The Gnomon Workshop

Interview with Igor Staritsin

Interview with Igor Staritsin

GW: Your work is breathtaking! How long have you been working in the industry as a Matte Painter and Concept Designer, and how did it all start for you?

IS: It was summer 2008 and, just by accident, I came across a website that was showcasing digital artwork created by Russian artists. Back then, I was already working as a designer at a local company. I’ve always been fascinated by traditional landscape painting, but I didn’t know how to transfer my knowledge to digital art to be able to make a living from it. So from that day, my life changed completely. I committed myself to it.

Back in those days, we didn’t have many resources to learn from, so my traditional art skills were handy in the sense of getting something more-or-less decent as a digital artwork. However, it took a while to master the craft. Gnomon Workshop was one of the greatest resources I could find. Being able to learn from leading industry artists was amazing for me. And so it went. In 2009, I was fortunate enough to work for Disney and create a painting that was eventually on display in Disneyland Paris. And I’ve been working in the industry ever since.

GW: You recently created concept art and matte paintings for Naughty Dog’s Uncharted 4. Can you tell us more about your work on this project?

IS: I worked on the cinematics for Uncharted 4. It was such a great experience! We created two cinematics, both one-minute long each. The first one was pretty much 360-degree camera movement, so we modeled basic geo for the architectural pieces and painted over it along with traditional digital matte-paintings for the background to get a more realistic and seamless look on the whole environment. We had nine projection cameras to cover everything, and there was a lot of FX and compositing work along the way to make it all look like one unique piece. The second one was a little less technically challenging, but we had quite a few locations in there, so almost every shot was pretty much in a different location. Each unique product was a lot of work from the whole team and the individual artists – it’s a big team effort in the end.

GW: How exactly does matte painting for video games differ to creating mattes for films?

IS: Generally speaking, I wouldn’t say there is much difference regarding the technicalities of the production of a matte-painting. In cinematics, often there is a more specific look that has to do with the game itself. So it might be a little bit more stylized, and at times more saturated and pushed towards extremes. However, these things are usually achieved in the comp department, so for a matte-painter, it shouldn’t matter in most cases – unless the look of the final product must be very specific and not quite photo-real.

One of the good things in game cinematics versus films is that cinematics are usually much shorter, so they have to represent the best of the game in the shortest time possible, which means it has to look strong and epic. Working on cinematics, the chances that you’ll pick up an epic shot are much higher than working on films.

Working on a film, quite often you may be asked to do a set extension or so-called “invisible art” – which is great, and every matte-painting should look so that you cannot tell where the plate ends and the painting starts! But these sorts of tasks are probably a little less impressive as a final piece of art. Deadlines are usually very tight in cinematics as well – at least when you work for a client. Artists always have to be very flexible and efficient in their time management.

Igor Staritsin

GW: What impact does the increasing resolution at which films are shot now having on matte painting?

IS: In general, it leads us to work with higher-resolution sources and assets due to the final product being bigger in scale. At times, it might require a little longer to get a painting done, but the general tendency is to get a task done as soon as possible. It might seem like a bit of a contradiction, but this is the reality of the game. The image might have lots of different aspect ratios, but the one that is most well-known is 4k. It stands for the actual resolution, which is 4096 x 2304 px. Usually, matte-painters work in double the resolution of the original plate, as it allows them to get into details more precisely and bring different pieces of photographs from different sources as well as integrate 3D renders into the painting. Then it will be scaled back down and well composed with the live-action footage and hopefully look seamless as a final shot.

igor traditional painting

GW: You’re also a dab-hand with traditional oils! When it comes to oil painting, do you prefer to paint from references or get out into the open and work from life? What are some of your favorite sources of inspiration?

IS: I would totally recommend everybody get out there as often as you can and paint from life. Painting outdoors is vital to one’s growth! You happen to see all the colors and subtle transitions in front of you and have the challenge to get it on canvas as soon as you can.

Painting outdoors involves a lot of fast-moving light, so an artist has to be skilled enough to be able to capture essentials and be able to translate the significance of the scene through the paints onto the canvas. Sometimes it’s just 20 minutes of the actual painting process, but your study should show that you have been able to feel the beauty of the scene before you. Then you can get back to the studio and elaborate a larger canvas based on your study.

The biggest challenge starts when you begin the painting, but the last 10-per cent is everything. It’s going to be hundreds of small, inspired decisions that are going to make your painting look a lot different in the end. It’s very important to see all these little but vital aspects of the beauty of the scene. A camera does not let you do this: cameras can’t understand the edges and details; cameras can’t understand what you are capturing; and, most importantly, cameras can’t feel what you are feeling while experiencing the scene.

