When you start learning a completely new discipline or technique without a pre-made course or workshop it is sometimes tricky to know where to start and what to do in your first steps. Hopefully this article will help you to understand “where to look” and “why” in your first steps in Digital Matte Painting.
Solve one problem at a time
Like any other discipline, learning Digital Matte Painting will require you to perform some repetitive tasks. First you need to master a craft, the technical side of it, and then you can proceed to solve creative problems of DMP.
There is a great paragraph on that in the How to Draw book by Scott Robinson:
‘Drawing requires full concentration! Initially you will spend most of your energy on craftsmanship and construction and very little on design. The more craftsmanship and construction skills become muscle memory, the more design can become a focus.’
This also applies to learning DMP (or Concept art, or sculpting in fact).
You have to train yourself with basic exercises to the point you can do them in a short period of time and then you will start solving the bigger picture puzzle.
Back in 2017 the MattePainting4Film Facebook Group had a little challenge. An exercise on channel selection and colour correction. Garrett Fry provided plate photography and the main subject of the challenge was to add some trees to the original image, cutting and placing the trees from additional photography of the same location.
I did a couple of simple channel selections and a bit of color correction and got my result in a matter of minutes.
You can see there is not much changed but the goal is to blend the elements as seamlessly as possible. Below is what was added in the beginning. After solving the technical problem I decided to challenge myself with a creative one and make the picture look more epic (on the screen right).
This is a great example of how you can't successfully solve creative tasks without being good at the technical side first.
Most of the time when somebody asks me where to start with Matte Painting I always answer: Start Simple.
Beginners tend to jump straight to a massive project with a lot of elements, complicated composition and lighting scenarios which would be pretty hard to achieve for even experienced artists. As a result, finished work looks neither photoreal nor interesting. As a first couple of exercises I would recommend to limit yourself to 3-4 elements per image.
For example seaside.psd (download at the bottom of this article) contains only 4 additional elements to the plate photography:
- Replaced sky
- Mountain peaks on the left side
- Extended shoreline
By using only a few elements, you will be able to complete the work before your creativity goes away or frustration takes over. Don’t rush it either, just take each step from the start and take your time. Even in the big studios, most of the junior level tasks are about replacing some background elements like sky or part of the clouds, maybe adding a small line of mountains distance trees in the background.
At this step the most important part is seamlessly blending the elements together. It might not seem like much but takes a bit of time to master. Try to do the same task with different types of the environment, different landscapes (like forest and desert, rocky canyon and green valley) and cityscapes.
You should also check out these two articles in our beginner series which both come with the photo assets to practice.
Quality of your references
Another part most beginners don’t pay attention to is the quality of photo references they choose to use for their work. If you don't have resources, this is where The MattePaint Gallery can provide you with a massive library of high quality photos specifically selected and tailored to matte painter’s needs.
"Don’t use images with clamped blacks or whites"
If you are using references from other resources, remember to pick only high resolution images without a lot of noise or grain. If the picture was taken on a cheap camera and has a lot of chromatic aberrations and digital noise from the censor it could be tricky to properly extract elements for your work.
Don’t use images with clamped blacks or whites because you need a wide range of gamma in your matte paintings, unlike Concept art where you can create an environment without worrying about the range and you can simplify the image by adding broad brushstrokes to the elements. Remember that ideally in a studio environment your work will be passed along the pipeline to the Compositing department where it will be seamlessly merged with plate photography which has a lot of range in the image.
Ideally, the best practice is to use your own photos from trips or hikes, where you can control all the values in 16bit RAW files (MattePaint provides RAW files as well if needed). This means you can change the exposure and white balance much easier than with jpg's! Of course there are situations when you have to use photos from other sources so just be aware, if you're using a jpg, it's an 8bit image with lower range in gamma.
Here is an example:
Good range of color in image on the left and overexposed clamped values in image on the right will give you a bad result in the end and won't be accepted in a professional studio environment
Notice how much details are lost in the top right image. Unfortunately you won’t be able bring them back with any adjustments so just avoid to use it in your work
Another thing to be aware of is the compression quality of the image:
Notice how much artifacts the left image has compared to the right image. I would suggest avoiding high compressed images as a reference source for your elements.
Time of the day
Looking for images with the same light direction is just as important as the time of the day. Identifying good reference is a vital attribute of finding pictures for your work.
It is almost impossible to composite a good image using source photos from different times of the day even if it is in the same location. There are ways to make it fit at the end, but it is not easy for complete beginners and can bring a lot of frustrations during your work. The same applies to weather conditions, an overcast sky and directly lit rocks with hard shadows on them might be applicable for quick concept art images but for good matte painting, you would need to spend a lot of time re-lighting those images to match.
This is a good exercise but requires a bit more practice and experience. We will talk about that in a different article and it will be one of the tasks later on but for the beginners I would say - try to pick elements from a similar time of the day and weather condition. And remember where the light source is!
Take a look at the pictures below, notice despite the fact that the added mountain part has a different color grade, the sun position and time of the day are the same.
Photography from everyday life
I occasionally take pictures on my way to the office or on my way home. Or any other times I see something worth capturing either for my personal or professional work or as a reference or an idea for the new project.
In general, I suggest beginners or junior artists look into photography as it will help you to get better with your composition and will expand your knowledge on the technicality of photography. You will learn more about focal length, sensor sizes, filters and other equipment which will help you in your matte painting. If you don’t have a DSLR or cannot afford one at this time, the majority of modern cell phones will provide you with good enough elements to begin your journey.
For example a starting point for the neoVancouver.psd (below) was one of the shots I took on my phone on one gloomy morning while walking to the office. I decided it was a good base to transform the waterfront skyline into something more futuristic.
And again, I chose a pretty simple approach and kept the overall number of elements under 5 or 6.
The main work on the image actually was color matching, fixing some textures of the elements and changing the shapes of the buildings.
Also distorting some of the parts to match the focal length of the source photograph. Which brings us to the next topic…
Focal length of your plate image and references
Most of the photo packs from photo reference services contain EXIF data for exported images. Checking this data you can identify focal length for your plate photography or elements you are going to use in your work to avoid perspective mismatch and other distortion problems later on.
Here is an example of two drastically different focal lengths:
You can see a huge difference in distortion on the edges of both images. It's barely noticeable on 70mm and pretty obvious on 16mm. You could challenge yourself and try to extend and replace elements on 16 or even 12 mm shot but for beginners it’s probably safe to stay in range from 24-50mm as these are the most flexible and forgiving.
Horizon line and the perspective
If are not familiar with this subject I recommend to take a look at video on the MattePaint Academy here:
It is a very important thing and sometimes completely overlooked. Even small differences in vanishing points can make the final picture look unrealistic. It is noticeable in cityscape matte paintings or any urban environment where you can easily see the difference in the perspective and as a result the difference in horizon line. Also, it’s a bad practice to mix aerial shots with ground level references. I'ts possible, but once again it's something I would not recommend to beginners.
You can use the Vanishing Point filter (Ctrl+Alt+V) in Photoshop to create a grid to help you with perspective of your elements. Watch the tutorials from the beginner section on MattePaint Academy and try to master one technique at the time. Alternatively, check out the Perspective Tool Set From Sergey Kritskiy which will help you identify your horizon line and perspective lines as well. Alternatively,
Below you can find some PSD files to download from this article. I would also highly recommend to read and follow along the two articles from Conrad on Basics of Matte Painting. Both Conrad's articles have the original assets he used available as a download so you can try for yourself.
Another great article is the 8 Tips to learning matte painting. This will give you more knowledge to form a foundation for your journey!
If you have any questions you can join a Discord server where our mentors and community pros will help you!
Good luck and thanks for reading!