Zoic’s Syd Dutton on Mentoring in the Visual Effects Industry

Originally posted on I Design Your Eyes on3/25/10.

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It’s easy for today’s young filmmakers to forget that the art of the cinema goes back 132 years; television 83 years; and interactive media 23 years. Today’s students might think the latest high tech tools are all they need to succeed in the rapidly-changing visual effects industry; and they’ll be sorely disappointed when their ignorance of time-tested filmmaking technique puts them in the dole queue.

That’s why mentoring is so important to the future success of young VFX professionals. I recently sat down with Zoic Studios’ Syd Dutton to discuss the importance of industry pros passing along their knowledge to the next generation.

Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, The Bourne Identity, and Serenity. The Emmy-Award winner co-founded Illusion Arts in 1985, which created thousands of shots and matte paintings for over 200 feature films over 26 years.

As we spoke, Dutton’s longtime collaborator and Zoic compositing supervisor Fumi Mashimo listened in, and occasionally interjected. Mashimo’s credits include From Hell, Van Helsing and Public Enemies.

The things I learned gave me the foundation I needed for this business… I try to pass it along as much as I can…

The first assistant I had was Rob Stromberg, a well-accomplished matte painter. I would have hired him immediately, but he was driving a Porsche, lived in Malibu, and had a cell phone at a time when cell phones were still a luxury. So I said this guy’s pretty talented, but I can’t afford him. Then I found out later it was all a façade, and he was poor as a church mouse. But he had tons of talent.

syddutton_188x250So I hired him, and he just really excelled when we switched to computers, which just terrified me — but he really embraced it. It was all Macs at the time, because you could get more bang for the buck from multiple Mac stations rather than from just one SGI machine. Our first creature was a bird that Fumi [Mashimo] generated in a traditional painting, I think the same year Jurassic Park (1993) came out – and our big accomplishment was doing this bird!

Rob was great; and he really wanted to direct, so after a number of years he left. He later went back into matte painting and formed his own company, called Digital Backlot. Then he became a digital art director on Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003), which was nominated for an Oscar for Best Visual Effects. Apparently Rob had learned all the lessons I had learned from [legendary visual effects supervisor and matte painter] Albert Whitlock, that I passed along, like how to compose a shot using light and dark.

Most recently he became a production designer — which is really a jump for a visual effects person — first working for Jim Cameron on Avatar, for which he won an Academy Award [Best Achievement in Art Direction]; and this year he was productions designer on Alice in Wonderland, which is pretty amazing.

Mike Wassel was another one. His background was in design – he went to the Art Center in Pasadena — but he also knew car design, which was fortuitous for him. I got a call from Universal around 2000 saying we have this little movie we want to do on a budget, and we have about 20 shots or so, do you want to do it, it’s for Rob Cohen? I had worked for Rob for years, starting with The Wiz (1978) when he was the producer on the show for Motown.

My partner Bill Taylor and I both realized that Mike was the guy to supervise this. I didn’t know much about cars, but Mike was a complete car fanatic. He knew how cars would bank and all that stuff. Fumi did a wonderful test of a car, and I showed it to Rob Cohen. He said “why are you showing me this?” I said “What do you think it is?” “It’s a sports car turning a corner.” And I said “that’s CG.” We got the job. [laughter]

Bill and I talked Rob Cohen into hiring Mike Wassell as the visual effects supervisor. Now Mike’s working on the fifth edition of Fast & Furious. He was nominated for a VES award on Hellboy II: The Golden Army. So Mike’s having a pretty good career since he left too.

There have been several others; their careers are just beginning. I don’t know if it was so much my mentoring directly. I certainly try to pass on what I learned from Al Whitlock, who taught me everything I know about painting, even though I went to college and I had degrees and stuff like that. But the things I learned from Al gave me the foundation I needed for this business. I try to pass it along as much as I can.

But it was also the environment of Illusion Arts — not just me mentoring, but everyone would help bring up the next person. Do you think that’s fair to say, Fumi?

A good eye is a good eye, whether it’s looking through a whole bunch of glass and a projector, or at a computer monitor…

Fumi: It was a really nice environment.

There’s a couple more people, but I really don’t want to mention them until they achieve something. [laughter]

Fumi’s probably the most unsung person; now he’s compositing, but Fumi can do anything. Fumi did CG birds on The Bourne Identity (2002)…

fumimashimo_188x250Fumi: Oh God.

They were great. Hundreds of birds. I don’t think you will watch The Bourne Identity and notice any of our work in it. And we did dozens and dozens of shots. We always, especially in a contemporary movie, try to be as invisible as possible – I guess that’s what everybody tries to do. In science fiction it’s impossible. In historical dramas, sometimes you can get away with it, if people don’t think too hard. But most of the time in contemporary films, invisibility is what you want.

