SFF.) Dear Mr. Ordaz. You wouldn't believe how grateful I am that you and I are talking. After all, it has been some of her works that have cemented my love for film. Be it your creations on INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM (1984), HOWARD - THE DUCK (1987) or of course the films of the STAR TREK franchise. Could you tell us a little bit about how you got into film?
Frank Ordaz) I was a student that graduated Art Center College of Design in 1980. I majored in illustration and I also was taking private lessons with an oil painting master who taught traditional painting techniques and a love for good draughtsmanship and composition. I was thrilled when I first saw Star Wars and like many young artists fantasized about working with George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic. I saw the book Art of “The Empire Strikes Back” and was enthralled with the matte paintings and I could visualize myself working for them. Never in my wildest imagination could I have conceived of being recommended by my school when ILM called for a top student to interview for an open position in the Matte Dept. At the time I was just struggling getting my career started so I jumped at the opportunity.
I really came into the business very star struck and in awe of special effects. Frankly, I was in awe of traditional painters and artists and really had no clue who some of the major painters of mattes were. I would say at the time which were my 20’s I was inspired by Ralph MacQuarrie. He was humble and could paint from his imagination like no other. I always was inspired by traditional painters who mastered their medium.
SFF) If I´m right informed you were starting your professional career with your work in E.T. (1982). How did you get to this project and what did you learn from your first engagement the most?
F.O.) Indeed my first large project was working on a large 10 ft canvas for the opening to ET. The skills that I had learned from my painting mentor really paid off. I learned by watching Ike Pangrazio and Christopher Evans paint mattes as they were already pros with several major movies under their belt. Matte painting, using traditional mediums like oils and acrylic paint is really all about suggestion with an understanding of light with a concern for how the movie camera will photograph it. A matte painter back then painted for the camera. As the new member of a 3 person team I was hired to pick up the mattes that the other two didn’t want to paint. That’s the truth and it was fine with me. I had no previous experience and I was all to happy to paint anything that would appear on the silver screen and viewed by millions of movie fans.I was like a sponge. I enjoyed the opportunity to paint every day.
One of the key learning points for me was how to collaborate as a team and handle criticism of my work. It was all to make the Shot better and have captivating production value I soon learned. It is so easy to be defensive and protective of your work. Soon as we saw our mattes during DAILIES , where the ILM team saw the previous days work from all departments I learned that we all had a stake of making our work the best in the business.
SFF) What tricks did you use to create a wide color palette on films from the 80s? I can well imagine that it was much more difficult to create certain color shades compared to today.
F.O.) Most of matte painting is straight ahead traditional chops. All to say, a knowledge of color theory, perspective, matching the color plates and in the 80’s painting with a brush either in acrylics or oils.
SFF) What is your opinion about education to become an expert in matte painting?
F.O.) There is now, thanks to the Digital Age a wide appreciation and knowledge about matte painting. As you may know, there are websites devoted to digital matte painting and the skill levels from all over the planet is excellent. Also, the software to produce these mattes is so much cheaper now so that anyone with just a device like a iPad Pro can produce amazing imagery. The sky is the limit and beyond.
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?
F.O.) Thank you. I started painting in acrylics. We used an airbrush occasionally for skies and clouds. Then we started using oils for some really realistic sky gradations. We worked on glass which was coated with a flat black ground. We also painted on Masonite panels if the matte was not going to use rear or front projection to join the live action matte. Nobody really does this anymore getting the right color match was always a challenge. Digital has made this once impossibly irritating difficulty go away!
SFF.) How would you yourself describe your way of painting? What influences did other painters have on your art?
F.O.) The big influence at ILM was the Victorian German painter Albert Bierdstadt. He came to the US and made his fortune here. He was famous for his spectacular landscapes that were almost larger than life. You should check out his work. I was very much a traditionalist at that time with a love for painters like Church and Thomas Hill.
My style has always been a capture of light in my painting. Since I live in California, there is a strong tradition of painters who came to our state to paint the light around Yosemite and the Pacific Coast. Most notable among these artists are William Wendt and Edgar Payne
SFF.) Could you tell us something about your art for the film HOWARD - THE DUCK? What exactly did you paint and how was the production?
