Re-Entering the Matrix
Karen Moltenbrey
February 18, 2022

Re-Entering the Matrix

The red pill or blue one, which would you choose? 
For fans of the iconic sci-fi film series The Matrix, there is only one choice: red. It is the one Thomas Anderson (also known as the hacker Neo) chooses that leads him on the path toward discovering the truth about the Matrix. The blue, on the other hand, would allow him to remain in blissful ignorance, unaware of the horrors of his reality.

In 1999, the Wachowskis and Warner Bros. first introduced us to Neo and the Matrix, a simulated reality created by intelligent machines to block humans from their actual reality: being used as a power source for the machines that rule the world. Anderson (Keanu Reeves), a computer programmer, discovers the harsh reality that humanity finds itself in, after he is offered the pills by Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne). Morpheus is part of a rebel group that hacks into the Matrix to unplug and recruit the enslaved humans, all the while looking for “the Chosen One,” who is said will free humankind from their predicament. Neo awakens from his simulated state and escapes from the Matrix, joining up with the rebellion as the free humans — including Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss) — wage war on the machines.

In 2003, the second and third films in the series, The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, released a few months apart, continued the story and the fight. The free citizens of Zion battling machines in the real world, and Neo battling his nemesis, Agent Smith, in the simulated world ( CGW, December 2003). That third and “final” chapter pits Neo against his continual nemesis, Agent Smith, an AI program that has gone rogue acting as a self-replicating virus that even the machines can no longer control. Neo makes a deal with the machines: He will rid them of Agent Smith in exchange for Zion’s safety.

The series, and the story, ends in a brutal fight between Neo and Agent Smith and his replicants. Eventually Neo is worn-down by the tireless Agent Smiths, who finish Neo off — but in doing so, results in Agent Smith being purged from the Matrix. In a moving display, the machines then carry Neo’s body away into the distance, while peace falls on Zion. The end.

Or was it?

The answer, of course, is no, as Warner Bros. and one of the Wachowskis, Lana, resurrected the characters and story 19 years later with The Matrix Resurrections, which takes place 60 years after those final events. In this film, Neo and Trinity are back, as is Agent Smith, albeit in a new shell that allows him to remain hidden (as such, he is now played by Jonathan Groff) — all of whom survived that “end battle.” Neo and Trinity were rebuilt and plugged into a new Matrix program created by an evil machine program known as The Analyst (Neil Patrick Harris).

Now we find Neo, again as Thomas Anderson, leading what appears to be normal life as a computer game developer, working on his latest title in a series (the first three are based on his experiences from the first three Matrix films), along with Smith, his business partner. Yes, that Smith, as the two are now “bonded” — as Neo is suppressed, so, too, is Smith, just as The Analyst prefers. Thomas, however, is troubled; he has fleeting recollections of his previous experiences, which his psychiatrist (creepily, The Analyst) has him believe are a result of “a previous mental breakdown and psychotic episodes.”

Thomas is prescribed blue pills by The Analyst to suppress his memories of the Matrix. However, they are present in the popular video game he had created, the first in the franchise. When presented with the red pill option once again, he declines but eventually acquiesces and reawakens from his hellish reality, as does Trinity — eventually. (The Analyst witnessed Neo and Trinity die at the end of the Machine War and created resurrection pods to study them.) Unfortunately, Smith also regains his memories and seeks to destroy Neo and The Analyst, who imprisoned him, and restore the Matrix to its former settings. Only this time, it is the powerful Trinity and Neo together who overcome these protagonists and set to out make the Matrix “as they see fit.”

As you can see, the plots from the earlier trio of films, as well as the latest one, are complex. So are the visual effects. The first film gave us “bullet time,” wherein the action in a shot progresses in slow motion while the camera seems to move through the scene at a normal pace. The second moved us a step toward real-time simulation of virtual humans. The third film presented us with a realistic face of Agent Smith during “the punch.” So, what does this fourth installment give us?

Here, CGW Chief Editor Karen Moltenbrey talks with Dan Glass ( Jupiter Ascending, Deadpool 2, Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, Speed Racer, V for Vendetta, Batman Begins), production visual effects supervisor on Resurrections. In addition to those projects and many more, he also had served as VFX supervisor on Reloaded and Revolutions, working with The Matrix trilogy overall VFX supervisor John Gaeta, as well the video game Enter the Matrix.

The Matrix Resurrections was produced by Warner Bros. Pictures, in association with Village Roadshow Pictures and Venus Castina Productions.