Erik: Fumi, do you have anything to say about Syd as a mentor?

Fumi: Oh, I mean, I learned everything from him. I didn’t know much about filmmaking when I was hired by him. I can respect him as a boss and also I can respect him as a person. That’s why I have been working with him for the past 23 years.

We found Fumi when he came from Canada with Randy Cook, who’s an Academy award-winning animator (for The Lord of the Rings trilogy). At that time Randy was working on a film called The Gate (1987), and Fumi was working as his assistant for no money, because he wanted the experience; and Fumi didn’t speak very good English either. [Fumi scoffs] But we could tell from his work ethic that he would fit in. So when Randy’s film finished, we asked if he could stay on. He learned English and all sorts of things, and when the computer came along he learned that too.

The old-fashioned optical printer guys, once they learned the computer, they became at that time the very best compositors; because a good eye is a good eye, whether it’s looking through a whole bunch of glass and a projector, or at a monitor. A good eye is what it takes.

Erik: Can you talk about mentoring, as far as personal relationships?

I think mentoring is a pretty intense relationship. You try to give that person all you know and hope they will take it to another level.

Erik: Based on my own chequered experience in this industry, it might be different on the creative side, but I’ve run into a lot of “I’m not going to teach anyone anything, because they might compete against me in the future.”

That’s exactly what happens – but that doesn’t help anybody. There’s always going to be somebody competing against you. If you own a business and don’t teach your people how to do good work, then your company doesn’t do good work. There are a lot of people who won’t give away their quote-unquote “secrets,” and that just isn’t me. I like working with young people. If it’s the right person, I like mentoring.

Fumi: There are a lot of young people CG artists, they don’t want to hear it. We have so many of them passing through.

Yeah, if they didn’t work out, they didn’t stay. I wasn’t cruel about it, I didn’t fire people and embarrass them, but if they didn’t work out, they just didn’t stay. It really was a family, and if a person didn’t fit in that family, it really didn’t matter. It was just a dysfunctional family.

Fumi: It was really nice, though.

If you own a business and don’t teach your people how to do good work, then your company doesn’t do good work…

I’m proud, especially with Rob and Mike, that they have done so well. It reflects well on me [laughter], and it passes on something important. When I first started working with Al, I had artistic experience and I had degrees, but I didn’t know how to apply it to movies. Al was very patient with me, and taught me all his tricks, and all of [legendary special effects creator and matte painter] Peter Ellenshaw’s tricks, because he worked with Ellenshaw.

Al made me aware of how people like W. Percy Day worked, who was a production designer in England in the 30s. I was introduced to all sorts of production designers; most of them are long gone. It was wonderful. It connected me all the way back to the 1920s and 30s. I felt I really learned a lot on how to do things, how to be economical with your vision.

Erik: It sounds like a lot of what you learned translates into the new technology.

Oh, it all translates. People just don’t necessarily know about it. If you hadn’t been exposed to it, and talked to people who worked on these movies that were classics — it’s not in books, it has to be learned firsthand.

Erik: Do you get people who think that knowledge from before the digital revolution can’t translate?

Yeah, sure. They can’t believe it would work. Some simple — what we used to call “gags” – these tricks that are effective, they say couldn’t possibly translate into the digital age, and they can.

Erik: What about the environment at Zoic, as far as mentoring and education?

I think the training program here is really very good. It’s a wonderful way to find out who’s going to work out, and it’s certainly wonderful for young people to be around this environment.

It’s never going to be the same as the world I came up in. I was exposed to this whole backlot world, and the old movie stars and everything. In this environment you aren’t exposed to sets, and all those things I found really interesting working for a big studio.

When I had my own business at Illusion Arts, we did go to the sets. We went on locations, too. What we did on glass was something very few people could do. But as times changed and everything became computer-oriented, this became the type of environment that people would have to learn to work in. And of all the places I’ve seen, Zoic by far has the best environment. It’s the friendliest, it’s the most open.

I told one of my client producers, you’d be hard put to know who to kill to take over the company, because there’s no obvious boss walking around smoking a cigar or something. Everybody seems to know their jobs, and they just collaborate with one another. I’ve never seen people yelling at each other – maybe I haven’t stayed around long enough to see that. [laughter]

It’s a good environment, and it’s actually one of the reasons I came here. It didn’t seem to have a whole bunch of pressure – there’s time pressure, but there didn’t seem to be a lot of alpha dogs going around screaming at each other!

More info: Syd Dutton, Fumi Mashimo, Robert Stromberg and Mike Wassel on IMDb; see also “Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital.”