Cover Story: The Matrix: Anime-ted
Issue: Volume: 26 Issue: 6 (June 2003)

Cover Story: The Matrix: Anime-ted

By Audrey Doyle

For the past three years, Michael Arias has been on a mission. "I want to give adult American audiences more to chew on when they watch animation. I want to show them that animation, whether 2D, 3D, or a combination of both, doesn't have to be family-oriented. It's not just for kids, and it can provide fairly sophisticated entertainment."

Earlier this spring Arias and a team of talented producers, directors, and animators from Japan, South Korea, and the US accomplished that mission with The Animatrix. Scheduled for release in June on DVD and VHS by Warner Home Video, The Animatrix is a collection of nine film-quality animations—one 2D, seven a combination of 2D and 3D, and one produced entirely in 3D. They are between six and 17 minutes long and were created in the anime style pioneered by Japanese artists.
All images ©2003 Warner Bros. Courtesy Warner Home Video.

Each animation, or episode, tells a new story set in the worlds of 1999's blockbuster VR action thriller The Matrix, and the second and third chapters in the film trilogy, The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions, scheduled to hit theaters this May and November, respectively. Larry and Andy Wachowski, who wrote and directed the Matrix films, selected the directors of The Animatrix episodes themselves. The brothers also wrote four of the episodes and closely supervised the project from concept to postproduction.

According to Arias, who is a Japan-based special effects and digital technology consultant and was one of the Animatrix producers, the Matrix trilogy was the perfect vehicle on which to base the Animatrix episodes. "In Japan, there's a wider range in terms of animation genres and content than there is in the US," he says. "There's stuff for kids, for adults, for teenage girls, for teenage boys—animation is a rich medium in Japan."

Anime, which is more cinematic and less caricatured than so-called American animation, was one of the Wachowskis' key inspirations for the Matrix films, Arias notes. "With The Animatrix, they wanted to expand on the Matrix theme in terms of storytelling, plus pay homage to anime and bring it to adult US audiences." (See "Anime Anthology," pg. 56.)

The Animatrix accomplishes all those goals. Whether they provide a back story for the Matrix trilogy, tell side stories tying the three films together, or take the Matrix story in new directions, all nine episodes closely relate to the Matrix theme. Because of violent and graphic content, all are also geared more for adults than for children. And all were created with the uniquely Japanese anime style in mind.

That 3D technology played such a heavy role in this project, despite the fact that the anime genre is characteristically 2D, isn't surprising. "The use of 3D technology in 2D animation, regardless of the style, can be greatly beneficial," says Arias. For instance, animators can achieve more complex camera moves in 3D than they can using 2D techniques. It's also easier and quicker to animate effects such as smoke and sparks in 3D. And using 'toon shaders like those from Alias|Wavefront and Softimage, artists can make 3D characters, and other elements that are easier to create digitally, look hand-drawn. "There's definitely a role for 3D in 2D animation," Arias states.

That role was explored in several episodes of The Animatrix. One that made extensive use of 3D technology is "Matriculated," a 16-minute piece written and directed by US-based freelance director Peter Chung and produced by DNA, with 3D animation provided by H Studio (both of Seoul, Korea). Expanding on the Matrix theme, "Matriculated" tells the story of humans who free themselves from the Matrix and place the robotic machines that hunt for them into a virtual world.

"It's The Matrix in reverse," explains Chung, who is best known as a writer and director of the half-hour animated series Aeon Flux, which he created for MTV's Liquid Television program and is now being developed as a live-action film. "In The Matrix, humans are living in a virtual world created by machines. In 'Matriculated,' the machines are immersed into a virtual world created by humans."

According to Chung, all the humans and some of the robots and environments in "Matriculated" were drawn by hand and inked and painted in Cambridge Animation Systems' Animo. However, most of the robots and environments were modeled, animated, and rendered in 3D. "I decided which robots would be three-dimensional based on how much screen time they would have. If they were to appear often, we did them in 3D so that we wouldn't have to keep drawing them by hand," he says.

Chung and the eight-person team of digital artists took a similar approach regarding the environments. "If a location was going to require lots of camera angles and complex camera moves, we created it in 3D. If it was a background that would be seen in a few basic scenes, we drew it by hand."

Taking the 3D approach for the character work ultimately helped the animators ensure quality and save time. For instance, it's difficult to draw mechanical, rigid objects, such as robots, by hand and guarantee that their proportions won't change from frame to frame. "By modeling them in 3D we kept their proportions accurate and consistent," Chung says.

