The Cinematography of “The Matrix”: Part 3 of 3

The Matrix: Slitscan

The Color Palette of “The Matrix”

I’ve been mostly looking at specific scenes from this film on a shot-by-shot basis, but there also are many visual storytelling choices made in this film that carry all the way through. Most notably, the color palette: most everyone seems to recall the sickly greens used inside the Matrix, contrasted with the stark blues for the “real world.” It’s worth noting that this color palette works on a multitude of levels. First, as a basic device to make sure the audience isn’t confused. In a movie where some scenes cut back and forth dozens of times between characters inside the Matrix and characters in the “real world,” there absolutely needs to be an understood signal to clearly place the audience. Secondly, the color palette works on an emotional level. By setting up Neo’s normal existence as a sickly green, we understand the freshness that the real world offers. However, the color palette is also about the comfort of ignorance in the Matrix versus the adversity of the real world. In a scene where Cypher covertly meets with Agent Smith in restaurant with a relatively comfortable feeling orange/green duotone color scheme, we completely understand why he wants to buy his way back into the Matrix. Furthermore, when we cut to the following scene in the harsh blues of the real world, we wonder if the rest of them wouldn’t also be better off living a blissful ignorance in the Matrix as well.

 

Even within the green/orange color palette, there are a lot of variations. The strongest is the contrast between the desaturated, monochromatic greens of the office, versus the later, more saturated scenes. This seems to mirror Neo’s story of mastering his life: the affinity of tones between the environment and his skin in the office scenes shows the way in which he is an ingrained and controlled part of that system. Likewise, the contrast between his skin tones and the environment later in the film show how he has broken free of that control and now has some power over his surroundings, as well as his life.

At the end of the film, as Neo enters his new life as The One, there is a departure from the previous blue vs. orange/green color scheme, and we see a relatively neutral color palette (it still has some green in it, but it’s understated, and the highlights are a lot warmer). This seems to be the final note in the story of Neo becoming the master of his own life: he has transcended the oppression of the Matrix and the stark realities of the outside world, and created a new life:

Another technique that I have been using to look at color palette and progression is called a “slitscan.” When actually watching a film, it can be difficult to notice shifting color palettes, especially if they are subtly woven into the fabric of the movie. One can get caught up in the story and not see the “forest from the trees,” so to speak. I made a script to take a Quicktime movie file and sample it once every two seconds, and print out those frames in order. It reads right to left, top to bottom, like a book (click for larger version, may take a second to load):

I didn’t invent this technique. I ripped it off a guy named Frederic Brodbeck, who has a site called Cinemetrics where he demos this technique as well as a few others. (Also, for the record, I’m not even sure if he invented it in the first place either). I did, however, write my own custom Nuke (plus Photoshop) script that generates the slit-scan (email me if you’d like the .nk file to play around with; intermediate Nuke skills recommended). It can also be used to generate some pretty interesting artwork (which Frederic sells on his site as well).

Looking at “The Matrix” slit-scan, I’m not sure whether or not it tells us anything about the movie that wasn’t already apparent from watching it in a normal, linear fashion (I would be very interested in hearing others thoughts on this. Also, side note: the slitscans for movies like “Black Hawk Down,” which I will be looking at in the future, are much more revealing.)

A final note about color: a lot has been written lately about the orange highlight/teal shadows color scheme (filmmaker Stu Maschwitz comments frequently about about this phenomenon as well). This look, from a purely aesthetic standpoint, uses complementary color scheme to contrast the warmth of human skin tones with teal (or, sometimes more blue or green) shadows. The end result is that the skin tones “pop” right off the screen, and the overall look of the “world” seems vivid and graphic. A photochemical finish (instead of todays digital intermediate) prevented “The Matrix” from having a full blown orange/teal color scheme similar to very recent films, but it seems to be an early prototype for one, and is arguably one of the seminal films that introduced this palette for worldwide consumption. (Which is ironic because “The Matrix” actually accomplishes much of it’s color palette via production design, whereas with todays digital tools, major color palette adjustments are often an afterthought). Since then, orange/teal had a roller-coaster ride of popularity, going from a powerful, interesting storytelling tool, to an abused “go to” default look for any action, horror, or thriller picture, and finally ending up so ingrained in our visual grammar that it is now frequently used as a visual que to signal to a viewer that a action/thriller/horror movie is being parodied.

 

Another “Macro” Visual Choice

Another “macro” storytelling decision used throughout the entire film is the selective use of lens length. In general, the Matrix is photographed with wider lenses, while the “real world” is photographed with longer lenses. This is about showing the characters in the Matrix within the context of their oppressive environment, versus the selective focus of the longer lenses in the “real world” showing the characters as existing in their own right and not as as being defined by the world around them. This is done with enough subtlety that it isn’t something that can be really pinned down a shot-by-shot comparison. It’s more of a cumulative average of lens length for the different worlds over the entire film that creates this feeling.

