‘I would love for a curious and interested audience to know how a matte painting is painted’

How matte paintings, miniatures and VFX artifacts become part of the Academy Museum, including one of the latest pieces from Cliffhanger.

A few months ago, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced they had made a number of new additions to their acquisitions to be housed at the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, Margaret Herrick Library and Academy Film Archive.

One of those additions was listed as “Matte painting from Cliffhanger (1993); Gift of Michele Moen.”

I knew Michele Moen had been the matte department supervisor at Boss Film Studios, and I had always loved the matte painting work in Cliffhanger. I was excited about the possibility that a painting Moen had worked on for the film might one day be something the general public could get up close to.

Indeed, that had been my experience this past January after visiting Academy Museum of Motion Pictures. A whole section of the museum features a swathe of visual effects memorabilia, from matte paintings to miniatures and maquettes.

So, I thought it would be fun to chat to Moen about this particular glass matte painting and how it came to be that she donated it to the Academy. Then, I thought it might be fun to talk to someone at the museum itself about how these items tend to make their way there, and how they are displayed. Finally, having been to the museum, I recalled seeing a number of items there made possible by visual effects supervisor Craig Barron (including Batman Returns matte paintings, and a miniature), so I figured why not ask Barron about those items, too.

The result is this set of interviews, below. First, with Michele Moen, who details the matte painting from Cliffhanger now part of the Academy collection and about her time at Boss in those still ‘optical’ days of VFX (it turns out Michele also worked on Batman Returns at Boss). Then, Craig Barron, now creative director at Magnopus, recounts the making of the Batman Returns work he oversaw at Matte World Digital that is currently on display at the VFX gallery. He also reveals his part in the restoration of the Aries 1B Trans-Lunar Space Shuttle miniature used in shooting 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is also at the museum. Finally you’ll hear from Jenny He, an Academy Museum exhibitions curator, who specifically discusses the VFX gallery in the ‘Stories of Cinema’ section of the museum.

How this Cliffhanger matte painting made its way to the Academy

The matte painting from Cliffhanger donated by Michele Moen. Image courtesy Michele Moen.

b&a: Where was this matte painting, before you donated it to the Academy?

Michele Moen (previously, matte department supervisor, Boss Film Studios): The Cliffhanger matte painting had been stored in our garage for all these years and I thought it would be much more valuable if more people could see it. The matte shot art form is quite magical, combining technical knowledge with artistic skills. I would love for a curious and interested audience to know how a matte painting is painted, how it is shot, what the camera room with the matte stands looks like; the entire process is fascinating. Even someone who is a fine art oil painter and not involved with film-making could find it interesting to see this matte painting up close. The traditional form of matte painting with oil or acrylic paint isn’t normally done anymore.

b&a: Can you talk about the actual painting and the work involved?

Michele Moen: This is the matte painting on glass that I gifted to the Academy Museum. I also gave them a few frames of the live-action 70mm of Sylvester Stallone climbing up the rock face. There’s a small, carefully cut-out section where you can see the clear glass in the lower center of the painting that was the area to be rear-projected. The detail and color had to exactly match the live-action set piece so that when the footage was rear-projected, it appeared seamless.

Michele Moen works on a different matte painting for ‘Cliffhanger’. This image is from the incredible matte painting website, Matte Shot.

The live action set piece was built and shot on a studio lot so I didn’t have any interaction with that until we received the film roll. Brent Boates, illustrator, drew wonderful storyboards. These were a great starting point (as well as being approved for composition and action), in designing the matte shots.

This particular painting started off with a slightly different composition to the mountain landscape. One day very close to the deadline, I looked at the painting and decided it didn’t have enough depth so I started an entire new painting and left for home hours later at 3:00 a.m.

As the camera pulls back from the action area, I could paint a little looser and add some variation in color. Many quick film tests were done each day to achieve the blend and it often was tricky because the developing lab could have subtle fluctuations in color from day to day. The film tests would be dropped off at the lab in the evening and would return early in the morning. We’d study the test on the lightbox, looking through a loop and then making painting adjustments.

