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The Gorgeous Matte Paintings That Made Lord of the Rings and Fifth Element Feel Real

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The Gorgeous Matte Paintings That Made Lord of the Rings and Fifth Element Feel Real

Concept Art, (Not Prometheus!), 2011

Dear readers, remember how we all gawked, ‘wow’-ed and ‘ooh’-ed (hmm… if you didn’t, then you may not appreciate what this article offers, so move along!) while watching the gorgeous sceneries from Lord of the Rings, The Fifth Element, some of you maybe even whil watching Farscape TV series? You liked them, didn’t you? I know I did. A lot. And I got an opportunity to find out who is behind those beauties just an hour or two ago (thanks to, a shame it wasn’t earlier.

On a sci-fi movie/art/comics/books/and-lots-of-stuff blog I have come across an article written by the artist himself, Wayne Haag, with some of his work on display and him talking a bit about his way of working, his beginnings in sci-fi imagery, and his love of painting, so I’ve decided to share it (along with some of his work) with you. Here it is:

Optical composite using model kit ʻNarcissusʼ from Alien, showing pin registration. 1993

Final cropped photographic composite. 1993

“Being asked to write about my process of matte painting is like the often asked, ʻwhat brush do you use?ʼ. The unquantifiable question for a seasoned artist more often than not, prompts the curt reply, itʼs not about the bike! Cycling, painting, same thing.. The best answer I can give is by quoting the landscape painter, Jim Wilcox who said, “You just need to put the right colour in the right spot. Thatʼs it. There is fine print, however”.

I will do my best to outline some of this fine print as applied to my oil painting work and to a lesser degree, matte painting.

Knowing, Matte painting. 2010

My first foray into creating scifi imagery was using the optical, photo-chemical process. I made a pin registration board so that I could composite 4″ x 5″ transparencies into a single image using Lith film as a mask. Think ʻchannelsʼ in Photoshop but made of film. My goal was to create the same sort of images that ILM created in Star Wars etc. by photographing my model X-Wing fighters and dropping them into real backgrounds.

By the time I completed my BA in Photography at Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology in October 1994, Photoshop had rendered optical compositing utterly obsolete. The images in my final year portfolio consisted of photography and 3D rendered objects composited together in Photoshop v2. No layers, no Wacom pen and done entirely with a mouse!

The Fifth Element. Matte Painting, 1996-97

Matte Painting, The Fifth Element. Painted with K. Mack. 1996-97

Matte Painting, The Fifth Element. Painted with K. Mack. 1996-97 no.2

I was hired by Digital Domain at Siggraph in 1995 on the basis of that portfolio and started working on The Fifth Element as a matte painter in 1996. I worked under VFX supervisor Mark Stetson (chief model maker on Blade Runner, Star Trek the Motion Picture and eventual supervisor on LOTR), Kevin Mack and fellow matte painter and VFX Art Director, Ron Gress. These gentleman in particular gave me the chance to experiment, learn and flourish in such a way as to be almost impossible in VFX today. The Fifth Element was and will always be the best production Iʼve ever worked on.

Farscape Season 1. Matte painting. 1998-99

Farscape Season 1. Matte painting. 1998-99 no.2

Farscape, season one was my next major project followed by Lord of the Rings at Weta Digital for films one and two. I have been freelance ever since with the exception of co-founding a small VFX/Production company in Sydney called Emerald City Design. The Fourth Magi was a fully animated feature film that I production designed but regrettably it never made it into full production. My focus is now oil painting science fiction in a way that evokes the grand, epic style of traditional matte painting.

Fourth Magi, Production Design. 2006

The use of 3D renderings and photographic elements in the matte painting toolbox are well established so I wonʼt go into this too much. In essence the matte paintings I have created throughout my career consist of scanned pencil sketches, composited photography, rendered 3D elements, applied 2D textures, projected mattes onto 3D, direct digital painting and all of the above combined in any number of variations. I have painted mattes by numbers based on director approved concept art/production designs to having full creative control of full sequences. Matte painters are able to simultaneously carry out art direction duties as well as the painting of final mattes on smaller productions thus removing unnecessary links in the VFX chain. Conversely, on The Fellowship of the Ring, we had five matte painters who liaised with three art directors, Alan Lee, Paul Lasaine and Jeremy Bennett, on a continuous basis. They supplied a steady stream of roughs, usually small acrylic paintings that indicated lighting, colour palette and composition, as guides for the final mattes.

Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring. 2001

Modern VFX pipelines are beginning to remove aspects of the process from the matte painterʼs hands as the technical requirements multiply and increasing numbers of people are involved in the realisation of individual shots. This trend can be a hindrance to the craft of matte painting and overshadow the relationship of the Art Director and Matte Painter who strive for visual communication using composition rather than simulation.

Despite moving away from VFX in recent years and embracing oil painting doesnʼt mean Iʼve thrown the baby out with the bath water however. Digital is an incredible adjunct to traditional methods, especially 3D tools that can aid in composition, perspective and the duplication of objects. 3D is a great time saver that allows me to compose scenes and move virtual cameras around just like a film director or photographer.

Once Iʼm satisfied with my chosen POV, I render out a high resolution image and start drawing over the bare bones structure adding characters and other details that I want in the picture. This digital drawing is then printed out and transferred to canvas.

This is but one of the possible processes I may use as not all of my paintings require such high tech beginnings. Paintings based upon smaller watercolour studies are another approach that Iʼve used. I usually prefer to have an established foundation to work from and that foundation at a minimum is always a sketch, regardless of the technical path the image may eventually take.

Developing the lighting and mood component of a painting is something a little more fluid and organic and this is really the meat in the sandwich for me. Many of my paintings, both traditional or digital, start out as mood ideas which are undefined and may float around for ages before I apply them to more concrete environments, forms or situations. The photographer in me is constantly on the lookout for interesting lighting.

The oil paintings Iʼve created so far are a part of a larger science fiction project that has been simmering for many years, eventually to be realised as a fully illustrated novel! I have come to realise my love of painting wasnʼt so much a love of matte painting, although Iʼve had my fare share of creative joy painting on films like Lord of the Rings, it was simply a love of telling stories visually.

Lord of the Rings, Fellowship of the Ring. 2001 Rivendale

I will be exhibiting at Illuxcon V, in November this year so if you would like to probe a little deeper or see my work in person, drop by and say hi.”

These are the words of the artist himself, and for more of his work, check out his personal site.


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