David Stipes is a two time Emmy® Award winner with over 30 years of experience in the film industry in various aspects of visual effects and animation.
David worked as a Visual Effects Supervisor on four Star Trek
series: “The Next Generation,” “Voyager,” “Deep Space Nine,” and
“Enterprise”. David championed the use of computer-generated imagery (CGI) for Star Trek, which completely changed how the visual effects are created for the shows.
Prior to Star Trek, David created visual effects for a number of science fiction television series including “Buck Rogers,” “Battlestar Galactica,”The Flash,” “V” and “Intruders.”
David also operated his own studio for more than 12 years producing visual effects for such feature films as “Circuitry Man,” “Creepshow,” “Lawnmower Man,” and “Real Genius.” David has had over twenty industry related articles published and is currently an instructor at The Art Institute of Phoenix.
He accepted to share with us some of his photos and tell us more about it.
Buck Rogers in 25th Century” TV show. (1979) I am standing in front of a multi-plane matte painting set-up. Painting is by Dan Curry who later went on to become a Visual Effects Supervisor and Producer on “Star Trek.” This kind of set up allowed layers of glass to slide and provide drifting cloud effects.
Buck Rogers in 25th Century” TV show. (1979) I am checking the lighting values for one of the motion control Buck Rogers fighters.
Battlestar Galactica” (circa 1979) The live action footage of wire suspended, stunt doubles was rear projected into photo collaged image of a Galactica Viper fighter. The entire image was part of a huge motion controlled pull back to emphasize the isolation of the two men stranded in space.
“The Magic Treasure” Amid the Magic Treasure village (circa 1975) (L-R) Linda Duron, David Stipes, David Allen, Jim Duron) This was a collaborative effort between David Allen (writer, director, producer, key animator) and some of his friends: David Stipes (co-producer, sets, props, some armatures), Jim Duron (associate-producer,sets, art direction) Linda Duron (costuming) Margo Stipes (sets and props) and others.The project spanned more than a decade with David Allen finishing it in 1980s. In spite of its uplifting message and charming look, David could never find a market for it. Fortunately it was included as a special feature in the Criterion Collection 2006 release of “Equinox.”
“CBS Special White Paper Report: In Defense of the US” (1981). This was a documentary projecting the effects of a nuclear strike on Strategic Air Command in Omaha, NEB. We looked at a real local family, The Allen family, and filmed what would happen to each member of this extended family at different distances from ground zero. Here is the Allen house miniature at moment of destruction. Model was blasted with compressed air cannons.
David painting on “V” water tower matte shot for “V-The Final Battle” (1984)
(L-R) Joe Bauer, Dan Curry and David Stipes hold Emmy Awards for ‘Outstanding Individual Achievement in Special Visual Effects’ on “Star Trek: The Next Generation episode: All Good Things.” (1994)
“Kenner Toys: Heroes Collection” commercial (circa 1985). This is a high speed shot of break-apart miniature city just prior to its destruction at the hands of some super villains. The miniature buildings served as backgrounds for cartoon Super Heroes.
Thank you very much David. Do you have any story you’d like to share with us ?
Here is one bit of ‘behind the scenes’ … An unusual application of matte painting. For the “CBS Special Report: In Defense of the US” project, we were filming
the Allen family to show on a personal level what a nuclear strike would look like. The CBS representative arranged to have us film the Allen children and a few of their friends at the local school play ground. The kids were maybe 10 or 11 years old. We set up the camera, positioned the children laying on the ground and looked through the lens. All the kids look nice, clean and sweet. Since it was to be post nuclear strike, I suggested that we dirty them up and darken their skin with make-up. “No way! That was too ‘Hollywood’. ”
I looked at the sweet children and saw in my mind’s eye what they would look like after we worked them over with a matte painting. I visualized how the parents would possibly react … and I knew it would work well. One of my favorite people I worked with at Universal Hartland was Dan Curry. I wanted to work with him again so I asked him to help make the children into “crispy critters.” As Dan turned lovely children into disgusting burned corpses with the magic of matte painting, I made three dimensional shapes of the children to smolder and smoke.
On location I had documented the camera height, lens and tilt angle. After reproducing that info and scaling it down to my miniature needs, I took a frame of the film and projected the image of the children out onto a table representing the school play ground. I build up shapes that matched the profiles of the children in the projected image.
When satisfied with the accuracy, I covered the shapes with black velvet. This allowed me to put light on the scene and not have the shapes to actually show up on film. What I was interested in was making post-burn smoke drift off each of the bodies. We used to have access to a toxic two part chemical kit that would smoke when combined. I coated the velvet “bodies” with part one of the chemical, ran film and sprayed part two on the miniature. The “bodies” erupted in nasty, drifting smoke, all in proper perspective.
When the drifting smoke was combined with the scorched (matte painted) bodies, the effect was both horrifying and effective.
And now, let’s ask David few questions !
– 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 !