Matte Paintings and the art in filmmaking

Culture Life

Image description: A collection of matte paintings from a contest

The technique known as matte painting is one of the earliest visual effects techniques to be used in filmmaking. Today, in an age dominated by computer renderings of worlds beyond our own, it is often nice to look back on the people who laid the groundwork for films like Avatar or Avenger’s Endgame.

For those who don’t know, matte painting is a painted film set, often on a glass pane, used to either serve as background with a physical set piece or as an element combined with filmed footage in post-production to expand various aspects of the filmed scene that did not exist in reality. Common uses would be to expand the scene beyond a small area, particularly in the fantasy genre where various real locations might require additional architecture or scene elements. One of the most famous matte paintings was by Christopher Evans, who the Imperial March in the original Star Wars, expanding the number of stormtroopers onset beyond the real-life actors. 

Matte painting is the true blend of artist and filmmaker

For me, matte painting is the true blend of artist and filmmaker. It is the unifying of artistic skill, awareness of light, and careful, painstaking planning where ones creative direction must be absolutely certain. A single matte painting might be weeks or months of work, and therefore the director must have an acute awareness of the set design. In more recent years, matte paintings have evolved from being static elements, combining with computer technologies to serve as references for 3D modelling. The Lord of the Rings trilogy was famous for using matte painted landscapes, such as Rivendell, that was enhanced with additional moving elements a digital camera motion to prevent the scene from looking static. Real filmed scenes like waterfalls and actors were rendered atop the painting to give life to it. 

The Lord of the Rings trilogy was famous for using matte painted landscapes, such as Rivendell, that was enhanced with additional moving elements a digital camera motion to prevent the scene from looking static.

Over time, matte painting has not just been a term used to refer to filmmaking. Indeed, while many films still use digitally drawn matte paintings in their sets, the term has evolved to encompass an entire genre of digital art that focussed on photorealistic landscape design. Pieces are often used in video game creation and concept renderings, as well as standalone pieces of their own. Furthermore, the accessibility of photoshop to a wider audience has given many amateur artists a tool to create their own works, selling their talents to smaller companies for billboard design or cover imagery. Matte painting, as with any painting, relies upon ones understanding of the ‘formal elements’: shape, form, tone, texture, pattern, colour, and composition. 

Without a clear knowledge of these, the viewer will quickly determine the real from the created and the illusion one hopes to achieve will quickly fade. Perspective in static works is key to draw the eye to the important parts of the frame. Particularly in filmmaking, it can ensure that the viewer is fixated on the moving elements and the parts that are key to the storyline, rather than the painted elements that if seen in isolation look fake. Lighting design also adds to this, and good light design will blend the black levels and white levels of the painted elements with those that match the filmed scene. 

In the art of matte painting as standalone artworks, a unanimous light design will tie together elements of the pieces that may consist of both hand-drawn shapes and reference images taken from stock photo sites. To explain the latter, often to either save time or to emphasise the realism of the piece, static artists will do much the same as the filmmakers, blending their own drawing with real photographs of real places. In doing so, they must ensure that both the perspective and the lighting levels of these additional features match the overall scene. 

Matte paintings… create landscapes that tell stories through their scale

While matte painting might have fallen out of general use in many of the blockbuster movies, it is still a powerful tool, particularly for smaller production companies and independent artists. Such is the technology today that anyone with photoshop and a drawing tablet can try their hand at matte painting with fairly successful results. Personally, I drew reference from films like Blade Runner and also computer games such as The Last of Us to create my own piece during my Art A-level, and in doing so incorporated much of the techniques described in this article. What I learned was that matte paintings are not only tools to ‘cheat’ reality and create a world beyond what is available on set, but they are also a tool to go beyond the real and create landscapes that tell stories through their scale. 

Image credit: Kaustavsinha Wikipedia commons


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