Science Fiction Filme.) Dear Mr. Dutton. I am very honored to have you talk to me. You are, and it is fair to say so, a true legend in the field of matte painting. Many films like RED SONJA (1985), GATE (1987) or even the entire STAR TREK - FRANCHISE would be hard to imagine without your input. Would you please be so kind and tell us how it all began.
Syd Dutton) I was born and raised in San Francisco. It was a wonderful city to grow up in, culturally and visually stimulating. From the age of twelve, I always had a job, all interesting and
often challenging. After High School, I went to San Francisco City College where I honed by drawing skills, then transferred to the University of California, Berkeley. I was an Architectural major, but after a year , moved to the Art Department, graduating with a
Masters degree in Art. It was during the 1960s and two of the visiting instructors were David Hockney and Mark Rothko. Mark was a remarkable man and I was very lucky to have known him.
I married . We traveled through Mexico, exploring towns, villages, Mexico City and the fabulous ruins of Teotihuacan. Returning to San Francisco, my wife gave birth to a wonderful baby girl . I continued to work various jobs, pursued my art as best I could, and
toyed with filmmaking . I made short 16 mm films, and wrote screenplays. One screenplay was bought by Universal Studios and the producer got me a job in the mailroom. I moved to Los Angeles. I met Albert Whitlock delivering his mail, and marveled at his matte
paintings and painting technique.
As luck would have it, he needed an assistant for the film THE HINDENBURG (1975). I washed brushes, made tea, drew out shots, whatever I could to makehis life easier for the one year of post production. After, Albert said I could stay on as anassistant matte painter. I worked for him until his retirement. It was a long ten yearapprenticeship, but I never stopped learning. The department's head cameraman, Bill Taylor and I then formed our own company, Illusion Arts. Our first job was from a cold call to the producer rebooting THE TWILIGHT SHOW t.v. series. We were given the work, more jobs followed and we kept the business going and growing for the next 26 years.
SFF.) After THE HINDENBURG, you worked on Alfred Hitchcok's FAMILY PLOT (1976). How did that come about?
S.D.) After HINDENBURG, the next film was FAMILY PLOT (1976). It was just the one shot. Karen Black walks into a San Francisco Police Station. Henry Bumstead, one of Hitchcock's favorite Production Designers, made the set on the backlot. It was very straightforward. It was a night shot. Al(bert) and Bill set up the shot. Mr. Hitchcock directed from the backseat of his limo. After a few takes, it was a wrap. The next day, back at the department, I drew out the shot on a sheet of framed glass that I had primed with white water based paint. I was surprised
when Al told me I could paint it. It wasn’t a hard shot. It was looking pretty good, but I didn’t know what to paint for the extreme background. I knew San Francisco, but rather than paint anything distinct, Al said I should paint some “interesting nonsense”.I asked what he meant, and he said to paint dots and dashes. That’s exactly what I did, and it worked perfectly.
SFF.) Albert Whitlock was not only a true master of matte painting but also your friend. What did you learn from him?
S.D.) Needless to say, Albert Whitlock was my mentor and taught me everything I know. What was a big help from my college days, was my knowledge of art history. Some other artists, sometimes from centuries in the past, often had a solution for a composition or mood I could borrow. The artists of The Hudson River School were always an inspiration. Piranesi’s imaginary prison drawings were the foundation of the matte paintings for THE BEAUTY AND THE BEAST series (1987). Over the years, I built an extensive research library. I would comb bookstores' discount sections. Other references came from magazines. Of course, a public library was another source. This was long before Google. I always carried a camera and had a collection of 35 mm slides, mainly a variety of skies and architecture.
SFF.) Is there such a thing as a basic framework after you paint pictures?
S.D.) I’ve known so many very talented matte artists that came from completely different backgrounds. One painted like a typewriter, moving from left to right, and had a finished painting when he got to the end of the surface. One painter drew out his shots and painted
them in. He would produce a wonderful, very realistic painting. Another was completely self taught and was a fantastic painter. Some had mentors and became apprentices like I did. Others were scenic background painters, who graduated to matte painting.
SFF.) Your paintings are so beautiful and fantastic. Which kind of surface treatment is your favorite one and why? Oil or acryl or something else? Is oil easier to handle?
S.D.) Albert Whitlock used oil paint, Winsor and Newton, and a very limited color palette. He never used black unless he was painting clouds. For a very dark color he would mix Dark Umber and Ultramarine Blue. He said black paint mudded the colors it mixed with, and he was right. His painting medium was linseed oil mixed with a small amount of Japanese Dryer. He would paint in a basic graduated sky. When that dried, usually the following day, he would block in the basic shapes of the painting with a big brush. When that dried, he would establish vanishing points and start to refine the lay in with smaller brushes, until he got to very small brushes for highlights and details. Other times, for a stormy sky, he would use a big brush and paint furiously with a full palette of color. That was the process I emulated.
All my imaginary cityscapes for STAR TREK and other science fiction shows, began as vague ideas, sometimes imagining the history of an alien civilization and then I would start painting shapes. What I often came up with was something very blurry, as if I was looking at a city in a fog. Then over time as I continued to paint, the fog would gradually lift. It probably sounds corny, but that’s what it felt like for me, just continuously refining until it seemed to be a real city. Later on I switched to Griffin Alkyd paints which are resin based and dried much faster (without yellowing as oils tend to do). So I could advance a painting faster.
SFF.) What exactly did you paint for THE BLUES BROTHERS (1980)?
S.D.) The only shot I painted for the BLUES BROTHERS was a wide shot of a church exterior with a shaft of light emanating from brooding clouds and illuminating the building.
