Zach Stenberg Talks About "THE MATRIX"

For Class #7

 Instructor: Norman Hollyn T.A.: Beth Moody
 Office: 310-821-2792 Phone: 323-472-1164

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Zach Staenberg and "The Matrix"

By Elif Cercel
for EditorsNet
Thursday April 1, 1999, 12:10 AM PST

Zach Staenberg, A.C.E., just completed editing the Warner Bros. film, "The Matrix." Directed by Andy and Larry Wachowski ("Bound"), "The Matrix" takes place in a universe run by computers using human beings as batteries for bio-electrical energy. This power fuels the artificial intelligence known as The Matrix, which has created a virtual reality to make its inhabitants think they are living happy, creative and productive lives. There are, however, a few human beings -- including Morpheus (Laurence Fishburne) and Trinity (Carrie-Ann Moss) -- who have broken free from the Matrix and are searching to destroy it, recruiting Neo (Keanu Reeves) along the way.

Staenberg, a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, began his career as a production assistant on Brian DePalma's "The Fury." On his next feature, "The Omen II," he became an apprentice editor and, from that experience, decided to concentrate on editing. Among his film credits are "Police Academy," "Nowhere to Run" and, of course, "Bound." Most recently he edited "Phoenix," with Ray Liotta, for director Danny Cannon ("Judge Dredd.")

Staenberg's next project is "The Crossing," directed by Robert Harmon, with whom Staenberg has collaborated frequently, most recently on HBO's "Gotti," for which he received an A.C.E. Eddy award and an Emmy nomination.


How would you put this film, given its level of sophistication and amount of visual effects, in context with your other work?

Editing this movie was really no different from editing "Bound," my first movie with the Wachowski Brothers. This particular movie was just a little more complex, but it was the same edit. I know that may sound funny, but it's actually the truth. Most editors resent being typecast, but just because you haven't done a film this complex doesn't mean you can't do it. I try to put one foot in front of the other, keep working to make each film better and better.

In some ways, when you have the luxury of a big budget like this one and other things associated with that, some things are actually easier. For example, you might have more coverage. I think, up to a certain point, it's often easier to edit a scene if there is more coverage, instead of trying to figure out how to squeeze a limited amount of coverage to do certain things. Generally speaking, I find that the more film you've got the better off you are.

There comes a point on some of these movies where you have millions of feet of film and it can be too much. This film printed about 500,000 feet of film, which isn't an enormous amount. It's probably a little above average, but I didn't think it was huge.

If you were to break it down, how much of that was live-action material and how much was visual effects?

There are some very simple visual effects, things like wire removals, sky fixes, etc., and at the other end of the spectrum are shots which are pure CG. There are about 100 to 150 composite shots in the movie which are anywhere from very simple composites like a two element greenscreen to very elaborate composites with five, six or eight elements in them, including possibly some animation, like the spoon-bending scene. I worked with a visual effects editor, Kate Crossley, on this movie, but the directors and I picked all the shots that went into the composites. Kate did a terrific job managing the visual effects because it was a huge job.

If I had to break it down I would say that probably about 400,000 feet of it was stuff I had to really actively deal with. But even then a lot of the remaining 100,000 feet were greenscreens in which the actor is acting, and they have to be selected. There are sequences where I would edit them together as greenscreens because they still have to match. When Neo is jumping off a building you have to know that the shot, the A side and the B side, are going to work together.

How challenging was the process of combining the live action and the visual effects?

It was very challenging. It was a new way of working for me. As I was editing a scene I would quickly realize that I was going to re-edit it as I got more advanced in the shot -- as the shot started taking more form. I was doing that right up to last week.

Basically, you get a shot in, maybe something you had certain expectations for, like the environment the action was taking place in. In some cases, the environment would be so stunning that I would want to give the shot 16 frames more at the head because I didn't want to give it up, it was so beautiful, I had never seen it before.

For example, in one of the shots, the hero ship, the Nebuchadnezzar, comes through this tunnel and Morpheus, played by Laurence Fishburne, says to "set it down on the other side." You see the ship passing through a large pit and going across it to the other side. When the final CG version came in, about two weeks before we were totally wrapped, I ended up adding about 24 frames at the head of the shot, which is a significant amount, because it looked so great. Up to that point we had been dealing with animatics. The action was exactly the same but we didn't have any atmosphere, light, no feeling for the actual environment and what the pit and tunnels would look like. I just cut it as an action beat using the animatic as my guide. Visual effects shots are a constantly evolving process, and you have to be flexible.

