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Clarksville’s Heather Abels discusses her work on ‘Frozen II,’ life as a freelance artist

The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville) logo The Leaf-Chronicle (Clarksville) 11/25/2019 Kyle Watts, APSU
a woman sitting at a table with a laptop and smiling at the camera: Senior matte painter Heather Abels works at her Clarksville home office. She worked as set extension artist on “Frozen II,” which hit theaters nationwide on Nov. 22. © Contributed Senior matte painter Heather Abels works at her Clarksville home office. She worked as set extension artist on “Frozen II,” which hit theaters nationwide on Nov. 22.

Former Austin Peay State University adjunct professor and Clarksville resident Heather Abels has a new movie coming out this week. You’ve probably heard of it: “Frozen II” hits theaters on Friday, Nov. 22. Abels is a senior matte painter with 12 years of experience in visual effects and currently works freelance from her home office. She has worked on commercials, feature films, animated films and video games.

Austin Peay student Kyle Watts sat down with her recently on campus, where her husband, Scott Raymond, is an associate professor of animation. Here’s what Watts asked her:

What is matte painting?

Anything beyond the full computer-generated set could be matte painting. In the old days, originally, matte painting was done with traditional paint on glass or boards and it was to “extend a set.” This is when you can’t afford to build a whole set. So, for example, in the original “King Kong,” the backgrounds were painted on glass and sandwiched in layers. Then they animated “King Kong,” frame by frame, in between those panes. Those are matte paintings. Now we use computers and digital technologies so we don’t have to have static cameras, but we can extend sets and create computer-generated worlds using painting techniques and 3D projections. Usually midground to distant landscapes and sometimes close-up stuff is matte painting. If you’re used to seeing green screen, a lot of times the backgrounds are filled either entirely or partially with matte painting.

Why is it called the “invisible art?”

There’s a whole book called “The Invisible Art,” and it’s about the history and techniques of matte painting. They showcased the classics like Albert Whitlock and Micahel Pangrazio. These are legends in matte painting history. It is called the invisible art because if it pops out at you, then you’ve done your job wrong. If it’s just awe inspiring and it takes you to a different world, then you’ve done your job.

What is the day-to-day routine of a matte painter?

It varies greatly based on the project you’re working on and where you’re working. Right now, I work remotely, but at Disney, you’d have a meeting with your colleagues to start the day. This is when everybody catches up on the progress of different shots and sequences. You’re also always checking in with other departments to see where in the pipeline a shot is. That way you know when it needs to start and when you need to hand it over to the next group of people. You’re going to do a lot of computer work such as modeling, texturing and lighting. I also do a lot of painting through photoshop. Then you’re going to do a lot of modeling, projecting, rendering. I find both the technical side of creating geometry and just putting on some music and painting on the computer to be very relaxing.

a view of a mountain: Abels worked on this shot in “Frozen II.” She’s had to keep much of the movie secret from her friends. “I’ve had the songs stuck in my head since June, but I can’t sing them out loud!” © Contributed Abels worked on this shot in “Frozen II.” She’s had to keep much of the movie secret from her friends. “I’ve had the songs stuck in my head since June, but I can’t sing them out loud!”

You’re credited as a “set extension artist” for “Frozen II.” How is that different from a matte painter?

Branding. There’s no difference. As things started to move into the digital realm, we needed to distinguish between traditional 2D static matte painting, people started calling themselves “digimatte artists” meaning we can do so much more. Paintings don’t have to be static anymore. They can be very real and deep with camera movement. At Disney, they were trying to come up with a new department, and we wanted to start with a fresh name. And we are truly extending the digital sets as they’re created, filling in the gaps. Especially with movies where you’re going to a lot of unique locations, you’re going to use matte painting a lot for those movies because you might only see it in one or two shots, and it’s very expensive to build a whole 3D set. In “Frozen II” you get to go to a bunch of unique locations. So, they needed a lot of matte painting, and that’s why I got to go back to Disney this summer.

What was your experience working on “Frozen II” with Disney?