The technical challenges of this pull-back shot were left in the hands of Neil Krepela, (Neil was the matte cameraman as well as VFX supervisor). The camera track was digitally controlled and Neil figured out those details beautifully.

My title and position was matte department supervisor. As well as attending meetings, watching dailies, hiring additional matte artists, if needed, I painted several matte paintings for Cliffhanger. One very large matte painting was shot with physical miniatures on either side of the motion control track. Rocco Gioffre came in to do additional matte paintings.

b&a: Can you tell me a little about the state of matte painting at Boss while you were there? It feels like it must have been a busy and magical time, including the move into the digital realm, too.

Michele Moen: I was at Boss Film Studios, from Ghostbusters (1984) all the way through to Multiplicity (1996), working through big changes in the visual effects world. I learned the craft on Blade Runner (1982) as an apprentice under the renowned matte artist, Matthew Yuricich. When Richard Edlund’s Boss Film Studios moved in, Matt brought me along with him to work on Ghostbusters. Boss Film Studios was fun, exciting, we were all enthusiastic, hard-working and talented, we were working on big feature films. And the big feature films kept coming in throughout the 1990’s. The hours were long but it was collaborative. It often felt like ‘summer camp’!

There was a large model shop for building miniatures, sound stages, a camera department, a still photography department, animation, an art department with illustrators and storyboard artists, rotoscoping artists, optical department, a screening room, a few engineers, an optical department. Actors would visit regularly, curious about and fascinated by the creativity and the process.

If I didn’t have anything to do in the matte painting department, I could wander down to the model shop or the still photography department and do something there. It was the best of two worlds; creative craftsmanship and technology.

True Lies was my first introduction to the digital world. I woke up one morning on Monday, went to work at Boss Film Studios and saw a sea of computers where the sound stage once was. The transition was about that fast! We were trained on the job.

Behind these famous Batman Returns VFX artifacts now at the Academy Museum

Craig Barron (at right) and crew at Matte World shoot a miniature for the opening of ‘Batman Returns’. Image courtesy Craig Barron.

b&a: Craig, you’re responsible for some great Batman Returns pieces being at the Academy Museum–how did that come about?

Craig Barron (previously, visual effects supervisor, Matte World): Well, Matte World was in business back for many years and was able to transition from the photochemical days of matte paintings and miniatures to the digital age. We were nominated for an Academy Award for Batman Returns, and so we were very proud of that work.

We had kept some of the matte paintings and miniatures around our stage, and they were just collecting dust up in the rafters. Eventually, we closed the company, our last show was Hugo in 2012. We then said, ‘Well, what are we going to do with all this stuff?’ We had all these great physical artifacts still around.

Julio Vera then at the Academy Museum was nice enough to send a truck up to Matte World Digital, in Marin Country to pack up a lot of the things, which was great because we really wanted to find a home for all our traditional matte paintings and miniatures. So many great things from other VFX studios were thrown away in dumpsters over the years. But, because we had a stage with lots of storage, we were able to keep things around. I was relieved that the Academy said, ‘Hey, we’ll take this stuff on. We’ll curate it, we’ll restore it, we’ll keep it in good condition, and we’ll make it available for the public to see.’

The Cobblepot Manor miniature on display at the Academy Museum. Photo by Ian Failes.

b&a: What ended up going on display?

Craig Barron: For Batman Returns, there are a few items now at the Academy Museum. There’s the Cobblepot Manor, which was shot toward the beginning of the movie. A 12th scale miniature that John Goodson and Howie Weed built for us at Matte World. It has a lot of vacuum forming for brick detail and shingles. They also sculpted miniature cherubs and a lot of great custom work to give it the gothic look appropriate for Tim Burton’s movie.

We also made a photo etched brass gate that said Cobblepot on it. When you look at footage of a similar subject, a real mansion or something somewhat similar, the background tends to loom larger. The background doesn’t travel toward the camera as quickly as, say, the foreground elements, so we tried to recreate that effect by having the entrance gate on a motion control track move faster toward the camera than the mansion in the background. The effect is subtle, but I believe it subconsciously conveys the message that this is a substantial, real location.

