MASTER OF THE BACKDROP
Sven Sauer is in no doubt: "If you want to implement something that is totally insane, you'll find the right people for it here in Berlin...".
He - a Visual Effects Artist - moved from his home town of Wiesbaden a few years ago to Berlin and founded the Matte Painting Studio through which - in collaboration with other like-minded individuals - he creates new worlds for film makers and producers.
Once he created nineteenth century Paris, and the landscape of a nuclear catastrophe, or the Medieval world of Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin.
While he talks about his work, Sauer often uses the word "we".
However, it is not an expression of pluralis majestatis, but rather a manifesto. Sven Sauer is 35 years old and more than aware that he, as an individual, would not have been able to create the land of Westeros that consists of seven kingdoms, and where seasons can last for several decades. He knows exactly that, without the support of a team in Iceland, he would not have been able to look for inspiration.
JACEK SKOLIMOWSKI: You create worlds for the film industry - that sounds like a dream job.
SVEN SAUER: For me, it really is a job that I dreamt about doing. After my degree, I was active in the advertising industry and, for two years, I prepared advertising campaigns for milk products. Every morning, I looked at myself in the mirror and asked myself whether what I was doing really made me happy. Am I really satisfied with what I do?
You have specialised in a very narrow discipline, known as "matte painting." How does this type of painting work?
It is a mixture of painting and photography. A very old technique that stretches back to the beginnings of cinematography.
Melancholia, Oblivion, Hugo Cabret and Game of Thrones – you were active in range of productions. In which genre do you feel most at home?
I recently created an overview of the work I have done in the course of the last five years. In doing so, it came to light that we worked on 30 films in four years, created 47 TB of data, and drank more than 420 litres of coffee! More than half of the landscapes that were created by us where then finally destroyed on screen by lava or fire. It seems to be the case that I have so far specialised in catastrophes and children's films.
What fascinates me the most, however, is the genre of science fiction. Here, it's possible to create new worlds from the ground up.
Before starting work on Hugo, we travelled to Paris for a few weeks to take photos, conduct research in the archives and to speak with historians, in order to recreate the city as it was in the 1900s.
By contrast, in Melancholia we were supposed to show a scene in which the earth collides with another planet. This required hours of conversation with astrophysicists:
What happens when one planet collides with another?
Which chemical reactions take place? Which colours would be created in the process? And how long would it take until the earth were completely destroyed?
The scene in Melancholia lasted exactly 46 seconds - as it was supposed to be as close to reality as possible.
And Game of Thrones? What did you learn from working on the world's most popular series?
We travelled to Ireland to gather the inspiration we needed in order to draw the mountains and landscapes. This created a huge volume of notes and sketches.
George R.R. Martin created his worlds, similar to the method used by Tolkien, by drawing inspiration from existing cultures and histories.
The largest part of the narrative in Game of Thrones has its roots in the origins of Celtic culture. We travelled to Ireland to find areas where these stories could take place. Only on this basis were our castles designed.
To be a good matte paint artist, you need a little more than just the power of imagination. A correct knowledge is required which lends the story depth. Otherwise, you do not develop complex worlds but rather interchangeable landscapes.
Old houses, defensive walls or a 500-year-old castle tell stories and awaken certain associations.
If these are not present in the images, you are only copying old templates and your viewer will not deem them to be credible.
When someone sees Dragonstone on the television and says to themselves: "That is a great castle, I would really love to see that."
Apparently, you built a castle directly on the car park?
You must mean the scenes from Harrenhal?
Do you sometimes fall for the tricks used by your colleagues in other films?
Sure - when something is done well, I am not able to tell what is real and what has been added.
Just like with the film "Hugo Cabret", which your effects won an Oscar?
It is a wonderful story about the origin of film whose fathers were the Lumiere brothers and George Melie, the pioneers of film effects.
With large-scale productions, there must be mistakes from time to time?
During the filming of Fast and Furious 5, a funny situation developed: According to the screenplay, the street race was due to take place in Rio de Janeiro. This city is not, however, sufficiently safe for us to send a film crew there to film with peace and quiet for a few days. Therefore, the filming was moved to Costa Rica. Our task was to make the city look like Rio. Everything went really well actually until a preview where a small detail was noted: In Brazil, the people are well-known for speaking Portuguese, but the street names in Costa Rica are in Spanish...
And the dream job would become the nightmare job.
That is nothing new - with every single production, you reach a point where you just can't be bothered with it any more. As a rule, you spend three long weeks, day in and day out, in front of a monitor. And if you're unlucky and everything does not go so smoothly, it can take up to two months.
And what then?
Then I go on my travels. Every two years, I take a two-month holiday and disappear completely from the face of the earth. It is a very important ritual for me. Doing this allows me to clear my head.
Did you envy the people of Iceland for these monsters?
You could say that (laughs). Together with my brother, Frank Sauer (also a well-known film maker) we are going to create enormous, rusty giants that, with the help of mobile phones, are going to be visible: sleeping giants right in the middle of Alexanderplatz. The app is called "Berlin Relikt".
But for what reason?
So that people can also experience a bit of the magic of cinema in their everyday lives.
SVEN SAUER (born 1979) – German Digital Artist.
Copyright by harper's bazaar
Credit Matte paintings: