Magazine article American Cinematographer

Matching Up for Willow Mattes

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Matching Up for Willow Mattes

Article excerpt

Matte paintings have been an important aid to the creation of motion picture illusions since the early days of the industry but members of the matte department at Industrial Light and Magic have added some new tricks to the venerable idea for some gorgeous scenes in Willow. The work was done under the direction of Chris Evans, matte painting supervisor.

Matte painters contributing their artistry to the Willow look were Michael Pangrazio, Caroleen Green, Sean Joyce, and Paul Swendsen. Craig Barron, director of matte photography, and cameramen Wade Childress and Randy Johnson provided some of the unusual photographic techniques that add dimension to what used to be considered a flat process.

"We're always -thinking up ways to get a little more life and movement into the matte shots because the mattes are, of course, flat art work to start with," explained Barron. "In real life the trees, grass and clouds always move in the wind, maybe some birds fly overhead, the light changes through the clouds... we try to include and mimic these true to life elements in order to make the matte paintings come to life. We approach things with a fidelity to nature, and of course, the director's approval."

Evans described the evolution of the project:

"Our part of it began when George Lucas called Craig and Mike and I out to Skywalker Ranch and we went through a very rough cut of the picture," Evans recalled. "He would stop from time to time and say, 'We need a shot of a castle here' or 'We need a landscape there.' He gave us his shopping list of about 30 matte shots.

"We then proceeded to work out the visual and technical design of all those shots. At that point there were no storyboards, we had just a cut before and a cut after. We talked to George and Ron Howard about what they wanted to see, came up with a number of variations of each shot, and then did full color sketches or small paintings to establish what the shot was going to look like. In a few cases we were able to use existing Vista Vision plates which were shot for us in England by Mike McAlister, but it became apparent that we needed to shoot about a dozen liveaction Vista Vision plates for what George called the 'trekking shots,' in which the characters in the film were journeying through fantastic landscapes. We were trying to tie in certain landscapes that were shot in New Zealand with others made in England, and - to make them even more fantastic - George especially wanted us to capture the look of a certain terrain that is found only in Southern China, in the valley of the Li River."

Six of the leading little people actors portraying Nelwyns were flown over from England and, for two weeks, live action plates for the trek were filmed in Northern California and Marin Country. Evans was given the job of second unit director for these scenes.

"Some of the best matte shots were photographed latent Vista Vision, which gave us the option of doing an optical pan or tilt to the shot, making it look as if a cameraman is following the action or adjusting the shot's end composition, " Barron said.

One particularly effective shot in this series shows the trekkers emerging from a valley along a waterfall, with Li Valley type rock formations in the background. "We photographed this at Birney Falls, in Oregon. Chris matted out the top of the falls with black cardboard in the camera's matte box, so that later he could paint in the Chinese mountains that George (Lucas) liked so much. After we composited the painting into the latent image Vista Vision, optical provided a tilt down from the mountains to the Nelwyns walking by the waterfall. John Ellis, the optical supervisor and John Alexander worked on the motorized optical printer tilts, adding a great deal of their expertise to our work."

Evans noted that "When the little people were supposed to walk along a log crossing a ravine, we had them walk along the roof of a big truck. …

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