, The Matrix Resurrections. Directed and co-written by Lana Wachowski, the film also brought back visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, who has worked with the Wachowskis on most of their recent projects, including Reloaded and Revolutions and Lana’s Netflix series Sense8.
Set years after the events of the original trilogy, The Matrix Resurrections Neo and Trinity struggle against a new threat from the machines while coming to terms with the truth behind their own lives within the Matrix. Digital Trends spoke to Glass about his own return to The Matrix franchise after nearly two decades working with the Wachowskis, the film’s fantastic VFX elements, and the high bar set for Resurrections by the legacy of previous films.
Digital Trends: It’s been almost 20 years since you worked on visual effects for The matrix revolutions. What were the biggest challenges to re-immersing yourself in this universe during Resurrections?
Dan Glass: Well, I think for Lana, in particular, it was how do you go back to this universe without all the expectations, or how do you meet the expectations that everyone has? I think she wisely chose not to go for all the things expected and, instead, to introduce things that were familiar to her, but also to change them. We just had to keep our heads focused on making a great movie and not try to exceed what people were going to expect.
You have such a long and beautiful history with the Wachowskis, who are such visual filmmakers. How is the creative process going with Lana and Lilly?
I like variety and projects that stimulate me, like most of us, I imagine. [The Wachowskis] never really do the same movie twice. It’s always a little different. But there is definitely a phase of conceptual development and idea development, and they will bring in their key collaborators early on. And you experiment and dive into ideas, and that makes the game extremely fun. Of course, then you have to figure out how you’re going to do it in practice and stick to a budget, because we always have to stick to a budget too.
Has the experience of working with them changed over the years?
Well, 20 years ago, on the first projects we worked on together, they were very involved in all stages of the process. Over time, with movies like cloud atlas then the show Sense8, Lana really started to become more intuitive in the way she worked and created environments where things thrive or happen, rather than codifying everything. When we did Reloaded and Revolutionseverything was detailed before any shooting, for example, whereas with Resurrectionsit was more like, “OK, we’re going to go to this place, and it’s going to be this kind of scene, so let’s see what happens.”
I don’t mean it’s more reacting to situations, because there’s still a lot of thought and planning going into all of these events, but there’s more room to adapt now. It relies on a lot of experience and skill and a sort of ability to communicate indirectly with the filmmakers. It would be very difficult to do that the first time with someone, but now it’s become a natural way of working, and there’s a lot of trust in each other in terms of what you bring to the job. It’s very nice, but it’s definitely a different process than when we started.
The visual effects of Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s responsive and fluid Morpheus in this film were incredible. What can you tell us about the development of this character’s look and the visual effects behind it?
The idea of this particle generator creating a fluid character was one of the hardest things to come up with creatively. Honestly, it probably took the longest to figure out any item. We played around with a lot of ideas, both fixed concepts, which can’t communicate much, and mobile concepts, modeled on how particle simulations might move. Ultimately, however, we knew we wanted to base it on real performance.
So Yahya is basically in all of these scenes delivering dialogue with the other actors and then he’s portrayed. We have a front camera to capture his facial animation, so we mimic what he’s doing and use that data to drive a smooth simulation for the character.
The original Matrix Trilogy was so revolutionary with its visual effects. Did that create extra pressure for you this time around?
Definitely, yes. And certainly more as we start to go further. We researched all the cutting-edge techniques we could, like volumetric capture and virtual production. We looked at them and used aspects of them throughout the film, but we did so sparingly. We were very concerned about using the tools that made sense for the story and the narrative, rather than just saying, “Oh, that’s cool. Let’s make sure to make a splash with this. That was never the goal.
What is the shot you are most proud of? Resurrections?
Well, there aren’t many, actually. The chase through the streets at the end, through San Francisco, is a particularly great collaboration from all of the film’s various crafts. There’s a lot of practical grounding in what was shot there. We have the real actors on a gimballed bike getting shot, with stuntmen chasing them through the streets of San Francisco. So everything is based on reality. But then we also add things to make it even more exciting. There are shots with heavier CGI, like dive-bombing people, of course, which we pretty much couldn’t do.
And on the other hand, the full CG creations – the shots that we couldn’t have gone anywhere to shoot, like the machine town and the abandoned tunnels and panoramas, etc. – the ones we really pushed to make them unbelievably real. The irony, of course, is that these CG creations were the real world of our story – the machine town and such – and we were using the reality of our world to represent the simulation.
So there was some pressure to make sure the CG scenes didn’t look unreal. They couldn’t, because they’re the real world in the movie. We’ve looked at everything about how they look, from the camera lens and photography imperfections to the level of detail, richness and scope, to make sure these CG scenes hold up in photography.
Are there any shots that people would probably be surprised to know are a visual effect? Or for that matter, surprised to learn that it wasn’t a visual effect?
Well, with the blazing stuff that happens in the workshop and the cafe, traditionally you’d do a lot of that like green screen and rebuild everything, putting the static and moving stuff as CG elements. But a lot of that was shot at different frame rates and composited together, so it ends up being photography-based. There is CG, of course, to store and set it up.
One of the big moments that I think a lot of people would be surprised at isn’t a significant visual effect, however, is the big leap at the end. It was Keanu and Carrie-Anne themselves, jumping from a 450-foot building in San Francisco at dawn. They had security platforms, obviously, but that’s really them. I think the authenticity of this moment and the emotion it generates was really important. It’s a beautiful scene with only a delicate hand of visual effects to back it up.
VFX technology is evolving so rapidly. Have you ever said to yourself, “I wish I could have done this in Reloaded Where Revolutions”?
Oh, tremendously. That’s what’s been exciting about the journey, because 20 years ago the use of visual effects slowed everything down. By using visual effects, you put all these restrictions and limitations on the creative process in a way, because you had to say, “OK, if we’re going to do this, we have to lock the camera and pause everything. … “But now you can just let things work, and not suggest that it doesn’t take a lot of work to make them work, but we have incredibly sophisticated techniques and means – from machine learning to artificial intelligence – to reinterpret the images that we are fed and create images that resist photography.
So it’s definitely an exciting time and it makes visual effects a much more creative tool than ever.
Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow The Matrix Resurrections is in theaters now and available for on-demand streaming.