VFX_MattePainting01“The beauty of the matte shot is that you can become God,” Alfred Hitchcock said. It has been called the invisible art, because when done well, viewers cannot even tell they are looking at a painting.

Captured by the camera and merged with live action, a distant galaxy, a lost empire or an impossible landscape can look undeniably real. And yet, among all the masters of filmic art’s smoke and mirrors, matte painters remain some of the least appreciated artisans considering what the bring to the table.

VFX_MattePainting02A successful matte painting is one that is never exposed of the trickery. It is a two-dimensional image which is seamlessly integrated with other shot elements, creating the composite. Chris Evans, an Industrial Light and Magic (ILM) matte painter, aptly described matte painting as a magic trick: “The magician moves his wand to divert attention while the other hand does the trick. With the matte artist, the live-action plate is the diversion (moving wand), and the painting is the trick hand.”


Goals for a Successful Matte Painting

Realistic Lighting and Exposure
Level of Detail– more detail and work on focus areas, less on others
Match the plate
Moving elements – Sell the image (fog, wind, water, glare, animals, fire, smoke, etc)
Strong Focal Point and Quick Readability – visual complexity is well-organized
Strong Staging – great camera composition and visual flow
Camera Movement – add interest with camera pans, dollies and tracks (true zooms are uncommon)

Common Pipeline

VFX_MattePainting041. Plate Preparation (scanning, LUTs established, color space)
2. Concept Art (detailed sketch) is created and approved
3. Layout/Camera Animation created and approved
4. 3D Models, Trees, Effects Created/ Practicals Acquired
5. High-Resolution Matte Painting, pre-comps for approval
6. Plate Integration (keyed out footage of principles)
7. Final Grading (color correction, wedges)
8. Shot Finaled

Image Manipulation Tips

Use HSL/Curve Adjustments Layers & Layer Masks instead of directly manipulating pixels – always maintain as much non-destructive pixel control as possible. Every color correction adjustment applied to plates or images causes a degree of destruction to the original pixels.

Keep in mind that all images found online (Google Images Search) are 8-bit – very limiting in color depth and highly susceptible to banding when color correcting. Investing is 16 or 32-bit libraries of photos are highly valued for matte painters.

VFX_MattePainting05Photoshop Dodge and Burn tools are very destructive, and affect more than just lights and darks (including saturation). Substitute these with blending mode layers above the source pixels.

Use photos that fit the same lighting environment as the final painting – ambient lighting and direct lighting. Hard shadows baked into a photo can prove difficult to remove.

Use photos that have the same perspective as the final painting. Keep in mind lens distortion and focal length used in source images.

Remember rules and reference of atmospheric perspective/haze/participating media.

Don’t just guess at how light reacts in environments – get reference whenever possible. Observe nature!

Don’t forget about finishing touches like grain, lens distortion, chromatic aberration and other lens defects.

Resolution and Hero Element Tips

Never work at a low color depth (ie: 8-bit) or in CMYK mode. CMYK (printers color-gamut) will change your colors when converted back to RGB (especially highly saturated colors).

Work at a minimum of 16-bit color depth.

Always work at a higher resolution than the final filmed image needs to be (at least 150%). This allows for camera moves, as well as resampling down that may hide minor edge defects.

VFX_MattePainting06Hero elements are objects or characters very close to the camera who need a great amount of detail. Static trees/weeds/tall grass that are very close to the camera will give away the “static” element of the shot. Consider 3D trees/grass with dynamics or a keyed out plate of animated trees. Good program choices to use would be Vue or Speedtree.

Tracking-in camera moves going past hero elements that are simply placed on cards may give away the “flatness” of an element (akin to the Disney Mulit-Plane Camera effect – as in the image above from 1991 Beauty and the Beast). Proper closeup rotation of elements moving in foreground parallax may be needed.


To read the history of matte paintings, including extensive before-and-after green screen shots from the latest movies and television, please visit the VFX Lecture Series!


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