MASTER OF THE BACKDROP
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.
In his profession, he builds castles and masks telegraph poles. Sven Sauer creates film worlds. And even if he himself cannot be seen on the screen, without him, the films Hindenburg and Oblivion, as well as the series Game of Thrones would all look very different.
By Jacek Skolimowski.
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?
Finally, I came to the conclusion that there was no sense in it, and that I should search for a new job – one that is really made for me.
I had a talent for drawing and loved science fiction films, so I started working on the production of short films. There was some fun in that. I got in at just the right time when the search was on in Germany for specialists in visual effects.
Then I had the opportunity to work on the computer game Perry Rhoden which was very popular in Germany, as well as on the film production (Sun)Dust und Deserted that also got the attention of Hollywood.
At the same time, I developed concepts for so-called Dark Rides (roller coaster like attractions) for the Frankenstein Castle (Schloss Frankenstein), as well as stage backdrops for the theatre in Wiesbaden. A wild mix.
After a while, there came the orders for bigger and bigger productions.
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.
Around the turn of the century, Europe saw the arrival of telegraph poles.
They sprang up everywhere from the ground and destroyed the imagery of houses and landscapes.
The photographers then thought of a simple method to hide these elements: You place a large sheet of glass between the camera and image (for example, a villa) which is to be filmed.
In the position where the telegraph pole is located, trees where then painted onto the glass sheet that smoothed over the unattractive elements of the landscape. This technique was used, among other things, in the most spectacular scenes of Ben-Hur or Raiders of the Lost Ark.
At the same time, matte painters were one of Hollywood’s most closely protected secrets. In the 1960s, MGM Studio established a separate building for them, with whitewashed windows with no view inside, to which no one from outside had access. The world first heard about matte painters when George Lucas produced the Star Wars films.
The first film was a low-budget production. As he was unable to pay the matte painting artists on a regular basis, Lucas agreed to letting them show their work to the public. This was the first time that the words “Matte Painting” appeared in the public arena.
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.
A strange combination, don’t you think? (laughs)
What fascinates me the most, however, is the genre of science fiction. Here, it’s possible to create new worlds from the ground up.
Children’s films were, however, something completely new to me. But it is exactly that which makes the work so exciting.
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 traveled 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 does the work become credible?
When someone sees Dragonstone on the television and says to themselves: “That is a great castle, I would really love to see that.”
This person finds out that the film was produced at the Mussenden Temple and then goes there. And when they reach the area, they are disappointed because all that they find, in the place of a Medieval castle, is a small building from the eighteenth century on a rocky cliff face. Something similar happened to the entire fan generation for Lord of the Rings that set off on a pilgrimage to New Zealand, only to discover that the landscapes from the films did not exist. They were only drawn.
Apparently, you built a castle directly on the car park?
You must mean the scenes from Harrenhal?
HBO built a section of wall and set up green screens. Near to Belfast.
The actual castle and landscape was then developed later by us using computers.
I’ll tell you another secret. Not one of the “water scenes” was filmed on the water – all scenes took place on dry land.
Filming operations on water are very difficult to achieve, due to the fact that the movement does not allow for a stable filming base. Whenever you see water, it was added digitally. This is how the majority of large cinematic events are created today.
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.
Matte painting is, however, not an attempt to “trick” the viewing public.
For me, it has far more to do with the magic of cinema. You dive into the world of film, take part in everything and experience every detail as those in the film do. We go in search of a cinema to experience something that we cannot experience in everyday life – this does not have to be realistic.
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.
In order to create these scenes, our team delivered more than six months of intensive work. Not one take was shot in Paris – everything was filmed in the studio in London.
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…
We were able to correct this at the last moment.
This was not, as it goes, a big deal, but it certainly would have been the source of great amusement on the international cinema circuit if a USD 20 million production revealed in this way that the film location was not in Brazil.
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.
I deliberately forget the charger for my mobile phone so that I am completely cut off from the world after 24 hours.
That helps to switch off. I gain distance from my work, the stress of deadlines, and from everything else.
This time then fills my head with new ideas.
My trip to Iceland gave me the idea for Oblivion.
These sparse, barren hills embody the definition of loneliness for me. A fascinating landscape in which, apparently, there is a complete absence of life: Endless black deserts with sources of poisonous gases spurting out.
In former Icelandic times, people who committed crimes were banished to the “Highlands”.
None of them ever returned. This led to the emergence of stories about bolder-size trolls that would eat people up.
In Iceland, these stories are still widely known.
And, as a matter of fact, there is something about hiking for days through the lava sand desert and suddenly being confronted with a gigantic black bolder. Like a stone creature sleeping in the sand.
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”.
Thanks to GPS, with this app gigantic monsters made of steel can be laid bare in various areas of Berlin.
But for what reason?
So that people can also experience a bit of the magic of cinema in their everyday lives.
We’re taking matte paintings from the two-dimensional screen and bringing these creations to our own front door…
For me, this is the consistent continued development of my work.
Or you can simply take a selfie with these monsters and publish on Facebook or Instagram… (laughs)
SVEN SAUER (born 1979) – German Digital Artist.
He describes his style of work as “romantic realism”. Put directly – his specialist area is photos upon which new elements are “painted” using Photoshop. He has directed Matte Painting Studio for five years.
Descriptions for the pictures (from the top):
- In order to be able to work as a matte painter, you need more than just the power of imagination. A specific knowledge is also required, otherwise all that happens is that a standard landscape is created, and not a fascinating world.
- In the beginning there was the photo… – this is how Sven “built” the castle Dragonstone (Game of Thrones).
- …and this is how a car park in front of a supermarket (left) was transformed into the largest stronghold of the seven kingdoms of Harrenhal (right).
Pictures for HB
- Sauer used his experience in the film industry with the creation of the smartphone app for tourists Berlin Relikt.