Craig Barron works on a shot for Batman Returns.

We were trying to do most of our work in-camera, staying away from opticals wherever possible to keep the quality looking as good as possible. We used rear projection for the silhouette of Mr. Cobblepot up in the window, which was actually the daughter of one of our cameramen who played Paul Reubens. And we set up a bunch of projection cards with falling snow so that the camera then on another pass could add falling snow at different levels. We wanted the sense of the camera actually moving through snow. We also had haze cards that fade out as you move closer to the miniature background. It was a lot of fun to take the miniatures and the matte paintings into the look of a wintry fog environment aesthetic that Burton wanted.

The Cobblepot miniature pretty much sat up on the shelf for many years, and I’m so happy we were able to save it. It looks beautiful in the museum. John Goodson, one of the original model makers, was able to restore it. He lovingly brought it back to absolute perfection and it’s displayed with appropriate soft lighting. In a museum environment, matte paintings and miniatures like this can be valued and appreciated as genuine works of art.

Opening scene matte painting under development at Matte World. Image courtesy Craig Barron.
The same matte painting on display at the Academy Museum. Photo by Ian Failes.

b&a: And then there’s matte paintings from that film as well. There’s one of the city in the background, a small group of trees in the foreground. And there’s one of the batcave as well.

Craig Barron: The matte painting was eight by eight feet. The background establishes a Central Park-type area with a dilapidated zoo. Then there’s the buildings of Gotham City in the background. We used a rear projection plate of the Cobblepot’s pushing the baby carriage that’s reduced and placed into the scene. It’s also a tilt-down shot in the film. We start by seeing fog and snow and the camera tilts down to find the couple, pushing their baby carriage through the scene.

With traditional matte painting we’ve learned that, well, when you put in too much painted detail it can look too overworked and illustrative. There is a famous TV show called The Outer Limits that’s a classic Sci-fi series from the 1960’s. The DP on many of the best episodes was Conrad Hall. The shows often featured a series of aliens that were usually pretty low budget and made of rubber. Hall would take a glass filter and put a very thin layer of Vaseline over where the alien was standing in frame. The effect made the aliens look ethereal and glow as if they were in a fog.

I remembered how fun that was to see this effect and tried on Batman Returns. We hazed out the matte paintings with these custom filters, the effect looked like the buildings went up and disappeared into glowing fog and it kept the look and detail more impressionistic. Even though there’s a lot of detail in the painting, we ended up pushing that way back and making things look more ethereal. And then we had the three levels of falling snow. If you observe actual footage on CNN during their coverage of a snowstorm, where they are capturing real falling snow, you can notice large, out-of-focus snowflakes flying past the lens. We always enjoyed integrating such real-world phenomena into our work, as they significantly added believability to our illusions.

b&a: Tell me also about the bat cave matte painting.

Craig Barron: The bat cave was a design from production designer Bo Welch and painted by Bill Mather who also did the Gotham City matte painting. It was all platforms and ledges made of rock. Welch wanted it to look very sharp. The live-action was shot on set at Warner Bros. Mather then extended the set adding depth with his matte painting to make it look like it was a bottomless pit. Then Richard Hollander at his company, Video Image made some CG bats for us that were added to the scene. That was in the 1990 when we were just starting to get into including digital effects into our work.

A portion of the bat cave matte painting.

b&a: There’s another painting at the Museum, which is more of POV shot looking up into the skyline.

Craig Barron: Yes, that exhibit just shows the glass painting by Brian Flora. I was sorry the museum didn’t put up all the elements we used to make the shot. We had developed a technique for creating clouds using fiberfill dacron, a material found in pillows and couches, which can be shaped and formed to resemble clouds. We would affix the fiberfill to large plexiglass sheets and illuminate them from behind with a soft blue glow. The clouds were then gradually moved using our motion control system behind the matte painting, leaving the sky clear in the painting for a multiplane effect.

Matte World matte painting from Batman Returns in the works. Image courtesy Craig Barron.
The same matte painting on display at the Academy Museum. Photo by Ian Failes.

