Here is an exclusive interview of David Stipes, Visual Effects Supervisor we already talk about on this blog. Thank you so much for having taking time to answer the few questions of the MakingFX questionnaire.

- First, I’d like to ask you how you discovered matte painting, and what did decide you to become a matte artist.

The concept of matte painting was no doubt a byproduct of my research into the making of “King Kong”. While fascinated with the process of stop motion I learned about matte painting through the work of Mario Larrinaga and Byron Crabb. Their moody mattes shots of the Skull Island jungles captured my imagination.

While still in high school I had a chance to meet Jim Danforth and see some of his phenomenal work. I later read about Albert Whitlock in “American Cinematographer” magazines. In truth, I consider myself a visual effects artist and not a matte artist. I have done matte shots and I love and appreciate what you guys do but I do not consider myself on the same league at all.

- What was you’re favorite support to do a matte painting ? Glass ? Cloth ? Why ?

I liked working on glass for the matte shots. It was a good flat surface and offered options to add effects or scrape-aways if the client changed their minds about the shots.

- How did you manage the transition between traditional technique and digital to make sfx/vfx ?

In the late 1980s I could see that computers and digital processes would be changing effects. I saw it first with motion graphics. While much was being done with slit scan, streak photography and back lit art, artists like Harry Marks, John Whitney and Bob Able were experimenting with digital elements in their work. I looked at the Art Star digital software but I needed about a quarter million dollars to put the equipment, software and tech support together. I just couldn’t afford it.
About 1989 or 1990 a visual effects artist I had worked with, Ron Thornton, sold all of his camera equipment and purchased an Amiga computer and LightWave 3D software from NewTek. Many of our peers were surprised that Ron had turned his back on the traditional effects techniques.
Video compositing made a big leap when Composite Image Systems (CIS) open their doors and began doing digital compositing for Star Trek. I was amazed at the leap in quality from the old video analog switchers. Compositing was moving from optical printers.
When I started at Star Trek in 1992, by the third script I saw that I could not deliver what the writers were asking for using the established approach to the visual effects. The approach to the visual effects work was based upon models and motion control photography. We were limited by track lengths and sizes of the models.
I began looking at the software available at the time. As I remember, the leading software was about $40,000 a module and you needed three or four different modules to possibly do any film quality work.
During this time, Ron Thornton had leveraged his interest in LightWave 3D into a contract for the “Babylon 5” TV show. I contacted NewTek, the manufacturer of LightWave 3D, and they put me in touch with a number of up and coming CGI artists.
Out of the need and desire to deliver increasingly complex Star Trek shots, I educated myself and began introducing CGI elements to the shows I worked on. This process continued to the end of my involvement of “Deep Space 9.” The last series, “Star Trek: Enterprise” was all digital and had no physical models that I am aware of.
I chose to evolve with the changing technology. Several well known visual effects artists and matte painters retired rather than embrace a computer approach to the work.
- How do you think matte painting evolved through the age in the sfx/vfx industry ? Do you think we use matte painting in the same way as before ?

It appears that we continue to use matte painting for the same reasons as before: to save money, to reproduce the past, to produce the fantastic or future, for safety or for production fixes.
Today we are blessed with wonderful digital tools that make the process somewhat easier. How cool is “control+Z”? My students make shots, as class assignments, that would have been almost impossible when I had my studio going in the 1980s.
Where I see the greatest change is with the 3D projection mapping techniques. In 1983, Matthew Yuricich and I shared a good laugh
about the producer who wanted to “fly” around a matte painted building and see the back of it. What a joke! Well, today, we can fly around the matte painted building and see all sides of it!

- Are you nostalgic about traditional matte painting ?

I miss the tactile experience of traditional techniques. I enjoyed the physical process of setting up a shot, lighting, model making and painting. The digital experience is mentally challenging but is lacking in tangible, physical satisfaction.

- According to you, what is the limit of a matte painting ? Do you consider 3D environments as a matte painting ? Is matte painting an art or a technique ?

With modern digital technology, there doesn’t seem to be a limit. I have been blown away with some of the shots the new digital artists create.
I am not a purist. Matte shots serve the needs of the script. They are not gallery art. The classic matte shot blocked out, or matted out, parts of the scene and the artist replaced the missing parts. Is the effect different because it is a Photoshop digital image or a 3Dds Max object instead of oil paint on glass?

- What would you like to find today in a software like photoshop to improve the way you’re working ?

Where is that “Make it look real” button?

- What would you like to say to the matte artist generation who only knew digital way to work ?

Get away from the computer. Look at the real world.
Get out and take a real world lighting class. Do real world still photography to learn the effects of lenses on the images you capture. Take a basic cinematography course if you can. Study the work of the master matte artist who have come before. Study the work of great classic painters, photographers and cinematographers.
Study color theory, composition, atmospheric and linear perspective.

Thank you very much David ! Hope to see you soon on MakingFX !

Have a look at this previous entry :