Art director, VFX supervisor and matte artist Ivo Horvat was studying transportation design at Art Center College of Design when he decided to drop out and go to work in the film industry. Since then he has created matte paintings and concept art, as well as supervised VFX work, for many films including Avengers: Age of Ultron, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Star Wars: Episode One, Starship Troopers and many other films. While at Sony Pictures Imageworks, he also collaborated with Maxon, the maker of Cinema 4D, to create the matte painting projection tools that eventually became Projection Man, a toolset currently used by many visual effects professionals. 

For Good Kill, Ivo Horvat turned footage of an abandoned airfield into a realistic-looking military airbase. 

These days, Horvat is a busy freelancer known for adeptly taking on multiple roles. He particularly enjoys working with directors to create the imagery they envision for their films. Recently, he worked with director Andrew Niccol (Gattaca, The Truman Show) on Good Kill, a film about an Air Force drone pilot (Ethan Hawke) who struggles with his feelings about running bombing missions in Afghanistan while remaining safely in Las Vegas. He was also tapped to create a sweeping opening shot for Rise, a sci-fi film being developed by Warner Bros. 

Here’s what Horvat had to say about his work on both projects:

Maynard: These two films are clearly different, but are there similarities between them that made you the right person for these jobs?

Horvat: I would say that in both cases I was pulled in because there wasn’t a lot of concept art, reference material or design in place for the VFX process. I prefer that, really, you inherit a blank sheet of paper where directors can describe their vision in purely narrative or emotional terms. I love that freedom and, as it happens, I speak ‘director’. I like that because I get to be completely creative, though I’m also aware of the tremendous responsibility that comes with that freedom.

Maynard: Describe what you created for Good Kill

Horvat created an accurate environment after thoroughly researching military bases. 

Horvat: I did the majority of the VFX shorts for Good Kill. With smaller films, one artist can make a big impact, as opposed to just being a cog in a wheel. And while I’m fine with that paradigm too, the opportunity to do something creatively complex is really fulfilling. There was no production designer on the film at this point, so I helped them devise the environments needed to fit the narrative, such as the military airbase. I worked directly with Andrew, and after a couple of meetings, I had three months to complete around 30 shots. 

Maynard: Were you there for the shoot?

Matte painting is a powerful tool to increase the scale of a small film, as shown here in this before and after. 

Horvat: No. That’s always best, but it was already in the can in this case. Thankfully VFX supervisor, Craig Lyn, had planned everything very well and the director, Andrew Niccol, shot everything artfully, as he does. I had to keep filmic continuity across the shots and make the airbase similar to, but slightly different from, an existing base that serves as an actual hub for drones. 

Maynard: What software did you use, primarily? 

Maintaining location continuity through the use of repeated objects and features helped create a subconscious cinema space for audience orientation.

Horvat: Cinema 4D was my main tool for scene setup, projection and rendering projections for shots. I used Photoshop for matte painting and After Effects for compositing. I also used VRayforC4D for lighting and rendering stills of some of the 3D models that went into paintings as projections to save render time. In this case, many different views of the same projected environments were needed, and that is where C4D comes in. I’m old school when it comes to projection: I still like to use full 3D tools, and Cinema has the best projection toolset for complex situations like these.

Maynard: Talk a little bit about how you went about constructing the shots you created. 

Horvat used C4D for scene setup, projection and rendering projection shots for Good Kill

Horvat: I created the widest shots of the base first, starting as I generally do with sketches. In this case, I worked directly on photographic plates from the film and at a much higher resolution. If you work that way, your sketches can be used as matte painting elements and projected as needed. Then, I built simple but accurate geometry to dimensionalize the features of the painting. This gave us an almost complete environment using only projections that could be rendered from the many different camera angles of the various scenes we needed.  

In this case the result was an almost complete environment using only projections that could be brought into the many different camera angles of the various scenes we needed. With individual render cameras for each scene matched in worldspace, most shots were plug and play. In terms of subject matter I had some existing things to work with, like the front guard tower and some buildings, but I needed to add everything else as a series of painted and projected imagery. I did a bunch of research on things like security systems, lighting, signage, barricades, aircraft ground infrastructure and how military equipment is stacked and stored so I could emulate a in Arizona where drone pilots are actually stationed. 

Assets like the F-16s and Predator drones in Good Kill were rendered stills touched up in Photoshop and reprojected. 

Maynard: How does your work enhance the emotional feel of the film? 

Horvat: These film is about the difficulties of combat stress, even for those not in warzones. It is also about how these pilots, some of whom sacrificed much to fly, are flying less and less. My job was to convey those subtler themes through the design of the environments that surrounded the characters. There’s always the lingering sense of flight just out of reach, conveyed by carefully placed mothballed planes, or the trappings of flight that are visibly not in use. This was all about a pilot who doesn’t actually fly anymore, yet the world of flying is omnipresent, killing him inside. It was a wonderful opportunity to use paintcraft to express ideas of that depth. 

Maynard: Let’s switch gears now and talk about Rise. What were you asked to do for this project?

Horvat’s approved concept for Rise

Horvat: I was asked to do the opening shot for Rise, a short film about a robot uprising directed by David Karlak (The Candidate). The setting is Chicago 35 years from now the studio’s VFX supervisor knows I have a passion for sci-fi design and futurism, so this was right up my alley. Automata and robots feature heavily in the story, so I thought the environment should reflect that. I pitched the design language of a world heavily influenced by AI and ordered in a way that human cities aren’t. The director liked that idea, so I created a concept to illustrate it. 

For Rise, Horvat created a futuristic Chicago heavily influenced by machines and with more waterways. 

This was full CG, so I was able to sketch freely, thinking only about composition, design and the feel of the lighting. I wanted it to be comprised of raked graphic shapes to quickly convey advanced technology and I chose lighting that flattered high tech but also evoked the manmade age. The shot needed to feel like the careful opening of a book to start the story. 

Maynard: Describe your process after sketches are approved?

Horvat used Cinema 4D to model skyscrapers for the Rise project. 

Horvat: I polished the approved sketch to make it photoreal and then assessed other techniques such as 2.5D and full 3D. I had to complete the environment based on the camera move I envisions, so I cut the artwork into layers to be projected in Cinema and then created projection geometry. 

The foreground needed detailed radar towers, solar cells, helipads and antennae to hold up to viewer scrutiny, even subconsciously. Keeping in mind the lighting angle and look, I modeled shapes to take light a specific way, composed them to fit the moving composition and added the flying Ospreys. Everything is textured traditionally using glassy shaders with graphic window textures. V-Ray was used to render them along with an HDRI I created to match the painting so the 3D buildings would appear to reflect the 2.5D construct. 

The final shot includes 2D matte paintings on cards created and shared with After Effects, a projected 2.5D setup and rendered in C4D and 3D geometry rendered in V-Ray. All of the footage was assembled in After Effects using the Cinema 4D to After Effects feature.  It was lot of work, but as I say, there are no small shots, only small visions.

Maynard: What’s next for you?

Horvat: I continue to work on features, commercials and television VFX while creating a personal narrative piece called Everpresence, which I hope to complete in the next year. 

Meleah Maynard is a freelance writer and editor in Minneapolis, Minnesota.