During my time studying at University, one area of the visual effects industry that peaked my interest in particular was Matte Painting but not only for its fine art and digital wizardry, but for its tradition of art dating back 100's of years. I could go on and on about the Renaissance period and the years of notorious artists that have made an impact on the way art is used today, but I can bore you with that another time. I want to dive straight into the brief history of Matte Painting and share my studies in hopes it can influence other new artists to take on a new journey like myself.
So What Is Matte Painting?
In a world of Visual Effects and its ever expanding technological advancements, Matte painting is looked at as one of the oldest techniques in the industry and is undeniably applied more widely than most other techniques. The basic principle "to use one or few paintings to replace a background” may sound simple but the techniques required for this is highly dependent on one’s artistic skillset. These phenomenal paintings replace backgrounds and extend buildings that have to be observed as "realism", tricking the audience into thinking the background is part of the original footage.
The early days of Matte painting started as an advanced tool at the time to create settings in a cost effective and efficient manner, helping to portray stories that would be impossible without them for technical, logistical and budgetary reasons.
Historical Techniques of Matte Painting
The Glass Shot and Norman Dawn
The Glass Shot was first used in the 1907 motion picture “Missions of California” by a man named Norman Dawn. The innovation of The Glass Shot for Films was credited to Dawn and this technique had been used for many years in still photography. In fact, this very technique was taught to Dawn whilst he was a still photographer in 1905. The Film “Missions of California” saw a destroyed and dilapidated building rebuilt as Dawn painted the bell towers and roofs on to the plane of glass.
The History of Peter Ellenshaw
Peter Ellenshaw was an English Matte painter born in 1913 and can be regarded as one of the Michelangelo’s of Matte painting, his artwork was flawless which captured the attention of animator Walt Disney, and Film Director Robert Stevenson. Ellenshaw taught himself how to paint by copying ‘The Old Masters’ (Old Masters traditionally refers to great European artists during the period roughly 1300-1830).
He eventually pursued the only artist he knew of at the time, Pioneer Matte artist and Special Effects Technician, Walter Percy Day. He spent the next Seven years Mastering the art beyond what he had already taught himself before venturing on his own journey, leading him to work on such films as:
· Treasure Island (1950)
· 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea (1954)
· Darby O’Gill and the Little People (1959)
· Mary Poppins (1964) – Academy Award for his work
· Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971)
Although Peter Ellenshaw is well known for his work in these films, one of my favourite pieces that he painted is from Stanley Kubrick's film ‘Spartacus’ (1960).
The Glass Shot and The Optical Printer (VistaVision)
Whether you are a fan of the latest Star Wars Films or the originals, the phenomenal artistry used on set of the originals was impeccable.
The Original Star Wars Trilogy is one of the most famous trilogies ever written and quite frankly one of my favourites. Artists such as Chris Evans, Mike Pangrazio, Frank Ordaz Harrison Ellenshaw (see below), and Ralph McQuarrie created sets through Matte Paintings on all three Films and while all artists deserve honourable mentions, I believe one of the more "well known" artists is Harrison Ellenshaw.
Harrison Ellenshaw was the son of legendary Matte painter Peter Ellenshaw and being inspired by his father, followed in his footsteps from an early age. He had started as an apprentice at Disney on the Film ‘Bedknobs and Broomsticks’ (1971) and soon after building a reputation for himself, had been requested to do several exceedingly speculative paintings for a Science Fiction Film called Star Wars. George Lucas, Director of Star Wars made the decision to use VistaVision for the Matte painting plates. Luckily for Ellenshaw, he had previously worked with VistaVision as Disney were the only company in town using this large format. Although this was good news, the old, converted technicolour cameras used were notoriously unsteady. The blue Screen Photography imposed a real problem when compositing with paintings, since there was a highly visible misregistration of the live action plate with the held paintings. Great lengths were made to make these mishaps invisible and hide these ‘jiggles'.
Above is an example of the intricate work that went into these matte plates and even though Ellenshaw only worked on a small number of shots, he was very fortunate to be asked to be Matte department head for “Empire Strikes Back”. This would be his last film for which he would do Matte paintings exclusively.
A basic Understanding of Techniques
What all Matte Painters tend to have in common both past and present, is the understanding of theory/techniques from what I call "The Maestros" that essentially created them during the Renaissance period. Now not everything needs to be fully understood about art history, but I believe the most important aspects for any Matte Painter are what I briefly explain below and would undoubtedly enhance your work, in and out of a professional environment.
Atmospheric Perspective and Landscape Theory
Atmospheric Perspective refers to how we see the atmosphere affect objects as they fade into the distance. If we take ourselves on to a hilltop and consider the distance, the objects that are further away will start to appear to have a relatively cooler colour temperature to what we see up close. Applying this theory to Matte Painting is vital in creating realism and can be seen in paintings throughout history.
