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Interview With Tim Matney About His Work as a Matte Painter

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Tim Matney is an experienced visual effects artist, specializing in digital matte painting, whose work has appeared in many feature films, TV shows, national commercials and games. He began his career as a 3D Generalist working in computer games in the late 90's, then honed his skills as a modeller and texture artist on feature films, before discovering matte painting on the job and his affinity for it. He currently lives in the Blue Ridge mountains of Virginia, operating as a remote freelance artist for studios in New York City and Los Angeles.


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QFor those who don't know, could you explain a little about what your job title is and what you do?

Digital matte painting is the branch of visual effects that I specialize in. Which for me also includes compositing, integration (tracking and rotoscoping), conceptualization, and illustration.

Being a digital matte painter is about making movie magic. Being able to place an actor in a whole new environment, or expand and extend the environment they're in. Being able to create whole worlds or recreate bygone eras. Being able to take a limited set and completely flesh it out or enhance it, thus saving the production money. All by taking a still image created in Photoshop, getting it moving in 3D, and combining it all back together in After Effects.

But are we matte painters just some computer art nerds who goof in Photoshop on a Wacom tablet all day, making fantasy landscapes that might be better suited for the side of a 70's Custom Van? Rearing black unicorn and all?

Or are we a special breed of professional artists, who bring other people's fantastic visions to life for a living? All while being held to exacting artistic and technical standards, and having much of our work go unseen and unsung?

Maybe the answer is all of the above! Black unicorn and all!

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This image of moon-lit Florence is a shot that I created for the recent TV Series, Da Vinci's Demons.

QHow did you get started in the field and when did you decide to specialize in matte painting?

It was while working at Luma Pictures on the 2005 feature film, The Cave, I was first thrust into the role of matte painter. I was tasked with modeling and texturing a massive 3D environment, basically the Grand Canyon underground. Due to this vast scale, the model’s polygon count kept becoming unmanageable, and I was also finding it difficult to replicate the "unique" look of the related practical set.

So in frustration, I took the limited set reference images we had, and tried creating three basic overlapping pieces of geometry with the canyon painted to recede in perspective on each. Lo and behold, it worked beautifully, and a digital matte painter was born!

From there, I continued to progress, contributing more matte paintings for The Cave and further developing 2.5D projection methods on Underworld: Evolution. Like a lot of other successful digital matte painters, I found that my skills as a CG Generalist and ability to paint in Photoshop, made for a natural progression in to this field.

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QWere you self taught or trained by someone?

As a matte painter, I'm mostly self taught and trained on the job, usually under the gun of a deadline. Which will make you learn fast and well! For that reason, I'll always be grateful to my first feature VFX Supervisors at Luma Pictures, Payam Shohadai, Ian Noe, and Chris Sage, for their exacting eyes, and patience with my early efforts.

Each job is also a lesson unto itself, working with different people and their skill sets, under different pipelines. But I'm also constantly trying to improve my craft through personal projects, and learn new techniques as our technology has progressed.


QWhat inspires you?

The world around me inspires me the most! I'm always studying the play of light and shadow on the buildings of a downtown street, or taking note of the depth and color shifts of a distant mountain range.

Which is easy to do, since moving to the Blue Ridge mountains here in Southwestern Virginia to open a remote studio, I'm constantly in awe of the beauty of the area. Especially the sunset skies; if I put one of these skies in a matte painting, I'd probably be told to make it less pretty, there can't possibly be that many colors and layers in a "real" sky!


QWhat project or job have you had the most fun working on?

The set of projects I've had the most fun working on, where a pair of sci-fi disaster TV movies called, The Storm and Meteor. Hardly the most high profile of shows, but I had fun because of the creative freedom I was given. It was mostly my VFX Supervisor at LLP Digital, Patrick Murphy, and myself coming up with the stuff. Plus, our small crew of only ten experienced senior artists created around 600 VFX shots for Meteor alone!

The below image is a matte painting I did, with included twister concept to aid the Effects Animators, for The Storm.

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QWhat's the most challenging project or job you've worked on?

They're all challenging in their own particular ways! I freelance for a lot of different studios on a lot of really varied projects, and each studio has their own way of working, and each project has its own look and style. So I often have to figure that out as I go! Even then, each show/project can be different within the same studio, so you have to be flexible, able to work with anybody and any pipeline out there, and not least, be counted on to deliver despite it all.

But I'd say my biggest challenge is often simple communication with my employers, making sure I understand exactly what they want and am able to deliver it on time, and asking any and all questions when I don't. As a remote artist, this is particularly tough, and I've had to get good at reading between the lines of an email, instant message or scanned doodle in order to understand what they're sometimes really wanting.

