What went into the ‘exomorphic-particle codex’ character in ‘The Matrix Resurrections’.
One of the more unique characters in The Matrix Resurrections is Exo-Morpheus. In the ‘real world’, he is ‘Morpheus’ but a physical manifestation of his digital self; an exomorphic-particle codex.
Ultimately, Exo-Morpheous was played on set by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II, wearing a fauxcap suit for these ‘real world’ scenes, and then rendered in CG by DNEG in ‘human’ form in what essentially appeared to be hundreds and thousands of tiny ball bearings. DNEG visual effects supervisor Huw Evans explains more.
b&a: How was the character ‘filmed’ on set?
Huw Evans: That was one thing that we needed to nail early on. We knew he was going to be a key character. We knew he was going to deliver dialogue. We knew he was going to have close-ups. So we knew we had to get a face that really worked to sell the performance as well as looking fluid and free and artistic. So we had him in a gray suit, more for tracking reference. We had a bunch of witness cameras wherever we could because it was predominantly a body track solution, and then we had a head-mounted face camera as well for tracking his face.
We used that facial tracking data as a base. In some cases it worked great, in some cases it needed augmenting because we weren’t recreating a physically accurate human. As soon as we got the ball bearings on his face, sometimes the subtle performance wouldn’t really show through, so the animation team led by the incredible Keith Roberts, picked up on that, exaggerated bits, tweaked some little bits, but having that overall performance as a base was perfect.
b&a: Was there a time where you considered volumetric capture for his facial performance?
Huw Evans: We did some volumetric capture for a different part of the movie as a test, but we didn’t end up settling on it for Exo-Morpheus mainly because Lana wanted him present on set and we didn’t want to have a separate shoot. Because he was a main character, he needed to be on set, interacting with the characters.
b&a: What were, then, the technical challenges in crafting a human-like performance, but with ball bearings?
Huw Evans: Well, he, as a character, started out quite a little bit more abstract. There’s some lovely concept art we had of him, he was supposed to originally have a fight scene and he’d be getting blown apart and his ball bearings would be spreading out and then slowly forming back in again. We had this lovely concept art of him being a lot more fluid and a lot more, almost ethereal, but then being able to snap back into a solid body again. But that started to become a bit too much for a character that you needed to connect with and be able to see his face and understand his emotions so it was pared back a little.
We tried to treat him almost as if whatever muscles he needs to use at any given time, that’s where he uses energy to solidify himself in that area. So, when he’s having a conversation with someone, his front face, his chest, whatever muscles he’s using, that would be solid and then the back of him in general was more broken up and free flowing, but still holding shape, a bit like sea grass gently swaying and flowing. It was a challenge tackled across a few FX supes but really honed by Tom Bolt and Tamar Chatterjee.
He starts out being treated as a full digi-double, like we normally would, he would have a muscle pass, he’d have a skin pass, and I think that was really important because even though he was going to be made up of all these balls, they had to react to his body as if he did have muscles and as if he did have skin and particularly with his face, getting that detail in there and making sure we capture the subtle nuances of the performance was super important. So we had to go through all the steps we normally would, up to a point, until we had this nice muscly, skinned guy. That would then get passed into Houdini where the FX team could run a mixture of procedural and fully simulated elements, giving us the art directed but still natural feeling behaviour to his movements that Lana was looking for.
Until we did all those steps, it wasn’t quite looking right. We did a bunch of tests of how the balls move and how active they are because there’s also that ‘distracting’ factor. If you’ve got an important scene and some dialogue going on, you can’t have all this visual noise moving around too much. And particularly because they’re shiny, metal ball bearings and you’ve got strong light sources in the scene as well. It can also just read like noise, like render noise. You’d get all these twinkles and sparkles and it just looked messy even though technically it was doing the right thing.
The lighting team had to take some artistic licence as well and we couldn’t just rely on the HDRIs that were captured on set to physically light him as he should be. There was a lot of artistic balancing to make him work.
It was a particular tricky challenge as well because he featured in so many shots. We tried as much as we could to make it a setup that could be rolled out over X amount of shots. But it was very custom, his actions, he might be nice and calm in one scene, he’s jumping and reaching in another scene, so there were a lot of custom sims per shot.
b&a: It was great work. Anything else you wanted to mention about Exo-Morpheus?
Huw Evans: We did have some cross-over with the Vancouver DNEG team, overseen by visual effects supervisor Aharon Bourland. They also had an exo-morph character, not Morpheus, but there was a character called Quillion who was a herbologist / digitologist. He’s on the farm with Freya when Niobe is walking Neo around and showing him the strawberries they’ve grown, that’s where you meet this other exo-morph. They’re two different characters, they’re made in slightly different ways, the way that the balls move and gather is different, but they’re within the same world so it was nice being able to share ideas but work separately to ensure they had some defining features of their own.