 

Final Notes

For additional reading about “The Matrix,” I suggest checking out  several articles online from the American Cinematographer April ’99 issue. The Matrix [Blu-ray] has some awesome commentaries. Also, a behind-the-scenes documentary (I found it on Amazon on-demand) called “The Matrix Revisited,” is a legitimate feature length look at the production. Finally, I did a breakdown of the story structure of “The Matrix” for my own internal use, which may be of interest.

I will be back soon with more scene deconstruction, this time from the “Terminator” movies. As always, if you enjoyed this article or have any thoughts, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons below).

The Cinematography of “The Matrix”: Part 2 of 3

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In this scene from the Matrix, Neo’s normal life is disrupted by an unexpected call from Morpheus, who informs him that the authorities are there to arrest him. Morpheus helps Neo escape the office, and directs him to a ledge where he can climb some scaffolding to safety. However, Neo gives up, and is then arrested.

You can watch the scene below: (password is ‘cinevenger’):

 

Boxed In from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

The progression of beats in this scene is depicted primarily through linear motif. Neo is shown as being boxed into his environment, and then led through the “rat maze” to a potential exit, but remains trapped and gives up. The scene opens with a dolly shot from behind a wall that takes us into Neo’s cubicle (‘A‘). Starting behind a wall and peeling it back to reveal the cubicle shows how Neo is encased in his environment. Once the camera settles, the “bite” of wall on the right creates a sub-frame (a rectangle) within the full frame. Within that frame, all of the production design is exclusively cubes. So, it’s essentially cubes within cubes within the biggest cube (the frame). (Also, side note: it may be easy to dismiss the rectangular container of the frame as always existing, but as filmmakers, we regularly take steps to make it vanish, the most famous instance probably being the Star Destroyer passing overhead in “Star Wars”). All of this cube business is about showing us how Neo’s “normal” existence is constricting and limiting, i.e. “boxed in.” This is directly related to his emotional journey of the entire film, which is his need to become the master of his own life (i.e. “break out of the box,” which is first depicted as the office, then the Matrix itself, and finally, his own mind: at the end of the film, Neo’s transcendence of the physical limitations that his mind places on the Matrix becomes the ultimate box-breakout).

The first disruption to this linear motif happens when the phone rings, and we cut to a low angle rack focus shot from Neo’s face to the phone (‘C‘). The vertical and horizontal lines of the cube motif have been rotated (and thereby replaced) with aggressive diagonals in Neo’s background, which signal the phone as a disruptive force to his “normal” existence. The extreme low angle reinforces the same idea; the previous shots, all angles of relatively “normal” height, are disrupted by this new extreme low angle. Finally, this is also reinforced by the rack focus; the world was previously portrayed as being completely flat: ‘A‘ and ‘B‘ are devoid of depth cues. The rack focus, a visual depth cue, shows us how the phone could lead to a new depth that disrupts the normalcy of Neo’s life.

A jarringly fast dolly shot from the previously seen medium composition (‘B‘) to a new composition (‘D‘) introduces an element of danger into Neo’s “normal” existance. The speed of the dolly move gives us a sense of the immediacy that Morpheus’ call has brought into this normally mundane environment. Moreover, the camera comes to rest in a new composition that includes a large area of darkness on the left of frame. This cavernous black area (in contrast to the previously low contrast image) shows the surreptitious and dangerous nature of Morpheus’ call.

At this point in the scene, from a geography perspective, we have only seen the inside of Neo’s cubicle. The next composition (‘E‘) introduces the idea of the office as a rat maze, which is critical to the rest of the scene. Specifically, the way in which the environment cuts off the bodes of the agents, and only allows us to see their heads through several more layers of environment and background characters, gives us a sense of the physical obstacles separating the two. This may seem obvious and intuitive, but it’s a very specific and effective choice made by the filmmakers. If the agents had been shown full body, without any obstacles between them and the camera, we would have gotten the sense that the agents could just run over and easily grab Neo. This would have undermined the tension of the next several shots, where Morpheus guides Neo to temporary safety as the agents wind through the maze.

