Michael Pangrazio (Industrial Light & Magic)

Michael Pangrazio
ILM – Matte paintings
Interview: March 2022

As a matte painter Michael Pangrazio is responsible for some of the most famous shots in movie history. Who doesn’t remember the final shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark; a huge warehouse filled with crates. For Star Wars he was responsible for several scenes from the Original Trilogy: the Rebel Hangar from Return of the Jedi and the ice planet Hoth are just two examples. Exclusively for this website he did the following interview.

I read it was Joe Johnston who hired you at ILM. I’m sure there’s a good story to tell about how this happened?

Yes, I was working for a small garage VFX company there were two people in it and I was one of them, for some odd reason this small company arranged to send me to the producers office to meet Glen Larson at Universal Studios because they were in preproduction for Battlestar Galactica the television series. During that meeting I met Joe Johnson and Ralph McQuarrie. I really didn’t know much about them at that time, however at the end of the meeting there was time to speak with them directly. I think they were curious about why I was there. I had 8 x 10 photos of my artwork literally inside the front of my sweater and when they asked me what I did I pulled these photos out from inside my sweater. It must have been surprising, looking back on this it was probably a ridiculous situation but they seem to have liked my work. Consequently Joe asked for my contact information. After about three months he called me and asked me if I was interested in being a matte painting apprentice for Alan Maley, who was an old English matte painter. I said of course! I gathered up my little paintings which I did on poster-board at the time, and flew up to Marin County California where ILM was located to show my work. I was directed to go into a small screening room and told to put my artwork on the floor around the room against the wall and as I was leaving I saw George Lucas come in with Richard Edlund who later I found out was the effects supervisor. I had lunch with Joe Johnston, a very talented illustrator and head of the art department. Anyway it seemed to go well enough. I flew back to my home to Los Angeles and later received a call and an offer to be employed and work on Empire Strikes Back. Excited I drove up on my motorcycle and relocated there where I had many wonderful times working on several films as Matte Painting supervisor over a period of 7 years. I cherish every day that I was able to do my art and actually be paid for it, also very gratified in hind sight that so many millions of people seem to enjoy those films and my contribution.

At ILM you learned from the master himself: Ralph McQuarrie. How was your work-relationship with him and what did he teach you?

I was apprentice to Alan Maley first and foremost. However over a period of months I developed quickly enough to integrate as a painter rather than an apprentice at that time I worked closely with Ralph, Ralph was the most sophisticated kindest gentleman having a great sense of humor and everything he touched and put his hand turned out to be amazing. Every time I was able to watch him at ILM paint on glass so we had many opportunities to exchange painting tips in conversation, he would critique my work and this is how I learned from him, I miss him very much, he was and is legendary.

How long did it take to create your famous matte paintings for Star Wars?

Every painting is different, some more complex than others but on average I would say it would take three weeks to a month to do a complex painting like a docking bay or a big background, I worked on some large canvases, actually speaking of Ralph McQuarrie I painted a large canvas right next to him, but on average it would take three weeks to a month.

What did an ‘average’ day at ILM look like?

The average day I think was very different than it is today in visual effects work, back then it being more physically oriented not digitally driven, So we communicated with each other, different departments different persons involved in the shots. I would just walk over to an area and discuss what everyone was doing and coordinate with people directly. I was always excited about working but at the same time I always knew that I could be replaced so I always prepared myself for it any time not being there anymore. Funny I ended up staying for seven years, and during those years I made some great friends. I learned so much and I had an opportunity to do my art in a very unregulated environment, it was a bit like the Wild West as there was a lot of freedom. So looking back at it, it holds all the great memories for me.

My personal favorite is the Rebel Hangar from Return of the Jedi. It’s a painting filled with objects, small tubes to large starships. How did you compose/create this piece of art?

Well that was a challenging painting and as you asked earlier how long does that take, that probably took me five weeks to do. Working within the Matte painting department we actually set up a camera on the stage and shot some live action of some pilots walking on the floor. I designed and painted the floor to match them so it would integrate perfectly into the painting. This helped to add some detail to the shot as it was a bit stark, paintings can be very sterile looking and they need live action to bring them to life, but I would look at National Geographics for details of reference and sometimes I would shoot little models with a camera or light and shoot little details myself so I could get the all-important reference, I was very practiced back then, as I worked five days a week sometimes 10 hours a day on my art, It was always difficult because I’m a perfectionist and always push myself as far as I could go to make it better, so there are a lot of long hours leaving at night by myself under those neon lights to the exit into the parking lot. Visual effects are always demanding and you seem to always be behind schedule.

