Creating the Matte Paintings
I was enthusiastic about working on The Empire Strikes Back because I had worked on Star Wars and it was a very enjoyable experience working with Gary Kurtz and especially George Lucas, for whom I have a great deal of admiration and whom I like as a person.
I was unable to join the picture until the post-production phase, when all of the first unit photography had been completed, so I came in with approximately six months left. I was presented with the live action plates as they had been shot and given the job of creating the matte shots to go with those plates. We ended up by having approximately 50 matte paintings in the show.
Initially the problem was that a lot of the equipment we had counted on using had not been completed. We had intended to use front-projection fairly extensively, but the equipment was not finished when I came. In fact, the lamp-house was still being built. Things like that are always a bit worrisome, because you know you are going to have to do a little research and development while you are trying to get the picture done. But we were fortunate; we put in a lot of long hours and had a lot of helpful people and I think we got the job done on a satisfactory level.
My initial worry was that there were a number of plates that had been shot in England and, for one reason or another, weren’t as they should be. We had a number of plates that were out of focus; we had a number of plates that had some degree of camera movement in them, a little jiggle. We thought, “Gee, if these plates have such things wrong with them, what other problems might we have that we don’t know about yet?” So we just kind of took it a day at a time.
We were on a very tight schedule, which is always the case. You can never have long enough, but that’s the nature of the business. We put our faith in the front-projection unit, feeling that it would be the right way to go. As it turned out, we used front projection; we used some rear-projection; we used bi-pack, and we also shot matte paintings onto VistaVision as VistaVision elements to be composited optically on the optical printer. So we used quite a number of methods to get the job done and that was because we found, as we got into each shot, that certain advantages from each method would apply to that shot better than other methods and give us the best possible result. Each method had its disadvantages, certainly, but you can minimize those if you are not worried about that particular disadvantage on that particular shot.
On the several methods that we used (front-projection, rear-projection and bi-pack), we still ended up by using both low-contrast plates and separation masters, depending upon the subject matter. If we wanted to have the contrast slightly increased, as perhaps in the case of a shot that was a little soft, we could pump the contrast and give it a little sharpness. Where we were very concerned about grain, very concerned about reproduction quality, then we would use separations. Generally, that’s kind of the way it broke down.
Toward the end of our work on the film, it got a little tense. You don’t want to switch horses in midstream too often, because very time you do it sets you back a week or two, while you kind of bring along the new method and do tests and hope to get rid of the gremlins and the glitches. So it becomes a little tricky as the weeks start compressing on you and you begin counting the days. There is a lot of finger-crossing and a lot of hoping that you can stick with a method that is going to pan out. Eventually, if it’s not panning out, you’ve got to make a decision pretty quickly to go to another method and it gets rather interesting. We shipped our last shot on the very last day, literally. We shot it on a weekend and knew that whatever we shot would have to go into the picture. Luckily, it was a good shot. It was a very simple one, as a matter of fact, but you never know which ones are going to be tough.
There were many times more matte paintings in Empire than there were in Star Wars, and I was fortunate to have the help of Ralph McQuarrie to do probably about half the mattes. That was a tremendous help to me because there was an enormous amount of work piled up when I got there. We started painting immediately, just digging into the pile and doing paintings. I was still greatly concerned with the mechanics of the situation and seeing that the equipment was coming along the way it shouldmaking the right tests and pushing that along, as well as getting the paintings done. So it was great to have Ralph, who is a tremendous artist and was also the Conceptual Artist on the film, just to be there and do paintings at the same time. That saved me.
There are, of course, a number of sequences throughout the film where matte paintings are used and they are all quite different in terms of locale. One is the snow, one is the Cloud City, one is an interior, one is on the Bog Planet. We had mattes scattered throughout. There is one major sequence in which many matte paintings are used. It takes place at the end of the film, when Darth Vader and Luke are having a laser sword fight inside a giant tube that kind of runs away to nothing. They are on a catwalk above it, inside Cloud City and, at one point, Luke falls and we follow him down the shaft. That’s a painting with a rear-projected element for blue screen. In other words, Luke was just photographed against blue, spinning on a wire with a tied-off camera. What we had to do was have him come in from the top of the frame, follow him down the shaft, and then have him go away. So his rear-screen elements had to be projected with motion control. We had to do a move on that, as well as match the move on the paintings. It’s quite believable.
