• We had trouble finding Jean Bolte in Industrial Light & Magic’s new state of the art building in San Francisco. The group working on ‘Eragon’ had disbanded the day before, and everyone had moved onto new projects. Bolte, who had covered the surface of the dragon in ‘Eragon’ with painted textures, would soon be painting textures for ‘The Spiderwick Chronicles,’ which was ramping up for a February, 2008 release.

    People were just settling into their new digs. “No,” the ‘Transformer’ group said, “They’re not near here. Try the third floor.”

    “Not here,” said the ‘Pirates’ crew. “Try the fourth floor.”

    “We’re growing so fast,” said my guide as we walked down another long hallway to the elevator. So fast, it turns out, that ILM is pushing LucasArts out of the connecting four-story building and into another on the Letterman Digital Arts campus.

    Finally, we called her on a cell phone and got directions. In her new workspace - two walls and half a cubicle, she had already filled the bookcase opposite her desk with reference books. Two paintings hung on the wall above the bookcase; her personal work. In each, she had painted two brightly colored devilish-looking clowns against a background of tiny red sperm-like creatures. “When I started painting the devil clowns, I felt compelled to do them in pairs,” she says. “I had never done anything like them. I was painting fear and craziness. I realized at some point that I was painting Bush and Cheney. Now that I know, I have to stop.”
    On the floor, leaning up against the bookcases, Bolte had propped several pieces of black cardboard. “The first thing I do when I move onto a show is go through all my books,” she says. “I love having paper on cardboard to show people.” She had saved this reference work from her early days on ‘Eragon'.

    On one piece of black cardboard, she had pasted photos of fish with iridescent scales. On a second, pictures of butterflies. A third collected a group of animal eyes. She pulled yet another from the corner of her space. This one had claws.

    From these she had fabricated texture maps for the entire surface of Saphira, the 15-foot dragon star of ‘Eragon’, from head to wingtip to talon. The process took nearly a year.

    Bolte works in Photoshop, from digital scans of such images as those on the black cardboard and from digital photos she snaps of other reference materials. ILM calls the process viewpainting. “From the beginning, we wanted to make something that hasn’t been seen before,” she says.

    Even so, she turned to natural substances to ground the creature in reality, one of director Stephen Fangmeier’s mandates, and Bolte’s preference. “I like taking texture and color from nature,” she says. “Nature is astonishing; we can’t improve on it. It’s better if we don’t change it too much to keep the essence real. So, viewpainting is like collage.”
    For Saphira’s body, one tricky bit was in making the scales. “We had to place each one just so with the knowledge of how it fit to the body and how it moved,” she says. To place the scales, CG supervisors John Helms devised a directional displacement shader. Essentially, this technique uses a directional flow field to slant the displacements. Kevin Reuter’s shader handled the rendering. “When they’re rendered, the scales look like they overlap even though they don’t,” says Bolte. She reaches into a brown grocery sack and pulls out several plastic bags filled with papery snake skins, reference for the texture.

    She found the snake skins in Berkeley at the East Bay Vivarium, which claims to be the nation’s largest and oldest retail herpetological store. “I scanned the snake skins on a flatbed scanner and applied them to her body,” Bolte says, “by bending them in Photoshop.” She also painted colors into the scanned textures, a task complicated by Saphira’s color, one of the challenges Bolte needed to address. The book of the same name, on which 20th Century Fox based the movie, has a bright blue dragon on its cover. “She’s big,” Bolte says of Saphira. “But in nature, brightly colored animals are small and really big ones are muted. As much as we wanted her to be stunning, her color is the least organic thing about her.”
    Bolte started with scans of a rusty dumpster, changing the colors to give the winged reptile a gold-toned underbelly with a monochromatic grayish-blue over the rest of her body. She often painted the textures with a one-pixel brush. “Each scale has enough high resolution detail so that if the camera goes close, there is something to see,” she says. An iridescence map added hits of blue, and gray scale maps painted by Bolte controlled the hits; light areas on the map catch the iridescence, darker areas don’t. Bolte also painted a bump map. “It’s sort of a noisy pattern,” she says. “I looked at fish, the way their scales don’t always reflect light.”

