About 78 years ago, Norman A. Dawn, an illustrator and photographer in Los Angeles, was commissioned to make flattering stills of some factory buildings which were surrounded or partly obscured by unwanted telephone poles, weeds and trash cans. His boss at Thorpe Engraving co., Max Handsheigi, showed him how to place a large pane of glass between the camera and the subject and paint in attractive details to replace the unwanted portions. Dawn adapted this principle in 1907 while making his first motion picture, California Missions, as a means of restoring missing or ruined portions of crumbling structures. This is the first known example of what became the glass shot in cinematography. Dawn went to pains “to dispel any assertion that I invented this technique—I merely built on to it and took advantage of conditions to advance an art in the making. One must not get the idea that other men were not doing things too. How much, will never be known.”
Glass painting became an important tool of movie makers. By 1916 cinematographer Paul Eagler and artist Irving Martin combined the principles of the glass shot and the matte-and-countermatte system at the Thomas H. Ince Studio, enabling the artist to add his work to the scene at a more convenient time. By the late 1920s such techniques were commonplace and the so-called matte painter became a vital member of any special effects team. With the proliferation of the science-fiction film in recent years, matte paintings are more important than ever before.
Some of the fine matte artists of today are men of long experience in this highly specialized field. Others are young men who have learned by studying the works of the masters and are now bringing ideas of their own into the films. The matte painting and matte photography departments at Industrial Light and Magic are made up of five young men. Michael Pangrazio is the matte painting supervisor, Chris Evans and Frank Ordaz are matte artists, Neil Krepela is matte camera supervisor, and Craig Barron is matte cameraman. The work of this group in Return of The Jedi constitutes some of the most sophisticated matte technique that has reached the screen.
Pangrazio did his first professional matte paintings for Introvision, in Hollywood, about seven years ago. Two years later he joined ILM, assisting Harrison Ellenshaw and Ralph McQuarry with the matte paintings for The Empire Strikes Back. Later he worked with Alan Maley, chief matte painter for Raiders of the Lost Ark and Dragonslayer. Evans and Ordaz, both under 30, have also achieved their high degree of professionalism during a few years of concentrated work at ILM.
Krepela began his movie career making a documentary news film in the Midwest. He came to San Francisco and teamed up with some friends doing opticals and animation, partly with equipment he designed. When ILM moved to the area, Krepela was hired to build equipment. A short time later he set up the matte photography department. Barron, who is from Berkeley, also was hired at ILM because of his ability to modify camera equipment and a knowledge of animation. His ILM career began with Empire.
Return of the Jedi was still in production when Pangrazio, Krepela and Barron discussed their work for American Cinematographer.
“We used every means available to us,” Pangrazio said. “Front projection, rear projection, original negative latent image, optical printing or whatever else works best for the shot. When we can, we composite them in our own department. Sometimes, if we have a large part of the frame that has to be reproduced and duped, we’ll send it to the optical department because they can get better quality than we do. And sometimes there are other elements to be put into it—blue screen elements, for example, in which case our painting could be just one of many elements that have to go together, and we really can’t do that as easily as optical can. Sometimes we have to get opticals to make a reduction of some element. We’ve sent about 30 to 40 per cent of our shots through opticals on this show. The rest we composite here through various means.
“Generally we use whatever works out best for the shot. Each one has its own needs and problems. I think the only kind we didn’t have this time was a glass shot. We were actually going to do one, but it didn’t work out.”
Most of the equipment used in compositing and photographing the mattes is unique, having been constructed especially for the department.
Krepela described the new Automatte camera, which was designed at ILM. “It is totally motion controlled. It’ll shoot VistaVision, 1:85 or any flat 35mm format. It also shoots anamorphic 35mm with a special lens we built. The first show we really used it on was E.T.
“There’s a 24 foot track, a very heavy, rigid thing which is mounted into the floor. The artwork is carried by two moving planes that move X, Y and Z like an animation stand, and the camera also moves X, Y and Z. Plus, it rolls. Originally we thought that the camera would be used on only a few really nice shots where we could take our time, but on this show it’s turned out that the majority of paintings ended up on this system because it’s very flexible and we can put in a lot of moves with it.
