Maximizing The Matrix

Five minutes into "The Matrix," a leather-clad woman squares off against the local police. As they open fire, she dodges their bullets by running up one wall and down the next. Then, as she jumps into the air in front of one of her opponents, she freezes in midair while the camera circles around her. While the other cops look on in shock, she lashes out with a kick that knocks her man down, lands as gracefully as a cat and disappears into the shadows. Without fail, the audience cheers wildly--and it's the kind of response that has propelled "The Matrix" to the year's biggest opening.

So how did this film manage to resurrect the left-for-dead cyberspace genre in such high style? For one thing, writer-directors Larry and Andy Wachowski (whose only other film was the slick lesbian thriller "Bound") didn't fall into the trap of depicting virtual reality as a videogame designed by geeks on LSD. "When you try to put on screen what cyberspace looks like, it fails because there's no reference for it," says Larry, 33. "The audience looks at it and says, 'What the heck is that?' " Instead, they drew upon their experience as writers of comic books, which blend the real and the fantastical as a matter of course.

With shots of a cyberpunkish Keanu Reeves making gravity-defying leaps and dodging bullets (the table on page two explains how the brothers went beyond that freeze-frame trick from the Gap ad), the film's Super Bowl trailer hinted that this would be the first movie since "Terminator 2" with truly "how'd they do that?" special effects. "You don't go into the Super Bowl with anything that even approaches ordinary," says Warner Bros. marketing exec Brad Ball. The Super Bowl ad led to a huge spike in traffic at the film's fan-friendly Web site, but the hard sell didn't stop there. Warners carpet-bombed MTV with ads, scored a Marilyn Manson song for the hip soundtrack and flogged the film tirelessly at comic book and sci-fi conventions to reach the target audience of young males.

Breathtaking martial-arts scenes also helped up the film's wow factor. The lead actors underwent four grueling months of kung fu training so that they could do the exquisitely choreographed fight sequences themselves. Even veteran Hong Kong directors are blown away. "The combination of Chinese martial arts and American special effects is something I've wanted to do for a long time," says Stanley Tong, who directed several Jackie Chan movies.

Warner Bros. is bullish on the sequel prospects, since the Wachowskis intended the movie to be part of a trilogy in which "The Matrix" is the middle story. But for now, the brothers' only plans involve playing basketball and getting drunk. "We're not interested in looking at material until we're sober again," says Andy. Their fans, however, will stay tipsy off "The Matrix" for about six more weeks. Until the phantom menaceth.

The Directors want you to know that like George Lucas's "Star Wars" trilogy, their film has a spiritual undertone. "We wanted it to be about this one guy's quest for truth," says Larry Wachowski. "People would say, 'They didn't blow up the Matrix?' But you can't beat the Matrix with fists. [Reeves's character] needs to basically transcend the Matrix." As Keanu says in the movie, whoa.

Slow down: A process called 'Flo-Mo' lets the filmmakers shoot scenes where the camera moves at a normal speed while the action is frozen or happens in slow motion. Two movie cameras and 120 computer-controlled still cameras were required.

OK computer: Digital simulation of the camera moves around the two actors, breaks down each frame and assigns them to the individual still cameras arrayed in a circle around the subjects.

Green day: Next, the actors perform their stunts in front of the greenscreen-covered still cameras. In postproduction, the wires are erased, while the green surfaces are replaced with virtual backgrounds.

Like magic: Finally, FX technicians insert the foreground action into a virtual background whose perspective changes to match the camera's every move.