Few minutes with Paul Swendsen

When someone ask me why I decided to become a matte painter, my answer is always the same : because the matte painting made at ILM during the 80’s are amazing ! And when someone ask me what movie I enjoyed the most when I was a kid, my answer is always the same : Willow, directed by Ron Howard.
That’s why I’m so proud to share with you today an exclusive interview with one of the most inspiring Matte Painter, who actually worked at ILM in the 80’s, on Willow. Let’s take few minutes to talk to Paul Swendsen.
Thank you so much Paul for your very detailed answers. It’s a real privilege to have the opportunity to listen to your amazing stories.

1- Hi Paul, can you tell us why you choose to become matte painter ?

In 1977 the first Star wars came out. I was 22 years old fresh out of school. I was an artist and had studied every medium I could, painting, sculpting, print making, design, photography, even acting. The film blew me away. A year later a friend of my girlfriend was working on The Empire Strikes Back. He called us one night and and asked if we wanted to come down to the ILM Christmas party and meet George Lucas. As in the Godfather, this was “an offer I couldn’t refuse”.
After a couple of hours there he invited us to ILM. He showed us all the models and blue screen and motion control cameras, but I was mostly interested by the matte paintings. I had never seen such beautiful and technical work. I pulled out one painting after another, absolutely astonished.
I built up my portfolio in the next couple of years and then started to sent things to the matte department. I was always refused. Eventually I gave up on ILM and just started painting for myself and selling in galleries. Eventually directors and producers from USFX ,i.e.The Right Stuff, saw my work at an artist party. They asked me to come work for them painting mattes or backgrounds. The first time I walked into USFX to find the people that had called me I entered a huge stage. I the middle of the stage was a guy sitting on a box playing the trumpet. I listened to him a bit and when he stopped I asked him if he knew where I could find the production office. I found out later it was Ed Harris the principle actor in the film. USFX became Colossal Pictures and one day a producer told me I should talk to her friends Dean and Alex Tavoularis they were working on a Francis Ford Coppola film (Tucker) and needed a painter. Well as luck would have it since Lucas was producing, it was right next to ILM.
The actors use to come and watch me paint. I had many lunches talking over my paintings with Francis. I had great time, and made more money in three months than I had in the past five years. Then one day matte supervisor Chris Evans came by and asked me if I would like to work at ILM on their next film, Willow, when Tucker was finished. For years I had given up, and then they came to me. It was a huge cut in pay, but I knew if I refused I would never forgive myself.

2- What was a typical day of work as a matte painter on Willow ?

Dailies, that is viewing a projection of the previous days work, started at 8 or 8:30am. We would sit in the screening room and criticize everyones work, not just matte paintings, but models and other VFX. We all had little flashlights to shine on the screen and point out areas that worked or didn’t. Each sequence would be played back and forth many times until all the comments were done and it was time to move on the the next.

After dailies we would have a private slide show in the matte department and get extremely specific about the paintings. It could be pretty harsh, sometimes there were tears, or people got depressed all day. I was used to harsh criticism from my days as an architectural renderer. You can’t improve something if you don’t know what’s wrong with it.

The matte department was kind of an elitist group, and cause some jealousy at ILM. We were able to sit down personally with directors and come up with shots that we hoped would dazzle the audience. In almost all other aspects of film making, it’s a huge group effort, but many times it is a single matte artist that creates a total image for the screen. Art directors always thought that they should be the ones to talk to the directors and that the matte artists should follow their designs. The matte artist felt that they alone were the best judge what would work as a matte painting.
In fact, all matte artists had the ability to be art directors but none of the art directors had the ability to be matte artists.

At the end of Willow, for this type of egoism, and politics, the matte department at ILM was fired. Months before, they knew it was coming and started to plan their own company. I remember when Mike Pangrazio jokingly came up with the name Matte World. He laugh, but the name stuck. So they all left and started a new company.

I was the new man on the block at the matte department, so I had not had time to make enemies. In fact I had found a lot of friends at ILM. So I was kept on, and worked on several films after Willow.


3- What is the matte painting you’ve done which makes you really proud ?

