A Juneau Douglas High School grad is currently up for an Emmy for his work on the Starz program “Da Vinci’s Demons.” Juneau’s Matt Conway, class of 1990, works on the visual effects team for the show as matte painting supervisor, a type of artist responsible for creating photo-realistic settings and backgrounds. The Emmy nomination lists eight other artists by name in addition to Conway, but the honor represents the work of the whole visual effects team.
Written by David Goyer, one of the writers for the “The Dark Knight” trilogy and “Man of Steel,” “Da Vinci’s Demons” tells the fictionalized story of Leonardo Da Vinci during his younger days in Renaissance-era Florence. The Emmy nomination, for Outstanding Special Visual Effects in a Supporting Role, is for the final episode of the first season, “The Lovers,” which aired on June 7.
Conway said he knew the nomination was a possibility, as everyone on the visual effects team was recently asked to submit 100 words describing what they did on the show. He got the news they’d been selected last week — rather informally.
“I found out through Facebook,” he said with a laugh, adding that it didn’t make it any less exciting.
In the old days, matte paintings were actual paintings done on glass. Beginning in the late 1980s, digital innovations began changing the industry and now everything is done on computers. Though the design methods and tools have changed, the purpose of the art form remains the same. Matte paintings can be used to create distance or motion, to recreate a setting from another time or environment, or to help create the illusion of an imaginary world or perspective, among many other things. Each type comes with its own challenges, Conway said. Most of his projects — about 80 percent — are motion shots, he said, that must be coordinated to track the movement of the camera. “Walk offs” where the background image is static, are less common and much less complicated.
Conway said in addition to creating a photo realistic setting (in this case, Florence in the late 1400s), the matte painter must also consider the aesthetic of the shot, something that’s often achieved by manipulating the light — the way it falls on the landscape or comes through the clouds.
“In the end that’s what people respond to, the light play of the shot and the overall aesthetic,” he said.
As matte painting supervisor, this overall look was up to Conway, who steered his team in a direction set by visual effects supervisor Kevin Blank.
“Once I got the idea of what he liked, I was able to coach my team to create paintings in a certain style that I knew he would like,” Conway said.
Conway’s previous projects include huge films such as “Avatar” and “The Avengers” and TV shows such as “Game of Thrones.” The big difference in working for television, he said, is the pace: it’s much more hectic. Not only are the artists required to create many more matte paintings for a particular project, they have much less time to do it in.
“In movies, the average length of time is two weeks to a month,” he said. “In television you get maybe two to five days. It’s that different.”
Working as an artist on such high profile, high stress jobs is very rewarding, Conway said, in part because he’s surrounded by other artists who, like him, are passionate about their field and give the job their full attention.
“Nobody’s there to collect the pay check or do a minimal amount of work,” he said. “People take a lot of pride in their work.”
The work schedule can be grueling: at the end of the first season of “Da Vinci,” Conway was putting in 12 and 13 hour days, and at one point worked 22 days in a row.
“It was very challenging. It was a tough show. But for the most part I had a great time doing it.”
Conway got his start in Tom Manning’s art classroom, and has many positive memories of his time at JDHS. Conway said that Manning, Nancy Collinsworth and other JDHS teachers encouraged his art in ways big and small, from asking him to design t-shirts to letting him know that they believed in his ability to succeed.
He said he remembers a specific conversation he had with Collinsworth in which she told him about JDHS grad John Holmquist, class of 1982, a very successful television animation artist and director, saying that he had been able to apply his talents in the right place at the right time.
“She said, ‘I think you have the ability to do this as well.’ I never forgot that,” Conway said. “They both let me do my own thing. And they were super supportive. Everyone at JDHS was..... Juneau is a big art town and I always got that feeling when I was living there.”
Holmquist, whose television projects include “Rugrats” and “Family Guy,” also provided home-town support. Conway called him for advice right before he was about to graduate from art school.
“He was really nice to take the time and talk to me,” Conway recalled.
Holmquist himself was part of the creative team that won an Emmy for “Rugrats” in 2003, and was also nominated in 1994 and 2004.
This year’s Emmy Awards will air on Sunday Sept. 22 on CBS. Read more here: www.emmys.com/shows/da-vincis-demons
To learn more about Conway, visit www.mattconwayvfx.com.
To watch an episode of Da Vinci’s Demons, visit www.starz.com/originals/davincisdemons.