Science Fiction Film) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think your work have got a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like ROBOCOP 1 &2, VACATION, DREAMSCAPE, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND and WATCHMEN of course. A lot of movie maniacs know the films on which you were involved. Could you please tell us what you did before you came into film business. Why have you chosen the way of being a matte painter ?
Rocco Gioffre) My very first job was an apprentice to matte painting artist Matthew Yuricich on CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND. I started in the fall of 1976, 4 months after graduating from high school. I had sent him some examples of my super 8mm amateur animation and visual effects artwork which I did for fun and art class credits. Matthew has recently joined Douglas Trumbull´s visual effects team on that movie, I got hired over the telephone and moved to Los Angeles from my home in Ohio.
I had chosen to pursue this career a few years earlier, partly because I had been doing artwork as far as I can remember, and also because I loved movies and especially was crazy about amazing stop motion animation in KING KONG (1933), and the popular Sci-Fi and fantasy films by Ray Harryhausen. Matthew Yuricich encouraged me to pursue matte painting over stop motion because it was more often used in the film industry and would be a steadier source of employment.
My work as his apprentice artist included such chores as cleaning his paint brushes (oil paint), laying out his palette with fresh paint of each color, projecting and tracing a film frame of each live action background on to the matte painting surface prior to starting the painting. I eventually got to paint on certain elements and fill in details under his supervision. Matt´s younger brother, Richard Yuricich was Douglas Trumbull´s business partner and also the VFX cinematographer on the show, he had me keeping a notebook on each of the matte painting shots and coordinating with Don Jarel, the matte camera operator.
SFF.) In my opinion you are standing in one line with Albert Whitlock, Matthew Yuricich and Ralph McQuarrie. Do you have any personal idols or role models in your business? Is there a movie or an event which make you think: “I want to do the same thing.”?
R.G.) There have been a lot of great matte painters and visual effects creators in the history of motion pictures it’s hard to list how many had a positive impression on me including my contemporary artists when we were still using paints and brushes. The names you mentioned ware top man back when I started, and let´s not forget Peter Ellenshaw was Disney´s department head from about 1950 until he retired in the late 1979s, his work was fantastic. I have to say that Albert Whitlock was a major influence on me and many of the young crop of matte artist that began in the late 1970s. His design sense and ideas for trickery along with his choice to return to the older method of compositing matte paintings on original negative to keep the shot a high quality first generation image was something I chose to copy, as did the matte artists at ILM.
Getting back to your last question as I stated earlier, it has to be the 1933 classic KING KONG. It had such rich and romantic atmosphere.
SFF.) Many movies back in the days are full of matte paintings which you can't see. This is the magic of this technique, whether it is in DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990) or VACATION (1983). Is there still a favorite painting of yours and why?
R.G.) That is a tough question that I have not been able to answer whenever it gets asked. I´d have to say there are more than one and each with their own reason, I even wish I could improve on some of those if I were to do them over. I like my two closer Walley World shots from VACATION, I think most of the matte paintings from ROBOCOP (1987) came out well, but there are simply too many movies, TV commercials, music videos and other non-feature film projects to choose from that had some of my favorite work. This doesn´t even include all the fun stuff I´ve been doing since switching over to digital VFX in 1997.
SFF.) Your paintings are so beautiful and fantastic. Which kind of surface treatment is your favorite one and why? Oil or acrylic or something else?
R.G.) I tend to use acrylics to begin with and can do nice works with this on its own, but have also used acrylic as an underpainting and followed it with oil paint to get smoother blends and softer effects. I have always enjoyed doing skies, clouds and landscapes in oil colors which allow a much longer working time.
SFF) You have done so much great jobs like in DANCES WITH WOLVES (1990), VACATION (1983) or PREDATOR II (1990). Some are based on reality and some are pure fantasy. Which themes do you prefer from a painterly artistic point of view?
R.G.) I have had a marvelous time with a variety of subjects such as VACATION, GREMLINS and many science fiction and fantasy films, but I think I love working on realistic scenery and have a great fondness for natural surroundings and historical subjects.
SFF.) Do you have a certain style of painting that you admire the most?
R.G.) Albert Whitlock was a fan of the landscape paintings of Frederic Church, and I like much of his work also. I love French impressionist paintings, particularly Claude Monet and have always marveled at the paintings of Vermeer.
SFF.) You were making Matte Paintings for STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979). Thirty Years later you are also involved in the reboot of the franchise. The first is very “old fashioned” in order of painting, the second one is digital painting. Are these two ways of approaching the job fundamentally different or are there many similarities?
