The Illusion & Art of Matte Painting

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Ever wondered how the futuristic cities, alien worlds and panoramic views in movies come to life on screen? It’s through the magic of Digital Matte Painting. It is a technique in which a portion of a scene was blocked during filming and later replaced with new images or footage to create larger than life effect. Matte painting has been used in films extensively throughout the history of cinema but audience were never aware of this invisible art.

Earlier matte painting used to be done by artists by hand. So if a scene required an elaborate interior of a palace, the filmmakers would shoot the live actors on a sound stage with minimal set construction. Later the matte painting artists would add in details like dangling crystal chandeliers, big stained glass windows, ornate walls etc. Transforming the scene from a stark studio location to a spectacular palace setting! This was especially used to reduce cost of expensive shoots and locations.

Today matte painting is a completely digital process.  2D Photoshop paintings are blended with animated 3D elements and live actors to craft stunning and realistic looking fictional worlds. Matte painters rely on scene description in scripts to create concept art. They work closely with art directors to define the right composition of the concept art. They pay attention to colors, texture and lighting of the image to create right emotion and add to the story telling process.  Matte painting plays an important role in establishing setting of the story.

Next, the matte painting artist combines images with specialized tools and creates layers of digital paint. So he might add a thick forest to a digital photo of a mountain with a rocky terrain and misty waterfall, or turn a clean Victorian home into a haunted mansion by adding dead tangled vines and layers of grim.

Combining still matte paintings with live action can create stunning visual effects. Most matte painting now contains 3D models that are animated using software like Maya. So in a matte painting of a futuristic cityscape, the skyscrapers and cars that whiz by in the foreground could be 3D models.  Sometimes digital matter painting is even printed on huge canvas sheets and used as a background. To get more realistic matte paintings, the digital images are projected onto a 3D model like a 3D wireframe model of a city. The matte painter creates 2D images to map with the 3D geometry. So when director uses a virtual camera through the shot, all images get a 3D perspective.

A matte painting artist today works with visual effects team in post-production too as his work is not restricted to creating backdrops.  Digital Matte Painting requires a combination of skills like photography, 3D modelling and painting with good knowledge of integrating it with CGI environment. So what was once an invisible, behind-the-scene art is now a much in demand career choice. With not just movies, but even media and advertising today offering immense scope for artists with experience and skills in digital matte painting!

Written by shahaji on January 8th, 2015

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