A low angle dolly shot of the agents approach (‘F‘) again turns the previous horizontals and verticals of the office into aggressive diagonals, giving us a new sense of danger in the previously mundane environment. In this low angle, looking up at the domineering agents, they seem to forcibly push the camera backwards, which gives us a sense of their power, danger, and momentum. This is in total contrast to a new high angle on Neo (‘G‘), which pins him into the office space, portraying him as trapped. Note that this angle too has abandoned the previous horizontals in favor of more aggressive diagonals. These two angles are working in unison–the danger and momentum of the shot of approaching agents, contrasted with the hopelessly stationary high angle of Neo pinned in the office. This not only works to illustrate the peril Neo is in, but also to make us “buy” that he feels absolutely compelled to go along with Morpheus’ instructions, despite that what Morpehus is telling him to do is “insane,” by his own admission later in the scene.

In a medium close-up of Neo (‘H‘) we see a much contrastier image than we have seen so far in this scene, which again serves to signal danger, and the tonal shift from mundane office environment to a place of danger. This angle pans over to reveal a medium shot of two agents that leave opposite sides of the frame (‘J‘). This is significant in that it builds tension in a very elementary way: when Neo gets up to continue his attempt at escape, he will inevitably have to exit screen right or left, and because we have now seen these agents leave opposite sides of the frame, we understand that no matter which way Neo goes, there will be danger. Also, the way in which the agents are shown compositionally as mirror images of each other (spaced evenly in the frame, and exiting frame simultaneously) gives a sense of their robotic, artificial nature (even though this idea hasn’t been directly or literally told to the audience yet).

When Neo makes it to the office, the prior beat of “escape through a dangerous rat maze” evaporates. The diagonal lines and kinetic camera moves are replaced with the previous cube motif, and the the previous feeling of being trapped returns. When Neo enters the office, we see a medium shot of him (‘K‘) which pans from the door, to the window, back to the door, and then follows him as he walks to the window. As part of this long panning shot, we again see Neo boxed in by cubic shapes, specifically in ‘L‘, which shows him inside a box drawn by the lines of the architecture, with even more cubes in his background.  Also, holding with him in this shot and allowing us to experience his assessment of the entire room without cutting away heightens the sense of being trapped. This is an idea that has been explored before, notably in the film “Irreversable” in which the viewer witnesses an atrocious assault for over eight minutes of uninterrupted shot. The idea is that cutting away is a form of escape, so forcing us watch a character struggle to break away from their environment without cutting can heighten the sense of being confined or restrained. We get a little bit of that in ‘K‘ and ‘L‘, but also in a subsequent shot ‘M‘, which booms up from a closeup of Neo to the street below (‘N‘). We also get a similar feeling from another closeup of Neo (‘P‘) that booms up to an overhead wide of the street (‘Q‘). By moving the camera from Neo to the street instead of cutting, we get a stronger sense of his imprisonment, and his inability to “cut away” from his cage. Also significant about this angle is the return of the aggressive diagonal linear motif in signaling elements of danger.

The linear motif of this scene, horizontals vs. diagonals and placing Neo within cubes, is actually introduced in the previous scene, and continues in the suqsequnet scene, so I would suggest viewing those as well if you haven’t seen this movie in a while.

In final entry about “The Matrix” I will be looking at the color palette which spans the entire film.

As always, if you enjoyed this article, please leave a comment and/or Tweet / FB / Digg it! (There are buttons at the bottom).

 

Matrix angle 'A'

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Matrix angle 'B'

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Matrix angle 'C'

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Matrix angle 'D'

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Matrix angle 'E'

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Matrix angle 'F'

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Matrix angle 'G'

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Matrix angle 'H'

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Matrix angle 'J'

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Matrix angle 'K'

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Matrix angle 'L'

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Matrix angle 'M'

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Matrix angle 'N'

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The Cinematography of “The Matrix” – Part 1 of 3

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The Matrix,” (1999, photographed by Bill Pope, ASC) is probably best known for its amazing action sequences, groundbreaking photographic technique (specifically, “bullet-time“), as well as visual effects cinematography. However, some of the overlooked gems in this film are simple, well-shot, two character scenes.

One of the most effective is a scene ten minutes into the film. Neo, who has been lead to a club by a cryptic message from a hacker accessing his computer, tries to play it cool and act as if he isn’t completely clueless as to what’s going on. Trinity cuts right through his front, turns the tables, invades his personal space, and in answering some of his questions, raises even more. She then leaves him with another cryptic message about the Matrix: “it’s looking for you, and it will find you.” You can watch the scene below:

PASSWORD is ‘cinevenger’:


Space Invasion from Cinevenger on Vimeo.