The reason this phenomenon happens is due to both natural and manmade causes. Factors such as pollution, time of day, humidity, fog, mist, storms, rain and dust can all affect how we perceive how the distance looks.
- Pollution - Can create a yellowish fog which can rise into the skies several hundred meters high.
- Time of day – Can pull colours in such as reds, oranges, yellows, and purples. This is due to the position of the sun and its light shining through our atmosphere.
- Humidity, Fog and Mist – This will magnify the already visible atmospheric affect due to water particles suspended in the air that scatter light.
- Storms and Rain – Can be less uniform and more random than calm weather, creating reduced visibility in dark patches further away due to the thickness of rainfall.
- Wind and Dust – Wind picking up dust will cause distant objects to be tinted with the dust colour. (Tal, 2009)
Chiaroscuro – Light and Dark
Chiaroscuro is used to create the illusion of a three-dimensional volume on a flat surface. Breaking up Chiaroscuro into two words translates to
Chiaro – Bright or clear
Scuro – Dark or obscure
A great example can be seen in the painting Saint Jerome Writing by Michellangelo Merisi De Caravaggio which truly represents the extreme contrast between light and dark.
Linear Perspective, like atmospheric perspective, is another must for a matte artist to have in their skillset. “Linear perspective is the observance that parallel lines converge at a singular vanishing point”. To achieve such effect, there are three essential components.
· Orthogonal (Also known as parallel lines)
· A vanishing Point
· A horizon lines.
All three of these applied to a matte painting can make it possible to arrange the composition of a work of art in a way like how a human eye perceives the world. Objects that are closer to the viewer will appear to be bigger and objects further away will appear to be smaller. Creating a horizontal line (horizon line) and placing a vanishing point anywhere on it, will help the artist converge their parallel lines (Orthogonal) as they recede and meet at the vanishing point placed.
This effect happens in our every day to day lives, for example
When travelling in a vehicle and looking out the window, you can see that the foreground (which is up close) is moving faster compared to what you are seeing in the distance. What would be considered as the midground in a camera shot is slower, whilst the background is almost still.
With Matte Painting being one of the oldest techniques in the VFX industry, an artist would use layered painted glass to provide a parallax effect when the camera started to move, making it feel 3D.
The New Age of Matte Painting
As technology has progressed, Matte Painting has gradually become more digitized and the traditional methods retired. Nowadays, all matte painting are done on a computer, usually using Photoshop, Nuke and a 3D package such as Maya.
Software Used for Matte Painting
Photoshop has revolutionized matte panting by offering a digital solution that speeds up the creation process substantially. Matte painting in photoshop helps achieve artwork by applying different techniques that may differ from one matte painter to another. Basic tools that help create a base for matte painting in photoshop are.
· Selection Tools
· Lasso Tools
· Standard Brushes
· Clone Stamp
Nuke is a 2D and 3D compositing software that allows the work created in Photoshop to be broken into layers, enabling artists to project on to cards or 3D geometry through a camera. This common technique is used to give the illusion of depth, creating parallax and a real life feel to the shot and is essentially the first step in a VFX matte painters’ workflow to extend a background, replace a sky, or modify any plates to project onto 3D Geometry.
Autodesk Maya is one of the film industry’s leading and most powerful 3D computer graphics applications (despite what you hear about Blender), allowing the user to create expansive worlds, complex characters, and stunning effects. So how does Maya fit into the workflow of a Matte Painter?
There are many departments throughout the VFX pipeline, and although DMP artists don't work necessarily close with other departments, we can "borrow" files that benefit us before proceeding to Nuke by utilising files from layout, modelling lighting to expand the environment while keeping scale and depth correct.
In recent years, matte painting departments for many studios have started to merge more into an "Environment Department". The likes of MPC and ILM now have a "3DDMP Department" which incorporates more 3D into a typical matte painting workflow.
As the industry evolves and audiences demand ever-better visuals, new techniques, and advances in old practices are being created. LED walls and virtual productions have proved their place in film, delivering sequences for shows such as The Mandalorian, Westworld, and films like The Batman, and Avengers: Endgame.
Creating a world through UE5 and LED panels opens a new window for Matte Painting, enabling VFX artists to adjust through real-time from the 3D spherical powerhouse in a full three-dimensional world, but how much does it really have to offer to us as Matte Painters and will it effect us in the future? Find out more about where Unreal fits into the VFX pipe, where Oleksiy Golovchenko talks about its perks and downfalls, and how it is approached within the VFX pipeline. This was a huge talking point across the MattePaint community during and after the pandemic, with speculations to whether it would effect the DMP pipeline but I agree as with many others that "it is just a different approach to filmmaking".