The best matte painters I’ve worked with, hired, or looked up to have been – first and foremost – good artists.ALEX JENYON
Hi Alex, first of all I would like to thank you for your time for this interview.
You are very talented and great matte painter and concept artist. At this moment also Head of DMP department in MPC Vancouver!
1. When did you realize you wanted to be part of the VFX industry and one day possibly be a matte painting artist who will work on the biggest feature films …and why ? ?
When I was in college I saw an article on some of the concept art that Patrick Tatopuolos had done for films like Stargate, Dark City and Starship Troopers – and decided I wanted to become a concept artist for features. I didn’t really know before this that ‘concept art’ was a something that you could get paid to do, and had never heard of matte painting. My first full time job was as a concept artist on an animated feature (that sadly never got made), but I thought I had it all sorted – I was going to be a concept artist.
Problem with being a concept artist is that no matter how good your ideas are, or how amazing your artwork is – someone else actually creates the images that get seen. They might misinterpret your ideas, change them, think they can do better, get told to do something different by the client, and so on.
Matte painting, on the other hand, shares many of the things I love about doing concept art – but you also get to deliver a final product that makes it to a screen. When I realised this, and that matte painting was something I was good at, I moved away from doing concept art (though it’s something I still get involved with occasionally) into a career in matte painting.
2. I know you studied at university. What do you think now, after few years did University/school help you get your first job or was it something else?
My University Degree is in ‘Theatre Design’. It might sound odd that I wanted to be a concept artist, and went to study Theatre – but at the time there were no degrees in VFX in the UK apart from a very technical course at Bournemouth University. I therefore picked the degree that I thought would teach me the most about ‘design’ in general, and I’d learn the technical stuff on my own.
The degree was from ‘Central Saint Martins’ in London (now part of ‘The University of the Arts’), which is THE stereotypical London Art College. It’s pretty pretentious (the kind of place that refers to drawing as ‘mark making’), and wasn’t very welcoming of new technology. I soaked up everything I could about HOW to design, and taught myself all the technical skills I thought I would need in my own time. There really weren’t very many CG tutorials on the internet in 2002, and I did a lot of very stupid things – like compositing using ‘Final Cut’, and rendering direct to quicktime movies instead of image sequences.
Looking back now, over 10 years later, I think it was very valuable to concentrate on the process of design, which a lot of VFX diplomas don’t have time to teach, rather than just learning how to use tools. What to put in a scene to tell a story, not what render settings to use.
This wasn’t very useful in getting me my first job, though – I got that through my girlfriend at the time (now wife for 12 years), with a good dose of luck!
3. Your first movie you had a chance to work on Stardust in 2007. How different was that experience compared to your commercial projects you had done before?
I had been doing commercials and TV projects for several years before working on ‘Stardust’, all painted in sRGB (though I didn’t know very much about colour space at the time). Stardust plates were log dpx files, and they were very milky and ‘washed out’. I thought this was a mistake, so I graded them back to how they looked in the edit, and started painting.
The lead compositor thought this was hilarious, and after he had stopped laughing at me, gave me a brutal crash course in logarithmic colour space for film. He then had me do all the work again.
Bit of a humbling experience, as I thought I was doing pretty well – and a good lesson.
4. You’ve worked in London before but in these last few years you have been living and working in Vancouver. How would you compare these two countries with in terms of the VFX industry, and are there any major differences in the way they both work?
The VFX industry is a truly global one. In London I worked with artists from all over the world, on big projects, using Maya, Nuke, and so on. In Vancouver, I’m working for a UK company, with artists from all over the world, using exactly the same tools. There are some differences in terms of local labor laws (most notably overtime), but I haven’t come across a ‘Vancouver’ way of working that’s markedly different to London.
5. In 2012 you became the Head of the Department of DMP at the Moving Picture Company(MPC) – Vancouver. This is a huge success and a clear testament to your hard work. I can confirm that you’re doing your job at 120%. How would you describe your typical day as a matte painter / head of department?
My work varies a lot depending on what projects are active, and what state they are in. My job really breaks down into 3 main areas:
-Long term: Research and development into new tools, improved workflows and pipelines and new training so the department is set up to do cutting edge work in future. Might involve evaluating a new piece of software, writing proposals for tools I think we should create, or testing out ideas
-Medium term: Teambuilding for the next round of shows – reviewing showreels, interviewing potential hires, doing performance reviews, managing budgets, and so on.
-Short term: Working on shots. Sometimes because a shot is in trouble, sometimes because I’m the only person free to do it, and sometimes because I want to make sure I’m continuing to develop my skills as an artist.
It’s a tricky balance to get right – in delivery time, I’ll probably do mostly shot work to get the projects completed. In downtime, I’ll do mostly interviews and R&D.
6. You are HOD and that is pretty much the highest possible position for the DMP in the studio. Would you like to see the role furthered in your career. Do you have any other professionally ambitions in the future?
Developing a small team of DMP artists into one of the largest Environments teams in the world has been an awesome thing to do, and I hope it’s something I can continue to do in future. Long term, it’s difficult to say – I’m keeping a very close eye on some of the developments currently happening in immersive experiences and VR, and that might be something I’d want to get involved with as the industry matures. The idea of being able to step INTO a world I’ve created, and not just look at it on screen is quite appealing!
