Take any film aficionado’s top ten list of favourite movie tricks, and the chances are you’ll find the venerable art of matte painting near the top. But what actually is matte painting, and what makes it so special?
To put it in a nutshell, a matte painting is a piece of artwork used to fill in part of a scene that can’t otherwise be photographed. Take a cathedral interior, for example. Assuming you can’t find a real cathedral to shoot in, do you really want to shell out half your precious budget on constructing that mile-high vaulted ceiling? Wouldn’t you prefer to build your set up to a convenient height of, say, ten feet, then use a painting to patch in the rest?
Or, let’s say you want to photograph Count Dracula’s castle perched precipitously on top of a mountain. Are you prepared to ship a construction crew all the way out to the Bavarian Alps? Are you ready to face a mob of locals with torches and pitchforks protesting about how you’re defacing the landscape? Doesn’t it make more sense to photograph a suitably rugged portion of rocky terrain, then hire a skilled artist to paint in the vampire’s looming lair?
In short, isn’t the most straightforward solution to use a matte painting? Of course it is.
Unfortunately, matte painting isn’t quite as simple as that …
What’s a Matte
Matte painting has been around since the dawn of cinema. To understand its origins, we first have to understand the use of the word “matte”, which in visual effects terminology is really just another word for “mask”.
The original mattes were nothing more than pieces of black material, cut to shape and positioned in front of a camera in order to blank out part of a frame for later enhancement –the top half of a cathedral interior, for example. Thus the use of the term “matte painting” to describe the artwork created to fill in the blank.
As for combining the painting with the live-action, a common solution was to double-expose the artwork into the blank space left in the original footage, while masking the already-exposed portion of the frame with a counter-matte to protect it from further exposure. Another option was the “glass shot”, in which the vaulted ceiling of our notional cathedral would be painted in situ on a piece of glass positioned between the camera and the partial set.
Ah, but the artwork used in a glass shot isn’t strictly speaking a matte painting, because no masks are involved.
To split such hairs is to open a much wider debate on the subject of process photography – the craft of taking multiple elements and combining them into a seamless, composite shot. There are many ways this can be done. Indeed, in the early days of the movies, hardly a year went by without a legion of competing special effects technicians filing one patent after another, each trying to corner the process photography market.
Here’s just a small selection, as chronicled by Earl Theisen in the June 1934 edition of The International Photographer:
- 1874 – C. M. Coolidge was granted patent No. 149,724 for a process of making composite prints by masking
- 1912 – A. Engelsmann was granted patent No. 1,019,141 for a system of combining actors and artwork on a glass plate placed in front of a painted backdrop
- 1917 – R. V. Stanbaugh was granted patent No. 1,226,135 for a process in which a traveling mask was threaded in the camera together with an unexposed film
- 1918 – Norman Dawn was granted patent No. 1,269,061 for a process using photographs of the foreground as a cut-out mask, behind which a background was then added
- 1918 – Frank D. Williams was granted patent No. 1,273,435 for a bi-pack matte process
- 1923 – D. W. Griffith was granted patent No. 1,476,885 on a process using a painted screen with a hole cut in it, with actors performing behind
- 1925 – Ralph Hammeras was granted patent No. 1,540,213 for a new glass shot technique
- 1926 – Eugene Schufftan was granted patent No. 1,569,789 for a variant of the glass shot which involved photographing through a transmission mirror
- 1927 – C. D. Dunning was granted patent No. 1,613,163 for a traveling matte process using colour separations
I’ll spare you the long version of the above list. It goes on for a very long time.
The Golden Era of Matte Painting
So how does a matte artist actually go about his business? Here’s an account from the July 1929 edition of American Cinematographer, written by Fred W. Sersen, who at the time was chief of the art department at William Fox Studios, and bearing the charming subtitle Some of the Intricacies of Making Things Seem What They Are Not Explained for the Amateur by an Expert with Years of Experience:
“It is best for the matte to be placed about thirty inches from the camera, even further if the glass or the material to be used for the matte is easy to obtain. When matting to the footage (especially when there is any wind blowing) or when dust is created by action in the scene, in a rain or snow storm, very soft blend is desirable and the matte should be placed four to six inches from the lens.”
