That kickoff meeting might include storyboards or concept art for the scene, or instructions about the look and feel of the shot. “If you’re working with an art director, they give you notes about the color temperature, camera depth, values, and mood of the scene,” says Case. “You work from those notes and build something out.”
Regardless of the scene, matte painters need to know how actors, VFX, or other visual elements are going to be positioned in relation to the matte painting. “You need to leave room for the overall composition that the director is working toward,” says Case. Matte paintings are not really works of art unto themselves. They always exist in relation to other elements in a film, TV show, or video game.
Matte paintings and realism.
While matte paintings can portray any background, they most often stand in for cityscapes and natural vistas. Matte painters need to know how to make outdoor views look real, even if their vistas include fantastic elements. That means knowing about perspective and how light changes the color on objects. “A mountainside might have the local color of green because of trees, but as it recedes through the atmosphere, it takes on the tint of that atmosphere,” says Case.
If the color looks a bit off or if the perspective is slightly skewed, the audience will know that something is wrong even if they don’t know why something is wrong. Even slight visual errors can distract the audience from the story. This does not mean that a matte painter needs to draw every leaf on a tree or stone on a mountain. “Find shortcuts. Find out what you can indicate without having to draw every little detail,” says Case.
Knowing how much detail to include comes down to knowing how long a matte painting will be in a shot. If it’s on camera for a second or two, a skilled matte painter can make use of visual shortcuts that an audience won’t be able to pick up. However, if the matte painting is going to be on screen for a long time, you need to provide more detail.
Digital matte painting.
Before filmmaking went digital, matte paintings were massive images painted on either glass or board. Glass matte paintings could be backlit, with light filtering through like a stained-glass window. Matte paintings on boards didn’t have this advantage, but they were durable and could be stored and reused easily. Modern matte painters have to be able to combine and manipulate a variety of digital elements to create their scenes and backgrounds. “Live-action matte painting usually involves the combination of live-action plates, doing your own 3D models, texturing them, and lighting them,” says Topolos. “It’s a different skill set than it used to be.”