When Syd Dutton, 64, talks about viewing the silent film "Metropolis" as a boy in San Francisco, he uses the term "feverish" to describe the experience. Seeing the futuristic sets for the science-fiction classic, he knew that his passion for art could lead him to a career not just in painting but also film and TV.
"I realized that there was a whole world out there," said Dutton, who recently joined Culver City digital effects maker Zoic Studios as art department lead and senior matte painter.
He earned a master's degree in fine art from UC Berkeley in 1968. After graduation, Dutton lived what he called a hand-to-mouth artist's existence, but always kept an eye toward Hollywood. In 1973, a story outline he wrote for a TV show caught the attention of an associate producer who got him a job at Universal Studios.
It was there that he learned the craft of matte painting. Mattes are painted landscapes used on soundstages to create background environments for filming. The landscapes can be fantastic, historical or contemporary. Dutton has created all types in an award-winning career that by his count already includes more than 200 feature films.
"It could be a great life if you're lucky enough," Dutton said. "It is luck: I am lucky to get the job I got."
These days, matte paintings are mostly created on computers now and then digitally added into films.
Dutton's relationship with the studio began when his firm Illusion Arts helped out Zoic on work for 2005 science-fiction film "Serenity." He eventually decided to fold Illusion and work at Zoic full time. Dutton is happy with the move because it means he can get back to doing what he loves painting. He also likes the atmosphere.
"People will jump into a job together; everything is very casual," he said. "People aren't afraid to say anything if they have an idea, they speak up."
Dutton lives in the Hollywood Hills with his wife, Laura, and has a grown daughter, Heather. Any free time is dedicated to his two grandchildren or to painting.
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