Sersen goes on to explain various ways in which the painted part of the frame can be matched to the original photography. One of these involves projecting a test section of the original photography on to a coloured surface, and tracing the outlines of the scene:
“After the drawing is completed, it is laid in with oil paint in black and white, and on the artist’s ability and experiences depends the matching of the tones of the first exposure, which is ascertained by making the hand test and comparing the tones. He does this repeatedly by correcting the painting until the match is perfect.”
No sooner had artists perfected such techniques within the monochromatic world of early cinema, than along came colour. Now it wasn’t just a matter of matching light and shade, but also hue.
In the January 1940 edition of American Cinematographer, Byron Haskin (who went on to direct The War of the Worlds in 1953) made the following observations about the use of colour in matte paintings:
“It is obvious that the coloring of the actual set or landscape of the live-action portion of the shot must be precisely matched by the coloring of their respective continuations in the painting. This is by no means easy.
“It is entirely possible that the pigments used to paint a set may not photograph with the same Technicolor values as will visually identical pigments used in producing the matte painting. Therefore … the matte painter must not only know what colors were used in the set, but what paints were used to produce those colors. Where it is possible, he should have samples of the colors and paints used. The same, of course, is also true of fabrics and the like where they enter the matte painter’s problem.
“Equally important is the color of the lighting used in photographing the matte painting. Most Technicolor interiors are lit with special arc equipment which gives a light very closely matched to natural daylight.”
Because of these and other technical constraints, matte painters were forced to develop skills quite different to those of the average artist. They had to mix their colours and make their brushstrokes while all the time bearing in mind the myriad quirks and vagaries of the photochemical filmmaking process.
Once the colours were matched and the composition approved, the matte painting was finally ready to be combined with the original negative. Alignment of the two was critical, so as to avoid unwanted black lines at the point where the two images came together. Feathered edges were frequently used to soften the joins. Equally critical was the stability of both camera and projector, as the slightest movement would cause the painted part of the frame to judder against the original photography.
By now it should be evident that these pioneers of matte painting faced some stiff challenges. As Earl Thiesen remarked in the November 1936 edition of Movie Makers:
“Glass paintings are not simple, since the picture must be photographic in technique. The details, tone values and harmony of all parts of the painting must resemble a photograph and must match the perspective and photographic values of the setting. Very few artists have the ability necessary to do a glass painting.”
If you want to dig a little deeper into the history of the craft, check out Matte Shot, Peter Cook’s expansive repository of screenshots and commentary exploring the golden era of matte painting.
The Matte Painting Evolves
Throughout the 20th century, matte painting continued to thrive, enhancing the look of Biblical epics, Westerns, thrillers and period dramas alike. Got a scene in a lavish ballroom? Use the cathedral trick and just build the bottom half of the room – those matte boys just love painting chandeliers. Need to see a Spanish galleon anchored just off-shore? Forget shipbuilders – call the art department instead. And even if you’re forced to shoot on an overcast day, there’s no need to fret. It’s the work of a moment to paint a dramatic sky filled with ominous clouds.
As they developed their craft, matte painters were constantly trying out new techniques to stop their paintings looking like, well, paintings. They used layered artwork to create a greater illusion of depth. They devised cunning animated gags to simulate movement in the waves of a painted sea, or used backlighting to create convincing flares around a setting sun.
During the 1980s – that ambitious age when traditional photochemical effects techniques were being stretched to the limit – matte painters continued to push the envelope. For many of the spectacular wide shots in Return of the Jedi, for example, multiple sections of live-action were rear-projected into gaps left deliberately empty in gigantic glass paintings.
At the same time, artists were also exploring more deeply the idea of combining “straight” matte paintings with other visual effects techniques. Disappointed by the look of their original matte painting of Pankot Palace for Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, ILM’s Mike Pangrazio and Christopher Evans prepared a cut-out silhouette of the building, which they photographed on a convenient hilltop at sunset. Matte painting techniques were then used to enhance the resulting image with highlights and other architectural details.
