Create new worlds with matte paintings.

One of the oldest visual effects in film, matte paintings provide fantastic landscapes and backdrops for movies, TV, and video games.

Two cartoon characters staring at a futuristic matte painting in the background

What is a matte painting?

Through movies and TV, we’ve been to the far corners of the world with Indiana Jones, we’ve fought dinosaurs on Skull Island with King Kong, and we’ve seen a galaxy far, far away in Star Wars. In all of these instances, filmmakers have created fantasy and sci-fi landscapes and cityscapes via matte paintings.


Matte paintings aren’t just limited to fantasy and sci-fi. They can be buildings, cityscapes, and even the Titanic in all its doomed glory. The very best ones don’t even look like paintings. “Alfred Hitchcock did a great job with matte paintings to the point where, unless you’re really looking for it, you can’t tell it’s a painting,” says illustrator Jonathan Case. “They’d get these really great oil painters to do a giant painting they’d place in the background.” Characters looked like they were in a vast library or outdoors but in fact were standing in front of a two-dimensional image.


Work as a matte painter.

Movies, TV, and video games result from the combined efforts of hundreds of people, and matte painters have to incorporate the visions of the director, writer, and artistic director even as they express their own ideas. “If I’m in Hamlet, I’m not going to start improvising lines,” says matte painter Paul Topolos. “It’s like a cake. I’m doing the icing, but the cake has already been made.” 


Before a matte painter starts working, they’ll meet with a project’s creative leads to find out more about the assignment. “Usually you get what’s called a kickoff, when you’ll get a sense of what the shot is about and where it is in the story,” says Topolos.


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. 

Futuristic matte painting of a city along the side of a river
A futuristic matte painting of a floating city

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.”


Matte paintings today are digital, but they’re still massive, and digital matte painters need to work with immense files that demand a large degree of system resources. “You’re going to want a computer that has plenty of RAM,” says Case. “When you’re talking about film or print media, you’re going to be working at a very high resolution. Everyone’s working in 24-bit color, at least. Those files can reach multiple gigabytes.” Working on and with matte paintings means being comfortable with scale. You have to think about how something is going to look on a movie screen or 4K television screen, and you have to design accordingly.

A cartoon character riding a horse toward an omnious cloud

Hone your skills as a matte painter.

Matte artists have one of the most challenging and comprehensive jobs in filmmaking. Matte painting touches on everything from traditional painting to compositing to crafting entire digital environments in Adobe Photoshop. To do it effectively, you have to be confident enough to believe you can create entire worlds. “You really have to trick yourself into thinking you can do it, and you’re amazed that you can do it, but you always have this ultra self-critical eye,” says Topolos. 


If you do start working as a matte artist, think about what genres you want to work in and put that work forward. “Be very careful about what’s in your portfolio. That shows what you want to do,” says Topolos. “In a portfolio, less is better. Only put in work that you’re 100% happy with.” Find that work, be it pastoral landscapes or sci-fi cities. Build your portfolio, connect with people in your industry, and make your landscapes part of a larger story.


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