Education, RocketStock

Visual Effects: How Matte Paintings are Composited into Film


Matte paintings are one of the original VFX techniques used in filmmaking. Originally used in photography, matte paintings have evolved from painted glass panels to entire 3D digital worlds.

A matte painting is often a painted glass pane that is used to show a landscape or large set piece. Matte paintings are either filmed on set, where they are framed to look like a physical set piece, or they are combined with live footage in post production.

Before we go in depth, take an absolutely incredible look at the use of matte paintings by Industrial Light & Magic. In this video, you will see how ILM used matte paintings to create the incredible VFX in the Indiana Jones and Star Wars films.

The History of Matte Paintings and Compositing

It’s impossible to pinpoint the invention of the matte painting. Since the mid-19th century, photographers were experimenting with double-exposure to create composite images.

Image: Georges Méliès and Georges Méliès via Wikipedia

Magician and legendary filmmaker Georges Méliès used the matte painting technique in many of his films. In his 1898 film Un Homme de Têtes – Four Heads Are Better Than OneMéliès would use a glass pane painted black to create a matte. When shooting on film, the black matte kept light from reaching the camera. Since a portion of the film was not exposed to light, it would leave part of the frame empty.

Méliès would then rewind the film and set up an opposite matte. By removing the original matte and blacking out everything else, the film would now fill in the blanks. The resulting sequence was absolutely astonishing.

In 1907, Norman Dawn would use glass paintings in his 1907 film Missions of California. Many of the missions Dawn was filming had been partially destroyed. He would use matte paintings to make the buildings look whole again, often painting the missing arches or roofs. Dawn would also disguise telephone poles as trees, as he illustrated below.

Matte Painting
Image: Norman Dawn drawing via Cinepatas

Norman Dawn is often credited as the inventor of matte paintings, but he was just the first to apply for credit. According to The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting, Dawn applied for a patent for his “glass painting” technique in 1911, but following a lawsuit it was deemed that the technique had long existed. Dawn was just an early adopter of using matte paintings in film.

The Travelling Matte

Using glass panes to create matte paintings become the standard for VFX backgrounds, but it required the camera stay still. Any movement would destroy the illusion.

In 1918, a new process was patented by Frank Williams. The Williams Process placed actors in front of black backgrounds. Then the film would be copied to create high contrast negatives. These negatives became a white silhouette of the actors. Williams himself explains,

Williams Process Patent

I accomplish these objects by means of my invention, an application of which is hereafter described with the aid of the accompanying drawing. In the drawing, Figure 1 is one picture severed from a film or motion picture negative. Fig. 2 is a positive of the picture shown in Fig. 1. Fig. 3 shows the superimposed positions of an unexposed sensitive film and the negative shown in Fig. 1. Fig. 4 is the completed negative of a picture. – Patent US1273435 A

The Williams Process was used throughout the late 20s and into the 1930s. It was perhaps most famously used in 1933s The Invisible Man. Actor Claude Rains wore a black velvet suit underneath his costume. He stood in front of a black background and removed his costume, revealing the black velvet suit underneath. The Williams Process was the predecessor to blue and green screen compositing.

Matte paintings were still traditionally used on many major motion pictures throughout the 1930s as well; such as the barracks in All Quiet on the Western Front, the castle in Dracula, Skull Island in King Kong.

All Quiet West Front Matte Painting
Image: All Quiet on the Western Front matte painting

Matte Paintings in Major Motion Pictures

Alfred Hitchcock was using glass pane matte paintings throughout the 40s and well into the 60s. They were prominently used in North by Northwest and The Birds.

Birds Matte Painting
Image: The Birds matte painting via Universal Studios

Two of the most famous mattes of the 1960s came from Mary Poppins and The Planet of the Apes.

Image via Flavorwire

Planet_of_the_Apes_Matte-Shadowlocked copy

Image via Shadowlocked

By the 1970s, the previously mentioned VFX masters at ILM would use many matte paintings to bring Star Wars to life. Star Wars had a multitude of great artists, like Christoper Evans. Evans created many of the iconic Star Wars images, like Darth Vader’s imperial march.

Chris Evans Star Wars

Star Wars Vader

final march

Images via Sploid

For more on the Star Wars, check out this great article on the Star Wars matte paintings and artists. It includes many more Star Wars matte paintings and some great notes from the artists.

ILM was also responsible for creating the matte painting for the legendary finale to Raiders of the Lost Ark. It took three months to paint all of the crates and boxes.

Image via Shadowlocked

As advancements we made technologically, matte paintings became digital renderings. One of the last hand painted mattes used in a major motion picture was in the 1997 epic, Titanic.

Image via Sploid

Digital Matte Paintings

Lord of the Rings
Image: Lord of the Rings via New Line Cinema

While most motion picture productions have moved to blue and green screens, the techniques used my matte painters are still applied to modern filmmaking. Background plates are often still hand drawn or painted. They are used as reference material for the digital artwork.

Matte paintings are also no longer trapped into two dimensional images. Entire 3D sets and backgrounds are created digitally. Even digital cameras are used to add movement. There are still films that will use matte paintings as backdrops. In Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, six 100-foot canvases were stitched together and placed behind the set.

If you are interested in making matte paintings, head over to Feng Zhu’s YouTube channel, FZDSchool. Feng Zhu has contributed to some of the biggest films made by George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Michael Bay and Luc Besson. His YouTube series teaches you how to make all sorts of landscapes, like this fantasy world.

For more on the history of matte paintings, check out this awesome Matte Painting blog dedicated to the visual effect.