Yvonne Muinde: The Kenyan Avatar Gal

Late last year, James Cameron— the “King of the world,” who had 12-years ago, mesmerized the world with his epic story of the ill fated luxury ship Titanic, bounced back with another mega story Avatar Pandora that had everyone talking.

When it opened late last year, the film became the highest-grossing film of all time in North America and worldwide, surpassing Titanic, which had held the records for the previous 12 years. Following the film’s success, Cameron stated that there will be at least two sequels. Avatar was nominated for 9 Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three, for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Art Direction.

Besides Cameron, many other talented hands went into the making and part of this multi racial team included an equally gifted Kenyan lady and this is her story….


Kimani: I am a big fan of James Cameron and there was no way I was not going to miss Avatar Pandora when it opened in Kenya. I love the way James tells stories and have watched almost all his movies. How did it feel working on a film by such a huge name in the filmmaking industry?

Yvonne: The whole experience working on Avatar was an amazing time, it was a wonderful to work for a director on a film where there was really clear direction, James Cameron is a very decisive director and expects the best work from everyone in his crew whether onset or working on the visual effects. In turn it was a great creative challenge to come to work and try to put your best effort forward and with the result being a great beautiful visual film that has been well received by the public all of us working on it couldn’t be more proud. Also it was nice to see Avatar receive a large number of awards. For our work in matte painting we were nominated and awarded the prize for best Matte Paintings in a feature film from the Visual effects society in the matte painting category. This was a great way to sum up the experience of working on a ground breaking movie.

The Helicopters attack

Kimani: What is Matte Painting?

Yvonne: Matte Painting is the art of creating reality from imagination and integrating that into film works, such as Avatar and making the viewer believe that the environment that they see in the film can or does exist somewhere in reality.

Kymsnet: How can you explain Matte Painting to a layman?

Yvonne: Originally, Matte Painting was done on glass by some very talented and traditional painters. Over time as the craft evolved with technology the process shifted to computers. Using various software packages that are conducive with the original concepts behind Matte Painting plus the combination of various photographic elements and high end camera’s and lenses to collect realistic photographic reference, the Matte Painter is able to combine all of those elements within a combination of 3D programs and traditional painting skills to create the visuals that you see in the latest films in the cinema.

Kymsnet: How did you get started as a Matte Painter?

Yvonne: I was working as a Fine Artist about 7 years ago. My partner works in the film industry as well and simply said to me, “You would be an amazing Matte Painter.” I thought about what he said and I decided to embark on, what I didn’t know at the time, my biggest career change ever. I found it so interesting that I committed 3 years to learn all I could about what Matte Painting is, and how I could combine my traditional skills into this world of artistic computer technology. I spoke to many people whom were already in the industry and after much trial and tribulation I found myself confident enough with all that I had learned and applied for a Matte Painting job at Industrial Light and Magic, which at the time was working on Star Wars Revenge of the Sith. I.L.M. was a great place to start as it had and still has some of the greatest visual effects talent in the industry. I was very lucky to learn all that I did from them while working there.

Kimani: The brief outline of the work of art that you have done as a matte painter is impressive. Avatar Pandora, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Eragon etc. These have been well received here in Kenya. What else have you done?

Yvonne: I have been really fortunate and have had the chance to work on several different types of shows with some academy award winning directors and companies. In addition to the ones you listed, Start Wars Revenge of the Sith, Happy Feet, Thirty Days of Night, Water Horse, Jumper, The Lovely Bones, Narnia -Prince Caspian, Fantastic 4, Avatar and some current projects which I am not allowed to speak about at this time.

Kimani: How did you get involved with Avatar Pandora?

Yvonne: Avatar had been in production at Weta Digital here in New Zealand for the last 4 years. I was working on other shows during most of this time and was assigned to Avatar as a matte painter in the last 8 months of production.

Kimani: What particular scene in the movie did you create?/were you involved in?