When I joined ILM Chris Evens told me I would have to start as an apprentice at the lowest wage as all other matte painters had done. I was already earning four times his supervisor salary before I joined ILM and had to take an enormous pay cut to be there, so I made an agreement with him. If my first matte painting worked, I would be considered as a full matte painter. When my first matte painting was shown in the screening room, I received a standing ovation from all the ILMers. It was a proud day. Strangely, I can’t even remember which painting it was.

My most ambitious and complicated matte of which I am most proud, had so many technical problems that I was able to solve was the opening shot of The ‘Burbs by Joe Dante. Michael Owens called me onto the project, it was already in full swing. It was a type of effect called a Powers Of Ten shot after the name of the first film to do it in 1977. w Bill George and other model makers had made a fantastic copy of the real street set. It was about 8 or 10 meters wide, 5 meters high, and it was amazing!
It was positioned vertically so a track camera could approach it, as if from space. It even had a trap door in the middle so that the large camera on the motion controlled boom could pass through and bring the camera lens to “eye hight” in the model. They were having an extremely difficult time programming the move as every time you rotated one axis X, Y, or Z,the others would change, Z became Y or X would become Z.
The idea was that I would paint three huge matte paintings the same size 8 x 5 meters. The same track camera would then shoot them in sequence. I would glue a photo print of the wide shot of the previous image, model then mattes then globe into the center of the next matte and paint out from there.
They bought a huge sheet of Lexan, a plastic used to make astronaut helmets, to paint on because it would not have a seam. I saw the test of the track and dissolve that was a “test of concept”. It worked perfectly, but was done on different cameras than the one used for the actual shot. I realized right away that there was a big problem. The camera used would not be able to have the prism and light modification that would turn it into a projector to perfectly line up the three matte paintings. There was no way to do the seamless dissolve we needed. I explained the problem to Michael and told him that if we changed the matte size to half, they would fit in the matte departments camera room. There we had 1.3 million dollar track camera the could do the job. Of course I would have to paint four, not three mattes. He agreed and we set it up. The next problem was that when these still huge mattes, now 4 x 2.5 meters. were in place, there was not enough room to light them. We had light reflections in the camera. So I suggested putting polarized filters on the lights and camera. It worked, but there were more unforeseen problem. Next was that the photo prints that were made from the cinema stock used for the model had too much grain. when you tracked into it it was unusable. After many test of different cinema stock failed, I suggested we try photo stock in the camera, regular film for photos which had much finer grain. Kodachrome was fine grain but too contrasty as was all other slide film, we finally settled on a regular color print film. Kerry Nordquist had to make a huge amount of print tests until the contrast and color were right.
Bruce Walters had to program the matte track camera, another nightmare. The camera had to slow down in an asymptote curve, slower as it approached the painting, in order to give the visual impression of staying at constant speed. Then I had the nightmare. In dailies my paint did not match the photo. It looked fine in the matte room, but I made some color swatch tests and failed for days in dailies. The paint when filmed did not match the colors in the photographic print. Then it hit me, the camera and lights were polarized, my eyes were not. I took a strip of polarizer and made glasses form it. Bingo! The polarized light acted completely different on the paint and the photo. So I was able to perfectly match the photo for dailies, but when you looked at the matte without the glasses, it didn’t match at all. I called in more artists to help with the next three mattes as we were all behind schedule having had so many problems. Lorne Peterson built the globe for the Universal logo, and I glued the lat photo onto it.In the end it all worked flawlessly and we had the shot I was most proud of. Joe Dante liked it so much he ended the film with the shot in reverse.
It was a great experience. Now, of course, a single competent VFX artist could do it all on their computer. I’ve done it myself, on a different job.

4- What is the matte painting you would have loved to do yourself ?

Easy question. The end shot in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I saw Michael Pangrazio painting it. It’s a marvel, the single most memorable matte painting of all time!

5- How have you made the transition between traditional matte painting and Digital Matte Painting ?

