Matte painting: Reality Changing Technique

The cinematography was not just a means of entertainment, but also a cause of new ideas. This article examines the history of matte painting in film, explains the advantages of this technique, shows it in action, and determines how effective it is when working with architectural and constructing companies’ projects.

How to transform reality with a painter’s hand

Most films need many different backgrounds to bring their stories to life, and there is not always an opportunity to shoot a romantic sunset if it happens to be raining outside. Weather concerns aside, what if a character needed to be seen jetting into space or descending into hell, how would a film crew realistically shoot that?

The solution was not to settle for different landscapes that couldn’t do the story justice, but to paint the landscapes instead. To do this film crews hired special painters whom they called matte painters or matte artists.

The first instance of using the method of matte painting refers to the 1900s when film director Norman Dawn was shooting Missions of California. He decided to refine the cracked buildings of missioners’ residencies. To achieve this effect the crew would apply images on glass, and then set the glass before the camera so that part of the picture stayed clear as they filmed the scene.

After successfully filming the scene, Mr. Dawn decided to improve the technique. The section on which they needed to apply a specific background was painted black. This blocked out part of the scene during filming, and then later in a studio the background was painted in and placed on the blocked-out parts of the shots.

Nowadays, the areas on which film crews plan to use matte painting are shot on a sole colored background, most commonly green or blue. The color can be various, as long as it’s not the same color as the image that needs to be applied. Afterwards, they place the necessary background over the colored background to complete the scene.

Matte Painting: Basic Requirements

The object of the technique is to create a realistic image to create the illusion of true scenery regardless of what is being filmed, whether it be a historic battle or an interplanetary fight.

The biggest criteria of matte painting as a professional skill is that the scene and ambiance can’t look or feel artificial. To achieve this goal, film makers use a complex arrangement of the image where all camera movements (including zooming specific areas) are taken into consideration.

The shot for one scene can have a general view, but for other shots it is more detailed and all the components are created so that it would be possible to change the angle when needed.

This is why a good matte painting looks absolutely real regardless of the angle of the shot, so that the viewer has no doubt that that place shown really exists somewhere. Films that utilize this technique often become Academy Awards winners.

Matte Painting: From Cinema to Graphics

In digital art, matte painting determines the final result of how realistic an image, ambiance or scene of a designer’s work is. Christopher Stoski, one of the most influential illustrators working in this technique, named top nine principles of matte painting in graphics:

  • Photorealism
  • Balanced composition
  • Consideration that the camera is moving
  • Alignment with the original image
  • Object control and presentation (for waterfall, transport etc.)
  • Flawless drawing technique
  • Correct physical object interpretation
  • Sharp focus of viewer’s attention
  • Receiving a “wow” reaction from a viewer

One of the key criteria from this list is that the image should be perceived as vivid and realistic as human eyes perceive real life. You can see the capabilities of the technique in this short video.

Examples of Matte Painting

#1. Winter, Rocks, Castle

Winter, Rocks, Castle

How it was in reality – what appeared in the result. What has changed:

  • People disappeared
  • Bright clouds and mountains appeared. When you look at the picture it seems as if you can touch them
  • A fortress appeared in the landscape
  • Look at the foreground: they changed soft snow to a frozen lake with blocks of ice. When looking at the picture you feel the bone piercing cold!

#2. Sunset on Earth Turned into a Space Reality


Sunset on Earth


Sunset on Earth after the manipulation

What’s Changed:

  • Sky color changed from blue to yellow
  • Unusual futuristic constructs appeared
  • Impressive spherical objects appeared in the sky
  • Along the view line there are pillars with a touch of green
  • It looks like a sunset from another planet

#3. How to Discreetly add a Rock with a Castle

Rock with a Castle

Look at the lower picture and tell me honestly, can you doubt that this fortress doesn’t exist in reality?

Matte Painting in Architectural 3D visualization

To provide some evidence, we’ve collected some videos in which you can see how this technique can be applied in architecture.

Video #1: Solo House – Arch Viz / Matte Painting / Photoshop – Breakdown from KomorebiStudio on Vimeo.

What’s been done:

  • 3D model of the house is set under a specific camera angle
  • A specific background was applied
  • The designer worked on the details (light, interior of the building, etc.)
  • Worked on environment details by adding a forest and elaborating the grass
  • Added trees
  • Added a woman with a child
  • Enhanced the sunset

Result: An ambient and highly emotional picture which conveys the sense of coziness and family comfort.

Video #2: Hotel114 – Making Of from Slashcube on Vimeo.

This video is devoted to Hotel 114 – a commissioned project done by Slashcube. The design was done by Renault Arnod Architectes. What’s been done:

  • Various photos of the place have been taken
  • Changes were made in render: as seen, the facade color changed, light type, and added some cars
  • The sky changed and some neon signs were added
  • The designer changed the buildings located near the hotel
  • All these corrections are made based on the photos shown at the beginning of the video
  • The designer added people
  • Worked on illumination and light in general

Result: The image radiates appealing vibes of tourism, nightlife in bright lights of a big city and at the same time upscale Hotel 114.

Video #3: The Brink – From Matte Painting To Animation – VFX BreakDown HD from Romuald Chaigneau on Vimeo.

This is a scene taken from the video game Final Fantasy IX. This is a scene taken from the video game Final Fantasy IX. What’s been done:

  • Created a 3D model with elaborated details: there are trees, the edge of the rock looks cut off and cracked, there are shadows and properly set illumination, the brow is embraced with grass, etc
  • The designer adds a photo of the sky and layered the effects
  • The next step is a photo of a valley with hills
  • Designer adds more hills on the right
  • More mountains appear in the landscape
  • In the video, you can see how appears a photo of a small marshy river, which he adds to the landscape
  • More details appear: bushes, small trees; effects are added
  • Other elements are added and elaborated

Result: A perfectly elaborated scene for a video game in which 3D elements are blended with details taken from the photos.

Another side of a medal

As you see, the results amaze and fascinate the viewer, but if this technique is so powerful, then why do people give preference to 3D visualization? On the other hand: why isn’t matte painting wide spread among architects and constructors?

In fact, not so many artists and visualizers use matte painting working on their projects in which they need to present the work of a designer or a construction company.

The reason is that this technique has a peculiarity, and that is that the painter works on ONE picture. That’s why if a client asks him, for example, to change the position of a camera or add one more camera angle, the painter must start a new project from the beginning. This is the reason 3D visualization is more favorable and useful. With 3D visualization, they can just move the camera and make a render of a new picture, rather than starting over. It’s cheaper, faster and easier.

Taking all of this into account, matte painting is a useful part of superb cinematography, but in business professional 3D visualizers like our team are still the preference.

Check out these articles too:

3 Reasons Architects are Not Pursuing Your 3D Visualization Company

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