Monday 7 October 2013

Return Of The Jedi matte paintings

Earlier this year, I posted an appreciation of "Return Of The Jedi" on its 30th anniversary (which can be found here).  One of the things I touched on briefly then was that 45 matte paintings were produced for the film, though I didn't show any in that post.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am very interested in behind the scenes stuff for films and one of my key areas of fascination are matte paintings (which I posted about here, back in January).  I'm planning to do a small series, covering various films (Hitchcock's "Frenzy" will probably be the second post after this one) and I thought it'd be good to start with "Return Of The Jedi".  So here we go, with as many before (the original shot) and after (how it appeared in the final film) images as I can find.

A quick history - Matte paintings were created by Norman O. Dawn (1884-1975), an illustrator and photographer who worked in Los Angeles.  Around the turn of the last century he was commissioned to take some stills of a factory which was partly obscured by rubbish and telephone poles.  His boss, Max Handsheigi, showed him how to put a pane of glass between the camera and its subject and paint in details which would then cover unwanted areas.  He adaped the principle when making his first film, “California Missions” in 1907 as a way of restoring missing portions of the crumbling structures.

Although he was the first known proponent, he was keen to “dispel any assertion that I invented this technique—I merely built on to it and took advantage of conditions to advance an art in the making. One must not get the idea that other men were not doing things too. How much, will never be known.”  Following this, glass painting became an important tool of movie makers and is still used widely today, though it’s almost all digital now.

All of the matte paintings for "Return Of The Jedi" were created by a dedicated team at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM), made up of five people.  Michael Pangrazio was the supervisor, Chris Evans and Frank Ordaz were the artists, Neil Krepela was the camera supervisor whilst Craig Barron was the camera operator.

The opening sequence, of C3P0 and R2-D2 going to Jabba's Palace, was a matte painting that was held for longer than usual (most matte shots are fairly brief, so as not to 'give away' the trick).

The droids arrive at the main gate

Early evening, outside of Jabba's Palace.  Essentially an establishing shot, the added element of the beast having his dinner adds depth (and humour) to the shot.

 The Emperor arrives on the new Death Star - a massive shot that looks very impressive on screen

An AT-AT Walker (a model, naturally) animated against a matte painting (detail shown)

 Darth Vader (the only live element in the entire shot) arrives on Endor by Shuttle

As Han prepares to take the rebels to Endor, he & Lando say goodbye in front of the Falcon in the main hanger, a superb painting by Pangrazio.

Frank Ordaz at work on a matte painting of the hanger

Michael Pangrazio at work on the rebel hanger painting

Chris Evans working on the Death Star painting 

Whilst researching this article - and wanting to see what the key players were doing now - I discovered that Barron & Pangrazio set up a company called Matte World when they left ILM, which thrived until last year when it closed down (a similar situation to many visual effects companies these days).  The website has a "final farewell" screen which is worth a read, for the history if nothing else.  It can be found here.

*  Michael Pangrazio continues to work as a matte painter and he is now a senior art director at Peter Jackson's Weta Digital
*  Frank Ordaz's last film was "All I Want For Christmas" (1991) and he is a renowned portait artist now.
*  Chris Evans' last film was the Tim Burton directed "Alice In Wonderland" (2010), though he's a much in-demand fine art painter.

with thanks to NZ Pete, for his superby researched and lavishly illustrated blog Matte Shot - a tribute to Golden Era special fx and the ASC site.


  1. I didn't even know matte paintings existed!

    (Oh no! The whole Star Wars oeuvre has been faked ...)

  2. You wait until you see the Hitchcock ones next week!

  3. Amazing detail!

  4. Wonderful article, love this stuff. *thumbs up*