The digital artist Sven Sauer is a prime example for an extremely successful career as Matte Painting Artist. He started as make-up artist, landed in advertising and finally got started in Matte Painting, Concept Art and Visual Development for games and films. After working on films as “The Fast and the Furious 5” or “Melancholia”, his career has been crowned with the Oscar for the Hollywood Blockbuster “Hugo Cabret” in February, 2012, in which Sven was involved as Matte Painting Artist for Pixomondo. In a talk with 2DArtist, the artist reveals how he has come such a long way.
Hello Sven. First of all, congratulations on the Oscar for “Hugo Cabret”! As Matte Painter for Pixomondo you have contributed significantly to this success. What does this award for the Visual Effects in “Hugo Cabret” mean to you?
This is still hard to realize. To be honest, the awarding was a trembling and hoping till the end. We all had put all our heart’s blood into it, but we had a damn fierce competition this year with other films like “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2” and “Rise of the Planet of the Apes”. When we were all waiting for the envelope to be opened in the night of the awarding, we jumped up at the word “Hugo” and rejoiced full-throatedly. When you’ve made it to the top and the slide begins, then it’s not joy that you scream out, but pure relief! It’s just unbelievable!
Which scenes for “Hugo Cabret” have been made by Pixomondo?
Pixomondo has arranged every 2nd minute of the two-hour film. The shooting took place in a film studio in London. There haven’t been any outdoor shots. Every time you see the houses of Paris in the film, it’s when there have been set in digital sets. One decisive scene we’ve developed in Stuttgart is the escape of the principal performer on a station tower. The big windows open the view over the gorgeously illuminated Paris by night. This sequence enfolds 43 shots on the whole. Therefore we developed 12 large-format Matte Paintings. Ten Matte Painters had constructed the city and 30 more have then brought it to life with cars, snow, steam and passersby.
Would you call this your greatest success so far?
Of course it’s a huge success and an enormous motivation to know that the whole sweat one puts in his work is worth it. In fact, my personal successes take place in silence tough. These are mostly very small things like for example suddenly finding a solution for a shot that had seemed hard to manage at the beginning. First I see it only blurry and then it becomes clearer and clearer. That is similar to connecting pieces in a puzzle. When the puzzle is completed, I often go home with an inner smile shining brightly.
Curiously, my favourite works are mostly not the same one would think they were my personal successes. For example, the destroyed city in “Sun Dust” (Science Fiction Film 2008) is for me still a picture I like to remember. I presume that has something to do with all the emotions during the developing process of a picture or Matte Painting. For me, this picture became a turning point in my professional career. With this result it was set in stone that I want to be Matte Painting Artist.
You have done so many different things, starting as Make-up Artist through to Event-Dramaturgy. How did you come to Matte Painting and Visual Effects?
Originally, I come from advertising. About eight years ago, an acquainted director moved to L.A. in order to gain a foothold in the film-landscape. I got my first Matte Painting job through him: a soldier’s camp in a foggy morning mood. To that time, the term “Matte Painting” has been widely unknown as well as the possibilities that this medium offers for productions. The effort for a digitally created set is often essentially lower than for conventionally build film sets. By and by, I have been passed along from production to production, so I got in touch with my first contacts to Hollywood. They were indeed not that glamorous as many might think!
The great radical change was in 2007. Coincidently, I met Igor Posavec who had just got a pitch to the computer game Perry Rhodan. I proposed him to refine the 3D-graphics of the game with Matte Paintings. Thereby we had the opportunity to create an impressive world with only a medial budget - what would be otherwise to see merely in highly endowed games. Matte Paintings were no regular feature of the production in the games-landscape at that time. The plan tallied and the graphical success of the game brought me to Pixomondo and into the VFX-branch. My life career shows that life surprises us again and again.
How did the job profile of a Matte Painting Artist change in the last years?
I notice that the branch strongly changes more and more. The requirements change. The jobs of Matte Painting Artists and Concept Artists are melting together increasingly. We get involved in producing processes more and more earlier. In the meanwhile, we also develop layouts for FX-departments like for example explosions, clouds of smoke or and fire where there haven’t been any points of intersection till a few years ago. For example, I had been Concept Artist for the explosion of the TV two-parter “Hindenburg”; I’ve worked out the structure and the scaling of the flames, of the smoke and of the wreckage in 2D. That’s important in order to be able to work purposefully on the animation. These are no classic tasks of a Matte Painter, but they show how multifarious the job is.
How would you value Germany as location for the field of Visual Effects in relation to the USA?
The demand for Visual Effects is currently so huge that many blockbusters are already produced beyond the borders of the USA by now. The big VFX-companies mostly act transnational. So, I would rather speak of Europe as location. London has become an integral part of this branch. If it is “Hugo Cabret”, “The Dark Knight”, “Inception”, “Harry Potter”, “John Carter” or “Prometheus”: Europe has long since proved to be well able to bear up the quality of Hollywood-productions.
Do you prefer working in a team or alone?
This question is easy to answer. There are no lone fighters in the VFX-branch. Every shot is always the result of many artists. I draw a city, then it goes to the 3D-department and gets projected on geometry. A further department analyses the movements of the original shooting material, so that our digital extensions can be installed delusively well. Another department takes care about the animations and so on. That explains the long final credits with all those strange job terms. There are mostly several artists working on one single Matte Painting and that’s important for the quality of the picture, as four eyes see more than two. Long-running productions let you go blind after a certain period of time. That’s quite normal. A second person can be very helpful then. That might be disconcerting for newcomers, but it’s a fact in our branch.
Do you still work with pencil sketches when you develop first ideas of motifs?
Can you separate business and private or do you see a potential Matte Painting in every landscape?
I often see some great pictures which nature performs. But I’ve never been at a loss to try to draw a Matte Painting out of them. I’m also often asked if Matte Paintings in films strike me. The answer is no. The cinema hasn’t lost its fascination to me. It takes only a few minutes and I get completely immerse in the story of a film. Then I don’t think about the technique behind it. That’s probably the reason why I do this job: I’m able to let myself completely fall into the world of fantasy.
You’ve already achieved a lot at the age of 32 years. Would you call yourself a workaholic?
No, in no way – and I neither fancy working at night or at weekends. That would only mean that the organisation hasn’t worked properly, in those cases. Experiences and most of all a good team help to avoid that.
What has been your greatest challenge yet?
I think I’m right in the middle of it. After four years of working on films, I’m going to retire myself for four months with Igor Posavec in order to realize an idea which has been spooking in our heads since some time. We want to develop a series of pictures basing on optical illusions. Resting upon the novel of “Don Quichotte” we will form motifs which can be seen as two pictures by turns. We’ve already tested some first trials on poster motifs for a Halloween-event. Depending from which view you look at it, you can see some monsters or a luminous skull. It’s a play with the imagination power of the viewer- that’s indeed damn hard, because it’s a totally different way of approaching to a picture: that brings us artistically to hit the wall. But that’s the charm of it.