continue their focus on the 40th anniversary of The Empire Strikes Back with a look at the incredible matte paintings of the film, a largely lost craft that gave depth and feel to the first sequel and the best use ever for shower doors.

Seventy matte paintings were created for The Empire Strikes Back by three artists from Industrial Light & Magic (ILM). Two of them, Ralph McQuarrie and Michael Pangrazio, were relatively new to the art form. The other, Harrison Ellenshaw, had practically been raised for the task as the son of Walt Disney’s chosen matte painter, Peter Ellenshaw.

Using acrylic and oil paints, some mattes were fragments to complete an existing shot, others were full windows into a galaxy, and quite appropriately, all of them were painted on framed, rectangular glass (a favorite ILM story recounts that shower doors purchased from hardware stores made the best canvas). It’s a precise art, to say the absolute least.

The matte department had its own studio on the second floor of ILM’s “Kerner Optical” facility in San Rafael, California (where even the slightest shakes in the building could affect a shot-in-progress). To create many of the effects, the paintings were combined with elements front-projected onto the clear or neutral areas of the painted glass. Neil Krepela and Michael Lawler were the matte photographers, assisted by Craig Barron and Robert Elswitt (the former just 18 years old). Here are the stories behind five of our favorite matte paintings.

Be sure to check out our Fantha Tracks TV footage from the 2019 Los Angeles Empire Con and the panel featuring matte painting legend Harrison Ellenshaw.

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