For example, the recent project I completed with Stinkdigital (NYC) for a Planter's promotional website. I had a few conversations with the lead Creative's, was given a few reference images and the following doodle, and managed to get it right at practically the 1st pass.

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QAny fun stories from a job you've worked on?

When I worked as a texture artist at Digital Domain on The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, one of my tasks was to help develop the look of eyes for the 3D "old man" versions of Brad Pitt. That's right, just his eyes! DD was making special effort to really make the eyes life-like, and I had to create multiple intricate texture passes for the Lighters to utilize in creating their look.

To make sure I was matching Mr. Pitt exactly, down to the exact color and minute flecks in his eyes, I was given 5K RAW stills of his face to reference (looking like he just woke up). So, I like to joke that I think I've probably spent more time staring into Brad Pitt's eyes than both Jennifer Aniston and Angelina Jolie put together!

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QDo you prefer working for on motion graphics or visual effects?

Actually, my work is almost exclusively on visual effects. As I said, I like making movie magic happen, and transporting an actor and their location through my medium. It's also rewarding to be part of the film-making process; aiding in telling the plot by working with the directors, producers, writers, plus other crew on what's essentially a huge creative collaboration. Whether it be a commercial, feature film, or music video!

Though I've also gotten to work on several animated projects, which I love branching out on! When I actually have time to go to the theatre, it's usually to see an animated film, so I like to being part of that world and it's unique challenges when I get the opportunity.


QHow often do you use After Effects, and if so for what type of stuff?

What most beginning matte painters don't realize, is that on the job, your matte paintings are usually finished by the compositor, editor, and ultimately, colorist. Which is why you have to be able to work in many Photoshop layers, and break your matte paintings out under specific alpha or hold out masks, so they can be reassembled and manipulated again later.

For this reason, I don't get to use AE on the job as much as I like to! I'm usually exporting my matte paintings for somebody else to composite.

However, After Effects' robustness, versatility and pricing have made it an industry workhorse for a reason! That's why I can usually count on finding it installed on a studio workstation, where I can perform slap comps to check my matte paintings against the shot camera's movement, or easily resize and color grade sequences when needed.


QWhat does the workflow look like for a Matte Painting Job?

For a commercial gig, I'm first contacted by a coordinator or producer to determine my availability, and discuss the project. From there, we will establish a booking, possibly even later through a hold. A “Hold", is a hiring device where a studio asks you to hold open a future block of time to come work for them exclusively on a project.

Before I even begin the job though, I will have to sign contracts and NDA's (non-disclosure agreements). I will then be forwarded as much source imagery and reference as they can give me, which can include anything from rough edits, concepts, to even doodles on a napkin!

On kick off day, I will usually have a conference call with the primary creatives (Producer, Art Director, VFX Supervisor, etc.), to discuss the shot, what's needed, and how soon. These conversations will continue, as I begin to flesh out the matte painting, working towards the desired final image.

When the matte painting is given final approval, I am usually asked to break it down into its separate essential Photoshop layers, so that it can then be reassembled and composited into the actual shot at the studio. I will then zip up the .psd and send it to them by some high volume online file transfer medium.


QWhat's your favorite piece of matte painting work you've seen in a film or movie?

One of my absolute favorite matte painting shots is from the 1993 movie, Dennis the Menace. It was created practically by Robert Stromberg and Bill Taylor at one of the premier (but sadly gone) matte painting FX houses, Illusion Arts.

It's a long shot of a moon-lit small town, which cranes down and is wiped by miniature trees and a moving miniature train, then immediately cuts to a live action box car interior shot. Thus introducing the bad guy (Christopher Lloyd)! Even today when I watch the shot, knowing it's FX, I always buy it, and love it because it helps tell the story with the tight editing.

I wish we did more with miniatures and real special effects today in VFX rather than relying so heavily on digital and 3D. Sometimes, there ain't nothing like the real thing, baby! So, I hope to incorporate more practical effects and live action elements into my own matte paintings in order to further sell their believability.

You can see the shot in development at this 1994 Discovery Channel documentary, Movie Magic (Episode 8).

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QWhich industry professionals do you admire most?

The matte painters I admire the most, are the old school guys, the originals who developed our field and it's techniques. The artists who stood many long hours pushing paint on a 6 ft. piece of glass, which then had to be double exposed with an original film negative through a specially rigged camera (called optical compositing). They're the real matte artists!

At this moment though, the VFX professionals I also admire the most are the ones who've managed to hang in there and stay employed in a seriously bad market, and rapidly evolving (for better or worse) field!


QWhere do you hope to be in 10 years time?

Since leaving California to return to Virginia in 2010, my life has been a bit of a roller coaster, and I didn't know if I could (or even expect to) remain in VFX when I got here. But because matte painting is a bit of a niche skill set, and I had gained invaluable experience and paid my dues in the VFX trenches of LA, I've been fortunate enough to remain in the field and make a living as a remote freelancer.

