Interview with Anissa Senoussi-Nicastro Matte Painter
Anissa is a young and talented french matte painter artist with whom I had the pleasure of working side by side at The Senate VFX on “Kingsman: the Golden Circle” and “Mute” by Duncan Jones.
She has a strong artistic sense, many interests and a strong passion for everything that is image.
I am sure that her artistic path and the energy that transpires from her own words will be of certainly inspiration for all artists interested on starting a career in matte painting.
1. How did you start off with your career?
I didn’t know I wanted to become a matte painter straight away!
I had a quite convoluted path!
My mother is a painter and art teacher and as a kid I used to draw and paint all the time.
She was very encouraging and shared with me her knowledge and philosophy.
I grew up accessing to a fantastic artbooks collection and more than frequent visits to museums.
As I kept drawing like crazy my parents even setup a room that became my very private small art studio at home… (spoiled you said?).
So naturally enough after high school I ran happily to the nearest Fine arts school.
Once there I became more and more interested to new technologies and how you can use it to create immersive and interactive art installations.
Sensing the limit of an art school on the technical side, I left after my 3 years degree to a Master Degree at Paris VIII University in Arts and Techniques where I studied for 3 years programming, interactive devices as well as modelling, animation and a bit of Photoshop.
I also discovered motion capture technique and I became fascinated with it!
I made many trainings with artists and dance companies which used sensors and motion capture on the stage.
Finally I trained for several months with a Mocap studio in Paris (Solidanim) who worked mainly for medias, movies and video games.
This was my entry to the fantastic world of VFX!
I kept working roughly 2 years with this company but then I realised that I was missing painting too much…. So I challenged myself once again, I quitted the job to stay by my tiny flat in Paris working non-stop (thank you mighty internet and free tutorials).
After 6 months and running out of money I sent my reel to a few studios in Europe and Canada and eventually I had an interview at MPC and within 1 week I was getting to London with a big luggage, stars in my eyes and a very poor english level.
I have now been working for 5 years as a matte painter for feature films both in UK and Australia but I’m also keep on working on more independent gigs with friends when I have the opportunity to do so, like video clips, illustrations or magazined or music shows. I am truly interested in many different things.
I am also more and more interested in movies’ early steps, like concept and production design and I might focus my future choices onto it, but that’s yet another story!
2. Are there any artists who influenced and helped you to grow up with your job?
As in any other industry there will be people who breaks you as well as helpful people! You meet very different people, starting from fan-boy/girl, all the way up to the bitterest supervisor.
It’s an industry that mix both passionate artists and career-obsessed freaks. I was lucky enough to meet truly amazing artists who are not just merely talented, but also humble, open-minded and always happy to help out and share their knowledge with others. These guys are absolute superstars to me.
3. We know that matte painters usually don’t start from scratch on their painting tasks but rely on many difference photo sources. How important is the kind of images you get and what kind of technical specs do they need to be suitable for further treatments?
Usually we have the plate (the original shot from set) as a starting point.
This already gives you the perspective, time of the day, light direction…. Depending of the show and the studios you are working with, you might have a photo library, show-oriented.
I remember for instance when I was working on The Jungle Book, we had a huge folder of references.
When there are 60 different people working on the environments over the same show it really helps to keep everything in the same world.
Then you should be careful using only high quality pictures references and make sure they are denoised – as comp artist will add noise back on your matte painting.
4. Is there a movie out there you would have loved working for?
I think I could kill to have the opportunity of going back in time and paint some awesomeness for Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Last year I was dumb enough to decline an offer to work on Blade runner 2049, but as a nerd and nut with the first one I though making another one would have been a disgrace. Well, even though I would have comments on the movie itself, I think that visually it was one of the best movie I have seen in years and the vfx team carried off the Oscar. Damn it!
5. What is, according to your experience the most boring and what’s the most exciting task for a matte painter?
STo me the worst task you can ask a dmp artist to do is touch ups on tops of CG renders. My brain freezes and becomes a flat line at that point. On the contrary the most exciting is making the concept and solving visual problems.
6. As a matte painter do you need a deep knowledge of CG, like 3D environments modeling or it might be just a plus?
If you start as a matte painter, yes, definitely, you need to know some CG stuff.
The more you know the better. But once again matte painting is not JUST technical. You are not “better” because you know more than 3 softwares.
We work on movies, we create pictures that tell a story. Be smart, watch movie edits, know your composition and lighting rules, know your art and cinema history, know how to frame. Your brain and your eyes are the most important tools.