You have a small cameo in The Empire Strikes Back as a rebel pilot. In the late 90’s that character even got a name and appeared in a Star Wars card game. I wonder if you’re aware of that and what your reaction was when you found out.

Well that’s funny because I didn’t even know that it became a pilot card named Tarn Myson. When I did the cameo I did it with Ralph McQuarrie and Harrison Ellenshaw at the time I looked at it as a bit of an inconvenience I had to get dressed up in this costume and I was always camera shy, I just wanted to get back to my work but in the long run looking back I’m pretty proud that I was in the movie and a Star Wars game my face in that costume was seen by I don’t know hundreds of thousands of people! But you know I didn’t even know about it until about a year ago. After 30 years I never knew I was on a card but I saw some, I think when I was looking up some old pictures on Google for some of my old matte paintings and I saw a card for sale on eBay I was amazed so I bought a few and I love the fact that I have these now, they are like mementos for me!

Which Star Wars and which non-Star Wars matte are you most proud of?

The Star Wars docking bay. I’m probably most proud of this, I think that showed off the capacity of that painting to expand the scene, they didn’t have to actually build it and it was kind of fun to populate that painting with movement. The non-Star Wars matte painting I was happy with would be Raiders of the Lost Ark; the warehouse scene at the end of the movie. That took me three months to paint hundreds of little boxes. The movie is such a classic one and it has become one of the most well-known about paintings and a part of movie history so I’m kinda proud of that.

Are there artists who have influenced your style or artists you have always looked up to?

Oh yeah there are so many artists so many great artists in history of course Ralph McQuarrie comes to mind because he had such a personal influence on me but I like John Singer Sargent, Zorn, of course all the impressionist. I think art is so important to culture and civilization, and there’s been so many good painters historically I always discover new talent and learn from it.

Over the last 3 decades the art of physical matte paintings has disappeared; it’s all digital now. A bad thing? I’d love to hear your opinion.

I was there during the transition from analogue to digital and I remember feeling awkward trying to learn Photoshop, I do miss the old days as I was influenced by the scenic artists, I worked at CBS for a very short period of time and was going to be a scenic artist for the television industry, so I grew up in my youth around physical painters, but I must admit it’s a lot cleaner to use Photoshop to generate your image you can reverse it, you can go back in history you can restore an old iteration it’s so much faster and cleaner than the days of breathing airbrush spray or spray gun and probably a lot healthier in the end.

In the mid 90’s you left the movie business for about a decade and then returned to work for The Orphanage, a special effects company and later WETA. What was the reason to leave and return a decade later?

Yes I took a few years off, I left because I had two children. The effects business is very demanding on your time and I would come home so tired I really didn’t feel like interacting and that was unfair to my family so I took 10 years off work and I homeschooled my kids from 8 to 18. They both were about the same age but after they turned 18 I felt inclined to get back into work again especially after I saw Lord of the Rings which was so beautiful. By that time I missed the effects business, so I contacted a couple of companies got hired and found myself back in working at the Orphanage in the Presidio in San Francisco. At the Orphanage I met a gentleman that had worked on Lord of the Rings and he suggested “why don’t you apply for a job there”. I did and I was accepted so I moved down to New Zealand to work at WETA Digital. I spent almost 16 years there working first as a matte painter then matte painting supervisor, then finally as an art director for visual effects. I had a wonderful experience there I got a chance to art direct films including King Kong, Lovely Bones all the Hobbit films. Now I’m sort of retired working on my own art and I’m about to do some prints for myself creating a website of my own artwork and also document my career and show the matte paintings and the many hundreds of concept art pieces that I have. I’m very excited about this but it’s a few months off. I think it’s important to continue to work throughout your life as it gives you purpose.

How do you look back at your time working on the Star Wars films? I look back on those films with fond memories.

There was a 40-year reunion just recently in San Rafael. I would’ve given anything to go there, but I live in Australia presently and because of the Covid issue it was just impractical to go but it would’ve been great to see so many old friends and colleagues, I’m very proud of the work that I did and that I could be a part of such classic films as those. It was a great experience as I was young, but now that I’m older I can look back with complete fond memories of the work I did there and the people I worked with, an opportunity of a lifetime really!