Tag: Visual Effects

Farscape Season 1 Matte Paintings!

Well folks.. apologies for the break between posts, busy with work and wrestling with a new oil painting, among other things!

So to make up for the break, here is a collection of old matte paintings that I created for the very first season of Farscape the TV series. This is a blast from the matte painting past! I painted all of these (and more) at Garner Mclennen Design here in Sydney , 1998-99. These were all 2D mattes, no 3D projections with the exception of one. It was myself and our VFX sup who painted mattes with a few juniors having a crack from time to time.

I can proudly say we did not once repeat a matte shot which was the norm for shows like Star Trek etc. We wanted to make sure each new matte shot was unique.



Commerce Planet 1 & Commerce planet 2

Another planet..

The live action plate.. or a portion of it anyway.. for..   The wide matte painting of a ship wreck. A peacekeeper prowler in the fg.

Another live action plate for…  the matte painting. Futuristic trains! Sydney will still be using these old things in 2167!

Not all were hits.. this one was awful! What was I thinking with the Road Runner background?!

Another live action plate for..

.. my ‘Raiders’ warehouse homage! This was another 2D nodal tilt up. That means a 2D move on a 2D image for you young guys. ie If you tilt a camera, or pivot it around the nodal point of the lens, it is effectively like viewing a 2D image, no parallax. I comped this shot in After Effects with cable cars moving overhead and a train/tram car flying through the shot illuminating things as it went by. Sorry.. I don’t have the footage.

Live action plate for.. .. some kind of giant BBQ!

Another damn planet! I did a ton of these..

Big sci-fi type building in the bg.

Live action plate again.. The cool thing about working on Farscape was getting to meet Claudia Black and Virginia Hey occasionally!! 😉

The shit I’ve been asked to paint in my career! Could be worse, it could have been a can of dog food.. Oh wait, I did that too..

Peacekeeper base matte painting for a very early 3D projection. In Alias PowerAnimator..

A panning shot into the base..

Last but not least..

Matte Painting Projection pt2

Hi all,

As promised in part 1, here is part 2 of the matte painting projection post.

I recently finished two shots for a client that needed scenes of New York city circa 1927. This is not a literal rendition of NY city, the buildings are in all the wrong places.. but this was meant to be a more romantic idea of NY back then! Both shots centered around the Chrysler building, of which will be live action and/or 3D in the final work. The shots I’m showing here are all pre-composited. I delivered the entire Maya scene files to the client with all of the sourceimages as they were able to render out the passed they needed.

They are also night scenes which makes them a little hard to see, sorry..

The 3D models were provided by the client which I used as is, or modified as needed. The main animated camera was also provided by the client. The second shot still has a lot of jitter due to the tracking of the live action that had yet to be smoothed out which explains why the camera feels a little weird. There was no art direction on these shots other than the client’s brief.

I did all of this using Maya. I assume there is a similar, if not more efficient approach in other 3D apps. Nuke however may make the approach through Maya obsolete! One other thing to mention, I’ve taken the Model to Painting approach. Some people paint first then build a rough model to match the painting. The technique outlined below works either way.

Anyway, so the steps go something like this:

1. I set up the basic composition and placement of the buildings within the scene except for the Chrysler building.

2. Render/Play the shot and look for parallax shifting between the fg buildings and mg, bg buildings.

3. Place PROJECTION camera/s so as to get the best coverage of the model relative to the MAIN animated camera.

4. Render out hi-res still/s of the model/s. This can be flat shaded or GI, up to you.

5. Paint the render/s in Photoshop as you want them to look. I usually label the images with info, version number etc. These notes wont appear on the model, don’t worry. Do NOT crop the image! If it’s a pixel out from the original still render, it wont line up with the model when you project it back again.

6. Project those painted images back through the same PROJECTION camera/s and assign that new LAMBERT shader (as INCANDESCENCE) onto the original model.

Make sure you select PERSPECTIVE under Proj Type. Under the Camera Attributes section, Link to Camera – This is the original camera you used to render the model. Name that PROJ camera something obvious like – Bldg_5_PROJ or PROJ_cam_A.

7. Render scene and you’re done!

Click here to see the final animation on my Youtube page.

What I’ve outlined here is fairly simplistic. I had 7 Projection cameras on this shot, for a total of 10 shaders assigned to various buildings and one bg cyc.

