The story behind Hook’s innovative projected matte painting – 25 years ago

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Steven Spielberg’s Hook was released 25 years ago this week (it opened on December 11th, 1991) and at the time was one of ILM’s most intensive visual effects projects. VFX supe Eric Brevig oversaw a raft of flying scenes, matte paintings, models and even Go-Motion animation for Tinkerbell’s wings.

A major innovation on the show was the use of a projected matte painting in the sequence showing Peter (Robin Williams) flying towards Neverland – the first time a dimensional matte painting like that had been seen on film.

To celebrate Hook’s 25th anniversary, vfxblog caught up briefly with Stefen Fangmeier, then an ILM computer graphics supervisor, to discuss how that dimensional matte painting was achieved on the film.

Stefen Fangmeier: Heck, I worked on [that shot] for 2 1/2 months or so. The CG department was still very small at this point. We had delivered the work for Terminator 2 in June and I guess I must have moved straight onto Hook since it released barely six months later.

So, I am not sure how the decision was made to move the shot into CG. I was given matte artist Yusei Uesugi’s beautiful matte painting, a blue-screen pass of Robin Williams shot on a motion rig, as well as a motion control shot of cotton clouds.

I started by constructing fairly simple geometry for the island onto which I projected the matte painting. I also extended the ocean around the island because more of it would be seen than what Yusei’s painting covered.

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Matte artist Yusei Uesugi at work on the Neverland painting in this ILM photo.

I then created a camera move on this simple geo that created a perspective change and ended up at the end of the shot with the perspective on the island as painted. When the island is first seen, it is titled away from camera a bit which was possible since I wasn’t showing any part of it that wasn’t painted.

I remember the blue-screen extraction to have been quite tedious because our in-house compositing software wasn’t all that developed for this task and there was a lot of detail, in particular in Robin’s hair.

I added a layer of mist over him, basically a RenderMan fractal shader on simple flat patches as well as some low-lying clouds closer to the water than what the cotton cloud pass didn’t have.

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The final shot.

Other additions were the rainbow and replacing the waterfall in the painting, which was of course static, with a fairly simple particle system.

Most of the show was still done using optical printers and I remember how those guys couldn’t believe how many takes it took to get the shot right because that wasn’t really an option with an optical comp since repeatability was always a challenge compared to the digital approach.

Hook would go on to be nominated in the Best Visual Effects category at the 64th Academy Awards (Eric Brevig, Harley Jessup, Mark Sullivan and Michael Lantieri), along with other ILM-heavy shows Terminator 2 and Backdraft. T2 took out the award.