As far as inspiration goes, classic Russian artists like Ivan Shishkin, Ivan Aivazovsky, Isaac Levitan, Alexei Savrasov, Ilya Repin and many more have been endlessly inspiring for me. Albert Bierstadt, Frederic Church, Thomas Cole, and all of the great artists of Hudson River School are always an amazing source of inspiration as well. The 20th Century was a bit of a turning point in art, with artists like John Carlson, Edgar Alwin Payne being some of the biggest influences.

GW: What have you learned from traditional matte painting techniques by the original masters – from the oil-paint-on-glass era – that you’ve applied to your digital matte painting?

IS: This was it: they had to be so skilled to be able to paint everything the way it looked real. It requires a lot of practice, knowledge, and experience. They are all extremely talented and amazing traditional artists that know all the essentials of making the scene look appealing. You have to squint at the scene you are painting to be able to eliminate unnecessary information and see the things as masses. You will even be able to see the so-called “atmospheric edge” or “light wrap” of an object, which is quite often underestimated by beginners. You need to design things thinking of masses first and only once the shapes are working can you proceed with details, bearing in mind where the focal point is and what your painting is about.

In the studio, the painter usually has a mirror on the opposite wall so that every brushstroke can be seen through the reversed version of the picture, and you can see whether elements work or not – sort of a fresh look at the painting. We use this technique nowadays in Photoshop by flipping the image left and right. They also often stepped back to see the painting from a distance to tell how well it would read. We can zoom out in Photoshop to do the same trick.

Ultimately, a picture should be so well-organized in color that, were it turned upside down, the color transitions and relationships in themselves – as abstract masses – express the idea of the picture. This is an extreme statement, but it will have a significant impact on the final result!

GW: What, in particular, should artists be focusing on improving to help their grounding for matte painting?

IS: First of all, I would recommend learning the basics of light, color, value, aerial perspective, linear perspective, and composition. An aspiring matte-painter has to feel confident enough as an artist while working on a piece. Obviously, at times, he might be tasked with something that he has not done before – especially if painting an entire environment from scratch. For that reason, it’s always good to keep at hand references with a similar light direction, temperature of light, and time of the day. You might be lucky enough even to find something which has similar perspective and subject matter. I’m referring here to the references that help you visually understand the scene and not those that you are using in the matte-painting itself. Sometimes, you may not be able to use the same photographs, but they will still be of great help to you in overcoming the unknown.

If you happen to design a shot, some composition knowledge will be extremely helpful as well. For instance, you might place a hero element a little bit off-center and balance it with another one similar in context but somewhere farther away on the opposite side of the canvas. You design the rest as supporting elements of the scene, guiding the eye of the viewer towards your focal point. The rule of thirds is usually a good friend of ours, too.

Igor Staritsin

GW: What practical tips do you have for finding good source images for matte paintings, and do you have any advice on shooting your stock?

IS: I usually try to search for the highest resolution possible. If you do a concept painting and use a very low-res source, you might get in trouble later on when you need to move on to the matte-painting level. So it’s better to plan these things beforehand. However, don’t limit yourself if you can’t find something particular in the desired camera angle; try to use your artistic skills to paint it – in the case of concept painting – or bash it using different photos, or simply model the object and render it. One good tip is to know what you’re looking for – meaning, try to figure out what you need. Sometimes, you might find the name of the object and be able to find the right angle. Other times, you might find out the name of the location and be able to get the best source just by knowing what to search for. Vary your search terms until you finally get there. Often, it takes a while – and it can be a bit of a challenge to stop!

Try to shoot as many of your own references as you can, too. If you know what you’re shooting for, try to use the same light conditions, perspective and so on, so you will save time on the integration. At times, overcast photos might be useful, too, because you can relight them easily. However, you have to understand how to do this properly to ensure it doesn’t look artificial in the end.

GW: How photo-based are your most recent matte paintings, and what percentage of painted or rendered elements would you say you typically add?

IS: It would require quite a while to paint something with the same photo-real quality and look. So for that reason we use photographs as much as we can – simply because it is much quicker and more efficient. Back in the day, matte-painters would spend months on a single painting, and they were quite solid and independent as a department. There was no way to change the camera because the background was already painted and it took a while to get it done. Today, it is quite the opposite: the camera can be changed at any moment – especially in cinematics, even after it has been locked – so we have to work very quickly and show the results quickly to avoid wasting any production time. 3D renders are also a great help, especially when there is something very special that cannot be derived any other way.