How the Aries miniature went from potting shed to Academy Museum centerpiece

b&a: Another VFX item that’s there at the Academy Museum is the Aries miniature from 2001: A Space Odyssey, and I understand you had something to do with the restoration of that item?

Craig Barron: Yes, that was actually back in 2015. The Academy purchased it at auction for $344,000. We were afraid that somebody else like sci-fi collectors Paul Allen or Jeff Bezos would easily out bid us. There’s a visual effects producer named Gene Kozicki who’s a friend of mine, who has made it a personal goal to know what’s going on with film artifacts being sold at auction. He brought the Aries to my attention. The first thing was to try to decide if it was real or not because so many original artifacts from 2001 don’t exist anymore. The story goes, with the Aries, is that it was apparently given to one of the people who worked on the film, an educator that used it to teach a class on science fiction and rocketry. Which is mind boggling that you would do that! I guess the production owed him some money and they said, ‘Well, take the model.’

The restored Aries-1B model at the Academy Museum. Photo by Ian Failes.

b&a: Crazy!

Craig Barron: Apparently it was left in a backyard potting shed. And I mean, this is 50 years of neglect. It was covered with dirt and some of the parts had been broken off but we were able to identify that it was original. I was able to contact Bill Kramer who at that time was head of the Academy museum and he found some people who were interested in putting up the money and donating the Aries to the museum.

Next, the question was what do we do next? The miniature was likely overlooked at auction because of its dirty and deteriorated appearance, missing pieces and seeming disrepair. However, one could see its potential beauty and significance with some effort of restoration. We need to develop some best practices for restoring such amazing rare artifact.

We put an advisory committee together with Douglas Trumbull, John Goodson, Irena Calinescu and some others as well to look at the model and make recommendations for restoration. The basic idea was to first clean it, which was going to help a lot, and then find and replace the parts of the model made from tank model kits and things like that that aren’t made anymore. John Goodson, knows more about the Aries and how it was made then anybody around today. He’s a part of a group of model makers that love movie miniatures. They know all the esoteric details that you needed to know for its restoration. Knowledge that museum curators generally don’t have because restoring movie miniatures is a relatively new idea for museums . John knows what that missing model part is and how to still get it.

Modelmakers Peter Childs and Rodney Fuller model makers work on the Arie-1B model.

In fact, everything was done so that it could be reversed. It wasn’t repaired and rebuilt without careful consideration for each step. There are some things that you might like to do to make the Aries perfect but would be too intrusive for an historic artifact. It would be akin to repainting the Mona Lisa because you don’t like all the cracks in the paint, obviously not the approach. The team managed to find a balanced compromise between museum conservators and film effect model makers to restore the Aries to an amazingly beautiful display-worthy state, while also addressing areas prone to degradation. It was crucial to eliminate any rust and stabilize the model to stop further deterioration.

It was fun to have Doug Trumbull come out and talk to us about it. What was great, though, was that Doug and also Brian Johnson, who worked on the film, were very upfront and said they had really nothing to do with filming of the Aries miniature. They wanted us to make sure we credited the original model makers and told us about Wally Veevers, one of the special photographic effects supervisors, and the cinematographer Jeffrey Unsworth that worked with Veevers in lighting the miniatures.

Here’s what goes into curating the Museum visual effects pieces

Close-up on Stan Winston make-up effects for one of the Terminator films, on display at the Academy Museum. Photo by Ian Failes.

b&a: Jenny, I’ve been lucky enough to attend the Museum and see the VFX artifacts. How do you approach curating that space?

Jenny He (exhibitions curator): As you know, we have a core exhibition called Stories of Cinema. The Stories of Cinema takes place over three floors of the museum space. This is where we want to have the ability to be represent everything that goes into making a movie. This includes special and visual effects, practical effects, mechanical effects, digital effects, the linkages between animation and effects, and also the genres that rely heavily on visual effects and special effects.

We really wanted a place to celebrate what can be seen on screen when really the only limitation you have is the filmmaker’s imagination. Visual effects is right there literally in the middle. It’s the linkage between the animation gallery, and then also where we have a lot of our popular characters: RT, D2, C-3PO, the Amphibian Man from Shape of Water.

