Framestore digital matte painter Charlotte Tyson talks creating backgrounds for blockbuster films
Suspension of belief is necessary for any film to transport its audience into another world. As a digital matte painter at Framestore, Charlotte Tyson is responsible for creating believable environments that help to do just this. In the past, she’s had a hand in creating the sunset beaches of The Great Gatsby to the cratered surface of Mars for The Martian, and most recently the lovely London skyline for Mary Poppins Returns. With a love of both maths and art, she graduated with a degree in architecture from Cambridge University, but it was only after speaking with a neighbour’s daughter about a career in VFX that Charlotte’s interest was piqued. Today, one of the most rewarding parts of the job is experiencing the thrill of seeing some of her work up on the big screen. Here, Charlotte talks about the industry’s gender imbalance; battling her perfectionist tendencies; and some of the realities of working on big budget films.
Digital Matte Painter, Framestore (2015–present)
Digital Matte Painter, Base Black (2011–2015)
Junior Digital Matte Painter, MPC, The Moving Picture Company (2008–2011)
Place of Study
BA Architecture, Cambridge University (2005–2008)
How would you describe your job?
My position is pretty specialised; it’s a real mix of being both creative and technical. The visual effects industry is vast – there are so many different roles that play a part in creating the final image for a film or commercial. A digital matte painter is responsible for producing digital, photorealistic environments that set the scene for a story. These act as backgrounds behind characters, or as standalones.
I have worked on a wide variety of environments, ranging from the sunset beaches of Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, through to the cratered surface of mars for Ridley Scott’s The Martian and the 1920s Central Park Zoo and New York skyline for Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. Most recently I have been part of the team creating the London rooftop vistas for Mary Poppins Returns.
I work with many of my team members within the environments department at Framestore. I generally work with ‘2.5D’ methods (creating images using Photoshop and projecting them onto geometry in a software called Nuke). I regularly collaborate with the 3D based artists and with other teams within the company who I retrieve my work from, or pass it onto. We have a huge number of producers too, who we discuss our work and scheduling with.
What does a typical working day look like?
A typical day starts at 9am in our Chancery Lane office. What I work on is completely dependent on what show or film I’ve been assigned. We tend to be on the same film for around three months. Meetings called ‘dailies’ are held in our screening rooms, where we show our work to our internal visual effects supervisor and get feedback. We also have regular desk chats during the day within our department to share ideas and processes. I usually leave work by around 6.30pm. I think my ideal day would involve a bit more time outside, but this is very rare as we are so dependent on our computers!
What do you like about working in London?
I love the fact that London brings such a variety of nationalities and personalities together. It’s a fantastic blend that inevitably encourages creativity and development. Framestore is made up of talented characters from all over the globe, and it’s a privilege to work alongside such an interesting group of artists.
“I stood out because so few women were VFX artists then. There is still a very large imbalance in the industry, but things are improving.”
How did you land your current job?
I found out about VFX the summer I graduated in 2008. I spoke to a neighbour back in Brighton (where I’m from) whose daughter was a visual effects supervisor. We chatted on the phone and I was hugely inspired by her work and keen to explore the industry myself.
I applied to be a runner at every company I could find online, and was lucky enough to be given a role as a junior artist straight away – which was very rare then and even more so now. My architecture degree gave me a slightly different approach, which might have seemed refreshing. I also think it helped that I was a woman; I stood out because so few women were VFX artists then. There is still a very large imbalance in the industry; so few applicants for VFX roles are women, but I definitely think things are improving.
Where does the majority of your work take place?
Most of my day is spent on my computer in the office. The layout is very open plan; at the moment, I can see around 200 people from my desk! We moved to a brand new seven-storey building in February last year, which has an immersive feel to it – you pass colleagues from all different parts of the company.
How collaborative is your role?
Very. Big budget films require enormous workforces; you are very much one part of a huge creative pipeline. It’s staggering to see how all the roles fit in and play their part – both in the production and post-production phases.
It’s very important to discuss your work and get others’ opinions. Our VFX supervisors have meetings with the external VFX supervisors and present our work to them. At smaller VFX companies or commercials departments, there are more opportunities to discuss work externally with clients or directors.
I have to be very private about the films I am working on; clients like Marvel and Disney are extremely stringent on privacy – and quite rightly so when internet leaks are far more prevalent these days.
“I feel part of something really special, there’s a certain magic to seeing the work on the big screen.”
