Heaven and Earth: Selected Matte Paintings by Matthew Yuricich

Exhibit / May 1, 2017

Object Name: Matte paintings by Matthew Yuricich
Maker and Year: Matthew Yuricich, 1959-1984
Object Type: Visual effects
Description: (K.E. Roberts):

Before digital effects, directors depended exclusively on visual effects artists, and matte painters in particular, to convey the epic scope and grandeur of defining shots and scenes. Matthew Yuricich (1923-2012) was one of the greats. After serving in the Navy in World War II, he attended Miami University in Ohio and graduated with a Fine Arts degree in 1950. He then hitchhiked to Los Angeles, and, with the help of his friend Betty Grable (who he had met at the Hollywood Canteen before the war), he got a job at 20th Century Fox with Special Effects Oscar-winner Fred Sersen. One of his first jobs was doing animation on The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951), and his big break came at MGM with another enduring sci-fi classic, Forbidden Planet (1956), where he worked with his mentor, Henry Hillinick, to create some of the most visionary and influential backgrounds in the genre. Yuricich’s 40-year career followed the last surge of the studio system through the coup of New Hollywood, from the historical epics of the ’50s and ’60s to the science fiction and fantasy boom of the ’70s and ’80s.

Matte and visual effects artists went largely uncredited well into the 1970s, largely because studio executives didn’t want audiences to know that Hollywood “magic” was actually the result of damned hard work. Yuricich himself didn’t receive screen credit until Soylent Green (1973). In a 2012 interview with the Matte Shot blog, he recalled:

I never have asked for screen credit or anything. Well, I think Doug Trumbull raised hell with somebody several times, even in American Cinematographer. There was an article there, and I had just done, maybe it was Logan’s Run or Blade Runner—I don’t recall—a tremendous amount of work and not even a mention of my name! Everybody else’s name [was mentioned]. Doug went to the editor to raise hell. He said, ‘How the hell can you do that? You talk about all of these paintings and stuff and you don’t even mention the guy who did it!’

When he won a Special Achievement Oscar for Visual Effects on Logan’s Run (1976), he thanked Bill Abbott, his “fellow members of the Special Effects Committee,” his wife Clotilde Robison, and himself—“because I think I earned it.”

Yuricich’s range and versatility were extraordinary: the 19th century Oregon wilderness of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), the 18th century Portsmouth Harbor of Mutiny on the Bounty (1962), the ancient Rome of Ben-Hur (1959) and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), the forbidding castle on a hill in Young Frankenstein (1974), the future-noir Los Angeles of Blade Runner (1982)—Yuricich gave them all movement and life and scope. He also mentored a number of matte painters, including Rocco Gioffre (Gremlins, RoboCop) and Michele Moen (Fright Night, Gladiator).

On the arrival of digital mattes and computer generated effects, he said this:

Well, I had talked to Syd Dutton at one of the Academy things a few years ago. I said, ‘How the hell can you paint on that [computer] thing?’ He said he’d gotten to where he paints stuff traditionally and scans it in and then works on that. Syd says, ‘It works, but there ain’t no fun in it.’  I think that’s a very important observation, because real, true artists get pleasure out of the painting, and if it’s really working, man, you’re having orgasms all over the place because it’s really working.

Special thanks to the Matte Shot blog for many of the images and much of the background used in this article.

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