    And, a map for specularity - the highlight - that, like the other maps that control aspects of lighting, is in grayscale. This map has random spots of gray. “Specularity is what kicks the light,” she says. “We didn’t want her to have a big sheen because each scale is different. We wanted angle kicks in chunks.” For Saphira’s claws, Bolte referenced raptor talons; for her horns, a buffalo horn that she photographed; for her wings, at least in the beginning, bat wings. Before painting the wing textures, she spread the wings of several captive bats, guests at a nearby bat conservancy, on a light table. Then, the filmmakers asked for bird-like wings.
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  • From another grocery sack next to her desk, Bolte grabs a handful of the feathers that she used for reference. She spreads them apart like a poker hand. They’re beautiful. Perhaps too beautiful for the filmmakers. “They wanted something more robust,” Bolte says. “Something strong enough to reflect bullets.” She went back to the Bone Room, a store in Berkeley that specializes in natural history items, and found, remarkably, a stuffed pangolin. She rented it, and took a series of high-resolution photos of the creature’s scales. She coined the term “skethers” to describe the mix of scale and feather. “Each feather on Saphira is geometry, from top to bottom,” she explains. “Each feather became an overlapping hard object; the feathers all have pangolin scales on them. She flew as if she had a feathery wing, but the sheen on the wings made them look stronger.”

    For Saphira’s eyes, Bolte referenced actress Meg Ryan’s eyes. “We had an extreme close-up of her eyes from the movie ‘Innerspace,’” Bolte says. “They’re beautiful.” Ryan’s eyes helped Bolte create a more feminine look for Saphira, as did feathers on the side of Saphira’s head and her shimmery color. “She’s attractive even though she’s a reptile,” she says, adding, “It was tricky making a hard scaly reptile look feminine. And [these things] helped keep her from looking like she was derivative of something else.”

    Indeed, Bolte had once supervised the modeling of another dragon’s head for ILM - the dragon in the film ‘Dragonheart’. She began her career at ILM in the model shop fabricating and painting physical models, not digital - the last stop on a journey that began in Kansas City and wound through London before ending in California. After graduating from high school in Kansas City, Bolte moved to London to study English literature. Other than life drawing and painting classes taken occasionally at local colleges, she has never studied art.
    In London, because she was “illegal,” she found work in the theater making props, costumes and wigs, and doing makeup. That led to a job with Jim Henson Productions where she created creatures and makeup for ‘Labyrinth,’ ‘The Storyteller’ and ‘Witches & The Bear,’ and worked on other projects including ‘Greystoke’.

    Also in London, she headed a small effects company where she specialized in creating realistic animal models. She joined ILM to create models for the transformation sequence in ‘Willow’; the models were used for the first CG morph in a feature film. In 1992, she became a project supervisor in ILM’s model and creature shop and then, in 1993, ‘Jurassic Park’ happened. “I’d sneak over to the CG building,” she says. “I thought, ‘This is where it’s going.’ So, the company trained me to paint.”

    In 1994, she moved to the computer graphics department where Caroline Rendu, a graphic artist on ‘Jurassic Park,’ became her mentor. “That’s often what happens - someone near helps us learn,” she says. Since then, Bolte has painted textures for ‘Eraser’, ’Jumanji,’ ‘Men in Black’, and ‘Star Wars,’ acting as viewpaint supervisor for ‘Episodes I’ and ‘II’, and other films. She stepped away from the CG department to supervise models for ‘Dragonheart’, but now, her sculpture is largely personal work.

    “I mostly do studies,” she says, “using oil-based clay. I see sculpture less as art and more as training my eye, honing my skills. I do portraits of people.” One of her favorite sculptors is Ron Mueck, who does meticulous realistic sculptures of people over scaled and under scaled. She also likes painter Lucien Freud’s work.
    Her own paintings, though, are not studies in realism. Take her paintings of voodoo dogs, for example. “I’ve been painting these animals for years,” she says. “They’re neutral. My feelings for wildlife don’t anthropomorphize.” She starts painting by layering burnt umber onto the canvas and smearing it while still wet with paper towels and her fingers. “It looks like my grandparents’ wallpaper,” she says. “I can see faces in it, patterns and forms. It’s so easy to get into conformity. This pushes me into strangeness.”

    Her daughters ages four and seven, with whom she shares her studio at home, also push her away from conformity. “They don’t edit all the time,” she says. She matches their school hours by leaving work at 2:00.
    After more than ten years as a viewpainter, Bolte is still happy with her choice, particularly when a project like ‘Eragon’ is behind her and she’s starting something new. “I love the early stages when I’m scavenging stuff and taking pictures with my camera,” she says as she packs away the feathers, the snake skins, and photos of fish, butterflies and claws on black cardboard. “The work can sometimes be frustrating, but it’s never tedious. I love this job.”

    Related links:
    Eragon movie site
    Industrial Light and Magic
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