I worked at Disney years ago on “Big Hero 6,” a little bit of “Zootopia,” “Moana” and some other projects. After that, we moved to Clarksville. All my friends that are still there are really great artists and a really fun collaborative environment, so when I got the opportunity to go back for a couple months, I was like, “We can go to Disneyland all summer and work on a movie and hang out with my friends? Heck, yeah! I want to do that! That sounds great!”  The first big thing was going back to Disney and seeing how much things had changed. The whole building has transformed, the people are reinvigorated. Seeing the familiar faces was nice. But every team on every movie is different, but for me, getting to meet and work with the art directors is always thrilling. When you’re working remotely, it can be very isolating, you don’t have any colleagues to work with, you don’t have anybody to go have coffee with. So just getting to be around all these people is really exciting. Everybody there gets along incredibly well. Getting to see the movie ahead of time is always exciting because you don’t just see the movie, you’re seeing it as a work in progress. The versions of the movie I’ve gotten to see are part storyboard, part rough animatic, part completely finished. Even the last version I saw is not the last version of the movie. I can’t wait to see the final product because I’ve had the songs stuck in my head since June, but I can’t sing them out loud! Even if I’m humming a tune to myself, nobody’s going to know what’s going on. It’ll be nice for the rest of the world to see it.

How is matte painting different when working on a live action film vs an animated film?

Fundamentally they’re similar. With live-action you always have a plate. You always have a reference to real life. The goal is to make it as photoreal as possible. That can be quite easy with all the photographic references. You know what that target is right away. With animated movies, the target is always different. The style changes on every movie and even on every sequence. While you want it to look real, it’s also very stylized. Everything has to fit the style of the world. You have to have very strong painting skills in addition to being able to do a bunch of generalist work. With animated movies, it’s trickier to fit matte painting into the schedule and find reference for what you’re making.

Does there ever come a point where you can be picky about the projects you take on?

Since I’ve moved here and decided to only freelance, I have been able to pick and choose whichever jobs I’m interested in. But more importantly than the jobs is that I get to pick my colleagues or the companies I work with. I choose the companies that are easiest to work with and the most friendly as opposed to working with another company with a cooler project. At this point in my career I have enough cool titles and shots that I’m not worried about building my reel. I’ve already led teams. I’ve helped companies build their departments. Now I just want to have a good working relationship with my colleagues.

Is there a dream project for you?

Not really. Everybody used to want to work on “Star Wars” or “Avatar” or “Harry Potter,” and I got a chance to work on all of those. Part of the problem is, if you love a franchise, working on it is like seeing behind the curtain. Then you have all these different memories that changes the movie for you. There’s not a whole lot I would choose over my family now. The whole reason we moved here was that we chose family over fame. 

What are you up to now?

Now I’ve got my own office at home. I work on a lot of different projects. I don’t get as much feature film work now. I get a lot of commercials and game cinematics. I got to work on “Game of Thrones” and “Lemony Snicket’s” series on Netflix. I get to help companies train their matte painters. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of work for a company that does all the park shows that use projections at Disney World.

Are you teaching or doing any mentoring?

I had been teaching online at CG Spectrum and a class through Pluralsight. I also taught electronic imaging here at Austin Peay when we first moved here. That was really fun. I was just really excited to teach people. I still have hundreds of students that I have taught in the past that keep in contact letting me know if that they got a job interview or asking to use me as a reference. It’s really exciting to see your students successful.

What is your opinion on what the animation department is doing here at Austin Peay?

I think it’s really exciting that students have a place to go that isn’t too far from home. I had to go five hours away when I was going to school to get something even close to what I wanted to do. But now students have so many opportunities so much earlier in life. With any education, it’s all about the effort you put in. If you put in the work, you can go anywhere and do whatever you want. Everything we do online is something that has been designed by artists. There’s so much to do out there. It would be very difficult to design some web pages without animation knowledge. What’s great about Austin Peay is how much students get to dabble in everything.

To learn more

For more about Austin Peay’s Department of Art + Design, go to www.apsu.edu/art-design.

To learn more about Heather Abels, go to www.heatherabels.com.

This article originally appeared on Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle: Clarksville’s Heather Abels discusses her work on ‘Frozen II,’ life as a freelance artist

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