Leading VFX Artists Talk Matte Paintings, Full Environments and Set Extensions

VFX created or enhanced environments will “someday be undetectable from reality,” said Oscar winner Craig Barron at AMPAS’ Monday program.
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Film environments created or enhanced by visual effects will “someday be undetectable from reality,” said Academy VFX branch governor and Oscar winner Craig Barron, speaking Monday during the final session in the Motion Picture Academy's “VFX Convergence” series. Barron and VFX branch member Theresa Rygiel moderated this cross disciplinary look at how matte paintings and set extensions are evolving in filmmaking.

Already, some created environments can be indistinguishable from real life. Two-time Oscar winner Rob Legato (Titanic, Hugo) demonstrated this by showing examples of the cliffs and ocean in Shutter Island.

He also showed work on Hugo, which was characterized by an enhanced reality with a “storybook feel.”

Panelists also screened clips from films with fantasy environments, including Oblivion and Avatar.

Speakers including Rocco Gioffre—whose work includes Life of Pi and upcoming The Secret Life of Walter Mitty (a preview of this film was well received at the recent CinemaCon)—pointed out that there is never a single answer to how to achieve these creations. “There’s always a few different approaches,” Gioffre said. “Some create something from nothing. Others try to shoot practical when possible.”

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Two-time Oscar winning production designer Robert Stromberg (Alice in Wonderland, Avatar) agreed, noting that the choices of how to use and combine production design, matte painting and digital set extensions is “often based on what the camera is doing, as well as budget.”

Stromberg showed some of his work on Oz The Great and Powerful, saying this was a combination of disciplines though about 60 percent was digital.

But the VFX pro turned art director—turned director, as he will next helm Disney’s Maleficent—explained that while they went with a stylized look on Oz, they also had parts of sets that were real to “give actors something to touch, and directors of photography something to light, and directors something to block.”

Stromberg’s talk underscored how the disciplines are also merging. “I started painting on glass,” he said. “Matte painting became this place where you could create and you were in charge of that world. … These are micro-production design jobs—the perfect training ground.”

But he reminded the audience that tools can’t replace a trained eye. “You can have this powerful stuff, but you still have to know why something doesn't look right.”

Various speakers emphasized how digital tools give filmmakers complete freedom with camera movement.

Guy Williams (Iron Man 3) cited as an example that in making his King Kong, Peter Jackson wanted to create a fully-CG version of New York from the air, to allow him to place the camera anywhere in the climatic sequence at the top of the Empire State Building.

He said: “We are finding more and more, if we have the [digital] set, we are creating new shots and new moments.”

On May 6, an Academy program will explore the work behind Life of Pi, with speakers including members of its Oscar winning VFX team.