Monday, August 24, 2009

Traditional Mattepaiting and Albert Whitlock

Today I was digging a bit deeper into history of mattepainting, one of my favorite craft associated with visual effects. Though we all seen the craft of mattepainting in very early specials effect films such as the A Trip to the Moon, the digital craft was really perfected by few elite group of men in Hollywood mainly during mid and late 90s. As from my preliminary search on web I think there ain't much information on Internet on this but what I found is worth posting here.

First of all here is an almost comprehensive list of those artists by a VFX artist called Domingo Lizcano. He had done a great job collecting images and matte paintings of almost all the artists used who used traditional methods of mattepainting. It is quite difficult to find articles and resources on these old techniques, maybe there isn't much information on traditional methods of mattepaiting because of the closed nature of Hollywood during that era.

Anyway a good insight into these techniques can be found this book called 'The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting'. It is important note that one of the coauthor of this book, Craig Baron worked in ILM during early days for Return of the Jedi(1983) and others. After ILM he founded Matte World Digital, one of my favorite VFX studio. I particularly admire their work because of its invisible nature. It is very evident in their work for Benjamin Button which made Baron won a Oscar for VFX.

As I said I am big fan of invisible visual effects and this is one the reason why I admire the work of all these old great artists. One of the legend of this invisible craft was Albert Whitlock, he is considered as one of the most skilled matte artist of all time. He was born in London in 1915 and started his career by working in film warehouse, then miniature painters to helping carpenters, creating titles and then signs for several of Hitchcock's early classics and later he had worked for Disney and finally Universal as matte artist.

(Excerpt from Albert Whitlock: A Master of Illusion)

Following are few of my favorite Albert Withlock matte paintings.

Mattepainting with live action (History of the World: Part I (1981))

Original live action plate and matte of above shot

Image and video hosting by TinyPic
Mattepainting with live action (The Birds (1962))
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

A Photo realistic Matte Painting from film Earthquake
Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Mattepainting with live action (History of the World: Part I (1981))
There quite lot of good shots and I can't include them all here but here is a montage put together by Craig Baron for Visual Effects Society's tribute to Albert Whitlock talk session.

Floyd W. Martin on his article on Whitlock states that most of the films he worked were not Sc-Fi or visual effects oriented films but normal films in which mattepaitings were subtly used to tell the story. Martin continues, Whitlock was often depicted the natural world through his paintings and extensively used the technique of perspective & depth which Italian Renaissance mastered perfected. Though Whitlock associated himself with Fresh impressionist art movement which studied the affects of light on objects than objects itself.

Following is an excerpt from Whitlock's interview by Super-8 Filmaker magazine on above subject of the effect he looks for in a mattepainting.
Well, you can't live on matte shot for a lifetime. Eventually you realize that it's quantity that film producers are interested in, so you start developing techniques whereby you can turn out quantities. So by necessity, you find yourself in a situation where you're looking for minimum of effort. As my mentor in England would say, the right kind of scribble is better than wrong kind of painting. After a little bit of accidental painting you realize that you're painting something close impressionism.

Like impressionistic painting, my paintings are not concerned with the object, but the effect of light on the object.
He further continues in the interview stating, whenever he looks for a reference he don't look for the exact reference he could find in terms of the location or the subject but in fact he look for a similar reference which has the same lighting condition which he want replicate in his shot. According to him, "In there you have phenomena, which is much more important for creating a realistic effect. the light, the time of day and effects in that painting are much more important than the individual buidlings which nobody would take account of. "

This above statement of Whitlock had an instant strike on my mind because I never looked at my work in this perspective though I pay lot of attention to lighting on my work but I never wondered that those buildings or structures in my painting will never exits if there is no light. I think a normal viewer would often think if there is no light then it is a night shot but only very few would think even in a night shot there are lights.

I think we all have to closely look at and study the methodologies which masters like Whitlock used to perfect their paintings. It is especially very important in this digital era where these concepts are very much overlooked because of the simplicity of the tools we use.

To end this write up I am quoting couple of authors from articles on Whitlock, firstly from Matrin whose article I mentioned before;
'Though his work may go unrecognized because it is so convincing, Whitlock's artistry with special effects is important in understanding three concepts: the collaboration necessary in movie-making, the need to use effects for budgetary reasons, and the fact that film is a two-dimensional illusionistic medium.'
And finally to quote Ray Zone on his article called Matte Painting Monet in American Cinematographer Magazine July 2000 issue
He was truly unique a master painter with the precise mind of a photographer. He would paint in f-stops and light his images according to the key lights and fill of the original photography the kinds of computations that are done today by highly complex computer software. Whitlock made such calculations in his head, and he knew what would work on the screen. "Hopefully, the camera does lie," Whitlock said, "because it’s looking at a painting that we are trying to convince people is the real thing."

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Some bitter truth about the industry

Yesterday I saw this old thread in about interview of Hollywood illustrator/storyboard artist, Sylvain Despretz and interestingly Despretz himself had commented there few days ago. Go through the thread if you have time since it has some valuable information and different views, even Dylan Cole has his say (guess he was active in the forum almost 5 years back).

The more I think about these issues I feel it is notl ironic when someone says you need have a lot of luck or be at the right place at right time. Actually it matters a lot and God knows what holds for budding artists but anyway all one could do is just work your ass off and be persistent no matter what.

Here are few are quotes which I felt very interesting and insightful from his interview hosted at
"You could say that most people are essentially interested in the Prestige of the movies that I worked on, more so than any objective notions of personal artistry, or drawings, but I guess you can’t ask too much of people."

"I have learned that Professionalism is often antithetical to Enthusiasm, but that when given a choice, it is also more reliable.

