Jim Maxwell is a Matte Painter and Concept artist who has worked on a number of feature films including Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Lust Caution and the recent blockbuster, The Incredible Hulk.
He has loved painting and film since childhood and talks about why he thinks, “Matte painting is all about painting light, shadow, and colour”.
3DTotal: I see from your resume that you have a few year’s experience as a matte artist / painter. How did you come to be involved in this area of CG and where did you learn your skills? Jim: Well I’ve loved painting and drawing and watching movies since I was really young, so I think it was a natural conclusion to eventually bridge these together. As soon as I’d learned you could have a career painting and having those paintings appear in film, I immediately wanted to be a matte painter, I was probably about 13 or 14. Sitting watching movies, I’d try to find where the matte paintings were; to pinpoint exactly where the matte painting met the real footage. I’d also wait until the very end of the film to see who the matte artists were in the credits - those guys were, and still are, my heroes. I went to art college for a while, and took some night classes here and there in Adobe Photoshop, After Effects, and Lightwave. But there are obviously other software packages more or less applicable depending on job requirements, and if you’re good at what you do, you learn to use additional software on the job along the way. The determination and long-time desire I had to be a matte painter, and not necessarily classes or diplomas, is what has allowed me to do what I do. Ultimately what’s important is how you put the knowledge you gain to use, how much experience you gather as you go, and to not loose faith in yourself, as everyone operates and learns differently. That said - education and training are important, but you inevitably are the one responsible for the quality and success of your work.
Working towards your goal in your spare time is extremely important too - it gives you an edge over people
who just “want” to do something. I think with matte painting or anything creative it’s being active, producing work, and spending time improving your skills that will be your best advantage and serve you well in the future.
In my first studio job as a matte painter I was hired for two days a week. It was a “trial by fire” experience because I had to get used to the software in a production environment, but I ploughed through and ended up being part of a team that was nominated for a Canadian Gemini Award.
3DTotal: From your early interest in film who do you regard as being pioneers in the field of matte painting and whose work do you admire the most? Jim: A lot of people might say Albert Whitlock - and he is phenomenal - but I didn’t learn about him until later on. He wasn’t just an extraordinary matte painter, he would composite elements together in an old-fashioned way, such as manually dragging a painted-on photographed image of the Hindenburg across a glass matte painting of the New York skyline (which would be done these days with compositing software and a 3D model of the Hindenburg).
But his stuff is amazing and I think the guys whose matte paintings I grew up looking at are somewhat indebted to him. The matte painters that really inspired me though, were guys like Michael Pangrazio, Harrison Ellenshaw, Frank Ordaz, Chris Evans, Caroleen Green, Yusei Uesugi - their early work was so impressive, and it was all done with a brush! I would try to contact them at their respective workplaces (years before most kids knew what matte painting was) and would be lucky enough to have conversations over the phone with them, asking them techniques and advice on how to break into the business. As I wanted to be a matte painter so much, I’d sit and watch old movies with my parents, and call out “hey that’s a matte painting”, and they’d tell me to shush, and for the most part they didn’t understand what I was talking about. I recognised that images in The Wizard of OZ, and Gone with the Wind weren’t just painted backdrops, there was something different with them... where they were situated in the frame, their composition etc.With the digital age too there are some great guys; Yannick Dusseault’s work on The Lord of the Rings trilogy, and the Star Wars films is amazing.
He’s so talented and I think he works very quickly and in a very smart way, which makes him successful. Other guys like Dylan Cole, Richard Bluff, and Chris Stoski are all really talented people working in the digital era of matte painting and they’re the guys to watch right now.
People say a lot of romance is lost between the old ways of painting on glass and now painting through the glass on a computer screen, but for the past decade or so there has been astounding work on the screen that no one would ever recognise as a matte painting.
3DTotal: On your demo reel there is a sequence from the recent Hulk film showing a wireframe overlay across a building façade. Can you talk us through this shot and how the matte was created? Jim: The first thing was to find specifically what production was asking for. The building represented a laboratory, so they requested that the building be extended. So you ask questions: one extra storey or two? Should it resemble the previous floor and is there any extra architectural ornamentation? In the end they wanted one more floor, same architecture - though certain windows may have lights off and there would be two large holes in the brickwork. The shot was initially 2000 frames long, and the camera actually follows right around to another side of the building. So I had to create two facades.
Sometimes you can get away with simple geometry planes textured and tracked in 3D. But it was necessary to add a bit of depth and detail of the inset windows, as well as creating the holes in the wall. Luckily, the scene was tracked already. I have great respect for people who nail down a good track in a shot. There were basic 3D planes laid out to match the footage, and that generally makes your job that much easier (though it doesn’t always happen that way!) Anyway, I had some photo reference of the actual building in the daytime, with a somewhat orthographic, straight-on view. I colour-corrected the photo to match the plate, and transformed the image so it was perfectly orthographic - which is important when you’re applying texture to geometry. I painted up some areas, and cloned others in Photoshop. Then I took that file, brought it into Maya, put it on an image plane and spent a few days creating the needed geometry.
When I was happy with the windows etc, I rendered out the UV’s and saved them out for Photoshop - then I painted on the UV’s, brought it back into Maya and mapped it onto my building geometry. I had to do a few lighting passes; the character “Abomination” throws objects through the wall so I created one texture pass with lights on and one with lights off to simulate flickering lights and damage... then I rendered everything out for the compositor.
3DTotal: Can you explain what you mean by: “The scene was tracked already”? Jim: Basically when the plates (film footage that’s been digitally scanned) arrive in a VFX studio, and there are set extensions or 3D elements that need to be added to the scene, someone will have to create a virtual, digital camera that will have the exact same movement and motion as the physical, practical camera that was on set when they shot the scene. Usually roughed out geometry will be created to match buildings, landscapes, or features of the scene. For the lab shot in Hulk, rough geometry planes were created for the ground, for a building on the left and right, and for a distant building. The tracker then animated the camera movement while watching the footage playing within the software to make sure his “track” was as bang on as possible. So when I started working on the scene, it was already tracked for me - so I created the facades of the building and placed them where the rough geometry was, deleted that geometry and then focused on the details of the texture I had to project onto the building. There were some tweaks here and there where I had to reposition some elements as they would fall off the track and move independently of the camera move... so there was a bit of back and forth before everything stayed put. But in the end, I thought it looked pretty bang on.
3DTotal: Do you do much hand painted work on matte paintings these days or is everything pretty much composed of photographic elements? Jim: I think any good matte painter combines as many techniques as possible. It would be a hard job for me to do if I limited myself to basic photo collage - it would get old really fast. I try to hand paint (digitally in Photoshop) as much as possible, I create basic models in 3D that I eventually paint over when I don’t always have good references and there’s a lot of photo-cloning as well. Photo references are important. As good as your eye can be in what you know of the world (lighting, shadow, perspective etc), photo references can be vital depending on the shot. But I really think painting skills are the number one necessity - they’re the glue that pulls everything else together. Just recently I had the opportunity to create a cityscape matte painting that served as the background in the last scene of a feature film. The timeframe was really short, and I could have used some photo references which I was lacking... so I painted in the majority of the rooftops of the city using colour, light, and shadow, suggestions of antennas and satellite dishes, and it ended up looking believable. When I get the chance to paint in details, or paint full skies, clouds, or landscapes, it’s very rewarding and I try to do it as much as possible.