Science Fiction Filme) First of all, I would like to thank you for your time doing this Interview. I think you´re work have got a huge fan base here in Germany. Especially because for films like ROBOCOP 1 &2, THROW MOMMA FROM THE TRAIN or GHOSTBUSTERS II of course. A lot of movie maniacs know the films you´re involved. Could you please tell us what you did before you come into filmbusiness. Why have you choose the way of being into matte painting?
Mark Sullivan) Thanks, I’m always glad to read that some of these old films are still being viewed and enjoyed! I was aware of and interested in film visual effects at a pretty early age. My parents took me to see “2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY” when I was eight, and a little bit later I saw “KING KONG” 1933 and “WHEN DINOSAURS RULED THE EARTH”. The later two really tipped the scales for me. Animating clay dinosaurs with a Super 8 camera became a hobby. I got into painting as a result of making backdrops for my dinosaur scenes. My junior high school art teacher would let me work on these backgrounds in my art class. I would paint them with temperas on large sheets of paper, carefully roll them up, take them home, and pin them onto the wall, and set up my dino models in front. It seemed like I was working on one of these paintings all the time. As crude as these paintings where, they gave me some background and confidence for trying matte painting work later on.
SFF) If I´m right informed you were starting your professional career with grandmaster Jim Danforth. How did you get to his team and what did you learn from him the most?
M.S.) Yes, I was super lucky in that Jim was looking for a painting assistant at the same time I had moved to Los Angeles from Ohio. Visual effects supervisor and matte artist David Stipes was very helpful to me. He gave me Jim’s phone number and suggested I call him. I have to admit it seemed almost absurd to me. All I had to show was my 16mm short film. It felt almost like I was calling a major movie studio to let them know I was in town, and I could start directing right away. Working at Jim’s studio, I was exposed to the entire process from designing compositions right through to the particulars of rear screen process photography. A lot of the details of many photographic processes where over my head, but over time I started understanding more and more. In the time I had working with Jim, I felt I’d learned more than my three years in college.
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.”?
M.S.) That’s a very kind assessment, but may be to live up to! Those fellows you’d mentioned, and others such as Jim Danforth, Willis O’Brien, Mario Larrinaga and Ray Harryhausen were some of my favorite artists working in visual effects. I was always interested in illustration art, -people like Norman Rockwell, N.C. Wyeth and Frank Frazetta. I felt the film visual effects artists were illustrators working in the medium of film, and that really appealed to me. The work in the 1933 KING KONG is what got me the most excited.
Matthew is a great matte artist, having worked on BEN HUR, MUTINY ON THE BOUNTY, FORBIDDEN PLANET, BLADE RUNNER, to mention a few.
SFF) Could you tell us something about your Highschoolmovie called HIGHRISE? What was your intention to make it?
M.S.) I was attending what I felt was a boring philosophy class, and looking out of the windows to the downtown skyline, I started daydreaming about one of the skyscrapers being levitated up into the clouds. I did some doodles in my notebook, and thought it would be an interesting subject for some test matte shots to do with my Bolex camera. Being naive as I was, I thought why not make up a little narrative to work with the shots, and spend my summer making a short film. Well, to pay for the lights, art supplies, film stock and processing, I had to get a job at a sign company. This was great, except the job ate up most of my time. So the summer project evolved into something that took about two and a half years. The film was really meant to be a demo reel to show to anyone interested when I moved west.
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?
M.S.) I think oils may allow you to do more. You have time to do subtle blending before the paint dries, and you can paint transparent layers easier, I think. I grew up using the water based temperas and acrylics because they were a little cheaper than oil, and at the time I felt they were easier to use. But I loved to use oils for matte paintings back in the day, if it was a project with a generous schedule.
SFF.) You have done so much great jobs like in ISHTAR, RAIN MAN or DEMOLITION MAN. Some are based on reality and some are pure fantasy. Which themes do you prefer from a painterly artistic point of view?
M.S.) Generally I like painting natural organic subjects more than complicated architectural views, though the architectural work can be an exciting challenge.
What I don’t like is not having enough time if I have to do something complicated that I really need to wrap my head around.
SFF.) Do you have a certain style of painting that you admire the most?
M.S.) Realism has always appealed to me, painters like Thomas Eakins, Winslow Homer, Jan Vermeer. Naturally, this work bridges into matte painting. I don’t really care for photo-realism, though. I like to see the evidence of the artist’s hand and how the mind sometimes distorts shapes, patterns and things, however subtly.
SFF.) One of your best friends in the business is the great Rocco Gioffre. It seems that this is not only a professional friendship but it goes beyond that. Do you think that this collaboration was the most influential in your career and why?