'I am a sort of Artistic Rent-A-Friend; “rent” being the operative word.'

"In music, after enjoying a Century of rich and heartfelt compositions in Contemporary Classical, Jazz, Big Band, Blues, Rock & Roll, all disciplines requiring a decent amount of Skillfulness, we are asked to accept Star-Puppets barking to walls of prerecorded sounds…They even have a new name for “ripping-off without crediting”: it’s now called “Sampling”.

There is an another article by Despretz called 'YOU WANT TO BE A HOLLYWOOD ARTIST?'. Even thought it is more based on illustrator/storyboard artist scenario, it still holds lot of things similar for other artistic trades in film industry. I really liked this article and here are few excerpts from it.
Is there a standard path to a career in film arts?
There is no path to a career in the film arts, or any kind of art, for that matter; this should be the first thing art schools ought to tell their students: "We haven't a clue; no one does". The problem for a student or young professional is three-fold:

a) Acquiring experience, to become competitive.
b) Making money just to live, in a way that remains at least on target.
c) Breaking into the "gated community" of show business.

I'm being offered a job today, but I want to hold out for a better one that promises to begin soon; what should I do?
This is a Jedi Mind Trick; the better job may manifest, sooner or later, but most likely, it won't. Common wisdom says that you might consider taking whatever job is in front of you - even if only for the time being. Look out for you; no one else does.
And here is my favorite one and believe me or not this happened to me already few times even in my short career span.
Will talking about money reflect negatively on me?
You bet it will!

You are expected to behave like Van Gogh.

The industrial world relies on Artistic low self-esteem for its survival. The hunched-back, Igor-like, image of the drooling Artist-Geek, chained to a drawing table, is a staple of our business. To complete that image, you need do nothing more than be ashamed of your need for money. People will be delighted.

Learn to identify the euphemisms of the trade:

"We want people who are excited about the project": We are looking for suckers.
"We would like to send you the script before we discuss money": We are looking for suckers.
"We want team players": We are looking for suckers.
"You are so talented": Are you a sucker?
"He's a trooper": He's a sucker.
"We getting a crop of young artists": We are looking for suckers.
"He's High Maintenance": He's figured us out.

Only then, can you identify the only sign that you are dealing with a professional outfit:
"Are you available; what is your rate?": We mean business!

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Ancestor of Vue or Fractcal Noise?

Vol Libre from Loren Carpenter on Vimeo.

I made this film in 1979-80 to accompany a SIGGRAPH paper on how to synthesize fractal geometry with a computer. It is the world's first fractal movie. It utilizes 8-10 different fractal generating algorithms. I used an antialiased version of this software to create the fractal planet in the Genesis Sequence of Star Trek 2, the Wrath of Khan. These frames were computed on a VAX-11/780 at about 20-40 minutes each.

Loren Carpenter
I think this is one of the most commonly used algorithm in 2D and 3D computer graphcis today. To know more about its humble beginings read Act II of Micheal Rubin's book driodMaker.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Cognitive use of color in films.

Today I read a very good article on cognitive use of color treatment in films by Isaac Botkin, the author of book called Outside Hollywood.

According to Botkin, 'Color can be used to communicate information to audiences in all kinds of ways. For example, the storyline in Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic takes place in three different places, each of which is a very different color. Viewers can instantly tell where characters are and what part of the story they are watching. This is a very obvious way to communicate basic information.' He also states that colors can be used to create an emotional state such as safety and danger by altering the mood from warm to cool colors.

It is interesting to note how different directors use colors differently, to explain this Botkin closely examine Ridely Scott's Black Hawk Down and how it bended the normal norms of color treatment. To read more on that check out Botkin's article Color Theory for Cinematographers.

Finally Butkin had posted color chart of the movie Black Hawk Down created by
Brendan Dawes.
(For more color charts check out Dawes's website)

Butkin states that if we look at right color gradient strip we can clearly see the film’s acts and turning points highlighted clearly. When I first vaguely read this article it reminded me of visual cognitive lessons I took back in my college. So Just to refresh my memory on this subject I read through some of my old notes and wrote my insights here as follows:

It is important to note that color is only one of the visual component the director has in his arsenal to alter the visual intensity of any shot. The visual intensity of the shot depends upon the intensity of the story structure and story structure is break down into basically four sections namely Exposition, Conflict, Climax and Resolution. Here is the graph which shows the story intensity at various levels of a story.
Here we can see the graph rising at the Exposition (EX) leading to Conflict (CO) then reaching its peak at the Climax (CX) and finally falls down to the Resolution (R). According to Bruce Block, the author of book called 'The Visual Story: Creating the Visual Structure of Film, TV and Digital Media' , all good stories follows this uphill structure.

I think this structure is very apparent if we look at the color gradient strip of Black Hawk Down, in which according to Butkin, cool colors suggest safety, warm colors suggest danger and finally green color suggest most intense part.

So once we understand the story structure we could use the visual components to get desired intensity. The author Block explains this in his book
using Principle of Contrast and Affinity which basically states, the greater the contrast in a visual component, the more the visual intensity. The greater the affinity in a visual component, the more the visual intensity decreases.

The other main visual components that can be used to create visual intensity are Line, shape, tone, color, movement and rhythm. Its beyond the scope of this post to go into detail of each of them but here are couple of screenshots from Block's book which explains these components graphically.
As a compositor/VFX artist, I strongly believe it is important to understand the story structure in order to alter the intensity of the shot according to director's vision. Since all of these visual components plays a important role in achieving a good composition which helps to sell the particular shot to audience.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Rotoscoping Basics by Scott Squires

This is pretty old podcast but every time I watch it I learn something new so I thought I post here so that I could come back watch it again in future.

Don't forget to check out Scott Squires's great blog.