Friday, 31 July 2009

Rabbit-Hole Theory: The Golden Age

[This is part of an unfinished series looking at the Matrix trilogy of films from the perspective of immersive storytelling—where they worked, where they didn't, and how this might have affected their success as films.]

[Revised 09.07.10.]
Some of the artistic decisions made in the creation of these films involve stylistic factors: things that set the tone or convey moods or otherwise deal with non-literal representations, designed to enhance the films' ability to achieve a certain effect or to prompt specific emotional responses from the people watching. These stylistic elements form part of the logic that we have to absorb for each film, part of our understanding of the way a fictional world is supposed to work.

Screenshot of Neo on rooftop, an example of green bias

For example, colour grading is used, also seen in films such as Peter Jackson's The Lord of the Rings, which creates a colour bias that enhances the mood of a particular place. There is also stuff like the bullet-time effect, which actually represents characters speeding up rather than the Matrix slowing down and things are merely slowed down to let us see it. These are artistic representations that we don't have to take literally.

But imagine that someone else, another character, comes into that scene where Neo is backwards-dodging bullets. He walks at normal speed while everyone and everything else is in slow motion. We could interpret it that this person is moving really really fast, but it's more likely that bullet-time would stop working representatively in the way that it had been doing—i.e. as an artistic way of showing Neo speeding up—and we'd start thinking that Neo really had slowed down, maybe because the Matrix has malfunctioned or something. In other words, something that is supposed to work stylistically would fail to work in that way, instead becoming a part of those things that we do interpret literally.

Screenshot of Neo stuck with acupuncture needles, example of natural bias

This happens a heck of a lot in the sequels. It's greatly responsible for that recurring feeling you get that the Matrix films have become a parody of themselves. There are more obvious examples that I'll get onto in a bit, but one of the less prominent and not so derided but nevertheless problematic instances of this involves the colour grading I just mentioned.

In all three films, scenes that take place within the Matrix are generally more 'stylised' (or the style is more pronounced) than scenes that take place in the real world, an artistic decision itself (so the behind-the-scenes interviews reveal) to make the Matrix seem more artificial. The main way this is achieved is by the distinctive green colour grading done on all Matrix-based scenes, in the first film complementing the grungy locales and bleak corporate spaces to enhance a feeling of decay, while in the real world tones are much more naturalistic, mostly cold and blue but with warmer tones still possible. There are also other virtual spaces outside of the Matrix: the stark white loading construct (perhaps given some continuity with the Matrix through the use of wintery white skies) and the golden-yellow biased dojo construct. Other training constructs that emulate the Matrix adopt its green filter. In each case, the colour grading operates by a mood-enhancing logic.

Screenshot of Neo in dojo, example of gold bias

For the most part, this carries successfully over to the sequels. There is a slightly different feel to the Matrix in the sequels, especially in Reloaded, given an expanded range of urban (and non-urban) locales that are somehow cleaner and shinier and come in flavours more pronounced in their distinction: the modern-industrial look of the freeway and nuclear power plant; the gothic dungeons, sewers and chateau; the teahouse; the hallway of backdoors; and so on. But generally the colour grading still works in the mood-enhancing ways that it did, though this time around the Matrix feels less grungy and intimate (something that may be viewed as a bad thing in itself).

Sometimes, though, things don't work out. There are times when that green filter is plastered over a location to signify its Matrixness, but something about the location works against it in terms of mood enhancement. For example, I noted just now the wintery skies of the first film, perfect for conveying emptiness, coldness, desolation, etc. But look at the sky during the freeway chase in Reloaded and it's evident that they filmed a very blue summer sky, graded it green and arrived at a weird sort of turquoise colour. This isn't a huge deal; it's just a little less effective as a subtle mood-enhancer. The fact that a green filter has been put over everything kind of 'pops out' at you for a moment and you become aware of the falsity of it.

Screenshot of Trinity with turquoise background

Far more obnoxious, but very much the same problem, is the effect we get when we visit a decidedly yellow place like the chateau. The colour grading here almost completely fails to incorporate it into that Matrix aesthetic—it's just too yellow—and once again it brings undue attention to the process of colour grading itself. Following mood-enhancing logic and the evidence we have of virtual spaces so far, we might accept the chateau (and, for that matter, the teahouse) as, somehow, a construct within or connected to the Matrix that is not unlike the dojo of the first film and escapes the atmosphere of decay that the rest of the Matrix suffers. But, alas, clumsy attempts are made to remind us that we're still in the Matrix proper through the use of the colour green.

It's not just colour grading, either. In fact, it's the way this representative use of colour is made to extend beyond simple colour grading that causes further problems. Chunks of green are put here and there amidst all the yellow—in the marble floor, as pillars, the stairs, etc—in a way that functions almost symbolically. Here be green, here be Matrix. The same is done in the white hallway of backdoors: the doors are green just to show us that we're still kind of there. None of this is particularly atmospheric or mood-enhancing; the effect is not of the decay of the Matrix seeping through or anything like that. It's just there, and so obvious that the characters are probably aware of it too.

Screenshot of predominantly yellow chateau hallway

This inadvertent encouragement of such a literal interpretation of colour is not helped by the presence of Neo's code vision. At a stretch, your brain might cope with the idea that green and yellow are merely used as metaphorical representations of something that Neo senses, but this isn't likely: it seems like Neo now has the ability to view the Matrix world in different types of code, which are perceived by him as green or yellow. In any case, metaphorical or not, these colours in code vision don't seem to be fulfilling the same function as they are in colour grading, as evidenced by the fact that Seraph appears yellow in code-vision and is presumably always this way, whereas his non-code avatar is subject to his environment and he's awash in green as soon as he ventures outside of the teahouse.

Again, it seems to be the Wachowskis' intention to use these colours symbolically (property of Matrix = green; other colours signify other things), a logic they seem to want to extend to the colour grading by virtue of the obvious correlation between the colours used. But however this is supposed to work, given apparent discrepancies such as the one above, sometimes it conflicts with the function of colour grading as something intended to enhance the mood. A stylistic aspect of the film is thus prevented from functioning in the way it had been doing in the first film, either because it seems too literally implemented or it has drawn undue attention to itself in some other way.

Screenshot of character in lotus position, seen gold through code vision

Name a thing for which the original Matrix film is well known and the chances are the sequels managed to botch it in some way along these lines, for stylistic aspects both inside and outside of the Matrix. In the next few parts I'll be looking at a whole crazy range of stuff that the sequels made us laugh at, including trenchcoats, hammy dialogue, philosophy, special effects and kung fu. Stay tuned!


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