F.O.) I was matte painting supervisor on the ill-fated HOWARD movie for Paramount Studio. ILM was invested in the project and almost went under. The large roll out on MTV was a disaster and was soon canceled as the reviews were overwhelmingly negative. I had Jett Green and Sean Joyce as matte painters on the project. We painted the opening scene where Howard is whisked away on his chair into space. I painted Duck planet shaped as an egg and the birds eye view of Duck island as well as the cartoon style planets (which I heard George did not like). I had a blast painting those images and enjoyed working with the director and setting up the shots on location in Novato California. I painted several scenes of the building where the telescope is situated. One is a night scene. This was a chaotic time at ILM as George Lucas had recently divorced his wife and the moral in my opinion was very low. George had lost a lot of weight. But we did the best we could. There was an interior scene of an explosion by the large telescope which was shot at the Alameda Naval base. All in all, it was a fun assignment and interaction with the actors. Especially Tim Robbins was a highlight.
SFF.) Can you tell us how the field of matte painting has changed compared to the 80s and 90s?
F.O.) Matte painting when I was at ILM was more personal and direct. In respects that one matte painter was in charge of his shot and directly worked with his cameraman and film editors. Even communicating with George Lucas for direction. Of course the most obvious was that the images were hand painted on glass or Masonite. Several techniques such as rear projection, front projection as well as latent capture was used. The ILM matte department eventually settled on latent capture as it involved working with the original film stock. The previous two involved a second generation copy.
I can’t comment with any direct authority how matte painting is executed at present. But as I see, the communication is through an art director and a matte involves a group of specialized digital painters who collaborate on an image.
SFF.) In 2006 you had the honor of painting a picture for the White House. Could you give us more information about this?
F.O.) Laura Bush saw a book called “ Josie’s Gift “ which I had illustrated and she loved it. She had her office contact me and offer me the honor of being the select artist to paint the 2006 Easter Egg Roll poster and Wooden Egg for the yearly event. It was an assignment of a lifetime as I had the pleasure of taking my family into the White House for the event and made a great connection with the Laura Bush and a personal photo with her and our family. I was later invited as a guest to witness the opening of the George Bush Library with 5 Presidents in attendance.
SFF.) If you have to choose three tools which you need for your work; which would it be and why?
F.O.) Persistence, Determination, Faith in God.
SFF.) One of your most famous images are those of the Klingon battle cruiser. How long did you work on it and what were the requirements for the design (if that was the case)?
F.O.) The ship painting took about 2 1/2 to 3 weeks. Most of that time involves matching the live action color plate which was always a challenge for me. We did not have the luxury of a Photoshop style “color picker”.
As far as design, we were usually handed a sketch by the Art Department. As I remember, Christopher Evans was the ILM matte supervisor on the movie and he set up the live plate at Paramount. When the shot was handed to me I just had to find the right positioning of the space ship to make the perspective angles work and fit the lighting on the painting to the lighting on the live shot. The rest was finding some exotic landscape in Arizona to create the stark desert background.
SFF.) Imagine you meet an extraterrestrial one day. He wants to know why you were stuck into movies with just one movie to explain, which will it be and why?
F.O.) RETURN OF THE JEDI. The movie launched a cultural storyline that is imbedded not only in America but around the World. The movie made a lasting Universal statement.
SFF.) What do you think of your kind of film work?
F.O.) There is definitely an art to matte painting although it is a team effort and works within a collaboration of Director all the way along to the Matte artist. The matte artist is not an “auteur “but is functioning as a realized of the director’s vision.
Matte painting has been given its due in many ways probably due to the extra content in DVD and streaming. You can now watch how the special effects wizards created those scenes and hear them describe how it was done.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
F.O.) Currently, I am enjoying my life as a painter and running my own gallery. I have realized my career dreams in many ways. I am content.
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult painting you were working on and why?
F.O.) Frankly the most difficult painting I worked on was the Eden Cave painting from the Movie Wrath of Khan. I was new at ILM and had no clue what I was doing. Michael Pangrazio had started the shot and gave up on it and gave it to me. I probably worked on that silly piece for over a month changing it constantly so that the camera would capture a feeling of space and volume. It kept looking “painted” in Dailies and Chris Evans eventually finished it off. It was a hard lesson to learn. Btw I still like my version the best. I just had not learned how to make the jump and give it Realism that would be believed by the movie audience.
SFF.) Dear Mr. Ordaz. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview.
F.O.) THANK YOU.