From the Stories of Cinema exhibition area at the Academy Museum.

b&a: How do items, especially visual effects and special effects ones, come to be part of that space?

Jenny He: A lot of these objects, especially in these galleries that we’re talking about, are in the Museum’s collection. We collect matte paintings, maquettes, miniatures, costumes, puppets, animatronic objects and so much more.

At last count, I think we have something like 8,000 objects in the collection. It’s so great to be able to have the people who worked on the films, such as Michele Moen with the Cliffhanger matte painting, donate those objects to the museum directly. The provenance as a museum collection is very easy to figure out when it’s coming from the artist who actually made it.

We also have loads. The droids from Star Wars are on loan from the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art. We have a lot of wonderful institutional lenders. We also rely on private lenders, as well. Sometimes loans become collection objects. Sometimes that’s also how we get objects into our museum’s collection because we reached out to a lender or an artist and we wanted to showcase that work. Then as a result of that exhibition, they enter the museum’s collection through a separate process.

A cabinet showcasing artifacts relating to Avatar, Jurassic Park and Terminator 2. Photo by Ian Failes.

b&a: I just feel like it’s a perfect place to put some of these artifacts because, otherwise, they’re in someone’s or the museum’s back room or they’re just under wraps. For example, the Batman Returns matte paintings from Craig Barron, it’s so great to see that there.

Jenny He: Yes, absolutely. Those matte paintings were from a joint donation from Craig Barron and other parties as well. It’s so wonderful and I’m really thrilled to hear you say that, that the Academy Museum is the perfect place for, not only the repository of these objects but a space to have the public come and see it so that it isn’t just simply living in someone’s basement or attic or garage. As much as I would love to have these in my personal home!

Close-up on a Terminator 2 maquette. Photo by Ian Failes.

b&a: I know. Me too. I was going to say, one of the challenges that I imagine can exist with visual effects and animation these days is that it’s a heavily digital medium. I’m guessing you have to balance between showing things that were from the more practical era like matte paintings and those maquettes from Terminator 2 or the Stan Winston Arnold Schwarzenegger make-up, with digital things. Another example is the Digital Input Device from Tippett Studio/ILM. What is the challenge for you in terms of displaying things and having things there that mix the tangible, tactile things with what is really in the digital realm now?

Jenny He: That’s a great question. That is actually a question that we ask ourselves when we go into curating something where the transition as a result of amazing technology has become more intangible. Of course, visitors love seeing costumes or huge sets, but how do you also showcase the captivating work of people who work in the computer? Everything is digital and everything is on a screen.

The maquettes you just mentioned from Terminator 2, we have those there, but we also have, through some monitors, behind-the-scenes examples of how it looked before the final onscreen appearance of the T-1000 character.

If an animator or visual effects artist or a filmmaker creates digitally, we can print it out, mount it and display it in a way that conveys the digital genesis of that object. We don’t want to create any distinction between whether or not it’s tangible or intangible. They’re both worthy to be exhibited. That’s the fun challenge of being a curator to ensure that that work is seen in a way that draws visitors’ attention as well. Because, there’s so many screens, everybody has an iPhone, everybody has something that they can see on screen. How do we create attention? How do we draw people in? Montages are great, monitors are great. They give you an insight into the process, but it’s also being in that space.

Sometimes I like to stay in the gallery and watch visitors interact and I’m always so surprised that they stay for such a long time to look at something that perhaps, it’s a film clip. You might be able to watch it at home, but it’s the narrative, it’s the story that we’re telling. Also, it’s the story that they’re sharing with the people that they came to the museum with. Oftentimes, people come to the museum as an activity, and I love just hearing people tell each other, tell their friends, tell their family, their colleagues like, ‘Oh, let me tell you this story about the Dinosaur Input Device…’.

The Dinosaur Input Device on display.

Preview the Stories of Cinema exhibition spaces at the Academy Museum here. Meanwhile, be sure to check out the matte painting film series Painted Skies curated by Bruno Savill De Jong at the Cinema Museum in London between 19th November and 8th December.

Leave a Reply