Even though the VFX market is in such turmoil right now, I still see opportunity, and have begun positioning myself to open up a small studio specializing in matte painting, compositing, integration and other related VFX. I hope to focus on national commercials, TV/broadcast shows, and independent films among other related projects. With the right VFX treatment, I feel the city I live in now (Roanoke) could be a chameleon for a lot of major cities, and I hope to promote film-making here.

However, that being said, one lesson that I've learned since leaving those VFX trenches, is that while work is important, you can't always live at the office. You also have to take care of yourself, health wise and mentally, and not least, make time for your loved ones and to have a life away from a computer workstation!

So to actually answer the question, 10 years from now, I hope to have a small business that pays for itself, and provides me a modest living working on the things I like to do and am good at. So that I can take care of and spend time with my growing family, plus have time in my life for the other important things!


QIf you weren't a matte painter, what would you be doing?

If I weren't a matte painter, and still in VFX, I'd probably be a Compositor, which is actually what I'm expanding more in to now. While I began my career at a 3D Generalist, I've grown away from 3D, and I’ve found bringing my eye for detail, color and light into Compositing a natural extension of the digital matte painting process. Plus, I like being able to finish my own shots!

That's an interesting question, though! I've often looked back at the places and people in my life that led me to where I'm at now, and wondered what else I'd be doing. I'm an excellent cook with a great palate, and have always dabbled in making music (my secret talent is singing). So who knows, but it would probably be in some creative capacity!


QWhat advice would you have for someone wanting to get into matte painting?

This field is a funny one, we're specialists, and still the man behind the fancy curtain many times!
Very few of us actually go to school or graduate with the aim to become a matte painter, but find ourselves gravitating to it after some "eureka moment" of visual/artistic problem solving. We're often trained on the job, as our techniques are constantly evolving, and there are really very few formal programs to actually teach matte painting.

There's also not enough room here for me to explain everything it would take to become a successful matte painter and survive in the industry. That's a whole other interview! Instead I'm going to recommend some books to begin with.

"The digital matte painting Handbook" by David Mattingly. This is a text book, but it covers pretty much all the basics, and well. It also uses After Effects to complete many shots!

"The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting" by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron. It's out of print, but I highly recommend tracking down a copy. This book will help you understand the history and role of matte painting as an effect, plus some of these techniques, even though 100 years old, are still important in today's digital age.

Even though matte painting is now a digital process, I'm not going actually to mention any software here, but instead recommend something more important. If you're not already had them, you should take some drawing, 2D design, photography, and yes, even real painting (not digital) classes. These will get your mind and hands moving in physical creative ways, and will inform and grow your overall artistic process in ways that a computer can't.

Not least, they will train your eye and brain to see detail, form and space! That way, when you come to creating images via computers and software, you know where to begin before even picking up a Wacom stylus!

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QAre there any crucial aspects of matte painting that most people don't realize you do?

It always surprises people how much you can actually accomplish through digital matte painting, including many things that people associate with full 3D, or small things you didn't even realize were tweaked in Post!

While matte painting was originally developed to provide locations and sets that were nonexistent and too prohibitive to build practically, now with digital composting and 2.5D camera projection, we can make really complex moving shots of our matte paintings. Through this process we are able to take a still image, and project it through a 3D camera onto 3D geometry. This allows us to then animate a camera through the scene, giving us a moving detailed shot where there was none before.

But it can also be used for simple tweaks and other film-making fix-it's, such as the 2010 Boost Mobile commercial, "Giant Grocery Store Manager", that I worked on for Method Studios (LA). Wherein I had to Greek product labels on grocery store shelves, like changing " Aunt Jemima" to "Uncle James", as well as massaging the set in other areas.

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Boost Mobile-Giant Grocery Store Manager from Zac Ryder on Vimeo.

Another thing I do that's become increasingly popular, is this painted but photo-real illustrated look, that combines several Photoshop filters with my normal live action approach. I first developed it while working on the Fruit Snacks commercial, "Big Smack", for Buck (NYC) last year, and have found it expands my versatility, allowing me to work on more animated style projects!

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Bigsmack Edit Prores (Apple TV) from Mikey Sullivan on Vimeo.


QWhat program or plug-in have you really wanted to learn that you just haven't had time to get around to?

While I know this is an AE tutorial site, I'd have to say it's The Foundry’s MARI. I see it as a particularly useful tool for projecting photographs onto 3D geometry and paint clean up for matte painting. In the past, I've had to manually project, paint up and combine 3D textures and matte paintings for what it seemingly does in an instant!

I've often wondered why Adobe has never come out with a really good stand alone 3D paint package...