In that sequence there are probably a dozen paintings. Some are combined; most of them are front-projection. (One of the advantages of front projection is that we are able to take a plate and reduce it slightly, thereby helping to maintain the quality.) Some of the paintings were shot as backgrounds for blue screen elements. When I saw the finished film for the first timewhich was, of course, very exciting and filled with anticipation for me I noted that the sequence flows very smoothly. The blue screen footage and mattes cut together with the production footage quite smoothly and I don’t think many people will be aware of the differences. Of course, as is George Lucas’ method, he cuts very quickly, as well, and the story is very exciting at that pointall of which helps.
That matte paintings for the Cloud City sequence were exteriors used as backgrounds when the Millennium Falcon (Han Solo’s spaceship) lands on a pad and takes off later. They served as transitional shots between the approaches to Cloud City through the clouds and the interior. Those were kind of quick throw-aways, but I think they worked pretty well because, in this case, you’ve got a matte shot that obviously has to represent something other than reality. Everybody knows full well that there are no cities that are floating in the cloudsand nobody has yet built one for a filmso it has to be produced by some degree of cinema magic. But these are the kinds of matte shots that always worry me. When you are extending actual sets or putting in backgrounds of hills and mountains, something that the audience can relate to as being real, then if you’ve succeeded the audience won’t notice it. But with a Cloud City, people will say: “This has to be a painting; it has to be a miniature; it has to be something, because a city floating in the air can’t possibly exist in reality.” So shots like those are perhaps the most anxiety-producing mattes of all. Ralph McQuarrie did a good number of those paintings and, of course, he had a great deal of design sense for Cloud City. Also, the sequence takes place at sunset, which gives the visuals a nice, eerie, other worldly glow. I hope all of these things combine to create the illusion successfully.
All that matters is if the audience will believe it on the screen. The fact is that people who know nothing about how these things are done can still tell us whether the effect is good or bad. You don’t have to know what a 10K is to know whether you like or dislike a movie, and that’s something we tend to forget. We say, “What do they know?” But they know. They’ve used their eyes all their lives and they know when something doesn’t look exactly right. There isn’t a little sign that says, “matte line” or “jiggle” or “dupe”. It just says, “Oops!” It distracts them. It takes their minds off the story. The Empire Strikes Back has a terrific story, an interesting story, a strong storyand that’s where your mind should be. Anything technical that jars you a little bit is going to distract you. So your effects have to flow and fit in neatly. I hope they do in this picture. I think they do. I’ve seen it once and I was quite pleased.
For our front-projection set-up we had a Bell & Howell camera box, which we also used for the bi-pack capability on top with a 100mm Cinemascope (Bausch & Lomb) lens.
The projector, which was a VistaVision projector, was constructed at ILM; the lamphouse was designed and constructed partly at ILM; some of the optics were designed outside. So the lamphouse, which was sort of made from scratch, was set off 90 degrees from the camera. We had a beam-splitter piece of glass through which we projected the image onto front-projection material, which we put behind the glass. As a result, because we had this material behind the glass, we had to tilt the painting slightly so that you wouldn’t see a direct reflection of the light source back into the camera. That kind of solved the problem.
We didn’t want to put the front-projection material on the front of the glass initially because we weren’t sure how much of the image we would use and we thought thatwould create more problems for us. But we tilted the glass (we had front-projection material in back of it) and then generally shot the painting and the plate in two passes, or, in the case of separations, obviously in four passesbut we shot the paintings separately from the front-projection. We did this not because we had to (you could turn on the lights and shoot the painting and the plate all in one), but because it gave us a little more control, in that we could vary the amount of light on the painting in relation to the plate. We could do exposure wedges on the painting, as well as the plate, and bring the two of them together, rather than having to be locked in to one set of exposures for both. That offered us a bit of advantage.
The camera had a motion-control device that allowed it to tilt and pan. Obviously the camera lens was not a zoom, so we were not able to move in or out, but we found that we could eliminate a number of moves from the paintings. I had originally instituted moves, but found that they really weren’t adding anything to the shot, so I moved probably far less in this picture than I did for The Black Hole. I think that’s also one of the reasons that the shots are quite shortone second, two second, four seconds, maybe six seconds; the longest one was eight seconds. That’s a pretty short amount of time and introducing a move could sometimes be a little disorienting and not particularly prove anything. There is nothing worse than an unmotivated camera move. I think that probably out of all our shots we had maybe three or four moves. It wasn’t because the equipment wasn’t up to it, but simply for the reasons I’ve stated.
