By RICHARD PAMATATAU
A group of digitally minded Kiwi film-makers are taking the internet by storm with a short-film tribute to the seminal sci-fi movie The Matrix.
The web-only film was made with a cheap video camera and widely available software packages for a cost of only $800.
Transforming mid-winter Auckland into a futuristic cityscape, the 15-minute action flick The Fanimatrix has attracted a cult following as it enjoys word-of-mouth promotion from enthusiasts on websites such as slashdot.com.
The Blair Witch Project it is not, but The Fanimatrix has already been downloaded 70,000 times, says the film's director, editor and photographer, Rajneel Singh. And that's just since Sunday.
"The response has been phenomenal," he said.
Web viewers have commented on the high production quality of the short, which is available at www.fanimatrix.net, as a 170 or 135 megabyte download shot on a Sony Handycam.
The story follows the adventures of two rebels - Dante and Medusa - who venture into the virtual reality prison world of the Matrix on a daring mission involving espionage, distraction and an elaborate game of cat and mouse.
Singh co-wrote The Fanimatrix with Steve Davis, who plays Dante in the film, as an experiment in low-cost, high-production-value film-making.
Shot over nine nights with borrowed equipment and a volunteer cast of trained actors, the movie's slick gloss was applied in post-production, where it was pieced together on a PC using Adobe Premiere, After FX and AlamDV Special FX.
"We hope people will see it as cheap but not cheesy, because a lot of work went into making it a very authentic film that is action-oriented rather than art-house," said Singh.
"We don't really like art-house films and are interested in making commercial material."
Singh said a lot of fan movies were being made around The Matrix and there was no intent to make any money from this one. It can be downloaded for free.
Singh, like Davis, practises wushu, the martial art that is the foundation of many of the fight sequences in films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and The Matrix.
The lengthy fight sequences show years of experience with wushu, which Davis says is more about the body and less about contact.
Singh, 25, who has had no formal training in film direction, wants The Fanimatrix to be a showcase for the cast and crew's ability as film-makers and both men hope someone out there will give them a shot.
Davis, a 24-year-old acting graduate from Unitec, wants to be a serious film and stage actor but says he's not out to be "famous".
Chris Rigby, who plays the juggling Goth in the movie, has worked on the internet presence for the movie. "The film was put on to file sharing network Bit Torrent, which is free on the net, so the download numbers could be higher," he said.
He estimates that 3.3 terabytes of data have already been downloaded and Bit Torrent and two other file-sharing networks, KaZaA and E-donkey, are also carrying the film.
About 5000 copies have been downloaded in New Zealand with the bulk from the United States.
The film's early success means it has probably already enjoyed more exposure than even the best-known New Zealand short films can muster through the conventional festival circuit.
While the move to digital recording and editing has revolutionised the film industry and allowed "guerrilla" film-makers to produce high-quality, low-cost productions, the web is increasingly acting as an alternative distribution channel, in much the same way independent music labels use the web to bypass overbearing record companies.
Film's love affair with the internet took off in 1999 when the low-budget handycam horror movie, The Blair Witch Project, generated dozens of fan websites and mailing lists - all before its release.
Its creators were credited with generating enough free publicity in cyberspace to ensure the movie was a blockbuster before it hit the silver screen.
By RICHARD PAMATATAU