“We also have a front projection system which used to be our main compositing camera. It is capable of handling a lot more work to ease the setting up and it works rapidly. While the Automatte might require exposures of two seconds because it uses rear projection, a third of a second is appropriate with this system. It’s capable of pans and tilts, but it can’t move in and back. It has a crude sort of motion control that we call ‘slime drive,’ which is for smooth moves. Just press in a number—and it’ll interlock with the camera on shoot so many increments per frame.”
This equipment and personnel are kept busy by the demands of ILM. Krepela mentioned that they had been told they would have to do a lot of outside work because there wouldn’t be enough work on Jedi to keep them occupied fully. “We were told there would be between 15 and 20 matte shots in the picture,” he recalled. “It turned out to be much more”
Pangrazio agreed. “There’s always twice as much. Very few times do they ever cut out a matte shot. They just want more, more and more, because they find that sometimes they can paint out things that they’ve mis-photographed. Nobody making a picture can really see the whole thing at once, so there are always surprises. From our view it seems there’s more fixing up than cutting out.”
“We supply a lot of Band-Aids,” Krepela said. “They’ll have something sticking out over there that shouldn’t be there and we patch it up. We have a lot of interesting multiple plate stuff, though. Craig has gotten into quite a bit of that, putting in several pieces of action. And we’re putting light effects on trees, putting in shadows, and trying to get movement into the still areas of shots.”
Pangrazio observed that Krepela and Barron often come up with ambitious new ideas. “Sometimes a shot is almost done and Craig will say, ‘Let’s try this,’ which is always good. Sometimes we really get involved to the point where I feel that we’re almost over our heads in complicated animation of painting, which we try to get into now much more than we used to. We have little torches off in the distance and we’re doing latent image torches and rear projection torches, light effects on things, and moving shadows.
“We did one big scene in which we shot in our own actors, the troopers, which we reduced into the painting of the floor of a huge docking bay. We had one plate which was supplied to us over on the right hand side of the painting. We tilted onto it came up in the frame.— All the rest of the shot—about three quarters of the frame—was pretty still, except that outside you can see space and some ships zooming by the window, which helped take the edge off. But we did little flashing light effects, which is an easy thing to do, and we shot these little men. They’re going behind little space ships and walking around, and it’s pretty magical. It really brings it all to life. that’s something we’ve really gotten into more on this show than any other, breaking new ground. I think the more we do of that, the more we can approach reality. It’s really a challenge and it’s real fun. On a few shots we almost get there sometimes. We never have, but we almost get there. People are really amazed; they think it’s the real thing.”
Barron believes that much of the department’s improvement is due to the tough audience that attends the rushes. “We have the highest echelon of critics, you know,” he said. “Everyone else is just waiting to jump all over our stuff, and that’s good, because they see different angles or something that maybe we haven’t thought of. Our worst audience is the audience here in the dailies, they’re hyper-critical.”
“Yeah, and sometimes we get applause, too,” Pangrazio added. “A couple of times we’ve gotten it and it feels good. It doesn’t happen very often, maybe three or four times in a whole film.”
Krepela noted that the shots that get the applause are “not always the ones you think are good.”
“It’s just because of a move or something that’s going on in them, ” Pangrazio added. “A surprise at the end of the tilt, or something happening that looks amazing to people. I with it would happen more often, but it doesn’t; we can’t expect it because everybody’s pretty critical. And if there’s a piece of dirt in front of something it’s gone over and everybody has their pointers out and they’re all pointing at that piece of dirt and shaking their heads in disapproval. Then it’s ‘redo it.’ But that’s probably why this effects building is as successful as it is in terms of really producing beautiful effects for films. It’s that attitude which prevails—but it does get somewhat old after a while and a pat on the back helps.
“We have about 45 matte paintings in this show,” Pangrazio revealed. “They’re of all kinds of different things. In a movie like this, a fantasy, you’ve got to have them. You can’t build everything you want to show and you can’t shoot some of the things you need because they don’t exist. Besides, George Lucas really knows how to use matte paintings. Most producers and directors don’t. Sometimes they’re told, ‘there’s no other way to do it, so let’s use a matte shot,’ and they do it, grudgingly. George has learned what they can do.”
