UK-based Studio C on the graphic content they created for the fourth film in the iconic sci-fi series.
By Helena Swahn.
All Stills Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Balancing homage with the fact that 60 years have passed in the world of The Matrix, motion design company Studio C served as the lead graphic vendor on “The Matrix: Resurrections.”
Using Cinema 4D, Redshift, After Effects, X-Particles, Red Giant tools and more the team reimagined the series graphic content, delivering more than 100 animated assets for onset playback. They also created a holographic package in post.
We talked with Studio C’s Graphic Supervisor Sam Jones and Creative Director Gordon Spurs about their work on the film, the biggest film they’ve work on to date in terms of number of deliverables.
The main operator’s deck of the Mnemosyne in The Matrix: Resurrections. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Tell us about Studio C.
Jones: We founded the studio in 2018 as a creative offering of Compuhire, the U.K.’s leading playback company. We’re based in Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden, U.K., and we’ve worked on many different blockbusters and independent productions, including “Venom 2,” “The Suicide Squad,” “Godzilla vs. Kong,” “Fast & Furious 9,” “Wanda Vision,” “The Midnight Sky” and more.
Working on “The Matrix Resurrections” was a motion designer’s dream because it was full of opportunities as challenges. Our team spent 14 months across two years to craft the visual languages for the worlds inside and outside the Matrix.
What kind of direction did you get?
Jones: Director Lana Wachowski asked us to reimagine the visual language of the Matrix world 60 years into the future. There were two restrictions: we had to stay in the style of the Matrix universe, and the only asset that was off limits was the iconic green waterfall code from the original film. We were more than happy to work with that.
Within that very loose, overarching brief, there were two main worlds inside and outside the Matrix. Each set within those worlds had its own requirements for what the graphics needed to be to support the world, story beats and performances.
Keanu Reeves as Neo/Thomas Anderson. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.
Beyond that, we were free to follow our instincts and bring our own creative ideas for how graphics could best serve the story for Production Designers Peter Walpole and Hugh Bateup. The brief didn’t really change much from the original, but some specific graphic assets evolved as the story itself developed.
Can you say a bit about how you developed the concepts?
Jones: We always started in pre-production with the script and discussions with the production designers and art department to understand the vision for the film and identify where and how screens could support the world, story and performance.
Spurs: We researched real game companies, game engines and operating systems to create the brand and assets for graphics inside the Matrix, like Deus Machina, the state-of-the-art games development company in San Francisco that employs Thomas Anderson (Keanu Reeves).
We also created a series of screens for Thomas Anderson’s modal experiment, which included Matrix code and brings elements from the first film into this story. This interactive screen set up was part of the opening sequence and it was pivotal for framing the story.
All of the screens were programmed in Unity to support Keanu Reeve’s performance. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
For outside the Matrix, the main sets were the Mnemosyne hovercraft and the human-Synthient settlement. Those are where our screens had to reflect how technology had evolved over the 60 years since “The Matrix Revolutions,” so it was important to maintain a balance between authentic elements from previous films and a more advanced, futuristic look.
For the new Mnemosyne hovercraft and Io settlement, Studio C devised a more sophisticated UI reflecting advanced technology and UI. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
What were the challenges of working with such iconic UI?
Jones: It was a lot of pressure at times, but it really pushed us in many good if challenging ways. And, as fans of the Matrix, we felt it was important to maintain some cohesion with previous films as we know that fans appreciate that continuity and will look for it. So it was a fine line to balance retro elements with a new, more advanced look.
Spurs: Walking on the set of the Mnemosyne and seeing the operator’s deck was amazing and you felt the need to live up to it. To build on the imagery established by concept designer/storyboard artists Geof Darrow and Steve Skroce was an amazing responsibility.
The Mnemosyne’s graphics were informed by researching screens of its predecessor the Nebuchadnezzar. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Elements central to the era of the first film, like texture backgrounds in an OS, bulky gradients and classic sci-fi fonts synonymous with the Matrix were a treat to play around with. But they also presented a challenge when updating the visuals for a new audience and not having them feel dated.
What inspired your creative concepts for the UI across the Mnemosyne?
