Wed 6th Aug 2014, by Mike Hepburn | Productfocus
The film industry has always seemed magic to me. From my early days working on the iconic pictures at Lucasfilm to the groundbreaking work we do at Weta Digital, the alchemy of matte painting has never failed to capture my imagination.
Having the opportunity to write this foreword has allowed me to reflect on my career as a matte painter and the creativity, talent and skill I have witnessed along the way. When I started out in matte painting there were only a handful of people in the world who did it. I now work with many accomplished craftspeople with the creativity, knowledge and technology to create just about anything you can imagine.
It seems like it was all predestined, the way I slipped into this business. I was working in an art store in Pasadena, California, when one day a gentleman called John Eppolito came in asking if anyone knew airbrush technique and could teach his wife. I volunteered for the job and met with him at his house. In his attic he had a matte painting by the great Albert Whitlock. It was a beautiful image of a castle on a hill painted in the center of a pane of glass, the rest of which was painted black. I asked why it was black around the castle. He explained the black area was used to mask the live action footage that the painting would become part of. He asked if I thought I could do that. It’s an ironic moment when you meet a stranger who had something so obscure as a matte painting in his attic and almost prophetically makes you ask yourself “Could I do that?”. It was the beginning of a series of unlikely situations which, when strung together, led me to my career in matte painting.
I started working for John at Introvision learning the techniques and principles of matte painting and in a week or so started working on my first film, The Hazing. A few weeks later Battlestar Galactica went into production. I was sent down to a meeting with the producer Glen Larson on behalf of Introvision with just a few weeks experience under my belt. I met with Ralph McQuarrie and Joe Johnson and they asked about my background as a self-taught artist. I offered to show them some of my work, which I had fortuitously stuffed under my sweater prior to the meeting. It was not the most conventional way to present a portfolio but Joe remembered me and called me three months later to invite me up to Lucasfilm to be interviewed by George Lucas and Richard Edlund as an apprentice matte painter. I was hired and moved up to Marin County a few weeks later.
This cemented my new career and with Lucasfilm I worked on many great films, including The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Raiders of the Lost Ark, E.T., The Dark Crystal and Labyrinth. When I started out at Lucasfilm I worked as an apprentice under Alan Maley who taught me the early techniques of matte painting. The old way of painting was a very meticulous and perilous way to do a visual effect, because every time you exposed a negative you risked making a mistake that could destroy the original. Sometimes the matte painting would have several re-exposures for not only the painting but maybe some kind of light effect, double exposure or a hold out. Because it was all done on the original negative we had to do it with great care. The advent of the digital era has relieved us of the pressure of destroying the negative – although out of hundreds of paintings I was involved with back then we never destroyed a single shot.
After seven years as head of the matte department at Lucasfilm I began my own company, Matte World Digital, with Craig Barron. We started in an empty garage, but within seven years, we had worked on 27 films (including Dracula and Batman Returns) with several matte painters. This was an incredibly rewarding time for me. I took a hiatus from the industry at this point to spend some time with my family. During this period the industry changed dramatically and when I returned to it, I found that the digital revolution had taken hold. My artistic talent was still relevant but my technical experience had become obsolete. It was agonizing making the transition to the new paradigm but I wanted to do well and I had a duty to produce good work. I ploughed through and managed to teach myself how to work digitally.
I found the convenience of the modern methods had been a huge evolution in the matte painting process. Changes that would have once taken weeks, I could now do in seconds. I could replicate and manipulate digital footage without fear of destroying the original film. A whole new level of opportunities had been opened up. But the principles that I have learned through experience and through watching the great artists – such as core ideas of composition, color, light and simplicity – still apply today, although the technique may have changed.