In describing the methods used by the matte artists at ILM, Pangrazio said that the paintings were done on glass or masonite, depending on their use. “Sometimes, for those very long pans and tilts, we use a 4X8 foot sheet of masonite. For most shots, however, we use a 2 and one half by six foot pane of glass mounted in an aluminum frame. We like to use acrylics as an undercoat when laying in the painting. We can make our wedge tests on that, or we’ll put it together with a plate of the background element, and we can get those back every day. When we get it to a fine enough point that we’re satisfied with it, we’ll usually glaze over the acrylic underpainting with oils, because oils tend to have truer and more saturated colors. We use front projection with a lot of these composites, and we’ve learned that with front projection, which has to be shot through a beam splitter, some of the colors just aren’t as vivid as they should be. So, we try to hype up the colors.
“The reason we use the acrylics is that they’re very fast and easy to lay in and we can get it back with projector and see if the perspective is right, if the lighting looks okay, and if we like the ideas. We can change them ever day very quickly with acrylics, then we can go over them later to finish the painting.”
The larger paintings on masonite are necessary for scenes with extensive camera movement. Live action portions often are introduced into the paintings by rear projection. Cutouts in the painting ordinarily are used to accommodate the projected element, but a new method was tried successfully for Jedi. “What we’ve done that we hadn’t tried before is to do the whole painting in full color and paint the area that the projection goes into in black. Then we make a black matte around those areas to hold out the painting and do the rear projection on a second pass. That way we don’t have to cut through the masonite. We get nicer, finer edges than we can cut through a one-quarter inch piece of material.”
The realism demanded of the matte artist is as important in the convincing portrayal of fantasy as it is with more mundane subjects, according to Pangrazio. “It really takes a lot of effort to do a matte painting. It’s not just sitting down and painting. A lot of research goes into it as well as input from others. They’re being very particular about this show when it comes to continuity, and if we have a space ship facing this way in one shot and the next shot is a down shot, we have to have the prongs on that ship still in the frame so that there is a continuity to it.
“We have our own little library as well as Lucasfilm’s library, and we’re constantly looking for a photo that will help us to convey the reality of the shot. We always have a problem in trying to fill in what we have to do with our imaginations. Every time we do that it doesn’t turn out as well as when we have some solid reference materials. If we don’t have anything, we’ll make a little miniature and shoot it with a Polaroid camera so we can get the perspective. Sometimes we have to paint in space ships on large master shots. There is one big tilt down shot with a dozen or so rebel ships on a huge docking bay. To get all the perspectives right on everything we had to build miniatures, light the whole thing, and shoot polaroids.”
The ILM artists produce their paintings by traditional methods rather than working on photographic blowups from the film. “Sometimes we do need to work over photos, but we always project them and paint them out,” Pangrazio said. “This way there’s no edge problem with the photo, and you can never get a blowup as sharp as a paint stroke.
“The time we spend on a painting varies from two or three days, at the least, to a week, all the way to the kind that take a whole show to finish. The first painting we start may be the last one we’ll finish and it goes on right through the show. It may be six or eight months. There’s one of the Death Star like that in Jedi. Sometimes the camera needs a lot of messing around with. Maybe we’re stuck on something—we’ve come to a dead end on ideas— or it’s just not looking as good as we want it to. Sometimes we just don’t know what to do. Sometimes it’s best to leave it alone for a while, get away from it, and come back after a time. If we think about it a while, thoughts come up that give us the idea that will make it a better shot in the end. And sometimes they take a long time just because they’re complicated and there’s a lot of work in them.”
Pangrazio recalled one scene which was particularly grueling. It depicts a night scene in the Ewok village, which is built among the branches of gigantic trees in which scattered campfires light the dancing figures of the Ewoks. “It took weeks to paint it and get it the way we wanted it to look. Also, we were putting a lot of camera moves into our shots, including some pans and tilts that cover as much as three fields. This is not too frequently done with matte paintings, but we have very few static shots in Jedi.”
Craig Barron described the making of a similar scene in some detail. “The master shot has four different plates in it, with the creatures and pilots and some big bonfires. They didn’t want to film the creatures around real bonfires because they were afraid the furry costumes would catch fire, so they were shot here in front of a blue screen. That gave us the shot of the little creatures running back and forth. And then there are separate shots made on location of a bonfire at night. The optical department matted the creatures in front of the bonfire. By this time Chris Evans had already finished most of the master painting, as far as the areas that are going to go behind the critters are concerned. At this point we took the cameras in very close to the painting—which is on a 2 and a half by six foot glass— and shot the areas that go behind the creatures and the bonfires. These areas are only a few square inches in size, no bigger than four inches wide, because these plates are going to be reduced to appear a long way out in the distance. This supplies the backgrounds for optical, and that is put together so the plate has the fire, the creatures and the background.