SFF) For the TV series STAR TREK - THE NEXT GENERATION you created wonderful pictures, among others of cities. Also in BUCK ROGERS (1979) there were some beautiful pictures of futuristic cities by you. Where does this soft spot for urban structures come from? Do you like to present your view of the future?
S.D.) I always loved science fiction. I saw the FLASH GORDON series at Saturday matinees at the local theater in San Francisco which really charged my imagination. Fritz Lang’s METROPOLIS (1927) amazed me. Hugh Ferriss, an architectural illustrator was a great source of inspiration. I read extensively. Searched out and saw old movies. There were no videos back then, so finding old or foreign movies became an adventure.
When I first started delivering mail at Universal Studios, it was a self contained city. Major stars under contract had their own bungalows. There was a Blacksmith, a Makeup department, even a Lace making dept. Of course there was the backlot. The idea was that you could make any movie, from a Western to a Sherlocks Holmes movie to THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) without leaving the lot. That is when matte painting was integral, making a standing set look more like the old west, or London with Big Ben in the background and extending a small lake into an Amazonian Jungle.
Starting in the 70’s, matte painting was soon liberated from the backlot as productions went to locations for a more realistic environment. I started traveling to distant locations and foreign cities.
SFF.) Can you tell us how the field of matte painting has changed compared to the 70-90s.
S.D.) The field of matte painting has changed completely compared to the 1970s to 90’s. I made the transition to digital painting in Photoshop, but would still sketch out ideas with a brush. Today, the big effects films employee an army of dedicated and talented professionals with astounding results. But I’m happy I had my career with a paint brush and a small crew of gifted artists and technicians.
SFF.) You have worked on very different films from various genres. Your diversity is impressive. Be it COMING TO AMERICA (1988), DRAGONHEART (1996) or CAPE FEAR (1991). What criteria do you use to choose their jobs? What challenges do you set for yourself?
S.D.) Bill Taylor and I got the job on COMING TO AMERICA because we had worked with Albert on Blues Bros., and we met John Landis. John was a great supporter. The effects on DRAGONHEART were awarded to ILM, but we were called in to do conceptional and matte painting work on two shots. CAPE FEAR had the wonderful Production Designer, Henry Bumstead. When Albert retired, Henry had been hired to work on PSYCHO 3 (1986) that Tony Perkins both starred in and directed. Henry gave us the chance to do the effects work on the Universal film. We proved ourselves, and then Henry convinced Martin Scorsese we were the team for his first effects work on CAPE FEAR. We had a great time, and I think our traditional matte paintings came off well. Marty also didn't care about the usual limitations of matte paintings. Bill and I had to scratch our heads when he wanted Robert De Niro to walk straight into the camera and overlap the painting when his character is released from prison. Nothing like being pushed to make a shot fun. So it wasn’t that Bill and I chose the work, the work that chose us.
SFF.) If you have to choose three tools which you need for your work; which would it be and why?
S.D.) There is a whole series of tools that we needed to do a traditional matte shot: a camera with a very steady movement, a sophisticated matte painting stand, much like an animation stand but horizontal as opposed to vertical, a rotoscope stand, easel, paint and a long list of forgotten tools and techniques. In a world without film, these are vintage curiosities. But the three tools that are most important in any era are luck, hardwork and a spirit of generosity and kindness.
SFF.) Together with Bill Taylor you founded ILLUSION ARTS, INC. in 1983. Why did you go this way?
S.D.) Bill and I were returning from a film location in the backseat of a truck. Bill asked me if I wanted to go into business together. I said yes, and according to Bill, promptly fell asleep. Universal was very generous to us thanks to the efforts of Bill’s agent. At first, we were allowed to stay on but with the stipulation that any work done for Universal would be discounted. It was our first day as partners, and I read in the newspaper that The Twilight Zone was being rebooted. We made a cold call to the producer. He knew who we were, and awarded us all the matte painting work. I was painting a new matte shot every week or so, which gave us the money to keep us going and save for the future. Universal eventually decided they wanted to make the department space into editorial rooms and we were asked to leave. They gave us a wonderful deal on the camera equipment, including the matte stands and easels. We could paythem back in installments.
We found a building near Apogee in the San Fernando Valley. Apogee was made up of ex STAR WARS employees under the direction of John Dykstra. Bill and I hoped for some type of collaboration which did happen. Illusion Arts was housed in a generic warehouse that had a loft. The loft became the painting studio. In addition, we added a wood shop. The area below became a small stage, later modified for a motion control rig. Underneath the loft was reception, an office, editorial and an optical printer room. It was a neat and tidy environment.
SFF.) I believe movies doesn´t belong to awards. They´re for the audience not for prices. But what do you think of your kind of work in film? Is it just a technical one or is it art? Do Matte Painting get enough recognition?
S.D.) I don’t care about awards, though I have received two Emmys, a Lifetime Achievement Award and an Honorary Doctorates. The awards certainly made my mother happy. But it has only been the work that has meant anything to me.
Anything that provides a function is by definition not Art. However, cars provide a function, and there is a big difference between an old Chevy and a vintage Ferrari. There are some matte paintings that are purely functional, like my painting in Family Plot. It’s just a set extension. But big establishing shots and landscapes could be considered commissioned artwork.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
S.D.) I am very happily retired. To quote Albert Whitlock, I now paint for my own amazement.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult painting you were working on and why?
S.D.) The most difficult paintings were on AGE OF INNOCENCE (1993) I wanted the work to look real, but at the same time reflect the paintings of late 19th century America. I also knew that this would be the last all traditional matte painting job we would have. The digital age had already started. Ironically, the movie was about the end of an era.
SFF.) Dear Mr. Dutton. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best.