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How The Matrix Resurrections used visual effects to plug in again

It’s difficult to overstate the impact of Lana and Lilly Wachowski’s 1999 sci-fi adventure The Matrix, which raised the bar for technical achievement in filmmaking thanks to its groundbreaking visual effects, editing, and stunt choreography. The film’s mind-bending introduction to a world in which machines enslave humans as organic batteries by keeping them docile inside a vast virtual reality not only spawned plenty of philosophical debate about the nature of our own reality, but also a pair of sequels that continued to push the limits of what technical filmmaking and digital effects could bring to life on the screen.

Nearly 20 years after The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions seemingly concluded the saga of Keanu Reeves‘ hacker hero Neo and his fellow freedom fighter (and lover) Trinity, played by Carrie-Anne Moss, the pair returned in 2021’s appropriately titled sequel, The Matrix Resurrections. Directed and co-written by Lana Wachowski, the film also brought back visual effects supervisor Dan Glass, who 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 has Neo and Trinity battling a new threat from the machines while coming to terms with the truth behind their own lives within the Matrix. Digital Trends talked 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 prior films’ legacy.

The Matrix Resurrections (2021)

The Matrix Resurrections
63 %
Genre Science Fiction, Action, Adventure
Stars Keanu Reeves, Carrie-Anne Moss, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II
Directed by Lana Wachowski

Digital Trends: It’s been almost 20 years since you worked on the visual effects for The Matrix Revolutions. What were some of the biggest challenges in diving back into that universe for Resurrections?

Dan Glass: Well, I think for Lana, particularly, it was how you go back into that universe without all the expectations, or how you meet the expectations that everyone has? I think she wisely chose not to go for all the expected things and, rather, to introduce things that were familiar, but also change it up. We just had to keep our heads focused on making a great movie and not on trying to outthink what people were going to expect.

You have such a long, great history with the Wachowskis, who are such visually minded filmmakers. What’s the creative process like with Lana and Lilly?

I like variety and projects that stimulate me — just as most of us do, I’d guess. [The Wachowskis] never really make the same film twice. It’s always a little bit different. But there’s definitely a phase of conceptual development, and idea development, and they will bring in their key collaborators on very early. And you do some experimentation and diving into ideas, and that makes it tremendous fun. Of course, then you have to figure out how you’re going to do it in a practical sense, and fit within a budget, because we always have to fit within a budget, too.

Lana Wachowski behind the camera during The Matrix Resurrections.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Has the experience of working with them changed over the years?

Well, 20 years ago, on the earlier projects we worked on together, they were very involved in every part of the process. Over time, with movies like Cloud Atlas and then the show Sense8, Lana really started to become more intuitive in the way she worked and would set environments where things prosper or happen, rather than codifying everything. When we did Reloaded and Revolutions, everything was detailed out before any filming took place, for example, whereas with Resurrections, it was more like, “OK, we’re going to go to this place, and it’s going to be this kind of a scene, so let’s see what happens.”

I don’t want to say it’s more reacting to situations, because there’s still a lot of thought and planning that goes into all of these events, but there’s more room to adapt now. That draws on a lot of experience and skill and a sort of secondhand communication ability with the filmmakers. It would be very hard to do that the first time out with somebody, but by 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 work. It’s thoroughly enjoyable, but it’s definitely a different process than when we started out.

Jessica Henwick and Yahya Abdul-Mateen II race down a hallway in a scene from The Matrix Resurrections.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

The visual effects for Yahya Abdul-Mateen II’s sentient, fluid-like Morpheus in this film were amazing. What can you tell us about the development of that character’s look and the VFX behind it?

The idea of this particle generator creating a flowing character was one of the toughest things to solve creatively. Honestly, it probably took the longest to figure out of any element. We played with a lot of ideas, both still concepts, which can only communicate so much, and moving concepts, modeled on how particle sims might move. Ultimately, though, we knew we wanted to base it off a real performance.

So Yahya is basically in all of those scenes delivering the dialogue with the other actors, and then he’s painted out. We have a head cam for capturing his facial animation, so we then mimic what he does, and use that data to drive a fluid simulation for the character.

The original Matrix trilogy was so groundbreaking with its VFX. Did that create additional pressure for you this time around?

Inevitably, yeah. And certainly more so as we started to get further into it. We researched all of the cutting-edge techniques we could, like volumetric capture and virtual production. We looked at those and used aspects of them throughout the movie, but did so sparingly. We were very conscious about using the tools that made sense for the story and narrative, rather than just going, “Oh, this is cool. Let’s make sure we make a big splash with this.” That was never the goal.

Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss ride a motorcycle in an explosive scene from The Matrix Resurrections.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

What’s the shot you’re most proud of in Resurrections?

Well, there are few, actually. The chase through the streets at the end, through San Francisco, is a particularly excellent collaboration of all the different trades on the film. There’s a lot of practical basis in what was shot there. We have the real actors on a gimbaled bike being pulled around, with stunt extras running after them in the streets of San Francisco. So that’s all reality-based. But then we’re also adding stuff into that to make it even more exciting. There are some shots with more heavy CG, like the people dive-bombing, of course, which we couldn’t do practically.

And on the flip side, the full CG creations — the shots we couldn’t have gone anywhere to shoot, like the machine city and the abandoned tunnels and vistas and so forth — those we really pushed to make them feel incredibly real. The irony, of course, is that those CG creations were the real world in our story — the machine city and such — and we were using the reality of our world to represent the simulation.

So there was some pressure in making sure the CG scenes didn’t feel unreal. They couldn’t, because they’re the real world in the movie. We looked at everything about the way they looked, from the camera lensing and imperfections in the photography to the level of detail and richness and scope, to make sure that those CG scenes held up against the photography.

Keanu Reeves in a scene from The Matrix Resurrections.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Are there any shots people would probably be surprised to know are a visual effect? Or for that matter, surprised to learn wasn’t a visual effect?

Well, with the bullet-time stuff that occurs in the workshop and café, traditionally you would do a lot of that as green screen and rebuild it all, putting the static, moving stuff in as CG elements. But a lot of that was actually shot with different frame rates and composited together, so it ends up being photography-based. There is some CG, of course, to tidy it up and put it together.

One of the big moments I think a lot of people would be surprised is not a significant visual effect, though, is the big jump at the end. That was Keanu and Carrie-Anne themselves, jumping off a 450-foot building in San Francisco at dawn. They had safety rigs, obviously, but it’s really them. I think the authenticity of that moment and the emotion it generates was really important. It’s a beautiful scene with only a delicate hand from visual effects to support it.

Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Anne Moss stare off at the sunrise in a scene from The Matrix Resurrections.
Image used with permission by copyright holder

VFX technology evolves so quickly. Did you ever find yourself thinking, “I wish we could’ve done this back in Reloaded or Revolutions”?

Oh, enormously. That’s what’s been exciting about the journey, though, because 20 years ago, using 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 that, we have to lock off the camera and put everything on pause …” But now, you can just let things run, and not to suggest it doesn’t involve a lot of work to make them work, but we have techniques and incredibly sophisticated ways — from machine learning to artificial intelligence — to reinterpret images that we’re fed and create images that stand up against photography.

So it’s definitely an exciting time and it makes visual effects a far more creative tool than ever before.

Warner Bros. Pictures and Village Roadshow’s The Matrix Resurrections is currently in theaters and available for on-demand streaming.

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