“We then took that piece of film and had a low contrast print made—we make low cons because contrast increases once we rephotograph them—and then we scraped out that area of the painting and by rear projection we placed them in the painting. This way the actors are able to walk in front of an area of the painting whereas otherwise they would have to be behind some set elements. They are in four different plates, and torches are added as well, so this kind of scene takes a long time to do. The creatures have to be flashed so there are no blacks in them, so they’ll match the aerial perspective of the painting.”
Barron pointed out the frustration of working for many hours on a scene which will be glimpsed only fleetingly in the final production. “That scene Mike described is only 57 frames,” he noted—a matter of less than two and a half seconds on screen. “Mike and I worked on one shot which took 22 hours just for the compositing time. That’s not including all the other time involved, such as just shooting torches. There are a lot of torches all through it and there’s a camera tilt, so it’s very complicated. The torches had to be photographed separately and lined up and rear projected and photographed with the tilt and burned in. When the camera knows where all the torches are then we play back the move and they burn into the proper areas of the painting. Then in the screening room the next day it’s on for about three seconds!”
Pangrazio admitted to similar feelings. “I’ll put a lot of little things that I like into a painting, ” he said. “Little chickens, little sticks and all kinds of things to try to make it look real to me; lots of broken up areas with little things in them. Some are just objects that you can’t quite identify. Then we do a tilt-up and you don’t even notice any of it. If none of it were there it would look as real. My favorite shots always make me feel it would be nice if we could seem them for a few more seconds. After shooting the backgrounds, planning out the painting, doing the painting, compositing the painting and having it critiqued, and taking it back and making changes—it takes months, sometimes, for three or four seconds of screen time.
“But George has the whole movie in mind and he doesn’t fall in love with a shot. He knows that’s a real pitfall, because sometimes you see a movie where somebody says, ‘Aw, it’s such a beautiful shot, let’s extend it another 15 seconds.’ And while it may be beautiful to him, to an audience which is into the story it doesn’t matter, so it falls apart. But it’s a temptation.”
Pangrazio said that the scene with the torches “will convince people, I’ll guarantee. Also, there’s always the knowledge that little shots like that impress themselves very deeply on peoples’ memories. They’ll remember those longer than the rest of the picture. There was one particular shot we worked on that I had a really hard time with and I didn’t care much for it. It was a real ‘cute’ thing, and the action on it was so ‘cute’ that everybody was saying that was going to be the most memorable shot in the picture, that it would be on lunch pails and everything else. I thought, ‘Oh, no, why does it have to be the only shot that I really dislike?’ Fortunately, we had to redo that one, for other reasons than what I didn’t like about it. So we got a second chance, and hopefully it will still go on lunch pails, but maybe it will also look great.”
Curiously, only one matte shot in Jedi was done by the “latent image” method, which has been used since the earliest days of matte photography. In this technique both the live action and the matte art are composited in the camera on the original film without resort to optical or projection compositing. The scene shows the two robots, C-3PO and R2-D2, walking down a desert road toward the distant castle of Jabba. The actors were photographed in Death Valley with a black matte protecting the area of the film in which the castle and the sky must appear. The painting of the castle and sky were photographed onto the same film at ILM with the previously exposed area projected by a matching matte.
“We’re pretty happy with most of our work in this show,” Pangrazio enthused. “We’ve really moved ahead—past the ground we broke before with what we’re able to do and how effective the shots look. Really, some of them, because they’re inherently difficult to accept anyway, look like paintings. The subject matter is such that you just know it has to be a painting. Sometimes matte shots just don’t work out from the beginning because they’re ill-conceived, but we have to go through with them. Then we really struggle and try to put our hearts into it, but some of them never look right.”
Krepela provided an illustration. “On Empire they even racked focus on us; that’s a sweet thing to work with! And we may get a shot where nobody considered what was going to be surrounding it in the matte shot. We’d like to have more control over that.”
“The bottom line, ” Pangrazio added, “is how realistic they look and whether people accept them without questioning. I think we have a few out of the 45 that have achieved that.”