Some of the most interesting scenes were in the martial arts or fighting sequences which are interspersed throughout the film. What techniques were used to create the different looks and pace of these scenes and how did you approach the editing?

Scenes like that are very carefully choreographed. In order to get that level of performance, you really have to plan it out very carefully. The main challenge in that is there are multiple cameras and a lot of overlapping action in the heads and tails of shots. There were never long takes like you would find in a dialogue scene, where you shoot a minute of film. All the takes on that stuff are from 10 to 25 seconds long. They are short bits of film. Pace in those sequences comes from the editing.

In the dojo training sequence and the subway fight, outside of wire removal, there is one example of a visual effects shot we call "recursive action." You see the same image many times, like a fist coming at you, shadowing itself. Those were fairly complex shots that came in late. One of the dojos did not come out exactly as we had planned, though -- in the eleventh hour we cut it shorter and it still works just great.

One of those scenes, the training scene where Neo is being programmed to fight, has a very interesting speed effect. Did you use any special techniques editing that scene? How did you use slow-motion?

It is really hard to quantify that question. There are no special techniques like "we used technique 96 there or method 405." It's basically just a matter of feeling it. You know when you have done it right. You have to be aware of the rhythms of the entire scene and where the scene will sustain a 300-frames-per-second shot. You can't always do that. 300 frames is really slow and we have a number of 300-frame shots in there. It is really almost a dance the way that particular one was shot. It is much more like a Fred Astaire dance number than like a typical Western fight scene, so you have to cut it as such.

How did you go about editing the helicopter crash sequence, and how did you collaborate with John Gaeta and the visual effects team?

That's a very interesting scene, because I kept revising constantly as I got deeper into the visual effects. One of the most spectacular parts is where the helicopter actually crashes into the building. The crash itself was shot with very large miniatures. They weren't really miniatures at all, they were between 2/3" and 3/4" scale. In other words, they built a helicopter at 2/3" scale and created a massive explosion. The cameras had to be in bunkers. They cleared the area for about a quarter of a mile all around, literally.

Those shots basically became the backplates, the bottom or anchor element. Those are all very extensive composites. For instance, in the crash, the skeleton of the building and the explosion were all real, but the building didn't have any of its skin or glass on it. That was all added in CG. The helicopter didn't have any rotors, there were no human beings in the shot, obviously the heroine wasn't hanging from a rope. A lot of the shots of the Keanu Reeves character were over his shoulder towards the other building that was exploding. Those were all composited in. He is really standing on a greenscreen.

Our visual effects supervisor, John Gaeta, works extensively with computer-generated animatics, and he used little figures that look like little crash test dummies. He would create the shot as to what he thought it would look like based on his conversation with the directors, and give me a version of it on video. We call it an animatic or previsualization, depending on what the material actually consisted of or what stage it was at.

In the helicopter crash scene, I would cut these animatics and integrate them into the sequence. I would then show it to him and to the directors and ask them if we could be on a certain spot a little bit longer, so we could get from her swinging to him pulling her up, or if we were a little bit more over his shoulder and the camera was a little bit higher. Since it's essentially a virtual shot in the end you can put your camera wherever you want to put it in the compositing. We had it worked out, using those methods, very carefully so when they finally did the big explosion they placed their cameras at very precise places based on the cut we had created, which had become a blueprint. When they actually shot it, they were simply making a fully-realized version of what we had already cut together in a working environment on the Avid.

Did you start doing this process during the dailies?

Yes, we started doing it immediately. When I went to Sydney I hired an excellent first assistant editor, Peter Scaret. He is terrific with the Avid. He is very fast and very skillful at putting these composites together, which became a very important function.

So you would have these shots approved by the director?

That's right.

Could you describe the actual setup you had and how the work was divided up between the various members of your team and the visual effects team?

We had three Avids: One for me, one for Peter and one for visual effects. We were on a pretty advanced Fibre Channel sharing system called Transoft. We were all linked up.

