Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have grappled with a fundamental problem: how to achieve artistic greatness on a budget. When pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès made "Le Voyage dans la Lune" in 1902, special effects meant painting some curtains as backdrops and using an actual man in a moon costume for the man in the moon.
Even today, with blockbuster film budgets over $250 million, it's still not economically feasible to film on the moon. Directors and producers are always looking for creative new ways to create ultra-realistic, otherworldly settings that tell their stories with unprecedented power. For more than 100 years, one of the most successful methods has been matte painting, a technique in which a portion of a scene is blocked during filming and later replaced with new images or footage.
During the first half of the 20th century, almost all movies were shot on studio backlots and soundstages. It was too expensive to film on location. So if a scene called for the interior of a lavish European castle, the filmmakers would shoot the live actors on a sound stage with minimal set construction. Later, they would use matte painting artists to fill in the details by hand -- the dangling crystal chandeliers, ornate tapestries, vast libraries and towering stained glass windows -- that transport the actors from Studio City to Transylvania.15
Computers have had a tremendous impact on the way people make movies, particularly in the world of special effects. In the past 30 years, computer-generated (CG) landscapes, objects and animated characters have opened up unimaginable possibilities for filmmakers. Matte painting is now an entirely digital process, where 2-D Photoshop paintings are blended with animated 3-D elements and live actors to create stunning, totally convincing fictional worlds.
How do film matte painters work? How do matte painters use digital tools?
Film Matte Painting
Matte painting has its roots in still photography. In the mid-19th century, photographers began using double-exposure techniques to composite two distinct images into one photograph. In the Victorian era, so-called spirit photography captured the imagination of the masses. In these photos, ghostly apparitions seemed to mingle with the living. They were, in reality, simple darkroom tricks, or what we now call special effects.
Film matte painting grew directly out of this special effects tradition. In 1905, a man named Norman Dawn was working as a still photographer in Los Angeles. He was disappointed when one of his shots came back partially blocked by a telephone pole. A colleague told Dawn to go take the picture again, but this time to bring along a piece of glass with an image of a tree painted on it. Hold the piece of glass between the camera and the building and use the fake tree to cover the pole. It was a simple old photographer's trick, but proved a convincing illusion [source: Cotta Vaz].
An aspiring filmmaker, Dawn soon developed a system for applying glass matte painting to the exciting new world of motion pictures. The Dawn Process or in-the-camera matte shot works like this:
A large sheet of glass is mounted in a box attached to the front of the camera.
Using black paint, a matte artist blocks out all parts of the scene that will later be replaced with a matte painting. What remains are the actors in front of some small constructed sets.
The live action is shot through the glass matte, creating a partially-exposed negative. Since light was not allowed to pass through the blackened portions of the camera lens, the corresponding parts of the negative are considered unexposed.
The movie director shoots several minutes of extra footage with the glass matte in place. This extra footage will be developed and used as test strips.
In post-production, the matte artist uses a frame of the test strip as a reference to create a new glass matte where the live action area of the scene is blocked out with black paint.
The artist then paints all around the black area, carefully maintaining the perspective and composition of the shot. He continually checks his work against the test strip.
When the matte artist and director are satisfied with the way the matte painting blends with the test strip, they mount the glass painting on the front of the camera.
Finally, they run the partially exposed negative back through the camera and film the scene with the glass matte painting in place. Since the live action portion of the scene is blacked out on the matte painting, the first exposure isn't double-exposed. The result is a realistic composite image of the live action and the matte painting.