How The Animatrix Set the Bar For What If…? and Star Wars: Visions

What If...? and Star Wars: Visions represent a new path for the world's biggest franchises, but The Animatrix set the model for the animated, tie-in anthology series almost 20 years ago.

Characters from the animated short film collection The Animatrix
Photo: Warner Bros.

Long before What If…? or Star Wars: Visions, there was The Animatrix, a collection of nine animated short films set in the world of The Matrix. Released in 2003, between The Matrix Reloaded and The Matrix Revolutions, The Animatrix told nine (mostly) distinct stories only tangentially related to the ongoing plot of the Matrix series proper, and Lana and Lilly Wachowski did it by collaborating with some of the best directors working in Japanese animation at the time. I would say that The Animatrix walked so What If…? and Star Wars: Visions could run… except for the fact that The Animatrix fucking soared.

What is The Animatrix?

The Animatrix is comprised of nine short films, with stories ranging from a “historical file” of how the Matrix was created out of the war between humanity and machines in two-parter “The Second Renaissance” to the minimalist black-and-white noir of “A Detective Story” to a Westworld-like feudal fighting exercise that takes place in a Matrix-like construct in “Program.” The Wachowskis came up with the ambitious premise for The Animatrix when they were in Japan doing promotion for the first Matrix film. While there, they visited some of the Japanese animation studios that inspired them, and the idea for The Animatrix was born.

While the Wachowskis are main creative forces behind The Animatrix, having written four of the nine films, they collaborated with seven different (mostly Japanese) directors for the project, including Cowboy Bebop director Shinichiro Watanabe; Koji Morimoto, who has worked on classics like Akira and Kiki’s Delivery Service; Studio Ghibli alum Mahiro Maeda, who has also worked on live-action movies like Mad Max: Fury Road and Kill Bill: Vol. 1; Avatar animation supervisor Andy Jones; Ninja Scroll director Yoshiaki Kawajiri; Madhouse studio co-founder Takeshi Koike; and Aeon Flux TV series creator Peter Chung. The collaboration resulted in a variety of different, striking visual styles that give each of the Animatrix stories a distinct look, despite being set in the same fictional universe.

When The Animatrix was released in 2003, the American and global media distribution models looked very different. There was TV and there was film, and there was very little blurring between the two. While TV was obviously the format more comfortable with a series of short installments, there were very few examples of more experimental anthology series in the TV industry at the time, especially one presented partially in a language other than English: Japanese.

Ad – content continues below

Still, the Wachowskis got creative with their release strategy for The Animatrix, which existed somewhere between the world of cinema and the world of TV. Four of the nine films were released on the Matrix series’ official website. One of the films was shown in cinemas alongside the feature Dreamcatcher. The collection was released in its entirety on VHS and DVD, alongside special features that included a documentary on Japanese animation, director profiles and interviews, and behind-the-scene footage of the films’ making. For some cinephiles (like this one, growing up in rural New Hampshire without cable), The Animatrix was an introduction to anime, which was much less accessible in 2003.

The Animatrix did get a TV release. In the U.S., censored versions of the films were broadcast on Adult Swim in 2004; in Canada, they aired on Teletoon in 2004; and, in the U.K., Channel 5 aired several of the shorts before and after the DVD’s release. The Animatrix had a short theatrical release in select cinemas globally in the lead up to The Matrix Reloaded—more of a promotional event than a commercial strategy specific to the collection of animated shorts. If you need any proof of just how much the media landscape is changed, The Animatrix is now available to stream instantly and from the comfort of your own home for anyone with an HBO Max subscription.

How What If…? & Star Wars: Visions Compare to The Animatrix

Though both falling under the ever-expanding umbrella of the Disney conglomerate, Marvel and Lucasfilm are taking very different approaches to their Animatrix-like collections of animated short films. Perhaps unsurprisingly given the aesthetic of the MCU, Marvel is using the same visual style for all installments of its What If…? anthology series. Director/producer Bryan Andrews told Screen Rant they considered using a different visual style for each episode before settling on a more consistent look both because it is easier to produce and because it creates a cohesion with the larger MCU.

“We need to make it feel like these are all subtle variations of a universe that we can all see, which is the MCU,” said Andrews. “The MCU looks a certain way, right? Because it’s all live-action. So, we needed something.” The look was inspired by “classic American illustrators, mainly J. C. Leyendecker, from the 20s and 30s.” Andrews calls the style “live-action adjacent,” intended to help the audience “buy into this as an animated telling of these movies I just watched.”

Meanwhile, Star Wars: Visions is going a different route, much more akin to the strategy of The Animatrix. While What If…? is firmly situated within an American animation tradition, the Visions stories have been created across seven Japanese anime studios, showcasing a variety of visual styles rooted in the Japanese animation tradition.

In a statement (via THR), Visions executive producer James Waugh said of the project: “Their stories showcase the full spectrum of bold storytelling found across Japanese animation; each told with a freshness and voice that expands our understanding of what a Star Wars story can be, and celebrates a galaxy that has been such an inspiration to so many visionary storytellers.”

Ad – content continues below

Neither strategy is inherently better than the other, though it’s hard not to see Star Wars: Visions as the more creatively ambitious of the two, given the breadth of its visual styles and the diversity of its chief creative creators. Regardless of how you feel about the latest additions to the MCU and Star Wars universes, the two series highlight just how ahead of its time The Animatrix truly was. Twenty years ago, the Wachowskis created a strange and beautiful series of tie-in shorts in collaboration with some of Japan’s best animators. They did this in a world that was much less globally-connected and in an industry that was much more formally rigid than the one we know today. Pour one out for The Animatrix.

Star Wars: Vision will premiere Sept. 22 on Disney+. What If…? drops new episodes every Wednesday on Disney+. The Animatrix is available to stream on HBO Max.