Eric Chauvin - Digital matte painter

At a Cogswell open house,

Eric manages to overcome a long-winded introduction by Paul Schreivogel, Cogswell's recruiter, and brief but no less painful words by Janice Squire, Tim Harrington's replacement. Tim's warm presence, smooth talking, and focused goals are noticably absent.


Received his undergraduate degree from Cal State Fullerton, lived at home with his family while an undergrad. At that time Cal Fullerton had art and film degrees, both of which interested Eric. The film department at Fullerton concentrated on communication and documentaries, so Eric went for art.

After graduating, tried to find art jobs but failed and ended up at a mortgage company for 2 years. Goes back to school and convinces grad committee to let him study matte painting.

As an example of matte painting, Eric describes the last scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark where the ark of the covenant is shown in a warehouse killing rats and gathering dust. The vast warehouse is a matte painting.

8 years ago, matte paintings were traditionally executed on physical glass and masonite panels. Eric spent his 2-3 years of grad work honing his realistic painting skills.

After his grad degree, Chauvin went to work for Industrial Light and Magic as an assistant matte painter. Although he began by cleaning other artist's brushes, by the end of his 6 months he was assisting with paintings for Hook, Star Trek , and The Invisible Man. In 6 months at ILM, he learned more than he did in his 3 years at school. (Eric reinforces that school is valuable, and that his on the job training was also valuable.)

After ILM, 1992 found Chauvin pounding the pavement - going freelance in Los Angeles. This is the year that Eric paints his last physical matte.

Eric returned to work for ILM for 5 weeks working on the last Indiana Jones feature. All his work at ILM was done using Photoshop on Macintosh systems. Perspective, color contrast and matching were all done digitally. In the next 3 years working at ILM, Eric's traditional painting skills became outdated, but his understanding of matte painting served as a base for his new electronic skills.

In 1994, 3d tools for the Macintosh were released - Infini-D, formZ and Electric Image. With the public availability of 3d programs for his Macintosh, Chauvin began to include 3d images into his digital paintings. (ed. His working method is detailed in a book on digital art, I have forgotten its title. It has nice color plates, describes method over software. His featured work begins in Chapter 19 - Inventing photo-realistic worlds).

Moonlighting while at ILM, Eric makes more money in his free time than he does at work. Leaves ILM in 1995 to freelance full time. He is still Blackpool Studio's sole employee. He moved to the state of Washington, where he still works at home. Eric accepts interesting work for TV, and some feature films.

His advice to young artists - to get in the industry, make your name, and get out. This way you can live and work how and whenever you want. Stay out of Hollywood. With the help of the Internet, FedEx, and a fax machine, Eric is comfortably self-employed and can turn down jobs he does not find challenging or inspiring.


Eric's reel begins with an electronic image that shimmers, contorts, and turns into his name in tasteful and composed (designed) golden 3d letters. Slow majestic music appropriate to dramatic movie moments accompanies each piece. Text that introduces each work varies greatly in quality; some seems chosen because it fits with the movies, some is plain and awkward (pixels are visible and distracting).

Feature film work
  • Contact. Footage from the film of balloons and sattellites.
  • The Mask. Still of digital matte on a colored background, followed by the composite plate. Long shot of city from the sea shore, where the shore is littered with sewage and a sewer pipe is visible.
  • Radioland Murders. Still of digital masked (clipped) footage, followed by the composited plates.
  • The American President. Still of digital matte of a crowd, followed by composite plate of the crowd in a building, followed by the movie footage.
  • Sleepers. Period piece. Original plate footage shown with visible set, followed by altered plate footage with buildings and skyline replacing the set.
  • The Empire Strikes Back. Hangar bay. Still image of wireframe and texture work followed by movie footage of Shuttle arriving and landing in his setting. Footage of Cloud City fireworks and celebration scene, with orange pod cloud speeder flyover. Rebels walking through cloud city to meet with Vader is shown with and without his matte work in the windows of Cloud City's hallways.
TV work
  • Poltergeist. TV Series? Live footage of sets with and without fantastic cloud and skyscapes.
  • Star Trek: Voyager. Set footage followed by composite footage. A cave, a cliff climbing scene, a complete building and background, a complete cliffside castle and waterfalls similar in feel to Eric's Dinotopia work. The overhead longshot of Voyager's planet crash site from a season finale.
  • Sleepwalkers.
  • The Visitor.
  • Babylon 5. Tons of set footage followed by its composite footage. A Chinese Garden with an oblong-headed alien is set within a matte of the surrounding city. A still of a red planet with a space port. A baseball pitching machine pitches to actors on set, followed by footage where baseballs have been added and set is covered by matte. A crystal city with waterfalls. A crystal-lit hallway. Fire, smoke, and ruin (a devestated city or planet). ISN network compositing. Some of the Babylon 5 shots have blue screens incorporated into the set to make masking easier. Blue screens are hung and stretched where appropriate (behind action). Model train shot followed by mixed 3d setting composite.
  • Future Sport. City longshot with sky, rotating signs and lights flicker.
  • X-files. Modeled freighter/tanker boat in wireframe, then textured, then in footage. Crane shot of Scully standing alone on a beach becomes Scully standing alone on a beach at the foot of a crashed plane or UFO submerged beneath the waves.
Other work
  • Boats and stuff, possibly from Hook. Wasn't paying attention.
  • Dinotopia. An amazing film translation of Dinotopia. A babylonian-style ziggurat city perched above a wide series of waterfalls. The city scene matches the still art from Dinotopia amazingly. Followed by close ups of globe detail and other detail. Am not sure if it included stills of colored 3d models, but the construction of Dinotopia is featured in the book I mentioned earlier.
Questions and answers

Did you learn all your drawing skills first, are they still needed?
Skill is important. From the plate elements, I figure out the perspective, recreate the camera position in 3 point perspective. Concepts of drawing come into play all the time. I do less drawing now than I would like to. Companies who hire computer artists still follow the maxim that it's easier to teach an artist to use the tools than to teach some geek to be an artist. Using these tools is the most time effective (for me).

