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.”

Syd Dutton: Matte Painting from Traditional to Digital

Originally published on I Design Your Eyes on 12/4/09.

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It’s a cliché to call an artist “legendary,” but sometimes the word fits. Syd Dutton has been a leading matte painter for film and television for over three decades. His credits include Dune, The Running Man, Total Recall, the Addams Family films, Batman Forever, Star Trek: First Contact and Nemesis, U-571, The Fast and the Furious, The Time Machine, 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. When Illusion Arts shut its doors earlier this year, Dutton and Zoic embraced the opportunity to collaborate, and Dutton became part of the team.

When I sat down to interview Dutton over coffee, it was with the intention of putting together some kind of grand post about the history of matte painting. But it’s far more interesting to let Syd speak for himself.

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When I looked over your credits, I saw you worked on one of my favorite movies, Real Genius (1985).

That’s one of my favorites too. We did a practical matte for the B-1 bomber. [Val Kilmer and Gabe Jarret sneak onto a B-1 bomber on a military base.] In those days it was still paint on glass, and to get a sharp line for what was supposed to be the underbelly of the bomber, it had to be really sharp. But we were shooting at night. In order to black out the film, to do an original negative – you know what original negative work is, we needed two exposures — to get a real sharp line the matte had to be 50 feet out and 40 feet long. We spent several hours making it, putting cardboard where the belly had to go, making sure people would be underneath that line all the time. It was pretty fun.

But that was the coldest night of my entire career. I’ve been to some cold places, like Prague, but on that Van Nuys tarmac, that was the coldest ever.

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You also worked on David Lynch’s original Dune (1984). Can you tell me about the matte painting of the Harkonnen city on Giedi Prime?

Basically this was just a big painting. The people who are moving around were shot in a parking lot at Estudios Churubusco in Mexico City. Just one smoke and fire element was used over and over again. And then a car on a cable goes through the shot. The car was created by model maker Lynn Ledgerwood (The Bourne Identity), and measured about 8″ long.

The difficult thing about that was my partner and Al wanted to keep [film] as much as possible from being duplicated… we wanted to keep the painting on original film. So [we were] shooting the painting and making a very crude motion control frame-by-frame move; taking the film into an optical printer, trying to match the move through the optical printer; and then we put the people in and the smoke and the cable car. So we had to do a lot of adjustments, and we found that it had to be so exact, if we waited to shoot in the afternoon, the concrete floor had expanded. We had to shoot at a certain time in the morning, before the expansion occurred. So it was complicated, but we seemed to have lots of time in those days, and it was a fun painting to work on.

David Lynch would come by when I was painting it, and he would say “I like it, I want it dirtier.” He was always a nice guy, really a gentleman.

In your experience, what is the difference between working with traditional mattes versus digital?

There was a wonderful thing about doing original negative matte shots. You had to prepare the shot, and then you had to be committed to a matte line.

You had a whole bunch of test footage, and when the painting was completed you had to re-expose the same film, and hope that light bulbs didn’t burn out when you were shooting, or that the glass didn’t break. But it had a completeness to it, and so when you finished a matte shot, and when it came out like the ones in Real Genius — I thought they came out pretty well — there’s a great sense of completeness.

You made a long matte, you worked out the problems, you’ve been cold, you’ve endured that process, and you’ve gone through the photochemical process of developing the pieces of film, and working the matte line until it has disappeared. And finally you take a deep a breath and expose the two or three good takes that the director likes. And you put the worst one through first to make sure everything is working well, show it to the director, and then put the hero take through. Of course nobody had seen any footage unless they were shooting a B-cam, which they never did; and so it was kind of like the Catholic Church, where the director had to trust you that in two months or so you would have a finished product they would approve and like.

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Did you ever experience any disasters in that realm?

The only near disaster was when Tony Perkins — we were the first shot up on Psycho III (1986), that he was directing, and he was a real nice guy — and the first shot was this girl leaving a nunnery, and there was a piece of string that she had to follow so she would be on the [right side of the matte line].

And we had everything ready, the camera blocked off, and Tony Perkins came on the set. He came over to the camera, he looked through the lens and said “that’s perfect,” and then put all his body weight on the camera to lift himself up. And we said “we can roll in a few seconds!” I didn’t want to say “oh, you just [expletive deleted] up the shot!” We said, “oh, we need just a few more minutes of adjustment.” So we lied – we had to reset the matte, readjust the camera. If we had told him he had just screwed up the first shot of his movie, it was really bad luck. But that’s another shot that turned out well, I liked that shot a lot.

