Caroleen “Jett” Green has been a matte painter for over three decades. During her career she successfully made the transition from a matte artist using paint on glass to a digital matte artist. Her Star Wars credits include The Ewok Adventure, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones.
Green’s career started at Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) on the 1984 film The Neverending Story. While she was with ILM she worked many films including Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, The Ewok Adventure, The Goonies, Howard the Duck, and Willow.
After the transition to digital matte painting, Green worked on blockbuster films including Independence Day, Titanic, The Truman Show, The Phantom Menace, and Attack of the Clones.
Some of Green’s most recent work has been on animated films including Kung Fu Panda, Rise of the Guardians, and The Book of Life.
Green continues to work as a matte painter and has an Etsy shop – Art by Jett – where you can see and buy some of her oil paintings. She was kind enough to answer a few questions via email about her impressive career for this interview.
How did you get involved with ILM?
Frank Ordaz worked in the Matte Dept at Lucasfilm’s, Industrial, Light and Magic. We were friends from college, in 1974, when I was 21 and Frank was 19. Frank was a catalyst for me, my connection many times….. Networking is the best!
I loved painting and Frank introduced me to his painting teacher, Ted Lukits, next he advised me on what to put in my portfolio in order to get into Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, Ca. In 1983 there was an opening for a Matte Painter in the Matte Department and Frank reached out to a few of his artist buddies.
I wanted to paint and illustration was not as inspiring as I hoped it would be. The door opened up and Frank called me one day, while I was working at a commercial art studio in Georgia as an illustrator. A sweatshop for sure, it took young artists out of college, paid them minimal to work like dogs. But that training, kicked me into gear, for the test the Matte Dept sent me. They sent me a photograph of this. I was told to blow it up twice the size of the photograph and paint this in one month. This was the (painted in acrylic) test:
I finished it, made every square inch as perfect as I could get it and the guys made the decision to hire me! I became one of four women artists at the time at ILM.
I was young, quiet, pretty, and worked my ass off. At times I would sleep overnight at ILM just to keep up with the movie making pace. I had no social life and rarely dated. I loved learning about matte painting and working with a group of guys I considered to be like brothers. They were all brilliant creative souls. I felt proud of the movies we were working on and who we were working for….. George Lucas and directors: Steven Spielberg, Leonard Nimoy, Wolfgang Petersen, and Ron Howard just to name a few.
Can you talk more about your painting experience before you became a matte painter?
Traditional realistic painting, illustration. I went to Art Center, College of Design in Pasadena, CA, studied with Ted Lukits, a wonderful portrait painter from the 40s, worked at the sweatshop I mentioned. I painted for hours and hours a day. All with the perfectionistic critiques from the art directors, teachers, fellow artists, and it made me a better artist. I knew nothing about matte painting when I started the job.
I remember Craig Barron (matte painting camera supervisor) asking me…… after a month of working in the ILM Matte Dept, why I liked matte painting. I think I told him I just loved to paint and I loved movies…..not knowing what to say……. I never admitted that I really never heard about matte painting until I practically got on the job.
For people unfamiliar with what a matte painting is can you give a quick description of what they are and how they are used in films?
A matte painting is a painted representation of a landscape, set, or distant location that allows filmmakers to create the illusion of an environment that is not present at the filming location in order to save money and also create environments that don’t exist.
Historically, matte painters and film technicians have used various techniques to combine a matte-painted image with live-action footage.
This is the book to read: The Invisible Art, the Legends of Movie Matte Painting by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron.
I have seen some matte paintings at Lucasfilm that were painted on shower doors. Was that still going on by the mid-1980s when you started creating matte paintings?
I know nothing about shower doors. That probably happened before I got there. Then after they figured out what worked…… We painted on tempered glass specially sized and cut for our department. Glass is used so that you can cut out different shapes on the glass, like for lights that can be backlit, and rear projecting the live action. In order to be able to paint on the glass, you first spray it with flat black spray paint, to give it a non-slippery opaque surface for the paint to adhere to. After you paint whatever you need to paint then you can cut out whatever you need to.
The two photos below are group shots of the ILM matte painting department from 1984. Photo credits provided by Caroleen “Jett” Green.
You worked on so many movies that came out in 1984 – The NeverEnding Story, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Star Trek II: The Search for Spock, The Ewok Adventure, and Starman. Can you give me an idea of when in the filmmaking process a matte painting is created and how long they usually take to paint?
The timing for a matte painting depends on the type of matte painting it is and how difficult it is.
Of course we painted them after the live action is shot. We were usually given anywhere from a few days to four weeks for a painting.
For most of these films how many paintings would you complete and how many of those would be used?
Most often, all of them were used – from 5 to 10 pieces. Occasionally I’d have to paint a backdrop or something unusual to create an effect.
This piece was a large canvas to create an effect for the movie “Cocoon”.