The type of front-projection we were using is different from conventional front-projection in which you have live action going on in front of a projected plate, but it creates its own set of unique problems in that the screen is much closer to the camera than 3M (screen manufacturer) recommends. You have to be much more critical with your line-up in order to avoid matte-line problems. Anytime you try something that is markedly different you may solve one problem, but create three more. It’s like going ahead one foot and slipping back three. But this method had been used fairly successfully on The Spy Who Loved Me and that really got Richard Edlund thinking that front-projection would be a very viable method for The Empire Strikes Back.
You can work much quicker with front-projection than you can with rear-projection. Because you have a very bright light source your exposure times are very fast, which is terrific. You can whip off all your shots very rapidly. Rear-projection, as used at Disney Studios, has tremendous advantages, but when you have to take six, seven or eight hours to do a shot, it can get a little frustrating, especially toward the end.
We bi-packed the shots that we felt were extremely critical qualitywise. We have two shots in the picture that have a power generator in the background, and one of them had to be done optically. In other words, we shot the power generator with front light and then with back light and gave those elements to Bruce Nicholson in the Optical Department. He then composited them optically. We also did a similar shot ourselves with bi-pack. Both shots look good, but each is a bit different. I don’t know exactly why they are different, but I think his added a little contrast and ours took away a little contrast. The reason we used bi-pack was that we were very concerned with quality, because we had a sequence that took place in the snow and there were a number of mattes that had big areas of snow that would show up grain quite easily. I think that’s one of the main things you have to worry about giving your shot away because of a lack of quality in the dupe.
We probably had 10 or 15 mattes in the snow sequence, but they were relatively less complex than most of the others. We got those finished toward the beginning. We had a couple of shots of an ice cave entrance, one of which was put together optically because we had a stop-motion figure that went into the cave. I had a shot looking out the window of one of the Walkers as they approached the trenches.
I don’t think anything we did on The Empire Strikes Back could be called startlingly innovative because, as is so often the case, we were using ideas and methods that had been used before, many times, going way back. Motion-control, of course, is a sophisticated technique and it has been a terrific help, but all it has really done is taken the place of a man sitting there with a lathe-bed or Acme screw-drive, making one little turn at a time for each frame. I’m not down-playing motion-control, because it has cut the time factor down tremendously and, thereby, increased flexibility. It gives you shots that you wouldn’t have been able to attempt before, because the man-hours just did not exist, nor the patience, nor the reliability. But I think that everything we do today is still, at the most, new applications of old ideas. When it comes right down to it, we are still using 35mm film that has perforations along its sides and this is old-fashioned, but nobody has come up with anything better yet. We simply try to eliminate the variables and get it down to its nth degree and make it as good as we can.
So there was nothing really innovation in what I did on Empirejust six months of problem solving, of deciding to go with front-projection and finding that there is a reflection in the glass because you put the screen in back of it, lining up the camera, figuring out how much you are going to tilt the painting and mechanically what kind of little goodies you are going to put on it. These are all problems which, perhaps, have been tackled before and solved, but they were in a slightly different context; maybe the set-up was bigger. Anyway, each time you change a little something you just institute another problem that has its own unique way of being solved and, hopefully, you can come up with the solution before you run out of time.
In working the special effects areas, especially on a really big picture, too many people get caught up in the fine points and fail to be aware of the overall reasons for the shot, the reasons for the show, the big picture kind of thing. It’s almost like trying to find out what kind of colors Rembrandt used and how he set them up on his palette and thinking that this will allow you to paint like Rembrandt. Those are interesting things to know, but they are just tools, but eventually you’ve got to come down to doing it and keeping in mind the purpose of the shot.
The purpose of the shot is to get from the preceding shot to the next shot and move the story along. It gets said so many times, but it gets forgotten so easily when you’re in there pulling your hair out because you’ve got a scratch on your yellow record. It’s difficult to remind yourself of why you are cursing and swearing. Of course, you are curing and swearing because you have to remake your separations master, but basically there is a purpose for it all. I forget it continually and I have to hit myself over the head occasionally and not look at that, but keep getting back and looking at the shot and saying, “Is the shot doing what it’s supposed to?”
I thing that’s the basic. That’s the bottom line, easy to say, difficult to do.