R.G.) When I worked on STAR TREK: THE MOTION PICTURE (1979) there were very few matte painting artists in the Hollywood film industry and the rest of the world. You had to be a skilled paintbrush artist and knowledgeable about film effects which were a closely guarded secret in those days. It was more rare to meet anyone wanting to do this than to be a magician on the live stage. STAR WARS (1977) and CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THRID KIND (1977) started a different age, many written articles were published and fans became acquainted with the methods and their curiosity about visual effects was being answered. It was still not an easy craft to master. But with digital effects and the creation Photoshop the flood gates opened and there are thousands of digital (computer) matte painters, with the quality varying from excellent to very bad.
These new tools are great, but in both disciplines – traditional or digital – it is the decisions we choose that can make or break a shot.
The design and composition of a visual effects shot is the first key to getting it believable. Only then does the execution and artistry help accomplish a good effect. The biggest problem with the process in modern digital effects which causes the budget to soar is that the committees (!) in charge all want to suggest ideas to the artist, and the changes to the shots go on far too long. There is no better way for an artist to lose their “fire” and inspiration than to have to cater to supervisors and directors who can´ t decide what they want and ask for countless numbers of changes. Some guys these days talk to me like I’ve never done a matte painting!
SFF) Emilio Ruiz del Rio was being great matte and foreground painter for European movies. Just as an example. Do you see differences by paintings for movies from Europe and North American cinema?
R.G.) I think the artistry of Emilio Ruiz del Rio is outstanding and incredible. The methods he used were once a very familiar sight during the 1920s and 1930s in Hollywood. I have worked with foreground “hanging miniatures” and live onset glass paintings, but again the reason hardly anyone uses these wonderful old techniques is that the directors don’t want to commit to a concept design in preproduction. The traditional type of work requires adhering to a plan, and so many are afraid to say “I approve this design”.
It’s one of the reasons they all love digital effects these days, they can change their minds and have the work redone up to the day the film is released. As for visual effects work in the rest of the world, almost all of it has become computer graphics and many of the big VFX companies have facilities all around Canada, Europe and Asia.
SFF.) If you have to choose three tools which you need for your work; which would it be and why?
R.G.) Two answers here. In digital effects for me it would be: a 4K digital camera, Photoshop and After Effects. In traditional visual effects I would stay with a Mitchell 35mm Standard Camera, miniatures and hand painted artwork (matte painting or onset hanging artwork).
SFF.) We all have our favorite movies. Mine is PHASE IV for example. But which movies do you really don’t like and why?
R.G.) TITANIC (1997). I thought it was pedestrian. The writing was weak and the director used its visual effects spectacle to try and overcome the ridiculous story.
SFF.) What is your opinion about education to become an expert in matte painting? Is there any requirement or talent you need to have next to enthusiasm?
R.G.) Although artistic ability can be refined and improved one needs to have actual talent. An artist can learn technical skills but not all technicians can be taught how to be an artist. In music there are some who have natural ability and a good ear, and unfortunately some people are tone-deaf.
SFF.) What do you think of your kind of work in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art?
R.G.) Visual effects have gotten far too much attention in the movies. They have become a malignant behemoth that has destroyed the craft of filmmaking. I kind of feel that the studios had it right when it was kept a secret and the audiences weren’t aware of all the technical stuff. Matte paintings simply helped the story, they also added mood and production value.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
R.G.) Not at present. I have some other hobbies for the sake of diversity and to help me maintain sanity.
SFF.) You are one of the founding members of Dream Quest Images. Why do you decide to start this company?
R.G.) When I started work as one of Douglas Trumbull team on CLOSE ENCOUNTER I was 18 and the youngest of the 3 young assistants they had hired for that crew. The other two were Scott Squires (Doug’s assistant) and Hoyt Yeatman, both assistant cameramen. After that film we were scattered elsewhere to other less fun jobs., in 1979 we were called again by Doug and Richard Yuricich to work on STAR TREK:TMP, but realizing we would be laid off afterward, we came up with the idea to form our little garage VFX studio. We actually started out doing matte paintings in a two car garage behind a house we rented. We soon grew and moved our studio to a warehouse in Culver City.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult painting you were working on and why?
R.G.) I must say the most difficult paintings I had to work on weren’t so difficult as they were simply frustrating because of bad design work. They are the two wide shots of the Vulcan planet for STAR TREK: TMP. Michael Minor’s earlier designs that Matthew Yuricich had done at MGM were far superior. When Trumbull took over the VFX on that movie they studio hired a new design artist who came up with the sketches I was asked to copy. Just painful. Thankfully I got to do some other nice matte paintings for the film.
SFM.) Dear Mr. Gioffre. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.