What are the most and least enjoyable aspects of your job?
Some of the most rewarding moments are when I see my finished shots in the cinema. More often than not, I feel part of something really special, and there’s a certain magic to seeing the work on the big screen. After spending months on some of the sequences, it’s a fantastic feeling to just be a member of the audience and see it as part of the whole story. Our names are put in the credits, so it’s always worth waiting at the end for that.
The variety of tasks I am given means that it’s rare to have something mundane to do. Hours can ramp up nearer film deliveries but this is controlled very well by our leads and producers at Framestore.
What has been the most exciting project of the last twelve months?
I have two: Avengers: Infinity War and Mary Poppins Returns. The Avengers films are unbelievably popular, and this one became the fastest grossing film of all time. I was responsible for creating many of the New York aerial views from the Q-Ship in space. One of my shots was part of the US Super Bowl trailer. It felt so exhilarating realising how many people had cast their eyes on my work! I worked very closely with my environments lead, Jerome Martinez at Framestore, as well as the VFX supervisor, Patric Roos, and CG Supervisor, Rob Allman.
Mary Poppins Returns has been another very special film for me this year. Having grown up watching the original, it was a privilege to be part of such an iconic story. I worked alongside my environments lead, Damien Mace and VFX supervisor, Kyle McCulloch on this.
“One of my shots was part of the US Super Bowl trailer. It felt exhilarating realising how many people had cast their eyes on my work!”
Do you run any side projects alongside your job?
Yes, I have some side projects with my good friend and fashion photographer Marina Minibaeva. I like going on shoots with her in my spare time and having the ‘on-set’ experience in studios. I also mentor a girl in the advertising industry and really enjoy our meet-ups, dedicating some time to discussing future goals and aspirations, which helps me reflect on my development too.
What tools do you use most? Are there any resources you would recommend?
My wacom tablet; software including Photoshop, Nuke and Maya; and a notebook for doodling and writing to-do lists for my images.
There are great tutorial websites like Gnomon and Digital Tutors, as well as YouTube. High resolution photo references are extremely helpful, like textures.com.
How I Got Here
What influence has your upbringing had on your work?
Growing up in Brighton, with its artistic community and beautiful landscapes and architecture, had a huge influence on me. My parents were incredibly inspiring, too. Their strong work ethic definitely rubbed off on me.
How (if at all) is the subject you studied useful to your current role?
I really enjoyed art at school, particularly as I got older. Without realising it at the time, studying art alongside maths and science enabled me to continue being creative and traditionally ‘academic’.
Who in particular helped you the most at the start of your career?
Two people: the VFX supervisor, Eugénie von Tunzelmann, who opened my eyes to the VFX world back in 2008. And my initial boss at MPC, Jonathan Davies, who gave me my first job in their commercials department.
Was there a particular project you worked on that helped your development?
Stand out projects like a Mercedes advert at MPC [Moving Picture Company] and films like The Martian and Fantastic Beasts gave me more confidence in my career. But I’ve learnt so much on the job. I picked up nearly all my software skills because I was really thrown into the deep end. The industry is developing quickly, so it’s important to adapt and keep up with new techniques.
What’s been your biggest challenge?
Learning to move on and not get too caught up in the smaller details of an image. I am a perfectionist, but often there isn’t the time for this. It can be more constructive to leave parts and return to them if you have time later.
Is your job what you thought it would be?
I actually knew very little about my industry or role at the start of my career, so I didn't know what to expect.
Could you do this job forever?
It’s hard to say, as the industry changes quite quickly. Digital matte painting is a specialised role and I’d like to think that there will always be a need for backgrounds that can be created quickly and more cheaply than modelling a fully 3D environment.
What do you feel is the natural career progression for someone in your current position?
The next step would be to become a lead environment artist or more senior digital matte painter.
What does future of industry look like in your mind?
There is huge scope for further development, which is an exciting position to be in. And there’s an interesting and ongoing conversation about certain roles (that involve very repetitive tasks) being picked up by AI processes in the future, too.
Words of Wisdom
What advice would you give to a young creative wanting to do the same kind of work?
I would recommend diving into some of the software and online tutorials and seeing what you enjoy. Practice is key, and the only way of improving and getting into the industry. Try to be open and aware of all the VFX departments, but have some idea of what specialism you’d like to focus on. Staying creatively inspired and motivated is essential and should be the driving force!
Interview by Marianne Hanoun
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