The Animatrix, a compilation of anime-style projects that use 2D and 3D animation, tells stories set in the worlds of The Matrix films. The animations will be released on DVD, though most have appeared on the Web.

Furthermore, the robots had to move "on ones." As Chung explains, film runs at 24 frames per second, with every frame in a live-action shot representing a different phase of movement. In 2D animation, instead of creating 24 different drawings for one second of animation, animators can get by with 12 drawings, repeating each drawing twice to get 24 frames.

Generally, this repetition isn't noticeable. "But when something must move quickly and fluidly, like these robots do, you need a different drawing for every frame," Chung says. "3D software interpolates the in-between frames automatically, so you don't have to create a new piece of art for every frame." The artists used Alias|Wavefront's Maya to model and animate the 3D robots. Next, they rendered them using Maya's Ramp Shader Toon shader, then applied Adobe Systems' After Effects filters on top of the models to create extra highlights and shadows and, occasionally, an embossed look so they'd blend with the 2D drawings.

The majority of "Matriculated" is 2D. But to save time the artists used 3D to create models that are used throughout the project, such as this robot.

Using 3D tools for the backgrounds, meanwhile, allowed the animators more freedom in their camera movements. For instance, by hand-painting the backgrounds in Adobe's Photoshop, and then using Maya to map them onto simple 3D geometry created in Discreet's 3ds max, the animators could perform sweeping pans, tight zooms, and quick dives with their virtual camera, ultimately creating more interesting shots. "The angles we achieved in 3D would have been difficult to draw by hand," Chung attests. The artists later composited the 2D elements into the 3D backgrounds with After Effects.

Like "Matriculated," the episodes "The Second Renaissance (Parts I and II)" and "Beyond" also relied heavily on CGI tools, for many of the same reasons.

About 19.5 minutes long, Parts I and II of "The Second Renaissance" provide the back story for the Matrix trilogy, portraying the history of the rise of intelligent robots in the early 21st century, their war for survival with humans, and the eventual construction of the Matrix. "[I found] the full-length feature film [to be] very interesting," says Mahiro Maeda, director of the episode. "My goal was to interpret its plot, and elevate it with my own expression."

"Second Renaissance Part 1" incorporates limited 3D. One application was to enable complex camera moves, such as for this city street sequence.

Written by the Wachowskis, "The Second Renaissance" was animated at Studio4°C in Japan, where 3D technology was used to facilitate several shots in the episode. For instance, those shots showing robots marching in unison were built with CGI because it was easier to achieve precise marching moves digitally than by hand, and because these shots required complex camera moves. Characters and objects that appear in large quantities or repeatedly were created in 3D as well. The animators also used the medium to add depth and more vivid textures to certain characters. All this work was accomplished in Softimage|XSI and NewTek's LightWave 3D. The 2D animation was accomplished in Animo and Photoshop, and all compositing was done in After Effects.

"Beyond," a 13-minute piece written and directed by Koji Morimoto, a founding member of Studio4°C, tells the story of a group of teenagers who discover a tiny programming glitch in a forgotten corner of their simulated Matrix neighborhood.

The unusual look of the "Beyond" animation results from the studio's blend of 2D and 3D elements. Nearly 40 percent of the project is 3D.

According to Morimoto, the animators used 3D for about 40 percent of this episode to achieve what he describes as "realistic sensations and presence." 3D techniques can be recognized easily in scenes with the exterminator's car or the helicopter, he says. The Bug House, where the boys are playing at the end of the film, is also 3D. All these 3D elements were created in Softimage|XSI, LightWave 3D, and 3ds max. The 2D animation was done in Photoshop and Celsys's Retas, and compositing was done in After Effects.

While "Matriculated," "Beyond," and "Second Renaissance" feature a combination of 2D and 3D technology, "Final Flight of the Osiris" was created entirely in 3D. A fusion of CG animation and anime, this nine-minute episode serves as a side story that picks up where The Matrix leaves off and sets the scene for film 2 in the trilogy.

For "Final Flight," artists used an updated version of the character-creation technology Square USA developed for the feature film Final Fantasy, enabling them to achieve a realistic look for the digital actors.

The action-packed episode was written by the Wachowskis and directed by Andy Jones, formerly animation director at now-defunct Square USA and a key player in the production of Square's 2002 release Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within, credited by many as most photorealistic, all-CG feature film to date. "Final Flight of the Osiris" was created in about a year by the folks at Square. "The Wachowskis liked the style we developed for Final Fantasy and thought it would be a good way to tell this story," says Jones, who is now animation director at Digital Domain. "I looked at this project as a chance to again showcase our photorealistic CG characters, but in an action-packed anime short."

