An Interview With Roger Kupelian

October 5, 2002

Technology may change, but films are at their heart an artform- and thus artists will always find themselves an important part of their creation. Roger Kupelian is LOTR’s senior matte painter and has worked on The Truman Show, Air Force One, The Devil’s Advocate, and The Postman, to name a few. Today he’s kind enough to talk a little about his part in LOTR.

JW: Hello, Mr. Kupelian. Thank you for participating here. It’s always fun for us fans to hear from those within the LOTR project. Is this your first LOTR interview?

Roger: I’ve had a few others, but this is the first fan interview.

JW: How has your interest in art developed over the years?

Roger: I was drawing by the age of five, and comic books and films had a lot to do with developing my interest. Even when I discovered the classics, I still held a place in my heart for the geekiest of things. Also music, especially soundtracks, played a part: The minute I hear a good piece of music, I see images. Those images combine to become stories. In that sense my artistic progression has had a definite soundtrack. Art was a means to an end, and since artists are like writers, we have to treat our particular brand of mental illness every day. We get better at it and sometimes get paid for it. Computers have served to make it easier.

JW: What do you think of computer technology versus the older methods?

Roger: Any technology that helps gives you more freedom and flexibility is a good thing. I don’t know if I would be matte painting if it was not for digital technology. However it’s not like I write code or anything. I just draw the pretty pictures, and animate them.

JW: Tell us a bit about what matte painting is.

Roger: Matte painting is the grandchild of backdrop painting. In the digital age it is animated as well…ranging all the way to 3-d projection paintings. I personally like the Photoshop to After Effects jump.

JW: I wonder if digital matte painting might one day be a big help to theatre.

Roger: Well it evolved one way, why not the other?

JW: So this technology is what led you into the film industry?

Roger: My first films were not digital, they were small indie films, and I did everything from production assistant to boom operator.

JW: How did you become involved with digital films?

Roger: I took this painting class for fun once and ended up meeting some big players from the biz doing the same thing. One gave me an internship doing storyboards and another gave me a clipping from the Hollywood Reporter, an ad for a storyboard artist which I answered. I was working full time on Space Jam in the space of a month.

JW: It must have been quite an interesting day for you when you were offered a chance to work with Weta on the most complex movie project in history.

Roger: Well I was still on Final Fantasy: TSW. I had not planned on working on LOTR but they were persistent. And a few friends I had working in New Zealand said it was looking great. I guess after all those burned out damaged cities I needed to paint some mountains and castles.

JW: Let’s talk about some of those great sights. Minas Tirith: it makes a surpising early appearance. What did you have to do here?

Roger: I had to replace everything onward from the first ridge. It was a challenging painting, to say the least, in that it had to accomplish quite a few things. We had an excellent compositor on that one. (Our LOTR compositors rule, by the way.)

JW: The Township of Bree: this matte was based off a beautiful Mark Sullivan painting. What did you think of it, and did you know that PJ would be belching in it?

Roger: PJ reserves the right to belch in any of his films. It was my first painting for Rings, so sort of a ‘warm up’. Sullivan Rocks. What can I say?

JW: The Mountain Pass: there was plenty of inspiration around New Zealand, wasn’t there?

Roger: New Zealand is always inspiring. Especially when you can get out and see the South Island. Visitors: Hit Queenstown at least once in your life. You’ll see what I’m on about.

JW: Lothlorien: Viggo looks out at a pile of rocks. Aragorn looks out at this beautiful Golden Wood.

Roger: One of my favorites, and the second painting I did for LOTR. Viggo is also a very thoughtful person and accomplished poet. All the more reason to like that shot.

JW: The Argonath: (I have a poster of it in my living room, though I think that’s Paul Lasaine’s work) There’s a famous rumor that the figures change hand positions when the shot changes from front to back. Do they?

Roger: Well, the shots were flipped. in the original paintings they hold up their hands properly.

JW: What do you think of the paintings done by John Howe and Alan Lee?

Roger: They’re marvelous artists, and I became more familiar with their work after I began working on rings. They are classical artists living in a fantastic reality of their own making. Something to be jealous of really. And Alan Lee is a joy to work with.

JW: What did you think of FOTR?

Roger: One of the best films I have worked on. And the hardest, by far.

JW: Part of the movie process is editing: and various parts that a lot of people worked really hard on inevitably end up getting cut. What’s it like having your work end up being cut out of a picture? Do the special edition DVD’s soften the blow?

Roger: Well, shots being cut is part of the game. In the end we are professionals doing a job. That said, it can be a little disarming to have a hard fought shot cut. DVD’s do soften the blow, you’re right, because in the end, that is how most people will come to view the film.

JW: Did you know you’re famous? You’re a big part of my Art of the Fellowship of the Ring book!

It also has the work of Matte Painters Max Dennison, Wayne Haag, Yanick Dusseault, Laurent Ben-Mimoun… and a lot of other talents. It’s really a fantastic book. Do you have a copy?

Roger: I’ve got a couple. Thanks. I dont feel famous. Just tired. And those are all great matte painters you mentioned. We’ve added a couple for the next one, and hopefully we’ll be in the other books too.

JW: I can’t wait for The Two Towers version! What can we expect from that movie?

Roger: Quite honestly, apart from incredible work from my WETA colleagues, I have no idea. I have purposely avoided any screenings or trailers just so I can sit there and enjoy the flick with the rest of the world, eating from a big tub of popcorn amidst an audience that has no idea of cineon lookup charts.

JW: Thank you once again for doing this. I know a lot of people are happy you participated. A final question: what sort of projects are you going to be working on in the future?

Roger: I’ve got a few on the boil, including the ‘Fugitive Prince” my own indie about some incredible events during the late Roman Empire, preparing to be shot in New Zealand as well. Look it up on