Take The Blue Pill

So, this evening we were out at a talk given by John “DJ” Des Jardin, visual effects supervisor on The Matrix sequels. We had a wee drinkie before we went…

DJ’s talk was excellent. He gave lots of good information to the students at the UofM, illustrated with plenty of slides, DVD clips and videotape showing stages of the production process.

I managed to get in three (or was it five?) questions at the end. What were the main things I discovered, you’re wondering. First, the concept artist has a key role–the main role, in fact–in how a film finally appears, visually. I kind of new that but it’s interesting to me. The Wachowski brothers found their concept artist, Geof Darrow, through their background in writing comics.

Second, they do render more than is actually needed. But not a lot. The computer artists create a few extra frames at each end of the shot (handles) but these are only 8-12 frames. The whole film is edited using pre-visuals–rough renderings of the animations which show the movement but not the final look. This lets the director(s) work out the timing for shots and avoids excessive, time consuming and therefore expensive, rendering.

Third, musicians are brought in at an early stage. Once the pre-vis edits are done, in fact. This gives them lots of time to work on their part, that whole emotional thang, while the art department renders. Some of the shots took two years to figure out how to create and then render.

Laura asked if they consider themselves artists, drawing a comparison with Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow (which is visually far more beautiful than The Matrix). I think she was trying to get DJ to differentiate between art and technique. The Matrix sequels used a lot of CGI rendering that built itself, with computer algorithms creating cities and motion capture characters laid over AI.

Is it art? Or is it simulation? Or perhaps a little of both? We only got a little way down that subject, but it was still an interesting talking point. Oh, and some of the students wanted to ask questions too.

Finally, I just had to ask, as diplomatically as possible, “Um, why did the third film suck so badly?” DJ laughed and defended it faithfully, referring to the Zen character of the whole story. I’m not sure I buy into that. After nearly six hours of building a committment to a set of characters, I’m not sure I can grasp them being snatched away from me. But DJ said that’s life and maybe it would have been received differently if there hadn’t been 9/11.

“In the end, it’s about the fact we have to live together. We have to find a way to co-exist.” Well, okay, yes. That is real life. That’s what it’s all about. I’m not sure if it’s what we go to the movies for, but it’s plausable. The debate continued with students joining in. I’m left thinking, it’s true in life but is it true in movies? And is there art in simulation?