The first three minutes of "Final Flight" feature a sensual sparring match between the two main characters, Thadeus and Jue. "The object of the game they're playing is to cut off each other's clothes," Jones explains. When they're almost naked, an alarm sounds, warning them that a machine army of seek-and-destroy Sentinels is approaching their hovercraft, the Osiris. The remaining six minutes of the episode highlight a race to deliver the message of the Sentinels' existence to Zion (the last human city) before the crew of the Osiris is overrun by the thousands of Sentinels that are pursuing them throughout the city.

"Final Flight of the Osiris," the only all-3D Animatrix project, illustrates the unique look that can be accomplished by mixing anime and CGI.

According to Jones, the "Final Flight" characters look even more photoreal than the Final Fantasy characters. "For example, the Final Fantasy characters were fully clothed all the time, but in 'Final Flight,' especially in those first three minutes, we show the characters' skin and their muscles moving and deforming realistically."

The team modeled the characters in Maya, and created the skin texture in Photoshop and rendered it in Pixar Animation Studios' RenderMan. To create the look of muscles under the skin, the team wrote a Maya plug-in. "It's a pose-based system that our modelers used to sculpt the muscles as they should appear in each pose," Jones explains. To create realistic clothing and hair, they relied on SQFlex, a tool they wrote while working on Final Fantasy.

About 40 percent of the piece was keyframed in Maya so that the animators could achieve photorealistic yet superhuman movement without the need for rigs. The remaining 60 percent was animated with Motion Analysis's motion-capture technology. "For this project we developed some mocap tools so that the animators could easily work with the motion data, editing and adapting it to fit their shots," Jones says. "We also created a facial animation toolset for animating the muscles in the characters' faces, allowing us to achieve difficult shapes and phonemes. Plus, we added more controls to the faces—stuff I thought was missing from Final Fantasy—to make the skin feel more lifelike by retaining its volume through a variety of expressions."

Although some Sentinels appeared in The Matrix, some scenes in "Final Flight" feature tens of thousands of the machines. Mach Kobayashi, formerly with Square and now with Pixar, developed a special "flocking" system to make all the Sentinels in the massive crowd shots look as though they're moving together as one.

Jones says this aided the animation process tremendously. "Mach's system is particle-driven, but it features expressions to make it more behavioral," he explains. "It's crowd simulation but without geometry. All the geometry was generated in the shader, which saved tons of time yet looked just as real as if we had done it with models. We never could have rendered this many Sentinels without this system." According to Jones, the Wachowskis liked the look of the coiling Sentinels so much they're using it in The Matrix: Reloaded.

To augment the realistic characters in "Final Flight," the artists created detailed matte paintings for the backdrops used in the animation.

For scenes featuring only a handful of Sentinels, the team used a model they received from ESC Entertainment (Oakland, CA), which is working on effects in The Matrix: Reloaded and The Matrix: Revolutions. "Our character department set up the model for animation and textured it," Jones says. "Animators Timmy Heath and Chris Walsh were integral in developing the way the Sentinels crawled all over the ship."

Meanwhile, to save time and money, the artists used digital matte paintings created in Photoshop as backgrounds. For scenes showing the Maya model of the Osiris flying through cities and other environments, they constructed buildings in Maya and applied them as texture cards to the Photoshop backgrounds. All the compositing was accomplished in Apple Computer's Shake, Avid's Illusion, and Discreet's Flame. All the rendering was done in RenderMan.

The characters in "Final Flight," including Jue, were modeled in Maya. The artists also developed a Maya plug-in to create the look of muscles under the skin.

Everyone involved in The Animatrix has high expectations for its commercial success. "This project was conceived as a way of exposing a broader audience to this more cinematic style of animation, and I think it will succeed at that," says Chung.

Arias adds that he hopes this suggests a new direction for animation. "I hope we see more projects like this—not necessarily in terms of being a vehicle for a trilogy like The Matrix, but in terms of increasing the popularity of sophisticated animation as opposed to family fare," he says.

"My whole career has been about trying to merge 2D and 3D technologies so you can tell your story using the tools most suited to the task," Arias concludes. "At the end of the day, it shouldn't matter what was done in 3D and what was done in 2D, as long as it's done in the service of telling a good story."

Audrey Doyle is a contributing editor and freelance writer/editor with more than 17 years of experience covering the computer graphics industry. She is based in Boston.

Adobe Systems
Apple Computer
Cambridge Animation Systems
Motion Analysis
Pixar Animation Studios