This is a photo comp of me working on that effect you see below in the end shot:
Any favorites from these 1984 films?
The telescope shot from Howard the Duck, yes that’s right Howard the Duck…because it was the first time I painted without supervision and I received a compliment from Dennis Muran that he could see I was growing as a matte painter. Also, Bavmorda’s Throne Room from Willow – only because throughout the years, fans love it! So I began to love it too! But when I was painting it, I had no idea it would be so popular.
Howard the Duck telescope – on masonite.
Batteries Not Included – on glass.
Bavmorda’s throne room from Willow – on glass.
Willow castle tilt up – on masonite.
The final shot of Bavmorda’s throne room from Willow.
Can you share more about your experiences working on Willow? Since it has finally been released on Blu-ray and there’s now talk of a sequel I think a lot more people are going to discover this film in the years to come.
I just remember I enjoyed the paintings for that film, I finally started to become a good matte painter. I also must say, what makes working on any film fun, is the crew of artists I work with. I miss those guys. They became like the brothers I never had. In all the departments, not just the matte department.
How long did it take you to create a matte painting when you were using paint and a brush?
One to four weeks depending on how complicated the shot was.
How much direction are you usually given before you start a matte painting? Are you able to use your imagination much or do you go in knowing exactly what the finished project should look like?
It’s a very controlled process depending on the director, art director, VFX Supervisor, matte painting supervisor and all your fellow matte artists who would also sit down every morning to critique your work.
The director and art directors use their imagination to create the scenes and also at times the matte painters created concept art if in fact the art director and director have a great relationship with the Matte Dept. If the art director doesn’t have a good relationship with the Matte Dept. then they don’t like to give up their control and share in the creative process.
Usually, I follow the program and carry out what is asked. The film company pays me to do that, not to decide to be a fine artist, stray off that path and decide to paint a happy tree in the middle of Mordor because you imagined it that way. But if I saw a way to enhance what ” the powers that be” are imagining then many times they love to hear my input.
1994 is the first year you have a credit as both a matte artist (for The Shadow) and a digital matte artist (for The Jungle Book). Is it safe to say the early 1990s were the time period when films moved from painted mattes to digital mattes?
Yes and that was difficult for me. I swore I would never work on a computer. I remember the day Chris Evans tested painting on a computer. He was gone for a few hours that day. When he came back to our matte dept. he said, “You wouldn’t believe what I did today!” I said “What?” He said “I learned how to work on a Waaa…com tablet. I actually painted on the computer!”
I was not happy about that and was inspired to use profanity. Then I said,” NO WAY, will I ever do that!” Chris Evans eventually digitally worked on the stain glass shot on the movie Young Sherlock Holmes.
At Matte World Digital they would occasionally combine traditional matte painting with CG. I was transitioning and would often times paint on miniature sets combined with the CG work. Michael Pangrazio and Craig Barron gave me the opportunity to transition to digital. Yes! I did it…..slowly, gradually. Occasionally I would work side by side with another artist who knew photoshop. Cameron Noble who also worked at Matte World, had the task of dealing with my frustration with the computer and trying to teach me. I eventually took official classes and made that leap.
How long did it take for you to feel comfortable being a digital artist as opposed to using a paint and brush? Looking back after having made that transition what your thoughts on paint vs. digital mattes overall?
It took me about 5 years to slowly learn and speed up in my process. I also realized I needed a job, (traditional matte painting was phasing out and I knew it) so I slowly trained in photoshop and then started to like it. The best part about the computer is that it’s cleaner and faster. I can dress up for work and not leave with paint all over my clothes. Also what used to take a day or two to create a gradation for a sky, for example, now takes but a second….. just to put it in perspective. I do love that about the computer. I don’t love sitting for hours looking at a computer screen. I have also noticed that the artists are more introverted, reclusive, and shy. There used to be a wider range of personalities and communication skills when artists were traditional.
I have to ask about Titanic because it’s a film so many people have seen. What work did you do for that film?
I sculpted icebergs made out of styrofoam, cornstarch, and sugar. I love sculpting as well as painting.
In 1999 you returned to the Star Wars universe for The Phantom Menace. You also worked on Attack of the Clones. Can you share any memories about working on those films and let fans know where they can spot your work?
I don’t have the best memories working on those films. I went back to ILM and everything had changed. Like I said , most people were on the computer and seemed more reclusive and competitive. Not so much working together as a team in the Matte Dept. I found the attitude to be not as helpful as I remember the group in the 1980’s. Artists got blamed for problems, the company went from 200 to maybe 1200. (not sure about that figure) The personable management no longer existed.
It was HR and TD’s. The management in charge seemed to have taken over the creatives and did everything to keep them in control. Naming conventions became more important than the artist and the artist’s work. Things seem to be much more formalized and corporate.
Below are three matte paintings Greene did for The Phantom Menace of Theed palace, Naboo, and Tatooine.
