This year marks 25 years since the legendary movie The Matrix first struck the world and made it question reality. The first part of the media franchise was released on March 31, 1999. It caused a significant public outcry and gained cult status.

The Matrix is a science fiction film in the cyberpunk genre. It was released in March, a season when studios usually release films that are not expected to make a significant breakthrough. Moreover, in a month and a half, the long-awaited sequel to Star Wars was looming on the horizon, which could have seriously shaken the box office of The Matrix. Nevertheless, it became a true legend for decades.

Until 2021, it was a trilogy – after the first film in 1999, two more were released in 2003, 5 months apart. On December 21, 2021, the fourth part, The Matrix. Resurrection, which critics called “a remake of the first” and a movie “about nothing,” while for others it became “one of the most luxuriously filmed great works of recent times.”

So, on the occasion of the anniversary of the cult film, we decided to recall how the first Matrix was filmed, how it managed to revolutionize filmmaking, become a favorite of completely different people and, without exaggeration, a phenomenon in the world of cinema.

How the first Matrix movie was filmed

The action movie was created by brothers Lawrence and Andrew Wachowski (after their transgender transition, they became sisters Lana and Lilly).

The Matrix is 25 years old. How did the first movie get made and what is the phenomenon of it?
Laurence and Andrew Wachowski

The material they were working on was supposed to be a comic book, but in the end it turned out to be a screenplay. The Warner Brothers studio decided to bring it to life on the screen, but they didn’t quite understand how to organize the process because of the large number of battles, shootings, and chases.

The Matrix is 25 years old. How did the first movie get made and what is the phenomenon of it?
Still from the movie The Matrix

Then the brothers hired an artist to draw a storyboard of the entire movie, as many as 600 pages long, and presented it to the management. One of the brothers narrated the story from scene to scene, while the other produced the sound effects.

It seems that the filmmakers were impressed by this presentation, because filming began on March 14, 1998, and ended almost 6 months later, on September 1 of the same year. The lion’s share of the filming took place in Sydney, Australia, as it was much cheaper than in Hollywood. 

Few people know that other Hollywood actors, including Will Smith, Brad Pitt, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Johnny Depp, were also considered for the role of Neo. However, Keanu Reeves was chosen for a number of reasons.

The first Matrix impressed the viewer with a lot of scenes with special effects – smoke and fire, fights, pictures of a gloomy future, jumping between skyscrapers. Against this background, there are cool guys in black glasses and leather coats, fields where people are grown, the elusive Trinity and Neo’s new realizations on the edge of reality and fantasy. In general, Wachowski’s work has taken science fiction to a new level.

The Matrix is 25 years old. How did the first movie get made and what is the phenomenon of it?
Keanu Reeves as Neo

The main feature of the film is slow motion, the so-called bullet time, and the effect of bullets flying through the air. Filming this episode cost the directors a lot of effort and budget. To show the 12 seconds of timing, the team turned to Manex Visual Effects, a little-known animation studio at the time.

The Matrix is 25 years old. How did the first movie get made and what is the phenomenon of it?
Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity

To film the scene, the specialists assembled a set of 120 cameras that worked in turn. That is, what we saw on the screen was a lot of photos that quickly replaced each other.

The homogeneous green color against which the actors were suspended on cables made it possible to cut out their images and superimpose them on the previously shot background. The result was the illusion that the camera was flying around a frozen object. Thanks to technological advances, today such a trick would take much less time for a film crew, but in the late 90s, few people were willing to do such special effects.

The Matrix is 25 years old. How did the first movie get made and what is the phenomenon of it?
Still from the movie The Matrix

The filming was not without models. For example, the scene of a helicopter colliding with a skyscraper was originally planned as a completely realistic one, but in the end it was decided to make it with the help of reduced models. The reflection of the city in the glass and the waves that spread along the facade after the impact were drawn using computer programs, and the explosions were caused by pyrotechnic rounds that exploded at the right time.

The film is also characterized by a special approach to light and color differentiation of the frames. In particular, all the scenes that take place in the Matrix, the virtual world, are shown through a green filter, while the shots from the real world are shown through a blue filter.

As director of photography Bill Pope later told us, the future world was depicted as cold, dark, and riddled with lightning, so its lighting was slightly blue and dark as hell.

“Since we wanted the reality of The Matrix to be unattractive, we asked ourselves: “What is the most unattractive color?”. Everyone agreed on green, so for those scenes we sometimes used green filters and I added a little bit of green to the color timing,” he explained.

The actors themselves called the filming period a real hell, as they experienced many difficulties. They trained and studied martial arts, got injured and underwent real tests.

For example, Keanu Reeves shaved his hair all over his body and lost 6 kg for the scene with the incubator bath to look realistic and exhausted. It is clear that it was the last scene to be filmed. 

Interestingly, out of the $60 million required, Warner Brothers gave the film only $10 million, and Wachowski spent almost all of this budget on the first scene where Trinity threw agents around. But the studio’s management was so impressed with her that the shooting continued successfully.

Another interesting fact is that the Nokia 8110 phone used by the characters throughout the movie became very popular afterwards. In 2018, when the whole world was already using smartphones to the fullest, the company relaunched it, adding a color screen and Internet access.

What is the phenomenon of the movie The Matrix?

The Matrix is a vivid example of an action movie that you want to watch again and again to find something new for yourself. The Wachowski brothers mixed their experience and what they have been fans of all their lives – their love of movies, comics and science fiction. The result is a cultural phenomenon that is unlike anything else, and at the same time copies everything it can.

The success of The Matrix caused a wave of scandals, with various people, from directors to ordinary people, claiming that the screenwriters had stolen their ideas. Elements of the film were found in other works, for example, the virtual world replaced the real world in Stanislav Lem’s stories or Grant Morrison’s comic book Invisible Men, and a pill that helped to escape from the world of illusions was in the movie Remember Everything. There are many such examples.

The Matrix is 25 years old. How did the first movie get made and what is the phenomenon of it?
Still from the movie The Matrix

The film contains deep meanings that are still relevant to people from different social strata. How to distinguish the ghostly world from the real one? Which pill to choose – blue or red – to hold on to the illusory stability or to take a chance? To continue to depend on the system or to finally go against it?

The Matrix is 25 years old. How did the first movie get made and what is the phenomenon of it?
Still from the movie The Matrix

In its first week of release, the film earned $37 million, and $467 million in total. The actors’ careers took off, and the Wachowski brothers received carte blanche to complete the trilogy. The film won four Oscars: Best Editing, Sound, Sound Effects and Visual Effects.

The phenomenon of the film is that it united a “diverse” audience, because it mixed a number of different genres: noir, action, cyberpunk. And how can we not mention the love story and the deep philosophical implications. Everything is combined in a stylish and organic way. The synthesis of all these factors, which hit the audience in the right place and at the right time, is the key to the success of The Matrix. 

After 25 years, the action movie that changed cinema and people’s minds forever continues to hold an army of fans.