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(Credit: Warner Bros.)

The bizarre story of how the Wachowski sisters created 'The Matrix' code

In a franchise all about deception, smoke and mirrors, it seems as though one of The Matrix’s greatest secrets has been revealed ahead of the release of the fourth film later this year. The action-packed science-fiction franchise directed by the Wachowski sisters is famous for its mysterious green ‘digital rain’ that features throughout each film of the trilogy, becoming as ubiquitous with the series as Star Wars’ opening crawl. Representing the virtual reality environment that the citizens of the world are plugged into, the technological neon green typography written in indistinguishable symbols is the perfect image for the franchises’ cyberpunk roots.

Inspired by the opening credits of the 1995 anime film Ghost in the Shell, a film that highly influenced The Matrix, the typeface was created by designer Simon Whiteley and includes mirror images of half-width kana characters and Western Latin letters and numerals. Whiteley was asked to take on the project by the Wachowskis, “Mainly because my wife is Japanese and she could help me work out the characters and give me insight into which characters were good and which weren’t,” as the designer states. 

Following this, Whiteley went home and began browsing through the Japanese cookbooks, searching for inspiration, spending weeks painstakingly designing and painting each letter by hand. Once delivered to his superior at Animal Logic in Australia, the letters were digitized and made to cascade across the screen in neon green. Though when Whiteley saw the code scrolling from left to right, he commented that it “wasn’t evoking any emotion for me” so returned to the drawing board.

As he saw with the Japanese texts he was reading, the recipes were written “back to front”, with sentences reading from top to bottom, giving him the idea to flow the text downwards from the top of the screen. The resulting video is now an iconic piece of cultural history, perfect for the themes of the film series. As Whiteley notes: “The movie is very machine-oriented…I love that idea that it’s about something so mechanical, but amongst it, the actual code is extracted from something so organic and free-flowing.”

Surprised that the iconic image has retained its pop-culture identity, the designer finds the success surprising, remarking: “The Matrix code was relatively simple to create…The strange thing is that it’s the most iconic and lasting of all the things I’ve designed”. So easy, in fact, that Whiteley actually got the inspiration from an undisclosed Japanese sushi book, and is tight-lipped about its origins, exclaiming: “I’ve been kind of not wanting to tell anyone what the recipe book is, partly because that’s the last bit of magic”.

Whiteley gives a little clue as to the whereabouts of the recipe book, noting: “It’s a magazine, but it’s called a book. It’s something most Japanese people would’ve heard of or have on their bookshelf”. So, for now at least, it seems like The Matrix’s ‘digital rain’ will remain a relative mystery, perhaps when the sushi recipe at hand is made it will be like eating the red pill. Or maybe not all…

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