Your most recent work has been with animated films including Kung Fu Panda, How to Train Your Dragon, Rise of the Guardians, and The Book of Life. What are some of the differences between creating a matte painting for animated films versus live-action films?
This is the difference:
When I arrived at Dreamworks Animation I could actually hear people laughing at lunchtime. At ILM in 1998 the matte department was so thick with silence, you could hear a pin drop. I rarely saw anyone laughing, this was after it turned digital. But in speaking about the difference in the process….In creating matte paintings for live action films, it has to look absolutely realistic, there is no room for straying away from the science of color threory in reality……and if you do, it has to make sense. That is your pathway. In animation, you are still using the laws of realism and color theory but your guide is your art director who made up the stylization and the color palette you are using for your matte paintings. So if they say the paintings have a bright green sky with clouds that look like triangular pointy shapes and it all fits into the same world, then you, as the matte painter have to do that.
I found stylization on an animated film, to be more challenging and yet more fun and colorful.
What is it about matte paintings that still appeals to you after all of these years?
I love the creative process and the making of the environments so that they look amazing.
I love when the director and art directors, matte painting supervisors are happy with my work. I feel a sense of completion, like I gave birth to a healthy child!
Looking back what were your favorite projects you worked on?
Some of my favorite projects I worked on were at Dreamworks Animation because I could see and feel my growth as matte painter. I enjoyed the friends I worked with. I felt respected. I always say the best projects are usually because of the people I work with. People who I respect, who are great at what they do. That would also be back at ILM with the guys who trained me in matte painting…..Michael Pangrazio and Chris Evans and Frank Ordaz.
Since this is a project about women in Star Wars I have to ask at some point – do you have a favorite Star Wars film or favorite character? Do you consider yourself a Star Wars fan?
My favorite characters are usually the stop motion animation monsters or characters – the creatures. Phil Tippet’s work. I originally wanted to make creatures like Phil Tippet but I ended up being a matte painter. Aside from favorite characters, I do love Michael Pangrazio’s matte paintings in those films.
My favorite Star Wars film was The Empire Strikes Back.
A favorite actor? Alec Guinness – Obi-Wan Kenobi and the fights with the lightsabers.
I just have to say Yoda looked like my portrait painting teacher, so I kinda liked him too.
I don’t consider myself a Star Wars Fan. I consider myself a fan of really great visual fx, taking my imagination into other worlds seamlessly. I love that.
Have you seen the post-Disney purchase Star Wars films? Any thoughts about them?
I enjoyed them. The animation of Princess Leia needed more attention. The animation of humans is growing and needs to grow more for more believability otherwise I am distracted by the computor generated quality and lack of understanding in what makes a face seamlessly realistic. That lack of quality can blow the whole story for me. The realm of believability is extremely important to hold the audience’s attention.
Do you have any advice for people, especially women, who want to pursue a career in matte painting?
Focus on being a great matte painter, not your differences as a woman.
In the beginning….I never distinguished myself or thought about the fact that I was a woman and they were men. Only later, as I got older did I notice the difference in how I was treated. But actually I did not separate myself by the fact that I was a woman. I was more focused on being great at what I was doing……..matte painting.
Keep working on it…………..stop………….take a break …………..come back to it……………….
The slower you work, the more you stop and think about what and how to do it………. then you actually will go faster with less mistakes made.
Do your best not to give up your relationships for your career.
Keep a balance with career and family. Dont give up your career either.
Do not leave.
Keep your emotions outside of work but remember to embrace your tears somewhere safe.
Ignore assholes and speak up when those assholes are open to listening.
Support from family really helps.
Your obsession with the work will fuel you with energy.
Don’t let anyone tell you you are not good enough or that you can’t do it.
Enjoy it and if you don’t then leave.
If you find yourself complaining, then remember they are paying you.
If you are not getting paid then leave or wait to get laid off so you can get unemployment insurance. Always get paid.
Exercise, take vitamins, don’t forget to sleep.
When critiqued ….Just say “yes” or “OK” although you want to disagree…………just agree or find a way to make suggestions carefully.
Tape record your critiques, then you can make sure you got the notes correctly. If you are questioned by the powers that be or told you didn’t make the changes correctly, you can play back the recording of those very changes they wanted. Never rely on the coordinator to take perfect notes.
Can you share any projects coming up?
I am working on my own paintings, developing a style, it is surrealistic. I love creating other worlds, alternate realities.
I think I’ve been influenced by the movie industry and the creatives behind the magic. Oils on canvas. I have a few pieces you can see on Etsy. I will probably put them on another site as I gather more work. I love painting in my studio, I am following my bliss. If matte painting comes into my life again, then onward again I will go.
Check out the entire list of women in 365 Days of Star Wars Women in the Women in Star Wars Index. It includes highlights from each post plus notes which posts include new 365 interviews with actresses, writers, artists, and more.