Matte Painting and Environments

What is Matte Painting?

Matte Painting is the method of extending or creating an environment for a filmed shot. This would normally happen because building the whole set would be very expensive, or physically impossible to do. So instead only the set immediately around the actors is shot, and the rest is painted in afterward. This technique originally would only work with locked off shots (i.e. with no camera movement), but now with the advent of Digital Compositing, Camera Tracking and 3D Environments we are able to create 3D matte paintings which move accurately with the plate photography.

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Matte painting has existed for more than a century but it is still a large part of Visual Effects today, and has lost none of its artistic integrity. While the tools we use have moved on from oil paints and film projected on glass to computers and digital cameras, the same fundamental concepts of extending sets which are too costly to build, and the artistic skill necessary to paint these images has remained.

The History of Matte Painting

While the history of matte painting is not necessary for the job itself, and most of the techniques used are not applicable today, it is still worth a brief explanation of the origin of the craft so we can be thankful for the technology we now have available to us, have respect for the people who developed it, and have an understanding of the term “Matte Painting”.

The earliest way of creating a matte painting was to place a sheet of glass between the camera and the scene to be filmed. An artist could then paint the required set onto the glass which would save the cost and impractically of actually building the set.

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This method was first implemented within the motion picture industry by Norman Dawn. In 1905 Dawn was working as a still photographer for “The Thorpe Engraving Company” when he was assigned to photograph a house with ugly telephone poles outside, so a colleague suggested he place a sheet of glass between the camera and the house and paint a tree over the telephone pole. This was an old technique used in photography but new to Dawn.

The following year Norman took a trip to Paris where he met with Georges Méliés who was the creator of the short film “Le Voyage dans la Lune” (A Trip to the Moon). Having spent some time with Méliés, Dawn returned to America with lots of ideas and a new moving picture camera made by “André Bebrie”. Dawn had to smuggle his new camera into the country via a British ship going to New Orleans to avoid being sued by Thomas Edison and facing possible imprisonment. Edison was using patent litigation to stop the import of any moving picture cameras because he claimed full ownership of the design with his own concept. After successfully smuggling his camera into America, Dawn started work on his first film “California Mission”. The subject of this film was the Spanish Colonial Missions, but many of the missions he chose to film were dilapidated and in decay, so using the painted glass method he restored the buildings. While this method had previously been used by still photographers, the 1907 release of “California Mission” was it first in a motion picture.

This method of painting did however have some major problems. The first problem is that the matte painting had to be done on set, so after the camera and all the props were set up the crew, actors and whole production had to wait for the “Glass Artist” (as they were known at the time) to paint the required scene. Secondly, the painting had to be done as quickly as possible because the lighting, weather and wind could change the scene dramatically in a matter of minutes. All this resulted in wasted time for the production, rushed paintings, and often cancelled shoots due to changeable weather.

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Although the glass shot was the first method of matte painting, it still doesn’t explain the origin of the name. Due to the problems discussed above, an improved method was developed which allowed the shot to be filmed first and the painting added in later. This used a matte.

This new setup still used a sheet of glass between the camera and set, but instead of the detailed set paintings being applied, the sheet was painted matte black in the areas to be replaced later on. Hence the name matte painting. This method meant that the on set preparations were much quicker, and they could shoot for as long as they chose as the matte painter could match the painting into whichever takes were selected. Black in the studio, the matte painter would receive the shot  with the area which needed painting blacked out. They would then paint the matching matte painting to produce a composite image.

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This suited everyone as the film maker on set could shoot as they needed without wasted time, and the matte painter could work at a better pace in a studio rather than on set to produce a much better overall result.

This method was refined and improved with better camera equipment and optical printers, but until the advent of digital composting in the mid 1990’s it remained almost entirely the same with every matte painting being hand painted with oil paints.

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Matte Painting Today

The field of matte painting has had two very recent and sudden developments since computers have become the tool of choice for almost all visual effects work. The first was the change from traditional painting with oils and brushes to digital painting using Photoshop and graphics tablets. This dramatically changed the way matte painters were able to use photographic reference within their paintings, giving them the ability to choose from a library of images to use in their work. It also made revisions and paintings of the same location from different angles far quicker, as they could use earlier paintings as a basis to work from.

The second change to the way matte paintings are created has been the use 3D projection. This uses a 3D environment and low polygon geometry onto which the matte painting can be projected. This allowed far more complex and believable matte paintings to be produced, with variable depth of field and parallax. They can also be used with other developments such as camera tracking to create whole environments instead of flat backdrops.


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