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The Art of Invisible Matte Paintings

In RAIN MAN, one of the first shots in the title sequence shows the imported cars being unloaded at the docks of Los Angeles. The Los Angeles skyline on the right half of the screen shows the LA City Hall building, the one shown all the time in Dragnet. Isn't that building in downtown Los Angeles, far away from the harbor? I've only been to Southern California once. Maybe there's a similar building near the docks.

The shot you're talking about is actually a matte painting. Mark Sullivan is a very accomplished painter whose forte is painting mattes that consistently fool amateur special effects experts. Heck, professionals, too. In these days when digital effects are displacing many traditional movie effects methods, some of the true invisible artistry of the past is being forgotten. The matte in RAIN MAN represents a good example of an effect that is so good, people don't know it's there.

The producers of RAIN MAN had some reason to need a matte painter for that car-unloading shot - I don't recall what it was that Mark told me was the specific purpose, but it may have been that the cars and the crane were real but they didn't want to film on a real dock with a real ship. When Sullivan painted in the skyscrapers in the background he cheated reality, because as every Angeleno knows, the docks of L.A. Harbor aren't next to the tall buildings of downtown. Mark knew his painting would look so photo-real to viewers that he added the familiar City Hall building just to prove that the shot wasn't real. It is indeed the same famous building from DRAGNET, and the same one the Martians of WAR OF THE WORLDS blow up with their heat ray.

Another top Hollywood matte painter, Rocco Gioffre, has explained to me many a time that, when he's doing his job right, people can't find his work. To Rocco a shot that stands out as being a matte is either a poorly designed shot, or one in which the subject matter is too incredible to be real. Either way the matte painter must fight an uphill battle, against designs that aren't going to convince no matter how well they are executed. When a false shot, like the one in RAIN MAN, can be made perfectly, then nobody is even aware that an effect is being used. For the effects man, it's a Catch-22. The flashy showoff effects, the kind that earn awards, usually draw so much attention to themselves that viewers are too busy admiring them to pay attention to the story. The really solid effects, like good effects men, are invisible.

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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