Here are two more images for the buildings on the right of camera.

And here is the video of shot 1. The fg building with the TIMES sign was also done using the same projection techniques. The ‘flat’ appearance of the windows in the Chrysler building would not cut it for a final feature, but this was for a test to help pitch a project and the final part of the Chrysler building as seen in this shot is to be replaced with live action.

Click here to see the NY shot 1.
These shots are pre-composited and the gamma is a little up on the youtube vids. I’ll see if I cant adjust at some point.

Anyway, I hope that helps demystify the matte painting projection process in Maya a little. Let me know if I’ve only confused you even further!!

Matte Painting Projection pt1

Howdy all..

Been a hellishly busy several weeks which has been both a blessing and a curse! Good for the cash flow, not so good for oil painting! Been working with SOAP Creative here in Sydney on a James Bond website promotion thingy.. I cant say much more than that and will post more when I can.

I rolled straight into a matte painting job after the Bond gig.. the task.. create New York in 1927! This is big and I had approx two weeks to complete it. It’s taken two and half actually. Matte painting projection was the primary approach, Maya being the 3D tool of choice and of course Photoshop CS2.

Projected matte painting, for those who don’t know of it, is a method of mapping your 2D matte painting onto 3D geometry. For you old school folks, it’s like projecting a 35mm slide of an image onto white blocks of wood in a pitch black room.

Imagine those white blocks of wood are scale models of real buildings and you’re projecting your 35mm slide of the exact same building onto that model (perfectly aligned of course… impossible with a slide projector I know, but stay with me here..)

Now you pick up your handicam and start filming as you walk towards the model and perhaps move around the model a little. Traditional 2D matte paintings have always been limited to.. well, 2 dimensions. You cant go around anything within the painting. You can zoom in, move up and down the painting but the sense of 3 dimensional space is lacking. Same as projecting a 35mm slide onto a screen, you can walk up to it, move it up or down but it will always look 2D.

Projecting that 2D image onto a 3D object allows you to push beyond the 2D realm cheaply and more cost effectively than going full 3D. It only works in some situations and has certain limitations, but if your camera is moving in one direction with perhaps a little drift this way or that, projection is the way to go.

I was taught a fancy trick at Digital Domain by a dude named Eric Hanson.. Use INCANDESCENCE mapping. This has the advantage of A/ Allowing the matte painter to paint the lighting onto the object/scene in a way that only a matte painter can and B/ Doesn’t use a single 3D light within the scene, so rendering time is dramatically reduced. If the lighting needs changing, then it’s back to Photoshop and a re-paint, but the rendering time becomes consistent, predictable and fast.

I will usually render the object flat shaded or with a basic global illumination pass. It will look something like this:


Then I paint it up..


Before I show you the New York shot, here is an example of how I used the technique to great effect on Vincent Ward’s recent Blossom Hill Wine TV commercial, look for the shot of the train going over the viaduct. The viaduct, the train and background were all 2D images projected onto 3D. Yes, even the train!

I’ll leave it there and post a more in depth ‘how to’ soon.. Including the New York shot, so stay tuned!

Digital Domain.. and the great VFX craftsmen..

Howdy All,

Came across a few old photographs of my time at Digital Domain, circa 1996.. In the visual effects world, that’s like dog years, every one of ours is like 160 odd years to us. So 1996 puts these pictures around 150BC in film VFX terms! Which makes these guys… well, its makes them advanced in years!

What they have in mileage does not diminish the spirit, creativity and sense of humor.. (despite Mark’s grave expression in the photo). They also have a credit list under their belts that most fan boys can only dream of!

They were practitioners of a ‘craft’, a way that has sadly been replaced by computer science and the idea that more rendering power will solve the problem. It’s a way of looking at visual problems in a simple practical way and cheating the effect, not simulating the effect. Huge difference here and one that can have huge cost implications. I’m not saying throw away the computers, but how about we start looking at these problems from the perspective of ‘craft’.

As the saying goes, give a man a hammer and every problem looks like a nail. No wonder vfx costs so much today.

The image that ends up on the screen is nothing more than a bunch of 2D shapes, some light, some dark and of varying colours, they are not the ACTUAL thing being depicted. So no matter how much software you throw at a film project, it all boils down to basic composition on a flat 2D surface and of course, story! For this reason I cant wait to see ‘Moon’.

