Friday, May 25, 2012

VFX Back to Basics Series: 7. What is matte painting?

This is part of a series on the basic elements of Visual Effects. Each post will talk about a certain element which is one of the basic bricks used for building VFX shots.

In this seventh post I will talk about matte painting.

So far in this series I have used images and photos to illustrate what I am writing. These have been always made or photographed by myself. Although to me matte painting is one of the most amazing tools in film making I do not master it enough to give good examples. I am still a very novice painter. I do not like to steal other people's work to display them on my blog so for now this article will lack the proper visuals. There are some beautiful images out there by accomplished artists. Just google "matte painting" to see some examples.

If you are an artist and like to share your paintings to be featured here as examples please feel free to contact me. You will be properly credited. Mind you that these have to be of good quality. Now onto the article itself.


From all the basic VFX elements we can conclude that matte painting is the oldest trick of the trade. It may be old but it is still alive and kicking although the way they are made has undergone a digital upgrade.

The first known matte painting was made as early as 1907 by Norman Dawn. Dawn painted buildings on a glass pane which was placed in front of the camera. The set behind the glass pane was visible trough the unpainted areas. This way it was possible to record the image in just one exposure. This technique is also known as glass painting.

Dawn also worked with the double exposure technique where the the transparent areas were painted black. This left the those areas unexposed and allowed them to be exposed a second time to add in the other elements. The technique was so much cheaper than building sets that it has been very successful over the last century of film making.

Matte painting today

In 1985 matte painting started to move into the digital realm. It allowed for more accuracy, realism and speed to produce the paintings. Today Photoshop is the number one application to create matte paintings but gets more and more support from 3D programs to create a basis for the painting.

Matte painting is still the most cost efficient way to make background shots which do not have extensive camera movements. Even with a simple pan or travel it can still work. Once the the camera starts moving around things it is better to consider to build everything in 3D.

Let's have a quick look at a couple of most used methods to make a matte painting.

1. Start a painting from scratch.
Starting a painting with an empty canvas is quite tricky and is usually done by trained artists. They start of with a sketch or a very rough drawing and keep on refining it till enough detail is present. They pay a lot of attention to color and light as this gives the mood of the painting. This method is mostly used to generate totally made up landscapes.

2. Starting from footage or a photograph.
Usually there is already some information available like some footage from the set. The matte painting just needs to extend or modify this base. This method can be used to modify a perfect building into a ruin or vice versa of course. Photographs can be used to add elements to all of this. The artist recolors these images so they fit in perfectly.

3. Starting from a 3D model.
The method to start from a 3D model is becoming more common. It allows to get the perspective right from the start as the 3D program calculates that for you. Instead of texturing the model inside the 3D package it is used to paint over it in the matte painting.

Matte Painting, a classical artistic job.

Although matte painting starts to move more into the 3D realm it is mostly a very artistic profession. Most of the matte painters have had a classical education in art. It therefor demands a lot of training to get it right. Just knowing photoshop doesn't do the trick. Knowing color and composition are essential skills.

This concludes the seventh part of the VFX Back to Basics series.
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6. What is lighting and rendering?

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