Few minutes with David Stipes

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 !

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