By force, and necessity of course. I resisted as much as possible but eventually gave in to the march of the machine. Not as fun, not as glorious, and of course almost anyone can do it after a bit of training. I teach it now. PhotoShop has changed the visual world. In fact I worked with John Knoll at ILM when he and his brother were creating PhotoShop. It wasn’t even called PhotoShop at the time. We did one of the first digital-traditional hybrid commercials together. I painted a large matte that was scanned into the computer, as was the live shoot. Then John showed me how to make the transition from one to the other. Lots of cloning, and wow was it slow. The scanned image was huge. I could work for five minutes then go on a coffee break while the computer caught up with everything I just did. One great thing at the time was that we could suggest an idea for a new tool, or a modification and John and Tom would write it that night.

6- What do you miss the most from the old time ? And what do you like the most from the actual time ?

Today on the walls of ILM are real matte paintings and prints of digital ones. Unlike the real ones, nobody stops and stares for ten minutes at the digital ones. They were real works of art that were made by people with a profound knowledge of light, perspective, color, and design. All of them created by true artists. There were perhaps twenty of us in the world. It was exciting to go out with a small group and create magic. We filmed fire, and exploding ship models in the sky and in swimming pools. We made clouds in big water tanks and had huge intricate miniature sets, and huge real size sets full of beautiful props and intricate designs. Great makeup and costumes. It was mysterious, fascinating and most of all, FUN!
And you never knew if it worked until the film was developed.

Now it is a room full of computers will dozens or hundreds of people staring at monitors. Whole rooms of green screen. However, you do get to see what you filmed immediately, and you can match colors with the click of a mouse, and make a scene yourself that you would not have the skill or the money to make in the real world. And best of all, you have “undo”.

7- If you were born 15 years ago, would you consider to become a Matte Painter Artist today ? Why ?

No I wouldn’t. Perhaps a writer-director. I see the army of names that appear in the credits of a VFX movie so many in fact that they have to put three names per line or there would be half an hour of credits. I suppose it’s just my ego, but I would feel lost in that.
As an ex ILM model maker told me recently, “They took the most exciting and glamorous job in the world and mad it boring”.

8- Now, we talk about CG Environment, which can be 2D Matte Painting, 2.5D or 3D. Do you think the Matte Painting we knew is going to disappear ?

Absolutely. In large part, it already has. It always was about creating a mood and a vision that would push the story forward in just a few seconds, and now, logically that must evolve into a total environment.

9- Is a Matte Painter a artist, or a technician ?

Both. First and foremost an artist, but an artist must always add tools and gain knowledge to be able bring alive the vision that they are trying to bring to others. That might mean knowing how a certain pigment reacts to a specific film emulsion, how to set up a nodal point camera, or now, how to use a software, or how digital compression might affect an image

10- Today, we might have to work for Imax, in Stereoscopy, 48fps, and we need to keep all the range in the images to be able to post-grade everything in DI. What do you think about all of this when you look back at the time you were just painting a still frame with brushes and paint ?

Imax, Stereoscopy, or 48fps are not really an issue in grading. Digital grading is relatively easy compared to the color and exposure wedges we had to make for traditional matte paintings. Wedges are tests that are the extreme of photographic “bracketing” from black to white not just four exposures . Boxes of color filters had to be tested to zero in on the right color balance. Now it’s a turn of a dial and you see what you get immediately, not tomorrow after it’s back from the lab. or it two week when it’s back from the optical printer.

2 thoughts on “Few minutes with Paul Swendsen”

  1. Thanks for this: what a fascinating read. I miss optical VFX. CGI has removed so many limitations on what can be put on a screen that the awe factor has somehow evaporated. The creative hackery, the lateral thinking needed to pull off shots in the old days just blew my mind.

    It’s a little like the improvements to film stock, the reduction in film grain over the years, and now the shift to super-clean digital acquisition: cinema has lost its painterly feel and become much more clinically accurate in its representation of the scene as shot. And while it brings more immediacy to the look, we’ve lost that texture, those gaps between the frames, those gaps between the grain that our brain used to have to fill in.

    Still: there are wonderful things still coming to our screens, and we’ll always have Bladerunner and A New Hope (etc) to rewatch when we need…

    (and boy, isn’t it incredible how often Star Wars comes up in these stories? For me it was Return of the Jedi – seeing a behind the scenes feature as a child, those guys running through a forest with a camera on a gimbal to do those chase scenes – I was too young to see the actual film, but that TV special shaped my life and career. Just wish I’d been old enough to get into it at the optical instead of digital stage 😉

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