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August 2014
Issue: November 1, 2003

JOHN GAETA'S LATEST 'REVOLUTION'

By: By Daniel Restuccio

ALAMEDA, CA - John Gaeta, visual effects supervisor for The Matrix: Revolutions is a happy man. Eon, The Matrix's Alameda-based production company, just delivered the last negative of the over 800 visual effects created for the latest installment of this popular film trilogy. So after creating some of the most epic, mind-bending shots ever, Gaeta can get back to domestic chores, like picking up the kids, corralling his dog and taking a short vacation.

"It's nice to be getting back to something of a real life," he says from his home.


Revolutions' "super punch" sequence shows how close a camera can get to a virtual character.
Normal life however does nothing to dilute his enthusiasm for his Matrix experience. Over the past six years, Gaeta and his team have enlisted the talents of nearly a thousand artists in support of the vision of The Matrix authors Larry and Andy Wachowski, who own Eon.

These brothers invented a sci-fi fable about a reluctant hero called Neo who is called to free the world from enslavement by intelligent machines who have trapped mankind in a mental prison called The Matrix.

The movie, created from that premise, is a compelling amalgam of comic book aesthetics, martial arts action flicks and post modern metaphysics. The Matrix and the sequel The Matrix Reloaded became a seminal piece of pop culture that also redefined the standards for visual effects moviemaking.

So I ask Gaeta the big question: How in The Matrix Revolutions did he and his team top the work they did The Matrix Reloaded?

Gaeta laughs and then explains that Reloaded and Revolutions are really one film that got split in two parts. There is no delay in time between the two films, he says. The final scene of Reloaded could be seamlessly merged into Revolutions. So, if you think of Reloaded and Revolutions as one movie there are over two thousand effects shots in the combined film.


VFX supervisor John Gaeta enlisted the talents of nearly a thousand animators to pull off The Matrix films.
"Both films were done in parallel," Gaeta says, "they weren't stacked one after the other." And even though there are fewer effects in Revolutions they are bigger effects in terms of layers and complexity than Reloaded.

In a nutshell the technology that was pioneered in Reloaded is used in more depth for Revolutions. Places that are referred to or seen briefly in The Matrix and The Matrix Reloaded are finally seen in their full glory. The climatic battle between the sentinels and human-operated APUs (Armored Personnel Units) in The Matrix Revolutions contains some of the biggest, most complex shots Gaeta has ever worked on.

PIONEERING TECHNOLOGY

For The Matrix Reloaded, Gaeta and his team invented the Universal Capture system, a technique that captures three-dimensional, live-action performances and translates them into a virtual CG world. "That accomplishment was a personal holy grail for me and my collaborators," says Gaeta proudly.

That pioneering technology allowed the live-action sequences in the massive burly-man brawl to blend invisibly with fully computer rendered shots with virtual performers. "There are things that we could do, like really fine articulate speech in close-up, that we were never called upon to do in The Matrix Reloaded."

"In Revolutions we created the closest shot we have ever done with a virtual human," says Gaeta. The scene occurs in the climatic fight between Neo and Agent Smith. The shot, he says, got dubbed the "super punch" because Larry and Andy Wachowski were inspired by a unique right cross called the Susie Q used by boxing champion Rocky Marciano.


Tippett Studios handled Revolutions' machine city, using Maya 5, RenderMan and Shake, along with their own tools.
"We wanted to do this shot in super slow motion," continues Gaeta, "following the fist all the way up to the face and watching the whole dynamic reaction to that. We used references of people's faces being pulverized to build it. And then we were biting our nails off wondering if we would ever be able to get the camera that close. But we did and the results are mind blowing."

THE CITY

Revolutions continues the plotlines of Reloaded along two parallel stories: one group (Neo and Trinity) travels to the machine city where the humans are housed as human batteries. Another team (Morpheus and Niobe) defends Zion against the sentinels.

"One aspect of the machines was seen briefly in The Matrix," describes Gaeta, "when we saw how babies were grown and harvested for power." In Revolutions we get to see the machine's home base - the source of the war against the remaining free humans.

Working closely with the Wachowski brothers, concept artist Jeff Darrow designed the look of the city, and with the production art team created a bible of over a thousand drawings. "Jeff Darrow's art is incredibly dense and detailed," Gaeta says. "It's as complex and visually stimulating as H.R. Giger's. [Giger did the concept art for Alien.] His drawings have these elaborate machinery parts and biomechanical things."

He reports that the Wachowski brothers' script called for a city that looked like living coral. "The structures in the machine city are huge, and yet the motions are really subtle. It's like living architecture."

The production used the concept that the fractal, an algorithm that describes a geometric shape with symmetry of scale, is the origin of life - the first single-celled organism - for the machines. "In a given scene in the machine world, you may see something like hundreds of thousands of pieces of architecture that look like giant mechanical beasts," describes Gaeta. "They have moving parts, which are themselves many segmented moving parts that are also comprised of more segmented moving parts."