I can’t remember who the production designer was, I think it was Henry Bumstead [it was]. Everyone should know who Henry Bumstead was. He just died a while ago; he worked until 90, and died when he was 91 [in 2006]. He was Clint Eastwood’s favorite production designer, and in his 80s he designed Unforgiven — beautiful production design. Henry always made everything easy. Of course he had worked on Vertigo (1958).

According to IMDb, your first movie was Family Plot with Alfred Hitchcock?

Well, that was uncredited. I was hired by Albert Whitlock to work on The Hindenburg (1975) as a gopher, primarily, but then I came up with some ideas of my own, and Al liked them; so after Hindenburg Al made me his assistant. And Family Plot was again Henry Bumstead. Al really didn’t want to do the matte shot because he felt that it was – Hitchcock just wanted to show [actress] Karen Black what a matte shot was. It was a police station in San Francisco, a pretty easy matte shot; adding a second story, putting some what I would call “intelligent nonsense” in the background. So I painted that.

You had a fine art background?

Yeah. I went to Berkeley. Had a master’s degree. Had a wonderful time. Everything I learned, except for a sense of color, was totally useless when it came to matte painting. But it was still good to have that background. The best thing about going to Berkeley in those days was everyone wanted to be in San Francisco in the ‘60s. So I met people like Mark Rothko, pretty famous painters.

So what was it like to transition to digital, to have to train?

Oh, for me it was really hard. Rob Stromberg (2012, Avatar) was working for me at the time, and he embraced it really fast. I was just sort of afraid of it. I got used to it – it took me a while.

The people I know who were able to make the transition faster were people who like to draw things out. Bob Scifo (Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, The Abyss) for example is a wonderful matter painter. He has worked here for Zoic a couple of times. He came from the school where you drew everything out, and then painted it in. But he still got this incredible emotional result.

The way I learned to paint was the way Al Whitlock painted and Peter Ellenshaw (20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, The Black Hole) painted — you just started painting. Sometimes you didn’t know what you were going to paint, exactly; you knew what the subject matter was going to be — it might be a castle — but you just push paint around, and you start seeing things materialize – oh! I can see it now – and you let it dry, and try to bring all of it out of the fog. And that was a wonderful way to paint.

And in Photoshop, at least in the beginning, I couldn’t paint that way. I couldn’t make a big mess – it just stayed a big mess, I couldn’t refine it. The only way I could discover things and make a big mess was with Corel Painter; you can blend colors together and have accidents happen. And then at that point I usually finish the work in Photoshop.

When painting matte backgrounds now, you’re painting a painting, but there’s also the approach where you’re creating a 3D environment and making a 2D image from that.

Yeah. And there’s also projection – projecting a 2D painting onto objects. That’s another way to get camera movement. There’s no such thing anymore as a locked-down shot — that’s what matte paintings used to be. You would do everything in the world to make sure the camera didn’t move. And now people consider it a locked-off shot if they just hold the camera steady.

In the early days, you got to go out on location, sometimes to some really adventurous environments – a rock in the middle of some bay in Mexico; on a hillside in Europe somewhere. It was very physical, so you had that physical part. That part is now gone. Now I have to exercise to stay in shape, rather than just work. It was kind of dangerous, really – I didn’t think about it at the time.

There are no circumstances where they want you to go out and see the original location?

Not anymore. The visual effects supervisor will go to the locations, take photographs. He becomes the point man for every other department.

Does that feel like less involvement on your part?

Well, that’s the trade-off. The trade-off is that we can do now what we used to dream about doing. Which was, wouldn’t it be great if we could paint a grand, futuristic city and loop through it? Wouldn’t it be great if we could have a huge crowd running towards us in that shot? Rotoscope in a thousand people or something?

Things that we used to dream about, we can do now, but the trade-off is we don’t get to be as involved in the production as we once were. I talked to [Zoic co-founder] Loni [Peristere] about that. I said I feel bad for some of the kids here, that they’ll never be on the stage. It’s fun to be on location. He said the trade-off was they have all the tools to make their own movies. So, everything has a trade-off.

More info: Syd Dutton on IMDb.