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Creative Inspirations: Ron Crabb, Digital Illustrator
Illustration by John Hersey

Matte painting


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Creative Inspirations: Ron Crabb, Digital Illustrator

with Ron Crabb

Video: Matte painting

(Music playing.) Ron Crabb: Matte paintings have kind of become my bread and butter currently in my professional career, commercial art career anyway, but for those of who don't know, a little brief thing on what matte painting actually is. But anytime there is a background or a set piece or something that either can't be built or doesn't exist or would be impractical to build, they will have someone like me come in and actually paint the background.

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Creative Inspirations: Ron Crabb, Digital Illustrator
1h 26m Appropriate for all Oct 04, 2008

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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.

Subjects:
Design Illustration Creative Inspirations Documentaries
Author:
Ron Crabb

Matte painting

(Music playing.) Ron Crabb: Matte paintings have kind of become my bread and butter currently in my professional career, commercial art career anyway, but for those of who don't know, a little brief thing on what matte painting actually is. But anytime there is a background or a set piece or something that either can't be built or doesn't exist or would be impractical to build, they will have someone like me come in and actually paint the background.

So it's often combined with live action footage and in the background some of the best examples from when I was a kid was Star Wars. Obviously, these planets don't exist. Back then they had some guy actually oil on glass. It was actually a painting. That's why they call it matte painting, and in the camera, they would actually do a matting process when they combine these things with the live action elements. So that name has kind of stuck. It's actually transitioning to kind of digital environments now. It's kind of what they are calling them more often than not. But that has kind of become my main stay.

I was fortunate enough to come into it after it had already transitioned into digital work. It would take forever to do an oil on glass kind of matte painting thing nowadays and nobody really does. It's all digitally done, primarily in Photoshop, and often times it's a little bit of 3D work. But my first film matte painting work was done on X-Men 2 and even though I was on that project primarily as a concept artist, they still had me to all the dam sequence matte paintings. So in the end of the movie you see the whole dam shatter and it fills in the lake and it's kind of the big climatic end to that film.

So I had to paint the dam kind of after it had crumbled and fallen away. So that was my first official film matte painting work in that one and since then I've been privileged to do a lot of fun films. Right after that was Last Samurai, that kind of thing. So that one in that case we were working on Tokyo, the way it would have looked in 1865 or so. Again obviously, Tokyo doesn't exist the way it looked then, so they had a number of different shots of the Imperial Palace there.

The fun part of that one is if you look at that shot, it's a big massive palace up on a hill. The real palace in Tokyo is more of a garden with a whole bunch of little pagodas in it, so they took a lot of artistic license that I am sure the historical people may not have been real thrilled with. But they wanted it dramatic and that kind of thing. So that was one that we did. We also did Tokyo, just a wide shot of the old city the way it was. But that's what matte painting is, is creating those environments that are either long gone or in the case of sci- fi movies just don't exist and that's the part that can be fun.

I like doing both, but I probably especially love the historical ones, because that's just my bent. I am a history lover. So recreating something the way it used to look is something I really enjoy doing. So often times matte painting work may not be just big full frame matte paintings, but you are just adding set extensions. Sometimes you will see a building in a movie that's five stories tall and in real life it was one story tall and some matte painter tacked on the other elements to that. So sometimes there are big grandiose matte paintings; other times they are just small little sections, little add-ons, little things that they didn't want to have to build.

I think they are relying more and more on that which is good for guys like me. You know, it's like why build if you can get someone to paint it in a way that works perfectly well. So even places in movies that you don't expect there to be matte paintings or you assume isn't a matte painting, often times it is, for those very practical reasons of not wanting to travel there when you can get somebody just paint it in. So it's a good career to do. It's challenging in that it has to look real and there is this little fine line between having it look painted and then just bumping it over to where it looks real and that's actually a very hard fine line to jump over because coming from an illustration background and everything else, you are used to painting realistically.

But having it really blend with live footage and work well and integrate well, to where people don't even know it's a matte painting, that's not an easy task. That's why I chose it. It's challenging for one. But two, it's such a specialized skill that hopefully the guys who do it well are kind of a small number and the competition is small but not that I am discouraging you to from doing it. But there is challenge level to it that is sometimes hard to achieve. So I can go to movies and see matte paintings and usually just because of the way the shot is setup, you kind of know if it's matte painting or not and some succeed better than others including mine.

I can go to movies and kind of from what I saw on my monitor kind of go ugh! To me, it ugh! A tip off, it kind of looks like a matte painting. But hopefully that's what you get better and better at as you along and kind of learn from other matte painters. But that has even transitioned a little bit to what I notice people asking for is different than original matte paintings, where they used to paint them even somewhat loose. The whole idea was to just focus the attention on the action or the actor's live actions' actions.

But now it almost seems like they want something photographic, just start to finish, front and back and they'll adjust that focal point by either blurring or lighting, sliding changes, a lot happens in composition afterwards. So often time, what I am asked for is just a full frame very realistic, photo realistic background. But that just ups the scale on how challenging it is. So it's got to look real and there are times when you really struggle back and forth with that on, have I accomplished that, is it for enough? And it's kind of where is with me at least career-wise. Career path right now is predominantly dominated by the matte painting work both for film and television.

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