Matte painting, or the Art of background

Matte painting and cinema: a love affair

While it originated as a photography technique, matte painting  has been used by film industry since the late 19th century, and is deeply related to the inherent illusion of Cinema. Its purpose is to create or alter scenes – mainly backgrounds – that would be too difficult or cost prohibitive to create otherwise. Originally the landscapes were hand-painted on a glass sheet, and this was certainly a time consuming and risky technique, for a small mistake could invalidate a work of months.

Since the 80s, progress achieved in computer graphics allowed artists to expand the boundaries of their possibilities, but even the most sophisticated software or digital technique would be useless without a strong creative vision and expertise

The vision

Every successful project must start with a good concept.
Matte painters are flexible and sensitive artists who must be able to build a fictional world from scratch, as well as interpret and render other people’s ideas: film-directors, screen-players or book authors.  

In order to do that, they draw on many different sources – reference photos, art books, travels, pop culture, historical and ancient books and documents -and try to combine every element and inspiration in an astonishing yet consistent scene.

The final purpose is always to deeply involve the viewers in the story, with a seamless effect between on live action and added elements or background.

Matte painting and Technical skills

Of course technical skills are also crucial. When you realize a matte painting project you can’t help but taking into account perspective, colors and, most of all, lighting and camera movements. 

Understanding the art of perspective and vanishing point allows the matte painter to make natural what doesn’t exist in nature. He must also have a deep knowledge of composition rules, as well as focal length, scale and lighting, in order to create credible scenes that could be perfectly integrated in films, videogames, or TV commercials.

Titanic: one of the last examples of old-style matte painting

One of the last examples of traditional matte painting in a digital framework is to be found in James Cameron’s Titanic. In one of the final scenes, the Carpathia ship was hand painted using oil paints and then photographed, brought into the computer and composited into the shot with a new sky, icebergs on the horizon and smaller lifeboats out in the distance.