7. What would you advice to a new starter fascinated by Matte painting as a first step to get into the industry? Any books? Photography knowledge?
If you can get a mentor, it make things so much quicker when someone is there to point at your mistakes right away. Six months ago I started training with an academic painter – I draw 6 hours every Saturday and he gives me feedbacks, direction and explains me how to analyse better what I see.
I feel like I made more progresses during this past 6 months than in years of practice. It’s expensive but so worth it. I think having a personal portfolio is a big big plus; if you draw, keep drawing every day, do life/nature drawings and master copies as much as you can – traditional or digital, anatomy or illustration or landscape, whatever you enjoy studying!
It not only shows that you have spent years practicing but also that you are an hard worker and genuinely passionate on creating pictures! However don’t kill yourself by working too hard.
Learn to work efficiently instead. That is true for personal as well as professional work ? Take time to seat down, think and prioritise.
About the books, if you don’t have them yet, here you are the essentials:
– The painter’s secret geometry, by Charles Bouleau
– Creative illustration, Loomis
– Inked frame, Drawing and composition for visual storytellers, Marcos Matteu Mestre
– The art and science of Drawing, Harold Speed
– Imaginative Realism, how to paint what doesn’t exist, James Gurney
– Color and light, a guide for the realistic painter, James Gurney
– Framed perspective Vol.1 and 2, Marcos Matteu Mestre
Get any book that inspires you, be curious!
Get your hands on japanese ghosts stories, Magnum photos publications, abstract paintings edition, Architecture and design books, Carravagio plates, catacombes or parisian cathedrals. Literally anything that inspires and motivates you on being creative is a good to have.
In podcast, check Bobbi Chiu Youtube Channel, I am also listening a lots of hyper- cafeinated Feng Zu (Design Cinema). I regularly check on James Gurney blog (Gurney Journey) and cannot recommend enough Nathan Fowkes classes on schoolism. And last but not least don’t take yourself too seriously, just… have fun!
8. What tools a matte painter really needs to learn to become proficient? What’s the indispensable?
First tool is your eyes.
Really, you don’t need to spend hours mastering the latest fancy trick on photoshop if you don’t know your basics in perspective/lighting/composition/color harmony.
I do respect much more someone who has an incredible eye but less technical skills than someone who will blast a poor illustration using 5 different softwares. Understanding why a picture looks wrong and knowing how to solve a visual problem that is the first thing you should focus on.
The creative side is also very important, if you always need a concept to start with, then I think you are miss something.
Then, having worked in small and big companies I feel there is a huge difference between the two on what a digital matte painter is supposed to do: In small companies you will only open Photoshop, you create your dmp, you break it into elements, you export it, that’s it.
In big studios you will be asked at least basic modelling skills in Maya and a good understanding of Nuke.
At least. But obviously the more you can do the better. Therefore If you go for the title of “environment artist”, it means you are more on the generalist side.
But honestly I feel those things have started merging every day more, at least in bigger studios.
Even though you have been hired to work as a matte painter you could find yourself texturing a rocky ground in Mari or working on a set dressing of an entire sequence at some point. Which is pretty cool! I am always happy to learn more.
9. What’s the show you are most proud of?
The first one I worked on, Maleficent, it still has a special place on my heart!
When you’re a junior and start working on an Angelina Jolie shot, well.
I knew it was stupid but I couldn’t help but feel a bit proud.
I would say Guardian of the Galaxy is my favorite, but I am also proud to have been part of the Oscar-winning team who worked on The Jungle Book.
10. We know you are French, what’s the status of the VFX industry in your country and about your specific job?
That’s a tough one! I spent the major part of my work experience in UK, and I have never worked as a DMP artist in France.
Unfortunately there aren’t many jobs in VFX in France at the moment, which is a shame when you consider the still growing number of art and animation schools.
When I meet an animation student or an aspiring animator I always advice them to be ready to move from France if they want to reach interesting projects.
11. Anissa, you have been working either on TV and film, are there any relevant differences from a matte painter standing point?
I have been working on TV shows in small companies and on feature films in big ones.
Other than the differences I’ve already mentioned (number of softwares skills), the main difference according to my experience is the time, and therefore the quality.
For example when I was working on Game of Thrones, I had 3 days to deliver a full dmp of Kingslanding! I could easily had 3 weeks to do the same in a big company.