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Ron Crabb's art is almost undetectable, yet it has been seen by millions. He is a matte painter for major Hollywood films, such as X-Men, The Bucket List, and Speed Racer, and it is a compliment to say his work is undetectable. As a matte painter, Ron's role is to create imaginary scenes that look entirely real. Building on an early career in motion graphics, he has developed his incredible photorealistic style. He spent twenty years working with digital painting systems beginning well before the advent of Photoshop. Today, Ron uses a combination of Photoshop, CGI, photographs, and good old-fashioned painting skills to create stunningly realistic matte paintings, special visual effects, title sequences, and concept art for movies. He also creates fine art using the same set of skills. This installment of Creative Inspirations takes viewers a thousand miles from L.A. to Bainbridge Island, Washington to get a look at the career, work, and lifestyle of a man who escaped Hollywood only to master it at a distance.
(Music playing.) Ron Crabb: So, I can actually show you some of the stuff I have been doing lately and kind of what matte painting is and how it works because talking about it is one thing, seeing it is a lot better. Welcome to visual arts! But this is one of the ones from Bucket List and obviously they didn't want to travel the whole world. So they had us paint a number of these environments for them. One of them was in Taj Mahal and it had to be multi-layered because the camera shot for that is just a long tracking shot following Jack Nicholson, Morgan Freeman around the shot.
They filmed it at the LA Arboretum. So everything back from the reflecting pool had to be created by us. So, that's what I did here and this is the Taj Mahal and it looks-- I mean what it is, I started with a photograph, but had to over paint and recolor and retexturize. But what isn't obvious at first is that every one of these things is on a different layer. So, what do I've got is a whole tree layer. So, you can see as I click on it, this foreground thing disappears.
But each one of those, as you can see them slowly disappear, is a separate layer because what happens oftentimes, always, in a camera move is that you get parallax shifts or shifts in perspective. So, it's my job to make this thing come alive by giving them just a gazillion layers to work with. So, while it might be nice to start with photograph, which we did, that's only the beginning of the problem to solve. I have to take all of those elements out initially, repaint them and then recomposite that all back together into one working unit.
So that when they go into their compositing programs, they have got all those layers like I was talking about to kind of shift. So, as you can see, we can just go right-down through the layers. Each one of these trees was created separately and not from the photo from the Taj Mahal because we have actually kind of monkeyed with the environment. The reflecting pool, if you go to the Taj Mahal, is much narrower. We widened it because it looks pretty to have the whole Taj Mahal reflected in there. So cheats like that in film are very common. Aesthetic trumps reality every time.
So we came in here, but I created all these separate layers for them, and this can take weeks and you can see how long this really is. So even these tiny little ones in the back. Because it was such a long camera move, and moved quite a lot, it would look unnatural if you didn't have that. Even if it's just moving just microscopically, your eye would pick it up. Even someone untrained just knows when something looks unnatural. So, that's the challenging part is you get a file and someone says, we need a matte painting of Taj Mahal.
At first you say, that's easy, there are lots of great photographs of the Taj Mahal. This should be no sweat. But we need to add a camera move to it. Oh, well, okay it just got complex. So I had to go dig up, really great references of trees because this also has to be very high resolution. Film resolution typically is 2048 pixels wide. They shorten it to just call it 2k, but when you are working on a matte painting, usually you just start with twice that size. So most the files I work on, right from the word go, are 4. Sometimes they go larger depending on application.
Some of these can be fairly wide because this was actually a shot that even had a little camera rotation on it. This one is even larger, I mean 2k is probably right about here. So they needed the camera to have plenty of room on both sides. So I am adding tons of stuff on both edges as well. So, the whole goal is to have somebody look at this in the final form and because everything is subtly moving and shifting, they don't realize that this was painted by somebody. They actually think it's there. The very first matte paintings I did were just ones for myself because I knew I couldn't walk into a film studio and say, "Here is my Toyota commercial matte painting." They really want to see stuff that's really appropriate.
So when I knew that was going to be kind of my career path that I wanted to shift, I just dug up images of my own and found some great photo references. You can see when I turn this off, this is actually what I start with. So it's pretty full, but it's typical for what you are asked to do in a film. They will often come at you with an image that's almost there but they need to add like Star Wars, they might have done something very much like this, where here is our full frame shot, but we want this kind of alien looking building on the side, that's very common.
So, that's what I decided to do was do a whole set of matte painting that showed a range of the kind of things they might be asking you to do. So you can see the difference here as I click it on and off. I added all the buildings, we added little bit of water down here, there is a little village, stars, moon, a little few extra mountains I thought would look nice, just a little bit different effect. This was another one of my self, what I call the self-promotional matte paintings, right in the title there. But again took just a shot of the Grand Canyon and just thought okay, here is another way I can add to this environment and create something that they might like.
So these were the really the attempt to transition into film from TV and do something that would catch their attention, and it took a while. I mean it took a few months to do these. But I ended up basically making nice prints of these and sending them off to a bunch of different studios and that's really kind of what caught their attention was a nice set of full frame matte paintings that kind of demonstrated that I could do what they wanted me to do at the resolution that they needed it done. I will show you a couple of the latest ones. Speed Racer was relatively soon but this was done for the whole Casa Cristo sequence they called it, the beginning of the big race near the end of that film and the process on this one was they went to Santorini, I guess one of the Greek islands, and did a whole bunch of photography there, real high- definition photography and they sent that to us.
It was all day-lit shot stuff. But the film is real saturated. If you have seen it, it's just over the top saturation levels. So that's bizarre marching orders, was take what is kind of lot of grays, but turn it into this just lush rich environment for them. So that was what we had to do, but it also had to have kind of a Moorish feel to it, so we took what was strictly kind of Greek and put in some minarets and some towers and those kind of things. They didn't want any one specific look, but they wanted to have that exotic kind of Middle Eastern feel. Let's not really define too much where that is.
So, we had to go in here and make domes and a lot of that is all hand painted, some of it is 3D and actually made just a few rough 3D models and put those in here. But again, you can kind of see the layers and then moving, this wasn't a really big massive move. But still, see you can see you go all the way down to the sky, so just a clear sky background and then on top of that, you start adding all these little elements. You will often do light layers, so you will see little changes in detail in light layers that kind of thing.
So that's often the marching orders is you want to give them lots of options. So, you are giving them multi-layers and each one of the layers can often have lights on, lights off, this kind of thing because they are going to get in there and want to animate all of that stuff to make it come alive. They want to make lights twinkle, they want things going on and off, they want to do that little parallax shift. So every matte painting I do nowadays is going to be this kind of multi-layered complex kind of thing. Here is another one that was done for Speed Racer and this final file was well over 12,000 pixels wide because what they were doing in this one was a 360 view, so they had their environment and they wanted to be able to just turn that camera on all the characters and have something on the outside.
So we took the same kind of Greek Islands and really just kluged these together. It was a good 15 photographs I worked from of different angles and kind of popping them in there, but I had to change the color on everything. But this is a good example of where you see lots of original photo reference. So you can tell these were photos, but then this kind of thing was stoned from somewhere else. But the whole bottom half, this half of this element is hand painted.
So you end up doing a lot of combinations of-- I mean the whole bridge here is hand painted. You can see it's actually fairly rough because it's such high resolution that you don't need to get too detailed, because by the time it's in the film, it's back here far enough. But you end up having to do a lot of that and you can't ever really get away with just grabbing a photo and slapping it in there. It almost never works. You can't leave it there. So you will start with a photograph but then it's your job to come in and make it fit in that environment and change it.
So, this one, it was just over the top saturation, like the whole movie had, but I had to come in here and paint all the little lighting, the little details. So, this one took quite a while and this was not a really rapid matte painting and we put in a very saturated sky. This is a Bucket List matte painting, the Great Wall from the reverse angle that they had. So you can kind of see the original file, so it was basically a plain file. They did have a little bit again of the set element here just for the section of the wall.
Another thing you will notice is here is how the file comes to me, so there is all sorts of different color spaces you are working with, which is a one of the technical headaches are working in film. But it's a log space kind of thing, so there are different compositing systems that just work in different color spaces that aren't the same as working in Photoshop. So, one of the challenges is finding ways to work in this. Basically, I have a layer that allows me to see what it will end up looking like in the final product, but I have to turn those off while I work. So you are working in those kind of odd contrast, odd color space often times where you are kind of having to guess.
So you're really just working making it match the plate that you have been given and then turn these on, and kind of say, okay that works or it's a little too dark or it's a little too light. But welcome to the world of film. It's a little more complex when it comes to the color adjustments and that kind of thing. Well, here is a case where 3D came into play nicely, another moving shot along the Great Wall of China. But what they didn't have was the top-half of this building. You can kind of see it just disappeared on us. So, this is the actual set shot of what they filmed, but they wanted this to look like all the other little pagoda type elements that are on top of the Great Wall.
But because I knew it was going to have to move, I decided to build it in Cinema 4D. So that was really a good starting point because they gave me kind of architectural drawings of what these things actually look like. So I was able to import those right in the Cinema 4D and build my 3D model right on top of it and then I had access to the textures right here that I could then map on to that 3D element and that went a long way of getting us started because this whole thing, like I was saying, they loved the camera moves. That's what makes matte paintings not look like matte paintings any more.
It's getting the motion going to them. So, since we had to start so extreme, this thing had to shift a little bit. So I was able to basically see that in the different levels and the different layers that it needed to work in and handed it that to them. So more and more, I am starting to use that. It's a tool that just increases productivity. You can try and draw something with a correct perspective and take the time to do that or you can build a relatively simple 3D model and just have it spot on and know that if the camera needs to move, you are going to get everything shaped just the way it needs to look and so that it looks proper.
So, I think more and more that's something you are seeing matte painters being required to do. It's not just give us a 2D Photoshop painting but because we want to make this come alive, can you do a little bit of 3D work and make that work for us. So, I am finding that to be more a skill that I have to tack on to now. One more software kind of program to learn but it's a fun one that I enjoy working with.
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