Green code trails down a computer screen like digital rain. It tells those who can read it what’s happening in The Matrix, a virtual reality.
Simon Whiteley, creator of The Matrix code, attributes the design to his wife, who’s from Japan.
“I like to tell everybody that The Matrix’s code is made out of Japanese sushi recipes,” says Whiteley, a production designer from England who’s now based at the Animal Logic animation and visual-effects studio in Sydney. He scanned the characters from his wife’s Japanese cookbooks. “Without that code, there is no Matrix.”
Whiteley brought his meticulous precision to his latest project, “The Lego Ninjago Movie,” concept-designing its Japan-inspired Lego world and the mechs that riff off skyscraper-tall metal gun machines in “Pacific Rim.” The third in “The Lego Movie” franchise is now out in theaters worldwide.
“The buildings you see in Ninjago are two or three times as high as Jackie Chan,” Whiteley tells me. As in he built Ninjago in studio out of hundreds of thousands of bricks that reached as high as a small, real-life city. And by bricks I mean bricks from Billund, Denmark, where Lego is made. Whitelely flew there to collect them. That’s precision.
“Simon is an incredibly detail-orientated production designer,” says Ingrid Johnston, Animal Logic’s head of production. “At times you can find yourself having crazy conversations [with him] about why things need to be a certain way.”
Talking to Whiteley by phone about Lego, we quickly get sidetracked delving through the trove of movie gems mixed in alongside “The Matrix,” “The Matrix Reloaded” and “The Matrix Revolutions“on Whiteley’s IMDb page.
Whiteley’s start in film pivoted on being in the right place at the right time. In the mid ’80s, instead of computers, production methods included painting on glass, making matte paintings and using hot-metal typesetting for credits on big sheets of paper that were filmed and displayed on screen. At his college in Birmingham, Whiteley struck luck with a tutor who ran the graphics department at the BBC. Whiteley accepted his golden ticket.
Here, he recounts some of the career highlights that followed.
Yes, Margot Robbie
Whiteley wanted Margot Robbie, an Australian actress who recently played Harley Quinn in “Suicide Squad,” for his next project, a live action movie of Beatrix Potter’s Peter Rabbit with 3D animals. Whiteley snagged Geoffrey Rush, another Australian actor, for 2010’s “Legends of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole,” so why not Margot?
“Sometimes I get to pick who I’d like to be certain characters,” Whiteley says. He’s so in tune with his characters he made a hand-sewn version of Peter’s blue jacket to scale to re-create in CG. His casting suggestions go to the casting director, who passes them on for the movie director’s approval.
In this instance, Whiteley had his way. Robbie will be the voice of Flopsy, one of Peter’s sisters, in “Peter Rabbit,” to be released in 2018.
Zack Snyder’s strange technique
“The owl movie” (that’s “Legends of the Guardians”) as Whiteley affectionately refers to it, nudged him into the circles of Zack Snyder, who recently directed “Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Snyder’s run up to the 3D animation included “300,” which spurred an unconventional technique.
“He got his stuntmen from ‘300’ to dress up in owl suits with owl claws and cardboard wings to fight all the fights,” Whiteley says. “It was hilarious.”
Realistic Harry Potter, Star Wars
Whiteley has watched the evolution of childhood staples like Harry Potter and Star Wars. He saw the advent of the digital age, from the early Star Wars films when , to the introduction of computers.
“Now we’re starting to see a kind of pushback,” he says with a hint of affection. “The best designs are the ones where models are made and CG is used carefully.”
Whiteley has rubbed shoulders with his share of big-name celebrities — he overcame being starstruck to have a laugh with John Travolta and Nick Nolte while on a World War II ship in LA for 1998’s “The Thin Red Line.” Yet he speaks most affectionately of an interaction with non-human characters from Harry Potter.
“We got to see the owls from Harry Potter, which was fantastic,” he says. “We got to see Hedwig.” He took his family to a Warner Bros. owl sanctuary near Cornwall and filmed and photographed the owls for two whole weeks, building motion capture footage.
Harry Potter, he notes for the record, doesn’t use much CG. “If they can use a real owl,” he says, “they’ll use one.”
Do you want to build a Lego city?
What differentiates “Lego Ninjago” from the first two Lego movies is world expansion outside the digital. “Instead of being in a basement like in the first movie, it was as if your child had gone out into the back garden,” Whiteley says. “So we introduced miniature plants, grass, rocks and … built those in 3D.”
Whiteley used a Lego-specific computer program for designing models called LDD, Lego Digital Designer, and you (and other kids) can download it off the web here. Every single brick in Billund’s library is available in the program, a tool Whitelely and the other Lego designers tapped for all three movies.
“We could open people’s eyes to a new look,” Whiteley says. “That’s the funnest part of my job, designing something for a director and then either seeing it physically built or built in CG.”
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