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

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Mattepainting with live action (The Birds (1962))
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A Photo realistic Matte Painting from film Earthquake
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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."
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