Matte painting has its roots in still photography. In the mid-19th century, photographers began using double-exposure techniques to composite two distinct images into one photograph. In the Victorian era, so-called spirit photography captured the imagination of the masses. In these photos, ghostly apparitions seemed to mingle with the living. They were, in reality, simple darkroom tricks, or what we now call special effects.
Film matte painting grew directly out of this special effects tradition. In 1905, a man named Norman Dawn was working as a still photographer in Los Angeles. He was disappointed when one of his shots came back partially blocked by a telephone pole. A colleague told Dawn to go take the picture again, but this time to bring along a piece of glass with an image of a tree painted on it. Hold the piece of glass between the camera and the building and use the fake tree to cover the pole. It was a simple old photographer's trick, but proved a convincing illusion [source: Cotta Vaz].
An aspiring filmmaker, Dawn soon developed a system for applying glass matte painting to the exciting new world of motion pictures. The Dawn Process or in-the-camera matte shot works like this:
- A large sheet of glass is mounted in a box attached to the front of the camera.
- Using black paint, a matte artist blocks out all parts of the scene that will later be replaced with a matte painting. What remains are the actors in front of some small constructed sets.
- The live action is shot through the glass matte, creating a partially-exposed negative. Since light was not allowed to pass through the blackened portions of the camera lens, the corresponding parts of the negative are considered unexposed.
- The movie director shoots several minutes of extra footage with the glass matte in place. This extra footage will be developed and used as test strips.
- In post-production, the matte artist uses a frame of the test strip as a reference to create a new glass matte where the live action area of the scene is blocked out with black paint.
- The artist then paints all around the black area, carefully maintaining the perspective and composition of the shot. He continually checks his work against the test strip.
- When the matte artist and director are satisfied with the way the matte painting blends with the test strip, they mount the glass painting on the front of the camera.
- Finally, they run the partially exposed negative back through the camera and film the scene with the glass matte painting in place. Since the live action portion of the scene is blacked out on the matte painting, the first exposure isn't double-exposed. The result is a realistic composite image of the live action and the matte painting.
In modern cinema, traditional film matte painting has been replaced by digital effects. Read about Photoshop matte painting in the next section.