GROUP EFFORT

As with Reloaded, Gaeta supervised a consortium of companies to produce the visual effects shots for Revolutions. They include Sony Imageworks, Giant Killer Robots, Pixel Liberation Front, BUF, ESC and newcomer to the team Tippett Studios.

"Tippett did full CGI scenes: whole environments, creatures, the machine city. Craig Hayes was the supervisor," says Gaeta. "We were very much on the same wavelength creatively. They were very proactive, suggesting nuances and extensions of ideas that were submitted to them."

Tippett Studios houses a fleet of SGI Origins, Macs and PC workstations running Linux and Windows. Tippett uses Alias Maya 5, Pixar RenderMan, Apple Shake and lots of custom software to process their images.

For Revolutions, Tippett took delivery of an SGI CXFS InfiniteStorage system. "We're working on a couple of specific sequences for The Matrix: Revolutions that are entirely computer graphics generated with a very high level of detail," says Dan McNamara, head of operations at Tippett Studio (www.tippett.com). "That's pretty hard on a production pipeline, but SGI CXFS easily performs the heavy lifting and improves production speeds admirably." Because it uses a SAN infrastructure, CXFS can deliver much greater I/O performance and bandwidth than any network data-sharing mechanism, such as NFS or CIFS.

PREVIS

Previsualization was crucial to the preproduction on Reloaded and Revolutions and directed the production at a highly detailed level. Pixel Liberation Front (PLF) provided pre-production and on-set previsualization for both Reloaded and Revolutions.

"PLF was the logistical center of the visualization unit with Colin Green supervising." recalls Gaeta. "We previsualized the entire battle sequence and the entire machine world sequence while we were still shooting the freeway chase sequence and continued visualizing shots all throughout the Sydney shoot."

Pixel Liberation Front (www.thefront.com) staged entire scenes complete with virtual cameras and specific lenses, then animated low-res digital models in a given sequence using Steve Scroce's storyboards as reference. Pixel Liberation Front uses PCs (HP and home-grown boxes) running Softimage|XSI and Maya to build their previsualizations. After Effects and Final Cut Pro running on the Mac was used for compositing and editing. They also exported screen shots from the previsualization into Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop to create print schematics.

"We had cut the battle scene as a previs animatic somewhere in the early stages in the Sydney shoot," Gaeta recalls. "So we could see how much to expand ESC [www.escfx.com], Eon's in-house visual effects company, as a facility and calculate costs and shooting procedure." [Editor's Note: At press time, ESC wasn't available to comment on its work.]

Gaeta continues, "We used the previs to creatively describe the scene to everybody and then deconstructed it [and] used it to create technical schematics. Where are the greenscreens going to be? Where are the extensions going to occur? All of that stuff."

PLF also passed the 3D files from the visualization to ESC Entertainment, which began scene set up in California. They would replace the visualization set components with the real APU and sentinel models, maintaining the camera moves and the cuts of the shots. That way they could ensure that the animated CG elements would match when composited with the greenscreen shots.

The sentinel/APU siege alone contained 300 shots, more than a third of the total in Revolutions. "It was really massive," says Gaeta. "It's the most extensive use of visualization ever in a movie in terms of [guiding] the visual effects. The grips would come in and calculate if they could fit things within a certain stage space or the art department would see how sets had to move around in limited spaces."

The APU shots were a blend of animated CG models combined with full-size robotic props operated by humans. With PLF, Gaeta devised a method of exporting the data from the moves in the animation to a motion control seat that the human operator sat in. This synchronized the motion of the live-action plate to the computer generated APU.

"In the siege sequence there is a massive amount of procedural animation and intelligent animation where there are rules on how creatures behave and interact," describes Gaeta. "When an APU shoots a round of ammunition, they would attach a semi-automatic procedure that created a tracer that goes to a location and causes an effects event, like blowing a hole in a piece of concrete. That also triggers other events.

"We were essentially running simulations," Gaeta acknowledges. "It's very much like a videogame but at a higher resolution and complexity of motion." By doing that they were able to get a lot of peripheral, mid-ground and background events, which made a richer looking scene. "At one point" he says, "we realized we were making an animated movie."

FULL CG ENVIRONMENTS

For Revolutions, Giant Killer Robots (www.giantkillerrobots.com) did full CG environments for Zion, says Gaeta, supervised by Mike Schmitt. The San Francisco-based visual effects boutique is a PC-based shop (Dell, HP and custom boxes) and Windows networked. They use off-the-shelf software like Maya, Softimage|XSI and write their own plug-ins and shaders. GKR also uses Eyeon's Digital Fusion 4 and Apple Shake for compositing, and Mental Ray for rendering. They maintain an open architecture infrastructure for maximum production and post production compatibility.

Sony Imageworks worked on a number of shots supervised by Jim Berney, including the tunnel interiors in Revolutions as well as the hoverships Nebuchadnezzar, Mjolnir, Logos and Vigilant.