Beyond Lights, Camera, Action – Understanding the Craft: Digital Matte Painting

How often have you felt trapped by the limits of your locations, or forced to alter your story to accommodate a location, or been limited to certain camera angles and movement? I’m always surprised when meeting indie filmmakers that many of them don’t know what a matte painting is. Matte paintings have been used in filmmaking for nearly 100 years and continue today. In fact, the digital age has made them even more effective storytelling tools.

A matte painting is a photorealistic representation allowing filmmakers to create the illusion of a location or set that either does not exist or is too expensive or impossible to go to or build. Matte painting is one of the most often used VFX techniques.

Originally matte paintings were painted on glass. One iconic example you’re sure to remember is from Raiders of the Lost Ark; the warehouse scene at the end of the film is one big matte painting with the only live action being the warehouseman pushing the cart along a small section of the floor.

Matte painting continues to be used today, for example it is being used extensively in Game of Thrones.  Matte paintings add a tremendous amount of production value while remaining extremely cost effective. They can create cities or destroy them, change summer into winter and day into night; they can extend a scene or stand on their own.

Matte paintings come in three “flavors” so to speak 2D, 2.5D, and 3D. Each one is increasingly complex, yet each yield successively greater opportunities.

A 2D matte painting is just what the name implies; a photorealistic painting is created in an application such as Photoshop as a two dimensional image. Camera movement on a 2D matte painting is limited to nodal pans and tilts where parallax does not come into play. Below is 2D matte painting I painted as an establishing shot. (Note the waterfall would be an animated element composited in post).

A 2D matte painting establishing shot.

2.5D matte paintings takes the 2D matte painting a bit further by breaking the image into separate layers, usually foreground, mid-ground, and background. These layers are brought into an application such as After Effects and each layer is a flat plane set into 3D space. Camera movement, in addition to the aforementioned pan and tilt, is extended to include movement which reveals parallax. Below is a 2.5D version of the 2D painting above.

3D matte paintings use 3D geometry and individual elements of the matte painting are projected onto the geometry much like a slide projector. The technique is referred to as camera mapping. A virtual camera is then “flown” through the scene. Multiple projections can be employed to extend the amount of movement available to the virtual camera. Below is a fairly simple example of a scene extension using camera mapping.

Integrating live action plates with matte paintings allows filmmakers to utilize specific parts of a location or just the number of set pieces to cover the live action and the remainder of the frame can be a photorealistic, yet fake, environment. The addition of a blue screen or green screen extends the possibilities even further.

The effectiveness of matte paintings has been proven time and again throughout the history of motion pictures. Thanks to the digital age, what once was only affordable in the realm of big budget films is available to almost any size production. In recent years, due in part to the more affordable digital techniques, matte painting has become increasingly used on TV. Indie filmmakers can make good use of matte painting techniques in their projects releasing them from the shackles that shooting on location often forces upon them.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>