Maleficent may be PG, but if you're a horror fan with a love for a certain Disney villainess with horns, you'll probably be interested in checking it out when it hits theaters this weekend. I recently sat down with that movie's director, Robert Stromberg, a two time Academy Award-winner for his special effects work on Avatar and Alice and Wonderland, and talked to him about some of the cool effects in his film. I also was able to nerd out because he worked on one of my favorite movies about monsters under the ground: Tremors. That's right, Robert Stromberg has one degree of separation from Kevin Bacon because of his work on the campy horror classic. Here's what he had to say about his experience as a matte painter on that set, way before he went on to direct $200 million mega-blockbusters.
I’m excited to talk to you about the fact that you were a matte artist on one of my favorite movies of all time.
Robert Stromberg: Which one?
Robert Stromberg: Oh man! It’s funny because the director of that is Ron Underwood and we became friends on that film but it’s funny because it reminds me of me. You know, that was his first directing a movie was Tremors. I remember going to see… He invited me to a little preview of Tremors and he was so nervous; “Is it good, do you like it?” And I was just like; “Ron, it’s fine, it’s going to be great - people are going to love it.” I always think back to that time because I’m now in that same situation and I find it funny that you mentioned that because I think of it often and HIS first time direction and how nervous he was and how to just relax and go with it.
It’s also interesting just taking a look back at the practical effects of that movie and seeing your career move to digital design - it’s a big difference from Tremors.
Oh, that! Well, I don’t know how geeky you want to get about it but that was, coming from matte painting so there’s different techniques and that was still when you painted with real paint, right? And that was that was the first movie that I had done where it’s called Original Negative Matte painting and that’s, without getting too technical: You’re sort of painting blind in many ways. You know, I did all of the matte painting of the cliffs and stuff where the worms come out of and some other stuff but it was pre-digital. Which is interesting because that was right around the time it was going to change, I forget what year that was - early nineties? ‘Cause I think I got my first computer around 1994, something around then and it was during that transition that I realize how valuable all that old school knowledge would apply to the new digital stuff. That’s when I realized it was really always going to be the pilot in the jet.
Some of the earlier directors you worked with as well, like Barry Sonnenfeld, straddled these worlds of older forms and embracing digital films - can you sort of talk about that evolution? Did you embrace it right off of the bat or was there some resistance to it?
Not with me. I know a lot of other artist that I know, that are friends because back then everybody knew each other. You have armies of people now but back then I knew every matte artist, every person in visual effects. Some people were reluctant to jump into the computer train but I embraced it right away because I could see where it was going. Matter of fact; I was one of the first to actually do digital matte paintings - if not the first, there was one other guy… I can’t remember his name right now. The same goes with Avatar. I’m more comfortable on the sort of leading edge of technology than not. I don’t want to feel like I’m behind. It’s exciting and new to discover new ways to do things and to me that just fulfills the process of creating. So, no, I was not reluctant at all.
Some of my first interviews were with James Cameron for Avatar. I just remember him showing me the cameras swirling, going around and you can see this digital world, and how you pick shots from that. Can you talk about having restrictions in matte painting versus doing whatever you want in [Maleficent](movie:39352)? Are limitations a good thing?
You can argue: Is a film better today than it was when Alfred Hitchcock was making a movie? I don’t know. Maybe it’s about story. Any film that Hitchcock ever did was using old school techniques or flat or matte paintings - so I guess the argument would be: is it the content or is it what you can do with the equipment? The answer is: We have many more options now to do things and to create things but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s going to make a movie better if you have this new technology. What will always matter is the storytelling, the script, those things. That’s never going to change. It doesn’t matter what medium you’re in.
Maleficent will be released in theaters this Friday, May 23.