All the Avids were connected to the same towers, to the same drives. We had about 270 GB of storage available. We had plenty of room to put anything we wanted at a very high AVR rate. I mixed 6S and 8S. I used 8S when I felt I needed to see things really clearly.

Did you screen the film on video?

Both. Basically, we printed film in the dailies, telecined the workprint and used this to get film into the Avid. We would telecine it with code numbers. I made my first cut and showed it to the directors on the Avid monitor. We made one test, went through it for about two weeks just to clean things up a little bit and then my assistants conformed that immediately. As I finished reel one, I gave them reel one. They were conforming reel one as I was editing reel two. That pattern continued through the movie.

Depending upon how extensive the work was, they would be one or two days behind me. I would use those days at the end to do things like sound and music.

Was the sound editing team working with you in the same facilities?

No, because we were in Sydney, Australia, and our principal sound editor, Dane Davis, was in L.A. We had him come to Sydney the last week or two of the shoot just to touch base with us and get a feel for everything. From that point forward, we stayed in very close touch and talked every day or two. Mostly he would send us stuff on a hard disk by FedEx overnight. I would ask him for effects and he would send effects. Towards the very end, he was actually sending me entire sequences with little temps he would create in his studio.

This was really great and served us in two ways. It freed up my staff from having to do a lot of sound stuff, and early on it established a feedback loop between me and the directors and him in terms of refining the sound. I am very happy with the sound and think that getting him involved that early and getting reactions to stuff that early made a big difference.

What would you say is the most outstanding characteristic of this film?

It's very thought provoking. I don't think it fits a typical structure. It is pretty hard to compare to any other movie.

The way so many different genres in the movie are mixed is very innovative. You have a very heavy amount of Kung Fu, which is very well done and very successful. You have a very detailed and rich sci-fi backstory, because it takes place in the future. It's also a movie which has a real spiritual journey, which really means something to the plot of the movie. I think one of its innovations is that it doesn't abide by any particular genre. It is basically everything that Andy and Larry Wachowski like, kind of a kitchen sink. It really reflects their passions.

Another thing I love about it is that Andy and Larry, along with me, are really craftsmen. Everything in it is really well done and thought out.

What were your favorite sequences? What gave you the most satisfaction to work on in the film?

I have so many favorites. I loved editing this movie. A lot of it is all about editing. This is partly because of how Andy and Larry think. I feel that most of the great directors think editorially, like Steven Spielberg, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorsese and Coppola. I think you can see in the footage of all these guys that they think visually and understand how editing is going to affect the film. The footage is what I call very cuttable. From an editor's point of view it is really juicy, you can sink your teeth into the stuff. There are so many ways you can go with it and each way is interesting. You don't have to struggle to make something work. It is just a matter of how you make it better. How you get the most out of it, how do you make it sing, how do you make it thrilling.

I have so many favorites. I love the Kung Fu scenes because they are all about timing and energy. I loved the power plant scene, where Neo wakes up in the pod. I think it is such an out-there idea. Reel six, I call it reel six, is a giant action sequence and a personal favorite of mine. It's an incredibly dynamic 20 minutes of film. It is very hard to take a breath. The cuts come fast and furiously. It was really exciting to work on.

I'm just finishing up work today. I think it is close to the end of my 13th month on the movie, my 55th week. In all this time I have felt very privileged to be the only editor on the movie. So often these days on large movies they are on a rush schedule and the only way you can finish them is with multiple editors. I like to work by myself as much as I can. I personally believe that one person should edit the movie. Editing is a discipline and an art. You can divide it up and work collaboratively with other editors which can often be very successful, but given my druthers I like to work by myself, so I was very happy that I could do this movie that way and that I was given enough time.

If this movie had been for release last Christmas I couldn't have done it and would have to have needed to call out for help.

Who are the Wachowski Brothers? You previously worked with them on "Bound."

Yes, that was their first film and this is their second, which in itself I think is remarkable. Larry and Andy are a couple of guys from Chicago. They are really great guys who I count as friends. Before they got going in movies they worked as carpenters and were pretty good at it. They started writing scripts and also wrote comics. They have a strong background in the comic world. Their scripts were immediately recognized as being very good in Hollywood.

I don't think it would have been possible for anyone else to direct "The Matrix." I think it is a totally unique vision.

©1999 EditorsNet


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