By the time ILM was working on the 1988 fantasy Willow, the line between matte painting and miniature had blurred still further. Speaking about Willow in Cinefex 35, matte department supervisor Christopher Evans remarked:
“There are real advantages to using miniatures with matte paintings. Miniatures have incredible perspective, but matte painting can create a sense of atmosphere and distance better than a model. Combining the two techniques is like making an alloy in metallurgy – the combination of the two ingredients is stronger than either by itself. The miniature is shot latent image and then we add the paint to it – so it is actually a blending and intermixing of the two.”
Yet, in this same decade, digital techniques were also on the rise. In this brave new world of photorealistic visual effects, would there still be a place for the traditional matte painting?
A Bigger Canvas
Astonishingly, despite all the changes that have swept through the effects business over the decades, matte painting is still a recognised – and thriving – discipline. Nowadays, of course, it’s called “digital matte painting” – or DMP – and on the face of it bears little resemblance to what was practised by those early paintbrush-wielding pathfinders.
In an era when the movie camera can (and frequently does) go anywhere, the new watchword for all visual effects artists is flexibility. It’s no longer good enough to lock down the camera and let the action play out across a static canvas – even a digital one.
What’s more, it’s now not unusual for a visual effects shot to be tweaked ten, twenty, even hundreds of times, with notes and comments flying endlessly back and forth between artist, supervisor and director. Faced with the need to generate multiple iterations of a shot, what artist would be crazy enough to use a paintbrush?
That’s why matte painters have had to enter not only the digital realm, but also the third dimension.
This Rodeo FX Game of Thrones reel contains many great examples of digital matte paintings and environment extensions:
A modern digital matte painting is created not by daubing paint on to a piece of glass, but by mapping artwork on to CG geometry. In a typical DMP environment, the models used might be relatively crude – perhaps just a series of flat planes or geometry layered up in virtual space. However, the devil is in the detail, and the detail is in the textures.
Textures for a DMP might be collages assembled from reference photography, perhaps taken on location or on the set, or artwork created from scratch. The digital matte artist refines these with retouching and hand-painting techniques, using software such as Adobe Photoshop or The Foundry’s MARI to create files that can subsequently be wrapped around the necessary geometry.
The result? A rich, dimensional environment that can be viewed from a number of key angles or, if necessary, from all sides.
Yet, even in this integrated digital world, the artistry of the matte painter still holds sway. And on the rare occasion a matte painter actually finds himself in the director’s chair – as Robert Stromberg did recently when he helmed Disney’s Maleficent – the possibilities are endless.
Talking about his directorial debut in Cinefex 138, Stromberg revealed:
“I did about 100 matte paintings [for Maleficent] … I’ve been lucky enough to make people feel a certain way through background art or matte painting. This was an opportunity to explore other ways to create emotion. As a movie director, it’s a bigger canvas.”
Matte Painting in a Nutshell
As we’ve learned, in the context of visual effects, “matte” means “mask”.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “paint” is “a coloured substance which is spread over a surface and dries to leave a thin decorative or protective coating”.
Taking those two definitions at face value, traditionalists might argue that modern DMP isn’t matte painting at all. I can see their point. Since it began, the craft has changed out of all recognition, hasn’t it?
Yes, and no.
Take another look at that list of patents from the first few decades of the 20th century. What do they prove if not that change has been with us since the very beginning? Each generation strives to better the last, and will eventually develop the tools to do so. Either every age is a golden age, or none of them is.
But it’s really only the tools that change, isn’t it? Everything else stays the same: the intent of the artists; the commitment they show to their task; the skill with which they wield their tools.
That’s why I don’t believe matte painting has changed at all. The skill-sets of the people doing the work may have altered, but their purpose remains what it has always been.
What is that purpose? To extend reality beyond its natural borders. To create the solid gold setting in which the jewel of performance can shine. To enhance what exists with what we can only imagine, and in doing so makes the mundane beautiful.
Now that’s matte painting in a nutshell. What do you know? It turned out to be simple after all.
“Return of the Jedi” photograph copyright © 1983 by Lucasfilm Ltd. “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” photographs copyright © 1984 by Lucasfilm Ltd. “Maleficent” photograph copyright © 2014 by Walt Disney Pictures.