The last time anyone took an animated science-fiction anthology seriously was in 1981. Steve Perry was on the soundtrack and it was called ''Heavy Metal.'' Journey eventually made a comeback; sci-fi vignettes starring glowing green orbs did not.
Leave it to the Wachowskis to embrace the cartoon-omnibus genre and make it shiny again. ''The Animatrix'' is a series of nine animated shorts that will expand the ''Matrix'' universe (they're not essential to understanding the movies, but they do provide some impress-your-friends detail and back story for ''Reloaded'') and supply a convenient fix until ''Revolutions'' comes out in November. Since the movies' action sequences were inspired by such Asian anime classics as ''Akira'' and ''Ghost in the Shell,'' the brothers felt they had to pay their respects to the genre. So, shortly after the first movie's release, the brothers decided to get their geek on by commissioning films from some of their favorite animation directors, most of whom are based in Japan. ''We talked about doing it as a television series,'' says Joel Silver, producer of the ''Matrix'' movies. Instead, Warner Bros.' home video division persuaded them to use the collection as a promotional vehicle and to release it on video.
Three of the shorts -- ''A Detective Story,'' ''Program,'' and ''The Second Renaissance Part 1'' -- are already available on the Web at www.intothematrix.com; ''The Second Renaissance Part 2,'' which completes the two-episode prequel explaining the origin of the Matrix, premieres in May. And ''Final Flight of the Osiris,'' an extended computer-animated action sequence so photo-realistic that the main character appears to need lip balm, has been playing in theaters before the Stephen King adaptation ''Dreamcatcher'' since that film opened in late March.
All nine ''Animatrix'' episodes (ranging from 7 1/2 to 17 minutes) will be collected on a $24.98 DVD (or $19.98 VHS) due in stores June 3, nearly three weeks after ''Reloaded'' debuts. ''Initially there was some pressure on us to make things come together in advance, because there was such a gap between 'The Matrix' and 'Reloaded,''' says Michael Arias, an ''Animatrix'' producer. ''But we weren't able to finish it any sooner.'' Although directors spent up to two years in production, the last episode was only delivered in December.
''Osiris,'' the technological jewel in the crown, comes from the team that hatched the 2001 feature ''Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within,'' and cost $5 million to make. ''It sets up the story that goes through 'Reloaded' and 'Revolutions,''' says Silver. The rest of the shorts were far less expensive, with budgets of around a half million dollars each (a pittance by Pixar standards, but one director says it's four times the budget he gets for one episode of his weekly TV series).
The Wachowskis provided two-to-six-page story treatments to all of the shorts' directors. But some animators, though fans of ''The Matrix,'' initially balked at adapting someone else's work. ''There have been a lot of ill-fated American-Japanese collaborations,'' says Arias. ''No one was too eager right off the bat.''
Koji Morimoto, animation supervisor of 1988's ''Akira'' and director of an episode called ''Beyond,'' stated from the outset that he wanted creative control. ''To make the best film possible, it had to come from inside myself,'' he says. The Wachowskis obliged him and several other directors.