Re-entering The Matrix

As of writing this—in 2017—in two years The Matrix will be twenty years old.

And y’know what? It still holds up. The Wachowski Brothers’ imagined future where machines have enslaved humanity in an artificial reality. When main character Neo finally wakes up, it’s to a dystopian otherworld inspired by Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation. The Matrix isn’t just an abstraction or an invented layer upon our reality. The Matrix has in fact become our reality. If you don’t know you’re living in a simulation—and if you spend your entire life existing in that A.I.-generated universe—is it really a simulation at all? This is the kinda shit the film gets at. And it looks pretty damn cool, too. Even two decades on. The gritty, cyber-punk world looks lived-in and authentic. And the famous bullet-time fight scenes only feel a bit dated because we’ve seen them parodied countless times since.

The film was filmed mostly in Sydney. As someone from Australia, it’s fun to sit and spot all the famous landmarks throughout. Eagle-eyed internet peeps have done most of the hard yards tracking down the actual filming locations, and on a spare afternoon I had in the city recently–I went for a walk to scout one.

 

Above—Generic Ominous Mega-Corporation Establishing Shot

Here’s an original shot from the film. I can’t remember what the timestamp was, it might be when Neo is still stuck in his corporate rat-race life, and just before he gets chased through the cubicles. It looks like it was shot on a wide-angle lens. The Internet tells me this is actually the Colonial First State Bank building, on Philip Street near well-known Martin Place in Sydney. Funnily enough, you can check out the location for yourself using Google Maps Street View, an omniscient technology that didn’t exist (or at least wasn’t widely used by consumers) back in 1997. Science fiction has always envisioned the dramatic ways in which technology will interact with our lives. Some of those imaginings have come close to reality, others have been off the mark.

 

Above—Colonial First State building, as seen on Google Maps

I checked out this building on a clear, sunny day. I walked into the middle of the street, and pointed my iPhone 5 upwards. Again, back in 1997, smartphones weren’t a thing. I remember every university lecturer and every industry commentator declaring that within a few years, the mobile web would be everywhere. Every year that rolled around, it didn’t happen (remember WAP?). It was only in about 2007 that I remember looking around whilst on a train one day, and seeing more than half of the commuters with their face buried in a smartphone.

Here’s my shot:

 

It’s freaking amazing how refined a camera the iPhone is. A lot of people say that the best camera is simply the one you have with you. And that’s certainly true. Back then, to get this kind of shot you would’ve needed a DSLR or a compact camera that could pack in a lot of pixels. Now I can just point my phone up in the air and capture a composition that isn’t far off what Bill Pope saw back in 1997. I wouldn’t have been able to do that with my nineties-era Nokia 3210.

 

 

 

 

Straight out of the camera, and on such a bright Sydney day, the iPhone’s shots are bright and blue. It’s a happy scene. Nothing like the dystopianly-dull greys and greens of the film. I sampled some pixels from the original screen capture, and laid down a wash of the faded teal that’s present in the original cinematography to desaturate the whole thing. I then masked out the surrounding buildings to make for a cleaner composition. Finally, I re-oriented the building, brought in a transparent layer of moody clouds, and added a touch of cinematic film grain (or Photoshop noise, at least) to complete my own Matrix mise-en-scène.

 

 

 

I won’t pretend this looks anywhere near as good as the original shot from The Matrix. 1997 was early enough that the film was probably one of the last to be shot on well, film. In 2017, smartphones can come close to replicating some of the compositions of a Hollywood feature, but they are still a long ways off matching the dynamic range, depth-of-field variation, and bit-depth of an Arri Alexa. But, with the help of a little bit of digital technology that wasn’t around twenty years ago—Google Maps, an iPhone, a copy of Photoshop running on my high-end Macbook, and geotagged Flickr images—it’s cool how close you can come.

Thanks to Jeremy Keith on Flickr who chased down many of the landmarks from the original film, and whose footsteps I retraced in order to recreate the above shot. Cheers.

And remember

 

 

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