GW: Aside from the obvious Photoshop, what are the key software packages for matte painters to master, and how important is it for matte painters to be able to use 3D software?

IS: For matte-painters, it’s ideal to master all the artistic essentials to make sure paintings look visually stunning and as photo-real as possible. Nobody cares how many software packages were used to achieve the final result if the image or shot itself doesn’t look good enough.

That said, it’s a must to do your own projection setup using NUKE and to be able to do 3D work at a certain level. If you’re a matte-painter, it would be enough to be able to model, light, shade, texture and render for your needs, and then paint and project. If you’re aiming towards being an environment artist, you should dig into 3D more: modeling, shading, texturing, lighting, rendering, and even scripting.

Igor Staritsin Nuke

GW: What impact are scene-capture technologies, like photogrammetry, having on matte painting these days?

IS: It’s pretty useful for environments in general. We used a few such models for some of the cinematics that we recently worked on. However, the problem of not having the subject matter at hand to be scanned is still relevant, so traditional environment artists stay busy with modeling, rendering, lighting, painting and so on. As a matter of fact, we also use PhotoScan technology for characters. For instance, in the famous Witcher 3 cinematic, we scanned our co-worker – so she is actually a Witcher!

GW: How in your opinion will matte painting work for VR experiences differ from that for movies, and what challenges will come along with this?

IS: It has been used in some of the studios for earlier production design of some sort. So we would have a 360 cyclorama painting laid out in 3d using basic shapes as composition elements. We would project on a sphere, add a foreground geo and we can look anywhere within this given 3D space, so it creates an illusion of a fake world all around. It gives the ability of quickly composing rough ideas for the shots and not having to pay for all the details that otherwise would have to be rendered in real-time. You can then pass it over to the VFX crew, and they can start elaborating a more detailed look at the shots based off of these art-directed assets. It just speeds up the process of filling in the backgrounds for the shots of a particular sequence, so to speak.

GW: How do you get into matte painting as a career and what advice do you have for those looking to get into it?

IS: Based on my experience, I can say that you have to spend quite a bit of time at the beginning of your journey, and commit yourself to it. Build up a decent portfolio and demo reel that reflects your current skill set. It will take time, but once you get your first job, it all pays off. Nowadays, we have a lot of material available online that you can learn from, or we can go to school to learn from the masters in person. Either way is great. Just don’t be afraid to fail. We all have done and keep doing that, but this is how we grow. Being an artist means being a continual student, always willing to get better at what you do.

GW: When you're looking at other matte painters’ portfolios, what skills do you find are the hardest to come by?

IS: If a matte-painter can do the whole thing himself, that would be great! Meaning that they can start from a concept painting, and move on to the matte-painting – and by that I mean the actual painting plus 3D modeling, texturing, lighting and rendering for the particular shot. If they can then break down the painting logically into layers to project them onto the geo in NUKE and make sure that the parallax is working correctly, that’s fantastic. If a shot requires animated features such as waterfalls, smoke, fire, flags and so on, it would be nice if they could do those as well, and then compose everything into the final NUKE script. Essentially, we would have a pretty much finalized script that has to be touched up by the comp department to make sure that grading is correct and it’s all matching the rest of the movie.

Igor Staritsin Matte Paint

GW: Tell us about your latest Gnomon Workshop training, Creating an Epic Matte Painting Shot: Advanced Techniques. What can viewers expect from this workshop, and what will they walk away with after the seven hours of tuition?

IS: My objective in this workshop is to show the entire process of creating an epic matte shot using high-end techniques that can be applied in both feature films and video game cinematics. I start from the very beginning of searching for ideas and proceed through the processes until the final product is complete. Along the way, I cover lots of artistic essentials that I have learned from traditional landscape painting.

It can be a great benefit for artists of all levels since I demonstrate advanced techniques using Photoshop to create top-quality matte-paintings with the added explanation of what has to be taken into account when you are integrating objects into the scene, and what are the best ways of doing that. I also share how to utilize Maya for modeling geometry for matte-painting needs and how to implement the final render into the scene to make it look seamless. On top of this, I detail what should be taken into consideration when you’re ready to break down your matte-painting into layers to be exported into NUKE. I proceed by setting up the projection and showing how to animate static elements. Maya is used to create waterfalls and then, using NUKE, I bring it all together to the final production quality of the moving shot.

I feel the training is also useful for beginners to see how it all works in production, along with getting sound artistic and technical knowledge. There’s something for all levels!

Check out Creating an Epic Matte Painting Shot, Advanced Techniques with Igor Staritsin