Yvonne: We were a department of 18 people at the height of production as there was a lot of work to be done. Matte Painting is a collaborative effort so you work with a lot a very talented people in your department and others in the pipeline. I worked on a number of shots in the floating Mountain sequences both when we see the helicopter in flight on the first sortie and during the battle at the end. I also worked on two destruction scenes which I am very proud of as I was able to use a lot of compositing techniques to bring life to the matte painting as they were hero shots ( bigger epic moments). The scene in which the Navi are walking away from Home Tree as it is burning on the ground and when Jake returns back to fight and has discovered the whole area burnt and destroyed.

Pandora's majestic floating mountains dwarf a massive gunship.


Kimani: How can you describe yourself? Who would you say is Yvonne Muinde?

Yvonne: I guess I would describe myself as painter searching for challenging imagery and hope that the work I can paint or be a part of will change or inspire those that have the opportunity to view the piece.

Kimani: Take me through the journey of your life.

Yvonne: I was born in Nairobi Kenya the last born in a family of five.

Kimani: Where did you go to school? What are some of the memorable thoughts of your life while you were growing up?

Yvonne: I went to Consolata Primary School, in Westland and then moved to Loreto Convent Msongari to complete my 8-4-4. I always joke and say that Kenya is the center of the universe, but in truth I actually do believe this. I have so many wonderful memories of growing up in Kenya, I think we are so lucky to know and experience a beautiful and inspiring place. I have a great love for Safaris, the animals and camping in Kenya. The adventures and things we see and experience growing up in Kenya have made me who I am and it has given me the ability to see opportunities when they appear and to not take these opportunities to work in this industry for granted.

Kimani: What did you want to do in life? Did you always want to be a painter/an artist? You know the perception that was always associated with being an artist—(as people who are not serious)

Yvonne: I actually wanted to first be an Archaeologist. Growing up we got to always hear about the finds that Leakey and the other scientist were discovering in East Africa, I used to love going to the Museum of Kenya and looking at all the displays. The displays were scenic paintings and I started to think about the idea of painting, I am lucky to have parents who are extremely supportive and I was exposed to a lot things associated with or that included painting. I always think that people who think artists are not serious are not aware of how much has to go in to making a living as an artist. You have to be able to be creative, professional, assertive and hardworking, nothing comes for free, especially in art.

Kimani: What prompted you to choose your career as an artist?

Yvonne: I have always had a keen interest in Art and with all the support and encouragement that I had from family, friends and my very patient partner, I realized that I could make a career out of art. I have also learn t to keep myself exposed to different medias and techniques as things are ever changing in this ever amorphous entity we call the creation of art.

Kimani: Please give me an outline of the body of your works- the things that you have done- both in Africa and internationally.

Yvonne: I was and still am very interested in public art and murals and was awarded, through a juried selection, the commission for a public mural for the city of Denver Colorado in the U.S. The mural is in the public lobby of the Blair Caldwell African American Research and Library in Denver. I am hoping that one day I may be able to do some public murals in Kenya but that opportunity has not yet arisen.

I have two paintings in the collection of the Philadelphia Fine Art Academy, America’s oldest museum. The two pieces titled Freedoms Fighters and Blind Faith are in the collection of the Chemistry of Color. I have several paintings with a number of collectors mainly in the USA. Again I hope in the near future to be able to show my work in Nairobi. I guess I would have to say my crowning achievement for this year is that I received the award for outstanding matte painting in a feature motion picture for Avatar from the Visual Effects Society (VES.)

Kimani: Which one was the most challenging and why?

Yvonne: I guess all I can say about that is that all have been challenging and rewarding in various ways.

Kimani: Which one do you think is the lousiest and why?

Yvonne: I guess I would have to say that every experience that I have had the opportunity to learn from have all been what has shaped me into the artist that I am now, given me the ability to travel the world, meet new people, work on interesting projects so I can’t really say that I have had any “lousy” experience on my artistic journey thus far.

