Matte Painting: The Whole Process


Matte painting is a technique for creating an artificial landscape of any kind which doesn’t exist in reality. It is a part of visual effects that are used in movies and TV shows. Filmmakers generally used this technique to create elements of the shots that were originally not present in the scenario. There are many advanced as well as traditional techniques that are used to make matte paintings in movie shots. The static part of the painting is usually hand drawn or manipulated by software like Adobe Photoshop. Movements like a waterfall or smoke effects are integrated with other advanced software. These kinds of techniques are generally used in film industries that make action or fantasy movies.

History of Matte Painting:

Before there was any advanced software like Adobe Photoshop and After effects for making this kind of art, filmmakers hired matte painting artist who used to paint on large glass panes and then these paintings were integrated on the footage of the films. Although they didn’t look that realistic, technology was quite limited at that time so they had to work with these resources only. The very first matte painting that was created by this glass painting method was by Norman Dawn for the movie Missions of California in 1907. As this procedure got popularised, other filmmakers and directors also started to integrate this kind art into their movies. Famous examples are bottomless tractor beam shot from old Star Wars series, Emerald City scene from Wizard of Oz and many others.
Along with the advancement of digital equipment, this field also got its own up-gradations. Various computer graphic software were introduced to the market which allowed matte painting artists to work on a digital platform. After digitisation, these kinds of work got easier and consumed quite less time. The first ever digitally created matte painting was by famous artist Christopher Evans for the 1985 movie Young Sherlock Holmes, and the scene was that some kind of fighter has to jump from a stained glass window. These scenes were created by advanced computer graphic (CG) animation software of that time. At first, he painted the window with acrylic colours and then scanned the painting. He then blended the image perfectly with another live action shot. It was impossible to create in the traditional way but with computer graphics, it seemed an approachable task.

New Advancements:

Digitisation of Matte painting started from late ’90s but traditional methods were still in use. Famous shots from movies like Die hard 2 and James Cameron’s Titanic were created by the combination of both digital and traditional process.
Now the painting process is slowly replaced by graphics penphoto references and 3D models. Artist now integrates computer-generated landscapes and digitally painted texture along with the original shot to create a hyper-realistic look of any fantasy land that they want to create (which doesn’t exist in reality). These matte paintings allow 3D camera movements so that filmmakers could create shots from different angles.
This advanced software has given many options for artificial lighting in matte paintings. The first film that introduced these artificial lighting on its shot was Martin Scorsese’s Casino, on which radiosity rendering was applied for the first time. (Radiosity is an application in 3D computer graphics which is used in solving rendering equation for the scenes which has surfaces that reflect light diffusely). Many neon lights were used to create those effects and then that was further manipulated in software.

Digital Matte Painting: How it is done?

Adobe Photoshop came with a big revolution in the field of Digital Matte Painting. It is quite powerful software which can be used in any home computer (almost) to create one of the most surrealistic matte painting effects we require. This software is quite helpful to create Locked off-shot which is a static painting and remains stationary throughout the entire sequence and we can directly paint the elements we want over the shot. So it’s easy and simple.

The important things to keep in mind at the time of creating matte paintings are:

  1. Size of the Canvas: Before making any matte painting first we have to decide what will be the size of the canvas in which we are creating our artwork. The standard HD size is 1920 X 1080 pixels, but the film size starts with 2048 X 1080 pixels (also called 2K) and it can go higher up to 3K, 4K and beyond. My advice would be to work on above 200% of the final size of the canvas so that imperfections could be minimised when the final image will be zoomed out. Make sure that you make the matte painting in an RGB color mode.
  2. Perspective: This is the most important thing to keep in mind when you are creating a matte painting. Determine the perspective by locating its vanishing points. There are usually five perspectives on which we can create our matte painting, starting from one point to five point. By locating the vanishing points on the shot we can know on which perspective the scene was shot. The best trick is to draw lines over the shot on a different layer with preferably some bright colors so that it can easily stand out from the background.

‘Filling’ the set where there was originally nothing could be done by using clone stamp tools or brush tools. Color picker tool is generally used to match the exact color scheme of the original shot.
Now, if we zoom into that hand painted areas of the shot then we can see the area lacks the photographic graininess that is present in the original shot. So, to solve this you need to add bit graininess to the painted area in the time of compositing. Film grain and noise filters are very helpful in these cases. I found the grain filter quite useful especially when filled with 50% grey and set in an overlay blend mode. This setting blends seamlessly with the original shot but always make sure to keep the grain layer opacity very low to get the desired result.

3D Camera mapping to create 3D space around Matte Painting:

These days, another technique is gaining popularity in the field of matte painting and that is 3D mapping. With the help of basic geometry, we can create 3D space around our matte paintings which is called 3D Mapping. A virtual camera is set on the 3D space around the matte painting which will cause a parallax effect which means as that the object that is closer to the camera moves faster than the objects that are further away. This technique has few limitations as it doesn’t cover all the sides of the object that has been created. Therefore, allows only limited camera movement.

How to approach a simple version of the matte painting.

My inspiration was a newspaper cutout I’ve collected years ago where there was a rumour of UFO sightings near Tibet’s pagodas.
I started off with a beautiful low angle shot of a pagoda from Pixabay.
The other elements used in creating this art piece are:

The picture was perfect on its own. But I found the lighting quite harsh for fitting it into my approach.

So, with the help of channels selection, I removed the sky from the picture and copied this image over the real image. Now, if I create something beneath this layer it will look like something is beyond those woods without distorting the picture.

Now, selecting a darker color from the actual color of the sky I started painting some mountains so that it matches the actual tone of the image. To paint these, I used the splatter brush (it is available as default brushes in Adobe Photoshop) rather than my actual brush to give the haphazard and inaccurate shape of the mountains keeping the upper portion lighter and lower darker. In the case of painting, mountains do not shy away on adding highlights as sunlight often creates rim lighting on the edge of the mountains.

After I was a bit satisfied with the mountain, I started placing the elements that I will be merging into the environment which was the moon and another architectural element (pagoda).  I started setting them by putting in perspective, changing the direction of light by dodging and burning technique and finally matching the color tone.

After I was satisfied with the merging I moved on to adding the main element, “The UFO”.  By using the same technique above I merged the spacecraft into the sky.

I created the artificial lights by painting it with a lighter color and putting the layer on a color dodge blend mode. Color dodge blend mode is a great mode of create mode for creating artificial lighting in a dark environment.  I mostly use this in creating magic lights into my digital paintings.

Till now most of the elements were merged into the background. But the image still lacked oomph, so to change that I started playing with the overall environment. Experimenting with various lighting techniques, I preceded the decision of creating a late evening/night environment.  I started creating the night scene with adjustments like curves, levels, hue and saturation, and color lookup. I started creating the moonlight which was quite a tough job. While creating the lighting effects make sure you understand the environment, the type of light source and types of lighting involved.

Finally, after a bit of trial and error methods, I created this matte painting.

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