Director Lana Wachowski and her crew were 17 days into the shoot on “The Matrix Resurrections” when they had to shut down due to the pandemic; when they resumed production several months later, frequent Wachowski cinematographer John Toll opted not to return due to health issues in his family. Toll’s departure created an opportunity for camera operator Daniele Massaccesi, who stepped into the director of photography role — his first on a big-budget studio production — and helped create a new visual grammar for one of the most famous franchises in film history.
“Resurrections,” the fourth “Matrix” movie and the first in almost 20 years, represents the latest step in Wachowski’s evolution toward a more improvisational approach to filmmaking, an evolution in which Massaccesi played a key role. “I did a few days on ‘Speed Racer,’ and then ‘Cloud Atlas,’ which was probably the first time Lana and Lilly [Wachowski] shot on location,” recalled Massaccesi in an interview with IndieWire. “They were a bit concerned about the lack of control, but eventually realized that they liked the quality of natural light and the ability to capture moments that were unique. They also realized that you have to grab the happy accidents as they occur — you have to be ready to take advantage of the moment when something looks great.”
After “Cloud Atlas,” Massaccesi reunited with the Wachowskis for “Jupiter Ascending,” which he described as a “very structured studio movie” that nevertheless offered a few chances to continue experimenting with a more freeform shooting technique. It was on their next collaboration, the Netflix series “Sense8,” that Massaccesi and Lana Wachoswki really forged the style that would come to dominate “Matrix Resurrections.” “She said she wanted to use the Steadicam a lot,” Massaccesi explained, “and I quickly realized she was always behind me, her hands on my shoulders, whispering in my ear. We began to build this relationship where I could tell just by the movement of her fingers what she wanted me to do. We didn’t even need to talk, and it made it easier to grab those moments, those accidents, because she was right there with me.”
That communication made Massaccesi’s transition from operator to cinematographer relatively smooth. “Even when I was operating we always talked about the lighting, because it would affect where we moved with the camera,” he explained, “and she was very, very supportive of me even though we all knew this was going to be a difficult shoot.”
Among the difficulties was fulfilling Wachowski’s desire for a more spontaneous shooting style on a massive action film filled with large-scale set pieces — not to mention the pressure of living up to cinematographer Bill Pope’s iconic work on the original trilogy. Massaccesi was initially tempted to reference the earlier Matrixes, but Wachowski stopped him. “She would say, ‘Don’t worry about those, this is a different movie,’” remembered Massaccesi.
Indeed, “Matrix Resurrections” eschews the gloominess of its predecessors in favor of a more radiant lighting style, one that often incorporates not only resplendent natural light but the sun — or an artificial approximation of it — as a visible source on screen. The visual buoyancy corresponds to a livelier, more naturalistic performance style that reveals new nuances in the characterizations of familiar “Matrix” characters like Neo (Keanu Reeves) and Trinity (Carrie-Anne Moss). Shooting with two cameras at all times allowed Massaccesi more latitude in instinctively responding to the actors (and gave those actors more freedom to vary their delivery from take to take without worrying about matching), and he came up with a way for Wachowski to monitor both cameras without abandoning their previous way of working. “I continued to operate the Steadicam with Lana behind me,” he said. “She was watching the monitor on my Steadicam, but I also had an iPad attached to my vest where she could see what the other camera was doing and make adjustments.”
The extemporaneous interaction between the camera and the actors makes “Matrix Resurrections” the most emotionally resonant film in the series to date, something that was a priority not only for Wachowski but also for her cinematographer. “Whenever I’m lighting a set I give the actors as much freedom as possible,” said Massaccesi. “I won’t set a light that only works in one place, and if an actor wants to move in an unexpected way, I accommodate them. I’m fully aware of how hard their job is, creating delicate emotions with a hundred people watching them.” The benefits of Massaccesi and Wachowski’s sensitivity to performance are most obvious in the scenes depicting the progression of the romance between Neo and Trinity, which feels deeper and sweeter and more adult here than in the earlier films; clearly the actors have been as liberated as the director and cinematographer by the opportunities for exploration inherent in the fourth Matrix’s less rigid methodology.
“Obviously we come in with a plan, especially when it comes to scenes where we have to match what visual effects are doing,” Massaccesi said, “but then you need to go where the emotion takes you. That flexibility helps you capture moments that will never be the same again; if you shoot ten takes, those ten takes will all be different, and they’ll be more natural than if you plan too much or think too much about it.”