Kimani: Where do you draw inspiration for your work? Who was (were) your role model(s) in the industry?

Yvonne: I draw inspiration from nature, for my paintings, images and photos that I take of and in Kenya. I love to travel and this opens my mind to see things from other perspectives. In painting as a child I was always in awe of Teresa Musyoka. We would go to the opens in Nairobi and I would always rush home to paint.

In matte painting I draw inspiration for my work of the large number of talented people in this industry, it’s an industry where science and art really connect and you would be surprise how much of matte painting is technical and uses a lot of not just visuals but math. I am very fortunate to have the chance to work with some of the industry legends especially in Matte painting, I am currently working with Michael Pangrazio who did some of the original matte paintings for Raiders of the Lost Art featuring Harrison Ford and Star Wars.

Kimani: What is your opinion of the art (and especially matte painting) industry in the Kenyan and African scene? What needs to be done to increase its vibrancy?

Yvonne: I think there is a lot of potential for the industry in Kenya. I believe Kenyans are eager and ready. The thing that is missing is exposure and knowledge and production opportunities. However in this age of technology, the internet etc. more doors of opportunity will present themselves to Kenyans who are enthusiastic enough to venture into the visual effects industry. I think there needs to be a change of perception in Kenya we are treated as a location not as a place of creating and finishing post-production work. I think there is a catch as we need opportunities to prove that people can do this work but we need the skill level of those doing the work to improve and build confidence in our ability as a people to create works that rival those made in other countries around the world. I believe the way this is going to work is for individuals to start on their own little productions. There are so many great stories that need to be told and from our own perspectives and visuals are a powerful medium, I mean just look at Avatar. There is no lack of imagination in Kenya but there will need to be support from everywhere. People in all areas, government, art originations, grant and fund givers who will also need to be educated about what these new opportunities present for Kenya and about the new and exciting mediums that exist and that we need to be a part of. Education and awareness of this needs to the first wave ‘animation’ which is used in Kenya to explain visual effects is just one of the areas that is used in Visual effects. There is so much more we could be doing with this new medium. Also this type of industry opportunity is a great way to create jobs and inspire the next generation. I am hoping that in time we can do this. I try, when I come back, to talk to people and let them be aware of what they can try to do if they are interested in visual effects, I will say, in my own opinion, in Kenya we don’t seem to support ideas from our own experiences and life stories etc., we tend to give more to the people from abroad. If we are to create a competitive level of skills rivaling other visual effects companies worldwide we will have to create that type of industry for Kenya, in Kenya. I am hoping with the Diaspora coming back this can be achieved because if all works according to the plans of original intent, they all come with skills learned and used in productions.

Kimani: Please give me some highlights of: your happiest moments/ memorable time; your trying/challenging time.

Yvonne: I think that some things I would just like to keep to myself so please understand that no disrespect is meant when I say I will pass on this question.

Kimani: What are the other things that you like doing when you are not working? What are your hobbies etc.?

Yvonne: I will have to say that I am a very keen hockey player and that, that was one of the greatest experiences and lessons learned while at Loreto Msongari. Others obviously are Matte Painting, Fine Art Painting and just being in the film industry.

Kymsnet: Back to Avatar Pandora. How can you describe it?

Yvonne: Pandora is a beautiful place based on James Cameron’s imagination but created from the best things we have in the world.


Kimani: Besides James Cameron’s Avatar Pandora, you have worked with trailblazers like Star Wars. What are some of the other big names that you have worked with? How did that feel?

Yvonne: There are so many people who fit this description- Michael Pangrazio, Paul Huston, Yanick Dusso, Chris Stwoski, are a few and these are just matte painters. As far as other directors that I have had the pleasure of working on their projects would be George Miller from Happy Feet, Peter Jackson on The Lovely Bones and even though he is not a director Joe Leterri who is one of the best Visual Effects Supervisors in the world. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with all these gifted people who have contributed to my learning process.

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