Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Raphael Matto: New Somerville resident brings poetry, art, animation, and special effects to Somerville


I was pleased to catch up with Raphael Matto, an accomplished,  multi-talented man, not to mention a new resident of the "Paris of New England."

You are new to Somerville. What brought you here? What are your impressions of our city?

Yes, new in September. I lived in Brookline during the Big Dig & Brady’s first win, so I thought I’d try this side of the Charles for round 2. I have family north of Boston in Portsmouth, east of Boston on Nantucket, south of Boston in Hartford, and west of Boston near Great Barrington—so I’ve plonked myself down in the middle. Also, an old friend who settled in Somerville invited me to visit some years ago; the cozy neighborhood vibe & off-kilter tree-lined streets stuck in my mind. I woke up one morning in San Diego & just thought out of the blue, “Boston, yeah, it has to be Boston.” So here I am—again—& I love it so far. Davis Sq is the perfect size for a bite or a night out, & the Somerville Community Path puts Walden Pond & the MA countryside in striking distance. It seems an ideal nexus—the sleepy end of a subway line w/quick access to a metropolis, & the start of a 20-mile bike ride to a glacial kettle pond & a refreshing swim—all without getting in a car.

You have an MFA from Vermont College, and I noticed your education was heavily into creative writing. You have done extensive work in film production -- working on such films as Avatar, and 30 Days of Night, as well as being in high tech. How did you get there, from there?

It’s a straight line—I taught myself desktop publishing and graphic design as a kid in high school to publish my own and my friends ’poems & short stories. I noticed how setting a poem on the page changed it—and became less interested in the spoken word and more interested in what computer software could do to enliven a poem for a reader. I remember being inspired by the gritty animated title sequence in the 1995 Morgan Freeman / Brad Pitt film Se7en—and created a series of video poems, mixing music, animated typography, photography, and video; I taught myself the 3D animation software Maya to accomplish more ambitious effects. Those videos were noticed by older college classmates who’d started working for Blue Sky Studios—the studio responsible for the Ice Age kids ’films. I landed a job as a Render Wrangler there—bottom of the barrel—but a dream for an English/Art major fresh out of college. On my first day, my manager dropped a tome from five feet up—I still remember it slamming onto my desk: O’Reilly Learning Perl. She grinned & said, “Sink or swim,” and left me there. Learning a programming language was the best thing that happened to me career-wise—it enabled me to take my interest in animation to the next level as an artist and eventually as an author of animation software. Recently, I’ve become interested in taking what I’ve learned in VFX production and automating the animation of synthetic poems vi AI/Machine Learning—so maybe it’s a full circle & not a straight line.

Can you describe a bit of your roles as an animator, and special effects person?

I usually explain CG film production like this: imagine someone is making a movie with puppets. First, someone has to design and draw the puppet on a piece of paper—that’s the Art department. Next, someone has to sculpt the puppet out of clay, based on the drawing—that’s the Modeling department. Next, someone has to cut up the puppet and add joints to its elbows, knees, fingers, etc, so it can move—that’s the Rigging department. The puppet needs to look real & so it ends up in the Materials department. A Materials Technical Director (that’s what I was for most of my career) adds color to the clay puppet, but also determines the physical properties of each of its parts. Is a part shiny like an eye or ring? Transparent like a fingernail? Translucent like an eyelid? Bumpy? Anisotropic? Oily? Velvety? Now imagine all those steps—Art, Modeling, Rigging, Materials—are happening to a Computer Generated puppet, not a real puppet. We repeat those steps for everything in a CG movie—buildings, forests, the ground, the sky, the sun—it requires keen observation. I remember going on a field trip to a junkyard and hauling back all kinds of rusted metal scraps for reference—for the film Robots. For the film Epic, it was the New York Botanical Garden, taking hundreds of photos of sunlight shining through leaves. There’s a lot of artistic guesswork based on visual reference, but it can get technical, too—for example, it’s handy to know the index of refraction for common elements like gold, brass, plastic, glass, diamond, water—and vital to understand geometry and algebra.

I noticed you published a poetry/prose book God & other Monsters. Can you tell us a bit about the content. Do you identify with a certain school of poetry?

Most of my books feature what I call speculative poetry. Sort of a mash-up of magic realism / surrealism / sci-fi. I like to mangle culturally embedded religious/scientific/political tropes to create alternative histories or realities. It’s a form of fantasy, I suppose, a way to escape—but I hope it gives the reader some perspective on our shared reality, too. Speculative poetry isn’t a common genre, but it does exist. There are a few dozen little-known journals out there specializing in it. Speculative fiction is much better represented—Kelly Link, Etgar Keret would be good examples of popular authors. I will say that I don’t write Confessional Poetry—a relatively new form of poetry that emerged in the 50s & 60s that is often mistaken as poetry itself these days. I encourage any poet or aspiring poet to research Confessional Poetry, realize it’s not the only kind of poetry a person can write, & challenge them to write something that is not Confessional Poetry.

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