7. Have you ever thought to do some matte painting tutorials for beginners? Alternatively, if you have done any and if so where could we find them?
It’s definitely something I would love to do more of, but it’s very time consuming, and tends to go out of date pretty quickly.
8. I know you are big fan of modern equipment…Daily you can be seen at work working on the iPad. Are you using that only for scheduling meetings and tasks, or is it also used for some creative purposes such as drawing and painting?
I love using my iPad for painting – I’ve got a ‘digital plain air’ setup that I take out on hikes with me. It’s not a particularly complex setup – a folding camping chair, a ‘pad hat’ to reduce glare, and an Adroit ‘Touch’ stylus.
9. Could you tell us how did you or would you use flying Drone for DMP purposes? Perhaps you could also share with us films where you used that and techniques?
One of the most interesting techniques we’re experimenting with is using a drone for photogrammetry. Still in it’s early stages, but even a consumer level drone (like a Phantom) can produce very good results. Not a widespread technique yet, but something I think we’ll see more of in future.
We’ve also used a drone for a more obvious purpose – taking aerial photos for matte paintings. We took a drone out to ‘Skookumchuck narrows’, which has one of the most powerful tidal currents in the world, and captured footage of breaking waves and surface foam for use on ‘The finest Hours’.
10. What software do you usually use as a concept and DMP artist? I saw you working in Nuke, you also told me once, you use Sketchup and so …. Is is something that a matte painter definitely must know except Photoshop?
It’s very difficult for a modern matte painter to just use Photoshop – 2.5D projection is such a widespread and common technique that it’s almost essential to know a modern compositing package like Nuke or Fusion. It’s also pretty essential to be able to create basic geometry, and render basic scenes – so reasonable knowledge of a 3D package of some kind (probably maya) is a good idea too.
In my day-to-day work I’ve also made use of a lot of more unusual applications, each one with a very specific purpose that it’s difficult to find anywhere else – these would include ‘Modo’, ‘Terragen’, ‘Substance Designer’, ‘Brush’, ‘SpeedTree’, as well as ’SketchUp’. I don’t think these are applications that everyone should know (and there are lots of alternatives – Vue vs Terragen, Plant Factory vs SpeedTree, etc.), but I think everyone should know what they DO in case a particular specific task ever comes up.
11. What been your the most favorite project to have worked on so far and why?
Difficult question. I had a great time working on ‘American Sniper’ – the client was awesome to work with, and I got a lot of creative input into both the look of some of the shots, and the way in which they were produced.
12. Showreel is pretty much first thing what every VFX artist needs to get a job. According to you how should it look for signs of a good DMP / concept art showreel? I am pretty sure you have seen plenty of good and bad showreels during of interviewing. What do you think, what should be and what shouldn’t be in reel?
Top advice for showreels for big studios (smaller boutiques are a little different, and might want to see more generalist reels) – a lot of it might seem obvious, but I see people make these mistakes all the time:
1. You are making a VFX showreel, not a short film. It doesn’t need to tell a story (no matter what the film schools seem to think), it doesn’t need a soundtrack, and it doesn’t need to showcase how good you are as a director!
2. Only put in work that is directly relevant to the position you are applying for. If you can do several things (FX and matte painting, for instance), make two reels.
3. Don’t do a ‘title crawl’ or motion graphics intro – start with shots almost straight away. I don’t want to sit through 20secs of After Effects animation to look at matte paintings! Just put your name and contact details on a static card at the beginning or end.
4. There is a maximum length for a reel (around 2 mins), but no minimum. Don’t drag it out with slow cuts or long breakdowns – just show the work, what you did, and (if available) a quick breakdown. I’ve hired someone with a 3 shot reel that lasted about 20 secs, because it was good work, presented in a nice clear way.
5. Not everything has to be projected – it’s good to show at least one example, as it’s a common technique, but projecting a bad painting doesn’t make the painting any better! Make sure you have a solid painting first, and THEN look at 2.5D projection.
13. Do you have any last advice for all beginners? Such as what they should address in learning, what techniques and knowledges are the most important? Hand drawing, painting or retouching, perhaps Nuke 3D projections or some oldskool techniques in DMP ?
Don’t get too hung up on tools! The best matte painters I’ve worked with, hired, or looked up to have been – first and foremost – good artists. I see a lot of beginners deciding to ‘learn ZBrush’ or ‘learn Vue’ as a career goal. While knowing relevant and useful software packages is a good thing, it’s easy to get hung up on the technical aspects of the craft, and have a showreel that’s basically a software demo. In production, you might have to pick up a tool in only a few days to complete a particular project, and the never touch it for several years afterwards. The end result is the important thing, not the tools, which will have changed in 5 years anyway.
Decide on an image or scene you want to create, reference the real world (not other artists), use whatever tool get the job done, and make sure you finish every single one, even if it doesn’t work out the way you want.
Alex Jenyon / Head of DMP department MPC Vancouver
Official website: www.aj-concepts.net