In this exclusive extract from The Illusion Almanac: Creating The Matrix Resurrections, DNEG environment supervisor Ben Cowell-Thomas and production visual effects supervisor Dan Glass discuss the creation of the city of IO, the secret cavern where the remnants of humanity have joined forces with their new machine allies to build a vast underground city.
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DNEG constructed IO as a fully digital 3D cave environment filled with farms, factories and residential blocks. In the cavern roof is the ‘bio-sky,’ an array of high-tech energy panels that provides the people of IO with light and oxygen. Working from concept art, the team scoured a range of architectural references in pursuit of a unique look for the IO environment.
“We had a sheet of Brutalist architecture,” said Ben Cowell-Thomas, “and another with chaotic ‘80s Hong Kong tower blocks and shanty towns. One thing that worked really well for our world was the temporary structures of the Burning Man festival — playful things rigged up with sheets and poles and with a bit of a hippy edge.” The machine world was represented by 3D-printed elements while power stations were based on renewable energy plants. “Lana was very explicit that they shouldn’t be belching out smoke. IO is about these people evolving and making green industry.”
Accompanying the concept art was a rough previs model establishing the overall cavern layout. Cowell-Thomas broke this down into individual areas, defining different zones for industry and agriculture and blocking out residential districts. Once this overall layout was approved, teams of artists set about constructing small architectural vignettes with which to populate the larger space. “There was a market place, for example,” said Cowell-Thomas, “with buildings around the outside and a walkway through with a tarpaulin over the top. Dan gave us a great steer, which was the idea that they would have salvaged a lot of things. They might have gone up to the surface and found a crashed airplane and brought it down. So we went for stacks of things on top of other things. We all enjoyed nerding out about the details and making up little stories about what was going on, just like traditional model makers.”
The DNEG team assembled the small vignettes into larger modules. Stacked one atop the other, these became the fundamental building blocks of IO. Abandoning the procedural tools that had proved so useful for the foetus fields, artists worked entirely by hand. “The procedural tools were great at building the machine world,” observed Cowell-Thomas, “but we never found a pleasing way to make the chaos of IO using them. When I talk about environments I always use the word ‘rhythm.’ I think the world we live in has a rhythm to it. Everything should have a flow — the way these crates are grouped in the marketplace, the way these chimneys are grouped on the roofs. Every time we did that by hand and eye, it felt more human.”
There was one part of IO that did benefit from a procedural approach to layout — the bio-sky with its thousands of glowing panels hanging in geometric formations. “We looked at different logical ways that the bio-sky could be set out,” said Cowell-Thomas. “We did maybe eight different arrangements and passed those to Dan, who showed them to Lana. They went for one that mimicked the way seeds are arranged in a sunflower head — a bit like a Fibonacci sequence.” By adapting the mathematical rules that govern such arrangements, artists were able to arrange the panels procedurally in Houdini. This not only produced results that were both technically correct and pleasing to the eye, but also accommodated ongoing changes to the cavern’s roof structure. “If we suddenly moved something or added a stalactite, we would regenerate the bio-sky and all the panels would just shuffle around the changes.”
The final shots of the IO environment include fleets of flying vehicles and citizens both human and machine, realised as digital crowd simulations. The effects department simulated plumes of smoke, layers of mist and clouds of water vapour. Camera moves emulated the look of aerial photography used in other sequences for the film. For the production visual effects supervisor no amount of detail could be enough. “It was always in my mind to make these digital environment look really rich and detailed,” said Dan Glass. “We were shooting the rest of the film with RED Monstro sensors, mostly at 6K but sometimes at 8K, so the CG had to stand up to that. Huw’s team excelled by building some really beautiful and detailed settings. Then the tough thing for them was me coming in and saying, ‘Now put a backlight in and add loads of fog!’”Extract from The Illusion Almanac: Creating The Matrix Resurrections – now available from Amazon
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