These guys came out of the effects industry where limitation spawned creative visual solutions and in the process, iconic cinema visuals. In this CG age, I feel that the forest is in danger of being lost for the CG trees.. if it hasn’t already.


First old timer.. Ira Gilford. From Detroit if I remember correctly. One of, if not the first guy to design the original HOT WHEELS toy cars! He illustrated a ton of cars for the Fifth Element among other things. I cant quite remember what he was telling Ron here and I don’t really want to speculate either!! You’re a bad bad man Ira!! 😉


“Here.. I’ll draw you a picture of it..” Perhaps Ron’s expression says it all!! Ron Gress, matte painter, mural painter, fine artist in every sense of the word. Worked on Star Trek the Motion Picture and a million things since then. Great guy, great party host and collector of haute couture Hawaiian shirts! If you’re in the US and Reno in particular, go check out his mural at the Reno Hilton (I assume it’s still there.. otherwise see it on his blog)


Ron in his excitement phoning Mark.. “Hey Mark, guess what Ira just told me!”


“.. Stay put.. I’ll grab my duck whistle and be right there!”. Yes folks, Mark ‘senior model builder on Blade Runner’ Stetson! You could die a happy man with that credit alone.. That he made time for everyone, has probably forgotten more than most are still trying to learn, is a hell of a nice guy and complete gentleman, goes without saying and barely describes the man. That goes for all them.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, The Fifth Element remains the pinnacle and highlight of my professional film career… and it’s because of these guys. Thanks fellas!

Xfuns Magazine and Expose´ 7

Howdy all!

Long time no blog.. I said I wouldn’t leave it so long after my last entry and I was right.. It was LONGER!

First off, I got an image into Ballistic Publishing’s Expose´7, pg 116, environments section.. Some really cool work in this edition so go check it out!

One thing that I have noticed over recent years is the incorrect usage of the term ‘matte painting’ when it is applied to digital art. As soon as you paint a figure into a scene, it stops being a matte painting and becomes concept art.. or just plain art. Matte painting is a specific tool in the visual effects toolbox, not a term to be applied to any old digital painting.  The term is useless outside of visual effects.

End mini rant..

Today I picked up my copy of the latest Xfuns Magazine. Issue 43. Xfuns is a Creative & Design Magazine published in Taiwan. Many thanks to Audrey and Ching for making this happen, it looks great! You can find their website here.

What else has been happening… I’ve been busy working on several matte paintings for Director Vincent Ward’s latest TV commercial, ‘Blossom Hill’ for Luscious International here in Sydney. I’ll post some of this later. For those in the UK, you would have already seen this ad.. Right now I’m finishing up on a print job for a Saudi Arabian client. Those two jobs have kept me busy for the last 7 weeks. It never rains but it pours as they say!

I have the odd oil painting on the go as well, I’ll post more of that later.. really..

So that’s it for now. Back to it for me..


Knowing Matte Painting..

Hi All!

Seeing as how Knowing is out in cinemas (in the US at least), I thought I would show the matte painting I did for the film. For those with a sharp eye and access to the original trailer, go check out the shot as it was before Animal Logic hauled me in to fix it!

This was painted at 6k, in several layers – f/g, m/g, reflections etc etc.. for projection onto 3D/Nuke and I had a week and half to do it. The first version is the matte shot with a guide as to how the smoke may look and the second frame is the matte as supplied.

Tom 'Slappy' Johnson

(In ‘Deliverance’ voice)… I got me sum pic-tures of youuuu, I’m a gonna puttem on the innernet….

This my friends, is my friend Tom. Tom was one of the first guys I met at Digital Domain and the first man to ever hand me a loaded 9mm pistol… “Just in case..”, he said! He was kind enough to put me up while I found my own place in LA. Thanks man, you wacko!!

He can paint, sculpt, draw, he modeled all the buses flying around in the 5th Element, out of a sphere! He made some wicked ugly teeth too.. He has a penchant for wearing thick woolly socks in LA’s summer and talking like a ‘Good Fella’.

If you see him, say hi… and run!

These pics were taken when he was visiting Sydney town… sometime in the past…

Tom 'GoodFella' Johnson