New Somerville Resident Brings Poetry, Art, Animation and Special Effects to Somerville

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I had the pleasure of meeting Raphael Matto, an accomplished man of many talents, not to mention a new resident of the “Paris of New England”.

Doug Holder: You are new to Somerville. What brings you here? What are your impressions of our city?

Raphael Matto

Raphael Matto: Yes, new in September. I lived in Brookline during the Big Dig and Brady’s first win, so I thought I’d try this side of the Charles for round two. 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 planted myself in the middle.

Also, an old friend who moved to Somerville invited me a few years ago; the neighborhood’s cozy vibe and quirky tree-lined streets stuck in my mind. I woke up one morning in San Diego and thought out of the blue, “Boston, yeah, that must be Boston.”

So here I am – again – and I’m loving it so far. Davis Square. is the perfect size for a bite to eat or an evening out, and the Somerville Community Path puts Walden Pond and the MA countryside within striking distance. It seems like an ideal connection – the sleepy end of a subway line with quick access to a metropolis, and the start of a 20-mile bike ride to a glacial pond and a refreshing swim, all without getting into a car.

DH: You have an MFA from Vermont College, and I noticed your education had a strong focus on creative writing. You’ve done a lot of work in film production – working on films such as Avatarand 30 days of night, while being in high technology. How did you get there, from there?

RM: It’s a straight line – I taught myself desktop publishing and graphic design as a kid in high school to publish my own poems and short stories and those of my friends. I noticed how the layout of a poem on the page changed it and I became less interested in the spoken word and more interested in what computer software could do to animate a poem for a reader .

I remember being inspired by the animated, gritty title sequence of the 1995 Morgan Freeman/Brad Pitt film. Se7fr and created a series of video poems, mixing music, animated typography, photography and video. I taught myself the 3D animation software Maya to achieve more ambitious effects.

These videos were noticed by older classmates who had started working for Blue Sky Studios, the studio responsible for the Ice Age children’s movies. I landed a job as a Render Wrangler there – bottom of the barrel – but a dream for an English/art student fresh out of college.

The first day, my manager dropped a five-foot tome. I still remember it slammed on my desk: O’Reilly Learning Perl. She smiled and said, “Sink or swim”, and left me there. Learning a programming language was the best thing that ever happened to me professionally. It allowed me to take my interest in animation to the next level as an artist and eventually as an author of animation software.

Recently, I got interested in using what I learned in VFX production and automating synthetic poem animation via AI/Machine Learning. So maybe it’s a full circle and not a straight line.

DH: Can you briefly describe your roles as animator and special effects manager?

RM: I usually explain CG movie production like this: Imagine someone is making a movie with puppets. First, someone has to design and draw the puppet on a sheet of paper – that’s the art department. Then someone has to sculpt the puppet out of clay, according to the drawing – this is the modeling department. Then someone has to cut out the puppet and add joints to its elbows, knees, fingers, etc., so it can move – that’s the Rigging department. The puppet must look real and therefore ends up in the materials department.

A technical materials manager (I’ve been for most of my career) not only adds color to the clay puppet, but also determines the physical properties of each of its parts. Is any part shiny like an eye or a ring? Transparent like a fingernail? Translucent like an eyelid? Bulge? Anisotropic? Oily? Velvety? Now imagine all of these steps – Art, Modeling, Rigging, Materials – happening on a computer-generated puppet, not a real puppet. We repeat these steps for everything in a CG movie – buildings, forests, ground, sky, sun – it requires careful observation.

I remember taking a trip to a junkyard and bringing back all kinds of rusty scrap metal for reference, for the movie robots. For the film Epic, it was the New York Botanical Garden, taking hundreds of photos of sunlight shining through the leaves. There’s a lot of artistic guesswork based on visual references, but it can also get technical. For example, knowing the index of refraction of common elements like gold, brass, plastic, glass, diamond, water is handy – and vital for understanding geometry and algebra.

DH: I noticed that you published a book of poetry/prose, god and other monsters. Can you tell us a bit more about the content? Do you identify with a certain school of poetry?

RM: Most of my books feature what I call speculative poetry. A kind of magic realism/surrealism/science fiction mash-up. I enjoy mutilating culturally embedded religious/scientific/political tropes to create alternate stories or realities. It’s a form of fantasy, I guess, a way of escaping. But hopefully it will also give the reader some perspective on our common reality.

Speculative poetry is not a common genre, but it does exist. There are a few dozen little-known journals that specialize 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 1950s and 60s and is often confused with poetry itself these days. I encourage any poet or aspiring poet to research confessional poetry, realize that it’s not the only type of poetry a person can write, and challenge them to write something which is not confessional poetry.

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