M.S.) Oh yes, Rocco was a great influence. Dreamquest hired me a few months after the projects were completed I’d assisted Jim Danforth with. Rocco was one of the owners of Dreamquest, which was a very productive visual effects house in Los Angeles during the 1980’s. Dreamquest at that time was a small sized facility and Rocco had established their matte department. I learned a lot and enjoyed working there very much. Rocco and I both had (and have) a lot of interest in the effects work done in the earlier years of cinema. You could learn so much by looking at the work in such vintage films as FIRE BRIGADE, THE RAINS CAME, IN OLD CHICAGO and BEN HUR. Many of these effects sequences would use very clever and inventive amalgamations of matte paintings, miniatures, rotoscoping, forced perspective photography and traveling mattes. It was fun to speculate and “reverse engineer” effects shots, and to get the opinion of a knowledge person such as Jim Danforth or Rocco.
SFF.) We were talking about Albert Whitlock or Matthew Yuricich. But there are many more great names even in europe. Emilio Ruiz del Rio was are great matte and foreground painter. Do you see differences by paintings for movies from europe and northamerica-cinema?
M.S.) I love the work of Mr. Ruiz del Rio. No, I don’t really see too many differences. It’s always a delight to see a great shot in obscure movie you weren’t expecting, or didn’t know about. Some of the miniature effects shots I’ve seen in Russian science fiction movies from the 1950s and 1960s are beautifully designed.
SFF.) What do you think about digital matte painting comparing to “old school”- matte painting back in the days?
M.S.) That’s an old question, and there’s not much I can say about this topic that’s new or useful. Digital allows you much more control, it’s usually a faster way to work, you can blend the elements very nicely, do camera moves, -it’s all great. But I have to say, as much as I admire the digital work, I still get enthused and inspired when I see old traditional matte shots that are well done. I think the viewer sees more of an artistic interpretation that sometimes has more interesting textural qualities than some digital shots, as perfect as they can be. I suppose this is just my own unique perception or bias, because I grew up with the traditional methods.
SFF.) We all have our favorite movies. Mine is PHASE IV for example. But which movies do you really don´t like and why?
M.S.) Movies I DON’T like? That would probably be “gross” horror movies, like people being attacked with chainsaws, garden tools, meat cleavers, without much story content or even humor. At first I was going to say bad movies, -poor acting and directing, but sometimes those are the best ones to learn from. You see things that don’t work, and you ask yourself why.
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?
M.S.) Great question! I’ve always wondered how much of a “nature versus nurture” thing is going on with art. I might guess enthusiasm is the fuel that really gets stuff done, but on the other hand, I think some people are just born with an aptitude that can make them great. I really don’t think I will ever draw as well as Winsor McKay, or paint as good as Vermeer, no matter how excited or enthused I get. But I don’t want to dwell on that fact and feel bad. It’s all part of this experience of inhabiting a body for a few decades, you try to find something your good at, and make the best of it.
SFF.) What are the biggest differences between working for movies and commercials? What do you prefer?
M.S.) Commercials usually have shorter schedules. I like movies more, because it’s fun to see the work in the context of a story with actors.
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?
M.S.) I suppose matte shots are both technical and art. I don’t care though, when they are done well, they have value in adding scope to a movie. It may be how you’d define a modern matte shot, whether it is all CG modeling, or digital painting, or a combination, but it seems like visual effects are being used more now, than ever.
SFF.) Do you have a project you always wanted to do or are there something in progress we can enjoy in the future?
M.S.) I have been working on a short film project for many years, so I’d like to complete it someday soon. When you work on something for a long time, there is a tendency to want to not settle for something you think could be better, so you do it over again. When this starts to happen over and over, you are treading water. So, I’m trying to fight that problem. I will let you know when it’s done and viewable!
SFF.) I held up with the most important question to the end: What was the most difficult painting you were working on and why?
M.S.) The matte painting for RAINMAN was challenging because the matte ran straight through a clear blue sky vertically, so the color hue, density and the gradation effect in the matte painting had to mimic the real sky in the live action plate. On top of that requirement, the painting had to have the same softness of blend to “take over” or ease into the live action exposure. (This was an “in camera” latent image double exposure type of matte shot). Although I was a bit terrified at first, after a few exposure tests, I could get a feeling for what to do. But I was very relieved when that shot was completed! Probably the next most difficult painting was the Hula Hoop warehouse interior for THE HUDSUCKER PROXY. The task of painting the seemingly endless rows of Hula Hoop stacks took a long time.
SFF.) Dear Mr. Sullivan. I thank you immensely for taking time doing this interview and wish you all the best for your future movie making.
M.S.) Thank you for your interest and curiosity in these projects from many years ago. I am touched that you appreciate and enjoy the work!