From Juneau to Hollywood

JDHS grad worked as matte painter for recent blockbuster film 'Avatar'

Posted: Friday, January 08, 2010

Juneau-Douglas High School graduate Matt Conway grew up wanting to be a Saturday morning cartoon animator, but his path instead led him to Hollywood where he works as a visual artist on blockbuster films like the highly acclaimed "Avatar."

Courtesy Of Matt Conway
Courtesy Of Matt Conway

Conway, who graduated in 1990, is a matte painter who helps filmmakers establish environments and backgrounds in movies to give them more depth.

"Matte painting is kind of a mixture between 3-D painting and photography," he said. "So we take all those elements together and try to create a virtual environment. In most cases matte paintings are in the background of the shot, sometimes the whole shot is a matte painting, though. It just depends what the shot is for. It really varies as far as the view is concerned."

Conway, 37, became a matte painter somewhat by accident. He had been heavily involved in art while at JDHS but upon graduation he strayed from his childhood dream to pursue a business degree from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

"I didn't draw for years," Conway said. "It was always in the back of my mind."

While in college he saw the movie "Toy Story" and realized the future of animation was going to be on computers, so he decided to pursue computer graphics upon graduating from UNLV in 1997. Conway became a 3-D artist doing architectural drawing in Los Angeles before taking some art classes from Gnomon School of Visual Effects, where he learned about matte painting.

"I knew very little about matte painting," he said. "First of all, you don't get a degree in matte painting. Usually you come from a traditional fine arts background and you work your way into that. I came into it almost the opposite way, where I was already a 3-D artist and then had to go backwards and learn the traditional chronology of painting."

Conway said he fell in love with matte painting and has since been working on some major Hollywood films. The first movie he worked on was the sci-fi thriller "The Day the Earth Stood Still," starring Keanu Reeves and Jennifer Connelly.

"That came out and that was pretty exciting to see that," he said.

Conway said it's fun to see his work on screen, even though it's shown in short bursts.

"That's one thing about being a matte painter, usually your shots are only up for a maximum of five seconds," he said. "It's usually like three to five seconds because mostly matte painting is used to establish an environment. They don't linger on them too long."

Conway said it was particularly rewarding to see the work he did for the company Prime Focus VFX for the movie "Avatar," which is in theaters now and has become one of the highest grossing films of all time.

"As an artist, we were all excited to be working on that movie," he said. "It was just a real cool atmosphere. We knew that we were creating something great. And we were just a small piece."

Conway spent three weeks working on the film on what he called a "hectic" schedule of 12- to 16-hour workdays with no time off. But he said it was thrilling to work on a film directed by James Cameron.

"It was great to work on a movie like that because you know going into it that it's going to be a spectacle," Conway said. "And James Cameron was one of my personal heroes growing up."

Conway has recently been working with Pixomondo Visual Effects on the upcoming film "Percy Jackson and the Olympians: The Lightning Thief" that is due out next month.

There has been a lot of support from Conway's friends and family, particularly his parents, to pursue his dreams as an artist, he said.

"No one ever looked at me like I was crazy when I said I wanted to do this professionally," he said.

Conway said he was also fortunate to have some great teachers at JDHS that helped steer him in the right direction.

"Coming up through JDHS, I was really lucky in that some of the teachers there took notice of my art and really encouraged me to do that," he said.

"To have an adult say, 'What do you want to do?' and let you explore and push yourself as an artist, that was something that really encouraged me to carry on."

• Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or

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