Jones: For the Mnemosyne we needed to show this was an evolution of the hovercraft technology, rather than a redesign. To reflect that leap we looked at how our own technology has evolved, how our own GUIs have become more refined, and we applied that to the Matrix world.
We also needed to understand the purpose of all the ship’s screens, so we looked at all of the screen designs from the Nebuchadnezzar and picked out elements that suggested some functional consistency.
Spurs: Looking for inspiration for technological advancement, we leaned on the narrative premise that humans and Synthient machines have been living in harmony and collaborating since the end of Revolutions. That allowed technology to advance beyond what it was capable of previously. We reflected that new level of sophistication in the designs, bringing more structure, refinement, depth and a sense of optical light to the screens.
Studio C designed a character set for the new Synthient machine’s language, which was incorporated into the UI and the hardware keyboards used by the Operator. Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Walk us through the tools and workflow used to craft the various elements?
Spurs: Usually, we designed the graphic elements first in Adobe Illustrator and comped them in After Effects/Photoshop with a 3D renderer, so you could see the major component parts and how they sat together. Cinema 4D and Redshift did most of the heavy lifting for elements like ship schematics or 3D scans. We also used Trapcode Form and Particular, which we use on almost every job.
Schematic renders, medical scans, 3D maps and more were made using Cinema 4D and Redshift. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
In cases where we need to be supplied with assets, we were given CAD elements by the art department. We would tweak and convert them using using Rhino and Sketchup. On this project, we were also supplied some alembics from VFX for our look dev of the hologram in the Mnemosyne cockpit, which we then took into Cinema 4D and Redshift.
Our Unity programmer, who builds screens that need interactivity, was essential on this job. There were several moments where we were on the edge of what was possible technically for playback. For example, we supported Keanu Reeves with a Unity app that we programmed for the opening modal sequence to help tell a complex story in a very short amount of time.
For each character’s medical screens when they were jacked into the Matrix, we had an interactive Unity App installed on the tablets so the cast could cycle through 3D Organs and vitals. That also featured a live feed of the characters sitting in the dentist-like chairs that was streamed to ensure performance could be captured in camera without a need for post.
Interactively, the complexity of the live medical screens was on the edge of what was possible technically for playback. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
How did Redshift support your vision for the Mnemosyne?
Spurs: One of the challenging aspects of working on holograms in a VFX pipeline is the size of the assets used by the vendors. Most need heavy optimization. Redshift was extremely helpful in this respect as the GPU rendering handles the poly count of most of the models really efficiently.
We did a lot of experimenting in Redshift with the Fresnel and noise nodes plugged into glassy shaders to reveal the internal geo of the crazy detailed ship, which was modelled entirely for the physical production of the sets in CAD software. The options Redshift provides with the depth of the AOV architecture allowed for a lot of creativity in compositing.
“Essentially the hologram is a spherical volume generated in Cinema 4D and Redshift, wrapped in an onion skin of 2D graphics,” explains Spurs. Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
Redshift’s custom AOV export options are great for building schematic R&D passes directly and quickly, so that looks can be creatively combined in compositing without being baked into the heavier beauty render. This is the true power of working with Redshift in film.
What were the highlights of this project for you?
Spurs: The standout for me was getting the opportunity to redesign the graphics for the iconic operator’s station. I’m also proud of how well we supported both onset and post-production. On a project this big, the expectation is often that a percentage of screens will be swapped out in post because of changes along the way. But our early conversations with VFX Supervisor Dan Glass were about giving him as little to do in post as possible and we worked hard to do that.
Jones: Seeing so many of our onset screens in the film has been really rewarding. At times, the pressure was incredible. For example, Lana didn’t see any of the Mnemosyne screens until she walked on set on the first day of the shoot and immediately loved them. That was a big moment of relief, and the cherry on the cake was seeing that Modal opening sequence dissolve into a set-piece that breaks out of the Matrix through one of our graphics.
Studio C Credits:
Motion Graphic Supervisor: Sam Jones
Creative Director: Gordon Spurs
3D artist: Peter Eszenyi
Motion Designers: Jay Dingle, Dan Harries, Matt Tsang & Richard Oldfield
Unity Programmer: Harrison Kons
Helena Swahn is a writer in the United Kingdom.