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Digital Matte Paintings Basics

How Matte Paintings are Composited into Motion Picture

Ever wonder how those incredible scenes of panoramic vistas, impossible futuristic cities, or fantastic alien worlds come to life? It’s all through the magic of matte painting. Digital Matte Painting is a huge creative field that can add wonder and excitement to static film shots.

Matte paintings are one of the primary VFX methods utilized in filmmaking. Traditionally implemented in photography, matte paintings have evolved from painted glass panels to entire 3D virtual worlds and environments.

A matte painting is often a painted glass pane that is used to show a landscape or large set piece. Matte paintings are either filmed on set, where they are framed to look like a physical set piece, or they are combined with live footage in post production.

Ages ago, extremely talented artists painted these realistic scenes on large sheets of glass. It really is a lost art nowadays. The painting included blank areas that would get filled in with live action. The filmed segments were optically composited with the painting for the final result. A matte is a solid shape that is used to block out areas of the film frame so that no image gets exposed there. A simple matte shot would require a shot of the painting with a matte to block out the live area, the film sequence with a matte to block out everything but the live area, and a final piece of film for everything to be exposed onto.

matte paintings

Digital Matte Paintings

While most motion picture productions have moved to blue and green screens, the techniques used my matte painters are still applied to modern filmmaking. Background plates are often still hand drawn or painted. They are used as reference material for the digital artwork.

Matte paintings are also no longer trapped into two dimensional images. Entire 3D sets and backgrounds are created digitally. Even digital cameras are used to add movement. There are still films that will use matte paintings as backdrops. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, six 100-foot canvases were stitched together and placed behind the set.

matte paintings


Adobe Photoshop

With the invention of Adobe Photoshop, things began to change. What used to require laborious work in a film studio with several lengths of film and expensive, specialized cameras can now be done on a home computer with easily available software. No matter how you approach it, Photoshop has become an integral part of the process. The simplest matte paintings are ones in which the camera is stationary throughout the entire sequence. This is called a locked-off shot. Creating matte paintings for this kind of shot can be fairly easy. Only one frame, or plate, of the footage is needed. It can be opened in Photoshop and the new areas painted right on top.

3D Animation

The advances and arrival of 3D animation, matte paintings no longer need to be static shots. Simple geometry can be built in a 3D environment that matches the scene. The matte paintings are then projected onto those shapes, similar to how slides are projected onto a screen. The painting is no longer a flat, 2D image, but has some dimension to it. This technique is known as camera mapping and it allows a virtual camera to be animated in 3D space around the matte paintings.