How do you get paid - by the hour, by the project?
I bid on projects by estimating how many days it will take and charging my day rate. I currently work on a daily basis for ILM. My average projects get finished in 1 to 1-1/2 weeks. I find I spend longer days working at home.

How much of your work is dictated by the director?
I'm a bad designer. I get my best stuff with direction from art directors who compose the shot, define the style. I get better over time. For example, with Babylon 5, if it looks crappy they're happy. They have a very sparse, simple look. If I work too much or too hard on something for them, it doesn't match their sets. Star Trek has its own style too.

How do you get source materials from your clients?
I get everything onto a Jaz disc, or I just T1 it. I get the plates, a series of files that are actually all the frames from the film. I paint, composite, and then place it all back on the same media I received. Then return it. I'm proud of this, that I do all the compositing and the painting. When I bid on jobs, I always tell them I can do this.

How do you choose what jobs to take?
Is it challenging, is it different? Do I want to be knocking out space ships? There's this bad attitude in some movie houses. People film and say "Ok, we'll fix it in post." Here's an example. In Manhattan Murder Mystery, this guy's wearing a wireless microphone under a sheer shirt. Fix it in post. So you have to go and paint out the microphone in every frame? That's a dumb use of tools. I won't take jobs like that, I want to use my creativity. That re-release of Star Wars was a bad idea. It's George's property, he can do whatever he wants with it. But if the movie worked, I doesn't need to be redone. Of course it wouldn't be such a big hit the first run if it hadn't worked. I don't feel you should change original movies like that. Phantom Menace has too many FX in it, it's hard to watch. My favorite FX are in movies like 6th Sense, there was only one special effect in that whole film, where they added breath so you believed it was cold out. I once got a call from someone who wanted a replacement sky. Who cares? I turned it down.

Do you have to travel for work?
Recently, yes. In five years of Bablyon 5, I visited the set 4 times. Voyager, 2 times on set. With the X-files, I only went on set 1 time. That was the overhead shot with Scully looking at the water. If they were going to change the shot, I needed to tell them what they could and couldn't do. I usually e-mail a low-resolution .JPG over and then discuss the image on a phone conference. They have the image on screen, I have the image on screen, and we make changes like that. Then I resend the .JPG when it's done. You know Remote Access? Apple has this thing where you can dial up another Apple and exchange files. Once I got a job, I did that Cloud City in Washington for ILM. I logged into their computer and used a low-res .JPG for my changes. I didn't hear anything from them for a week. So I called back and I said, "This is Eric Chauvin calling, I sent in a rough of my work a week ago and I haven't heard back from you. Is everything ok?" The guy on the phone said, "Oh. Well, we used the images you sent us and compsited them into the film already." So apparently the low-res images, they're in the final. They didn't use the large file, and I guess it looks ok to them.

Do you build all your own 3d models and texture maps?
Yes, too much so. I archive all my files, but I end up rebuilding any textures I need from scratch instead of reusing old textures I have around. I paint all my own texture maps. I hate painting texture maps, so they end up being generic. The final plates, those images are done in Photoshop. I render out the base image and import the rendered 3d image (into Photoshop) and alter it, scuff it, light it. There's no radiosity tools on the Macintosh, so I paint to make it more real. I make my money adding extra details, the extra step of making it look real.

You used a Macintosh for all those shots? Because it looks like there's a lot of data there.
It looks like there's a bunch of data there, but there isn't. That's when I've done my job right. With a Macintosh, a little bit of talent, and some time, you too can make a reel like this. I use a platform that I don't have to think about. At ILM, all the work I did for them I did on Macintosh. I'm still using Macintosh tools. Although they now compose feature films at ILM on a Flame, ILM is based on Macs. Macintosh computers are fast and effective. All the FX you see from them probably went out on a Mac, were finished on Macintosh. People, there were some people in Vancouver who were big PC snobs. They were, like "You did all this on a Macintosh?" And I tell them, yes, my stuff has been Mac made for years. I suppose if they had been using Windows at ILM, I would be using Windows and PCs today.

Who do look up to, who has influenced your painting?
I still look up to "Old School" matte artists, Albert Whitlock, Peter Allenshaw. Matt Eurisich (sic). (Names matte painters faster than I can write). I also look up to my colleagues, the sort of "New School" painters. Chris Evans, Rocco Gioffry (sic), (again, can't keep up) and Bill Mather. Bill Mather's a good friend of mine.

Do you forsee a day when animated 3d actors replace live action actors?
Don't you think that's what George was doing with The Phantom Menace? I think that day is enevitable, but right now stuff isn't up to snuff. Tools are getting more complex, but they can't do that convincingly now. Within 10 years, maybe. Titanic has digital thespians.

Recent Tweets