Describe the Matrix today.
The Matrix we’re representing here is an upgrade on the Matrix we encountered in the trilogy. The machines have learned yet another level of nuance, one with more complexity, in order to better convince us that this is the one and true reality. It’s therefore fitting that Lana’s process has evolved to one that really focuses on trying to capture natural light in real-world locations. This film looks and feels different from the first films, and for story-relevant reasons. It’s part of a continuing story, but one that is intentionally a departure visually, and I hope people will find that exciting. It is deliberately not trying to be what is most expected.

One of the most daunting components was ensuring that the CG content lived up to the bar that had been elevated by the physical production. The way this film was shot, it’s very rich in detail and almost more documentary in style than the earlier movies. It needed to feel completely integrated. It needed to feel like it’s in support of the movie that was shot. In many instances this was quite challenging, because we had to cut up or combine filmed layers and frequently paint things out, but a completely natural sense of integration comes from that approach.

The real world — confusing, because we think of our reality as the reality — is, of course, the Machine City, the sewers and tunnels, the post-apocalyptic world, which is, by nature, heavily CGI. Yet, we needed the digitally-created environments to feel as real as the reality we photographed to represent the simulation.

How many visual effects shots are in Resurrections?
About 2,350.

Who were the main VFX vendors?
DNeg was our main vendor. They were chiefly responsible for most of the work in the real world, our tunnels and sewers; the large CG environments of what we call the Anomalium, which is the big chamber where Neo and Trinity are imprisoned in their pods within the Matrix; and IO, the new city occupied by those with freed minds (the new Zion). They also created the CG Synthients (machine defectors who are aligned with humans) and the Exomorphs, which are particulate-like characters. We also had to young-ify our heroes for a flashback, which they did, along with a chase on the roofs, a bullet train scene, and a really cool scene in an old theater involving a mirror that kind of pays homage to the first movie. 

Framestore delivered the end sequence for Act Three, a chase through the city streets of San Francisco on a motorcycle. Also, there's a fight scene that preceded that in the Simulatte cafe. And then the final scene, where they go to The Analyst's house.

One of Us did the key time-split scene in Trinity's workshop and one of the red pill effects of the world disintegrating. They also did the shoot-up when Morpheus is introduced in the office bathroom (see “Quintessential VFX and More” on Rise Effects did the big fight in the factory with the Exiles, one of the shoot-outs in the office with the sprinklers going off, and all the scenes when we visit [the Exile program] Sati in her construct. Turncoat Pictures did a bunch of cleanup and tricky composite shots and greenscreens; we had an in-house crew that helped us on that as well.

It sounds like there was a wide range of work.
Yeah. We have everything from paint and rig removals to really complex split screens with Steadicam takes. There are CG effects, augmentation and simulations, and large-scale CG environments, including one we built and rendered in Unreal. We have hero CG characters, machine creatures, vehicles, and large effects for things like the Sentinels, as well as crowds.

We also used some volumetric capture with a company called Volucap for some red pill effects, where the geometry starts to fragment and break up, and you see it from different perspectives. At one point, one of the characters, or at least their presence in the Matrix, is doubled up as two people become connected at the same time and they occupy the same space. We shot them with a custom-designed volumetric capture rig to transpose one onto the other.

There’s certainly a ton of VFX in the film. What are the major effects sequences?
One of the first big challenges and one of the most significant ones takes place in Trinity's workshop, where The Analyst basically slows time, trapping Neo. It’s like Neo's time abilities are used against him. That scene marries lots of different frame rates at the same time together in the Steadicam passes. A real mix of techniques was used to put that together, including a lot of photography.

Then, obviously, the Machine World and the Anomaleum, the specially-built space where Neo and Trinity are held. For that vast space, we built a practical pod for each of them, or actually, the same pod, which is used twice. And then once they get outside that city, it's vast. A much, much bigger, upgraded — or rather, almost downgraded — Machine City. It was all worn and overcrowded, but that huge environment was put together to represent that picture.

There's a big scene back in the Anomaleum when several characters come to rescue Trinity, with lots of interactions between a complex CG character called a Kujaku, which is squid/manta ray/pigeon-like with tentacles, but the tentacles are cradling Trinity while the other characters look on. That was a really complex lighting integration scene.

There’s also a moment of sort-of frozen time, where we have maybe two dozen people being thrown into the air by Neo, and they’re all suspended, not actually frozen, and we are moving very, very slowly through the scene that follows.

And then one of the real end pieces is the San Francisco chase, with our heroes are on the motorcycle riding through the streets of San Francisco at night while being attacked by hundreds of passersby who are being controlled by the Matrix in an attempt to try to stop them. This massive chase culminates in people leaping out of buildings to dive on them, and ultimately helicopters coming in to try to shoot them. And finally, they jump off a 40-story rooftop, which we filmed for real with the real actors jumping off a 40-story building in San Francisco!

Read more of this exclusive Q&A in the Jan./Feb./March 2022 issue of CGW.