Image: Jue
Jue, the first mate of the Osiris, is surrounded by "Matrix" monitors in a scene from "The Final Flight of the Osiris," a computer-generated featurette premiering in theaters Friday.
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msnbc.com

What is the Animatrix? Sci-fi movie fans have known the answer to that question for months, and now the latest chapter is getting Oscar-weekend exposure on the big screen. For the uninitiated, the Animatrix is a nine-part series of short films based on “The Matrix” saga — including a nine-minute film that sets a new standard for computer-generated animation.

Amid the run-up to Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremonies, the latest “Matrix” mini-installment — titled “The Final Flight of the Osiris” — is notable for more than one reason:

Movie cross-marketing: The film is premiering Friday as a short subject preceding each showing of “Dreamcatcher,” a Stephen King space-alien thriller that one reviewer has already panned as “unspeakably bad.” The “Matrix” tie-in could well make up for the chilly reviews and boost the box-office take for “Dreamcatcher.” In fact, some fans say they are buying their ticket for “Final Flight” — and not necessarily staying for the main feature.

“Matrix” myth-making: The nine Animatrix shorts fill gaps in the “Matrix” saga, so much so that producer Joel Silver has described the project as “Chapter 1.5” in the story. “Final Flight” sets the stage for the second film in the series, due for release in May. An Animatrix two-parter titled “Second Renaissance” serves as a prequel to the first film. Other films play off supporting characters in the series.

The shape of animated things to come: “Final Flight” arguably stands as the best big-screen example of computer-generated imagery, or CGI. Over the past few years, high-tech animation techniques have revolutionized the film industry — but this year, CGI has a special place in the spotlight: One of the software programs used to create “Final Flight,” called Maya, already has earned its creators an Oscar for scientific and technical achievement — and Maya played a supporting role in all three of this year’s Oscar nominees for visual effects.

Matrix 1.5
“The Final Flight of the Osiris,” scripted and supervised by “Matrix” writer/directors Andy and Larry Wachowski, was created at a cost of nearly $5 million. That sum may pale in comparison with the $310 million budget for the two “Matrix” feature films being released this year — but if you were to multiply the per-minute expense to cost out a 90-minute feature film, you’d get a hefty price tag of more than $50 million.

The action takes place after the end of the first “Matrix” film, in which a messiah named Neo breaks free of the virtual-reality illusions that are force-fed to most of humanity by a breed of robotic overlords. A crew allied with Neo and other rebels, riding in an airship called the Osiris, happens upon a new threat from the robots — and makes a “final flight” to warn the rebels.

Taken in isolation, the movie doesn’t have much of a plot, and the ending might seem incomprehensible. However, the mailing of a virtual-reality package sets the stage for May’s release of a video game titled “Enter the Matrix” and the next full-length feature, “The Matrix Reloaded.” In fact, “Final Flight” was originally slated to run just before “The Matrix Reloaded.”

“When you see Matrix 2, it’ll suddenly have context,” said Kevin Bjorke, who was imaging supervisor for “Final Flight.”

Style and substance
Right now, the biggest buzz over “Final Flight” has to do with its style rather than the story: The photorealistic 3-D animation was done over the course of 13 months by Square USA, the now-defunct film unit that created “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.” The director of “Final Flight,” Andy Jones, was also director for the “Final Fantasy” animation.

From the very beginning, “Flight” takes computer-generated imagery far beyond “Fantasy”: During a swordfight/striptease in a virtual-reality dojo, you can see the veins on arms, the stubble and pores on the face of the Osiris’ captain, even the goosebumps on the thong-clad buns of his female first mate.

“You needed to be able to have characters who were really, truly all in one piece,” Bjorke said. “All of the texturing and joining together of the skin shading had to be perfect.”

The size of the computer files to generate each character in “Final Fantasy” was 10 to 15 megabytes, he said; for “Final Flight,” the figure was more like 80 megabytes. “On any given day, we probably had 800 machines running at any one time,” Bjorke said.

The upgrades involved everything from the computerized lighting (with up to 60 light sources illuminating individual characters) to the supporting cast (with 300 computer-generated robots crawling over Osiris).

CGI geeks will notice little things like the movement of torn and folding fabric, which is particularly tough to simulate. They’ll also notice some of the shortcuts taken. For example, no one in the animation has long, flowing hair — which chews up a lot of computing power.

“We were much informed by looking at the original movie, to see where they felt it was safe to cheat,” Bjorke said. “We just tried to one-up it in return.”

Enter the anime matrix
“Final Flight” isn’t the final chapter in the Animatrix; it’s actually more of an anomaly. “It’s the only one that’s animated in 3-D computer animation,” Ryan Ball, Web editor for Animation magazine, noted. “The rest of them are in 2-D hand-drawn style.”

Four of the other shorts are being released over the World Wide Web; the other four are being held back for the DVD/video version, due to come out June 3.

All of the films draw their inspiration from the Japanese artistic style known as “anime” — a comic-book genre that the Wachowski brothers used as inspiration for “The Matrix.” Some of the world’s best-known anime masters contributed to the Animatrix project.

“Second Renaissance,” a Web two-parter written by the Wachowskis and directed by Mahiro Maeda, serves as a prequel to “The Matrix” and explains how robots came to subdue humans. “Program,” another Web offering from writer/director Yoshiaki Kawajiri, is almost purely a samurai riff on the “Matrix” saga.

Will the Animatrix make its mark at next year’s Oscars? Ball isn’t so sure about that. “It’s not Disney style,” he notes. But he thinks the series is likely introduce anime to a much wider audience, since it builds on the well-marketed “Matrix” franchise.

“If there’s an anime movie for non-anime fans,” he said, “this is it.”

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