About

I am a senior matte painter at Sony Pictures Imageworks in Vancouver and matte painting instructor at Think Tank and Lost Boys Studios. Previously, I have been a senior artist at Method Studios Vancouver, and an emmy-winning co-founder of Atmosphere Visual Effects.

Useful Books
  • The Digital Matte Painting Handbook
    The Digital Matte Painting Handbook
  • Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting
    Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting
  • d'artiste Matte Painting: Digital Artists Master Class
    d'artiste Matte Painting: Digital Artists Master Class
  • d'artiste Matte Painting 2: Digital Artists Master Class
    d'artiste Matte Painting 2: Digital Artists Master Class
  • Perspective Made Easy
    Perspective Made Easy
  • The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
    The Photographer's Eye: Composition and Design for Better Digital Photos
Useful DVDs
  • Techniques of Dusso 1: Introduction to Digital Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dusso 1: Introduction to Digital Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dusso 2: Digital Matte Painting Fundamentals
    Techniques of Dusso 2: Digital Matte Painting Fundamentals
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Landscape Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Landscape Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Cityscape Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Introduction to Cityscape Matte Painting
  • Techniques of Dylan Cole: Advanced Digital Matte Painting
    Techniques of Dylan Cole: Advanced Digital Matte Painting
  • Color Theory: The Mechanics of Color with Richard Keyes
    Color Theory: The Mechanics of Color with Richard Keyes
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Saturday
Jul272013

The Matte Painter as Storyteller

 

Visual effects exist only to help tell a story. Yet when our heads are deep into the technical and artistic arcana required to pull off a technically demanding shot, it's easy to forget this simple truth: that we serve at the pleasure of the story. Ultimately, nothing else matters.

So let's take a step back for a moment and remember what it is to subordinate our talents to the story. When you start on a new project, I believe that the very first thing you should do is familiarize yourself with the story as much as possible. In practical terms, what might this involve?

  1. Read the script. It's not always possible on every production - some productions are very leery of script leaks and distribute the script only on a "need to know" basis. But many productions distribute the script quite freely amongst all crew. So if you can, read the script. Read it multiple times, if you have the time (and, sometimes, the stomach!). But don't read it simply to understand the vfx: aim deeper. Pay attention to the story structure, the characters, their motivations, the pacing, the mood. Do your best to understand the true shape of the story you will be helping to tell. 
    If you want to improve your understanding of screenwriting, I recommend that you read as many screenplays as you can - there are tons available for free online - and some of the popular screenwriting blogs, such as John August (great podcast too, with co-host Craig Mazin), ScriptShadow and Bitter Script Writer. If you can become a thoughtful and informed reader of scripts, you will be a better visual effects artist for it. I promise.
  2. Watch the cut. Again, if Production is cagey about security, you may not have access to the entire cut. But if you do, you owe it to yourself to watch it - and not just once. Keep going back to it throughout the duration of the project to refamiliarize yourself with it, and to track its evolution. The cut will likely keep changing, and some of those changes may prove salient to the work that you're doing - so if you have access to the editorial schedule, make sure to check major releases of the cut (e.g. Editor's Cut, Director's Cut, Studio Cut, Locked Cut, etc.) as they are made available.
    Some of the changes in those cuts will have a direct impact on your shots, and in these cases you will likely be informed as such by your production team. But other changes won't affect your work directly - yet may still provide important insight into the evolution of the story and the director's intent. Do NOT rely on your production team to inform you of these kinds of changes! Take charge of your own education. Seek out new cuts as they are released, and watch them as often as you feel you reasonably can. (Obviously, it makes no sense to watch every 150 minute cut if new versions are coming out three times a week; but don't allow months to go by between viewings either.)
  3. Ask story questions. This is a potentially tricky one, because you don't want to become known as the pain in the ass who's always asking obscure questions that have no apparent connection to your job. But some well-placed questions directed to those with a more direct connection to the director than you (i.e. the VFX Supervisor) may help you understand some of the motivations a little better.
  4. Go to the source material. If you're working on a production that is an adaptation of an existing work such as a novel, magazine article, or a previous movie, then you might find it worthwhile to go to the source work to fill in a little more of the background. This can be a risky manoeuvre, because adaptations are often less than entirely faithful to their source material, and can frequently send you off on the wrong track. But if you're mindful of this possibility and don't take the source material as gospel, you may still be able to glean some useful insight into the story.
  5. Research the director and screenwriters' previous works. Here we're getting into more sketchy territory, because it doesn't really pertain directly to the story you're actually working on. But it can be helpful to understand the director's and screenwriters' sensibilities, because those sensibilities will be reflected in how the story is handled.

Wow, I hear you say - that's a ridiculous amount of work. I don't have time to do all that!

Maybe. But I doubt it. If you are like 95% of vfx artists, you spend a ton of time over the course of production waiting on renders, wasting time noodling around uselessly on a shot that you aren't "feeling" yet, or checking Facebook status updates. If you're honest with yourself, and care about making the most of your time on the job, you should easily be able to carve out the few hours it requires to be a more informed crew member.

And if you're worried about being seen to "slack off", I highly doubt that your supervisor is going to criticize you because you've taken the time to watch the latest cut or read the script. To the contrary, your supervisor will probably be quietly impressed that you care enough to do so.

Okay. So you've watched the cut, read the script, pestered your seniors with questions about the protagonist's motivations, read the entire oeuvre of the prolific novelist upon whose twenty-seventh novel this film is based, and scarfed down the entire filmography of the director in one meth-fuelled watching binge conducted over five consecutive days and nights.

So what? What do you do with this exhaustive knowledge?

You internalize it. You may not necessarily find a direct use for it as a matte painter, but you will have absorbed some of the sensibility of the director; you will have enhanced your ability to anticipate what the director may want from a specific shot; you will have a better understanding of the world that your matte painting is part of; and instead of retreating into your insular VFX artist shell, you will have formed a stronger sense of being part of something much bigger than you.

Movie making is an intensely collaborative storytelling process, and if you don't feel deep in your gut that you are an important part of that process, then you are a hindrance, not a help. So jump in there and do your part. Help tell the story. 

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