 

There are a number of dramatic beats, and the photography is right there for every one of them; a perfect visual depiction of exactly what’s going on in the scene. Below is my shot-by-shot analysis. A still of each one of the shots I reference is also at the bottom:

The first shot, a lateral dolly move from behind pillars that intermittently reveals the club (‘A‘) is significant in that it sets the tone for the entire scene. Dollying behind the silhouetted pillars creates a pattern of images of visual excitement (exotic dancing and flashing lights), broken up by intermittent total darkness across the whole image. This is a visual metaphor for Neo’s emotional state: limited (yet exciting) information about the Matrix interspersed by aspects that he is in the dark about.  Our eye clings to the last frame of the exotic dancers as they disappear behind the pillar just as Neo is clinging to any exciting shred of information about the Matrix that he can, before it is shrouded by more cryptic messages.

We arrive with Neo in a dolly move that pushes past a foreground image of a hand caressing a leather-clad backside (‘B‘). By pushing the camera past this element and isolating Neo in the frame, we understand visually that he has separated himself from the carnival revelry of the club, and is there in seriousness about finding out more about the Matrix.  Another aspect to this shot is the background of the club seen through the archway, which is encased in its own compositional sub-frame by the architecture. Neo stands off to the side of this sub-frame, further isolating him compositionally from the revelry. In this shot we have both the foreground and background working (without words) to tell is exactly how Neo feels about being in the club, and why he is there.

When Trinity approaches, we see Neo in a medium close-up (‘C‘) followed by a medium (‘D‘), that are dismissive profile shots (which feel completely natural because of the blocking decision to have him partially keep his back to her). This is in contrast to Trinity’s medium close-up (‘E‘), which is on-axis with her eyeline. These shots are about the dramatic beat of Neo trying to “play it cool.” He doesn’t want to appear overly eager for information about the Matrix even though he has actually come here in desperation for any detail that will bring him closer to understanding what it is. This is in total contrast to Trinity’s on-axis medium close-up (‘E‘), which reveals her entire face, and gives the sense of confidence and being straightforward. This is further reinforced by the lighting on their faces: a three-quarter backlight leaves much of Neo’s face in silhouette, while a front-light wraps almost completely around Trinity’s face, again contrasting Neo’s keeping-it-cool dismissiveness with Trinity’s sincerity. Another aspect to this is the height of the camera. On Neo’s side, the medium shot (‘D‘) is angled substantially below his eyeline, in contrast to being level on Trinity on her side. This again reinforces the same idea: by being below Neo’s eyeline, he towers over and takes on a more dominant feeling; a counterfeit confidence that will be reversed by the end of the scene. A final interesting aspect to this is the pulsing light (motivated by the club environment) that flickers intermittently over Trinity’s face, alternately casting her face in darkness and brightness.  This arouses the same visual feeling as the opening shot of the scene: Neo grasping for information (in this case, from her) that is intermittently shrouded by crypticism and mystery.

Trinity calls Neo’s dismissive bluff by telling him that he is in danger, and steps into a close-up (‘F‘). In the visual struggle between Neo’s dismissive profile and her on-axis boldness, she has upped the ante by challenging his emotional bluff with her confrontational and engaging close-up.

Neo engages, momentarily, and we see him in an on-axis close-up as well (‘G‘).  However, when he then continues to resist, Trinity takes it one step further, and invades Neo’s space, both literally and compositionally. By doing this, Trinity has turned the tables of Neo’s earlier posturing and dismissiveness, and has essentially taken power in the scene and caught Neo off guard. The previously “clean” singles on both sides, giving a sense of emotional non-engagement, are now totally engaged. We see Trinity in a medium close-up (‘H‘), with overlapping faces, that seems to compositionally pin Neo against the wall, showing how she has called his bluff, and now has him in her clutches. These new compositions also cross the 180 degree line from the earlier set of shots (before Neo was left-to-right compositionally, and he is how right-to-left, vice-versa for Trinity).  This forced axis-switching by Trinity further reinforces the change of power in the scene.

In this new axis-switched medium close-up (‘H‘), we see less of Trinity’s face (both in terms of being in profile, as well as darkness) than Neo (‘J‘), who is now more on-axis with the camera and is lit brighter. In a nice touch, we get a sense of Neo’s disorientation by a series of randomly swarming blue out of focus lights in the background of his medium close up (again, ‘J‘). The randomness of this circular pattern of light is reminiscent of the floating stars that would be shown over a knocked-out cartoon characters head, and gives Neo a similar sense of disorientation.

This is a simple, short, dramatic two character scene in the midst of huge action movie that was photographed very carefully and very effectively. In part 2 of 3 , I will be looking at the interesting use of geometry in the scene immediately following this one.

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Matrix angle 'A'

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Matrix angle 'B'

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Matrix angle 'C'

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Matrix angle 'D'

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Matrix angle 'E'

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Matrix angle 'F'

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Matrix angle 'G'

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Matrix angle 'H'

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Matrix angle 'J'

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© 2012 Benjamin Kantor. All rights reserved.