Informational interview with Syd Dutton!

In August 2011 I was fortunate enough to be introduced (via email, isn’t that the norm today?) to one of the legends of Matte painting. He was gracious enough to share some of his history and insights into the industry.

Informational interview with Syd Dutton
Jose B. Ortiz

I started in the film business in 1975.  Albert Whitlock, the legendary matte painter, needed a gofer on The Hindenburg.  I had been working in the mail room at Universal Studios, and had spoken with Al when I delivered mail to his studio.  I had a Master of Arts degree from U.C. Berkeley, but knew nothing about matte painting.  I was amazed by Al’s impressionistic technique of painting, and did everything I could do to be helpful and learn.  Eventually, I was assigned some rudimentary painting assignments.  One solution I came up with, and this will seem laughable in today’s digital world, was creating a view of a German city at night using hundreds of small, ball shaped cake decorations and scattering them on a piece of black velvet.  It’s a pov at the beginning of the movie, and I can describe it in more detail if you want.

After Hindenburg, Al kept me on as his assistant, and I worked under him for 10 years.  It was probably the most exciting time of my life.  When we started working on Dune, it was close to Albert’s retirement at age 70.  The department survived for about a year, and then was closed.
     Al’s cameraman, Bill Taylor and I opened Illusion Arts.  Universal was very kind to us, and we remained on the lot for about a year.  Our first job was doing matte paintings for the New Twilight Zone series.  I read an article in the newspaper about the show, knew the producer slightly, and called him and asked to do his visual effects work.  He said I was the first to call, and we had the job.  That really got us started, and I painted several paintings or more  a month for as long as the series ran.  It was the money that bankrolled us.  We left Universal, and leased a building that was under construction in Van Nuys, a block away from a large facility called Apogee.  They were the original Star Wars team, and had decided to break away from George Lucas and set up their own business.  They didn’t have a matte painter, so we became associates on many films.  Our company was called Illusion Arts, and we were in business for 26 years.  We were also a Union shop.  Hollywood at that time was a Union town, and you had to be in the Union to work.  Later, being a Union shop would lead to the downfall of the company.

As years went by, the business started changing and the company started growing.  At first a matte painting had to be locked off, meaning you set up the camera and braced it off so it won’t move at all.  We used cameras that had very steady camera movements.  The painting, usually done on glass, would be blended with the live action. I worked in a technique known as original negative matte painting.  You’ll have to look this up. This was before there was anything like tracking. Motion control came along, and allowed us to do more complicated shots, incorporating miniatures and using rear screen projection for the live action.  By this time, we were on big feature films, and also working on Star Trek The Next Generation television series.  The last movie I did as a traditional matte painting  was “The Age of Innocence”, directed by Martin Sorcesse.
After that, the computer was introduced as a new tool.  We started with Mac computers in their most primitive form, and the first programs of Photoshop.  It was a very difficult and costly transition.

Illusion Arts existed for twenty-six years.  Towards the end there was too much competition from non-union and other studios in Hollywood, the state and the country.  Our quality of work was always high, but in the end, the visual effects budgets became smaller and the work divided among multiple companies.  I liked to work on smaller films, and be responsible for all, or the majority of the work, and those days were over.  The last extremely satisfying films we did were MILK, THE NOTEBOOK, and CASANOVA.  We did work on some big budget films; VAN HELSING was a special joy because I liked the director and producer/editor so much.  MUMMY 3 was also a lot of fun because I had worked with the director, on and off, during my entire career.  I’m sure I’m missing something from this last list, and I’ll try to remember more.  It was at the end of OLD DOGS and G.I. JOE that I knew we couldn’t continue.  My partner, Bill Taylor agreed and we started shutting down.  It was about this time that Zoic approached me to join their company.  I happily accepted their offer, and began working for them immediately after the closure of Illusion Arts.
      I joined Zoic because I had talked with the owners, and worked with their company on SERENITY and some television commercials.  They were the right size outfit for me, not to big, and with an office in Vancouver.  They have very high work and ethical standards.  It’s been a great experience, very challenging, and I enjoy working with people much younger than myself, not only teaching what I’ve  learned, but learning from them, too.  I’ve been very fortunate.
      Working in the visual effects industry today is very challenging.  India has become a big player, and their product will only get better.  Korea is doing some great work, and the Chinese government is backing a foray into  animation and motion capture, just recently investing nearly 800 million dollars into stages and high end equipment.  Great Britain and France have some fantastic companies.  States that offer financial incentives have workers immigrating to those regions.  In short, working at one company for the majority of ones career is over, and the new visual effects artist must be prepared to pack his bags and ship off to where the work is.  Something like a sailor’s life.
     Another big difference from previous times is that the majority of the work goes through a pipeline, so one must specialize in a particular aspect and hopefully, over time become a supervisor.  In my day, the product was much more of a handmade product.  Now, it’s an assembly line of uniquely talented people who move the product down the line.  I know that this is a depressing analogy, but the reality is far from a sweat shop, at least at Zoic.  At Zoic, all the artists, technicians, and producers  seem very happy.  I’ve often mentioned that the only complaint I have is that people laugh too much!  There is a great sense of camaraderie here.



~ by Jose Ortiz on September 21, 2011.

2 Responses to “Informational interview with Syd Dutton!”

  1. Awesome 🙂 I didnt know u had a blog, but Ill be an avid follower now! Keep up the awesome work!

    • Thanks Laura! I’ve had it for a while but up until recently I haven’t used it much (I’m working on changing that). May I ask, How did you find the blog?

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