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How Digital Matte Painters Work

Photoshop Matte Painting
Filmmakers use blue and green screens for shots that will be replaced with digital effects. Rapper T-Pain films his video for "Can't Believe It" on a green screen.
Filmmakers use blue and green screens for shots that will be replaced with digital effects. Rapper T-Pain films his video for "Can't Believe It" on a green screen.
© Frank Micelotta/Getty Images for Zomba Label Group

The goal of digital matte painting is to achieve photorealistic quality backdrops using 2-D digital images and 3-D computer animation. Instead of blocking off parts of the camera lens, modern filmmakers use blue screens and green screens to replace portions of a shot with digital effects.

Digital matte painters begin with a scene description from the film's art director. It could be "the surface of planet Ooze, where yellow volcanoes gush with purple lava," or "the Roman Forum, circa 300 B.C.E." The matte painter uses this description to sketch concept art. Many matte painters go straight to Photoshop to create their concept art, while some still use paper, pencils, pastels and paint.

The matte painter works closely with the art director to define the right composition of the concept art. The goal is not only to create a beautiful shot, but to contribute to the storytelling process. The colors, textures and lighting of the image should combine to purvey a distinct emotion. Think of the foreboding shots of the towering black volcano of Mount Doom in "The Lord of the Rings" movies with the flaming eye of Sauron hovering above it. Everything in that shot is digital and all of it is designed to scare the audience.

Once the concept art is approved, it's used as the background plate for further digital artwork. The matte painter usually starts by researching reference material. He may scour digital photo archives for images of buildings, mountains, skies and forests that fit within the world of the concept art. A lot of matte painters create their own archives by taking digital photographs of dramatic real-world locations for later use.

Now the matte painter imports all of these images into Photoshop where they'll be used as a starting point for extensive digital effects. Using Photoshop's endless selection of specialized painting tools, the matte artist creates hundreds, even thousands of layers of digital paintwork. He takes a digital photo of a mountain, adds thick foliage, a misty waterfall and a rocky cliff face. He turns a shot of a pristine Victorian home in San Francisco into a decrepit haunted house entangled with dead vines and covered with centuries of filth.

Nowadays, digital matte paintings are rarely confined to 2-D images. Most matte painting contain 3-D elements that are modeled and animated using software like Maya. For example, in a matte painting of a futuristic cityscape, the large buildings in the foreground might be 3-D models, as are the flying cars that whiz by.

For the most realistic matte paintings, the digital images are projected onto a 3-D model of the fictitious world. In this system, a 3-D wireframe model of the city is built first. Then the movie director decides exactly how he wants the camera to move through the shot. The job of the matte painter is to give detailed color and texture to the wireframe buildings. He creates 2-D images that are  mapped onto the 3-D geometry of the wireframe. Now, when the virtual camera moves through the shot, all of the images have real 3-D perspective, including natural lighting shifts and shadows.

In some occasions, digital matte paintings are actually printed on huge sheets of canvas and used as physical backdrops during filming. For one scene in "Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban," they stitched together six printed canvases that were each 100-feet long. Another shot used a 360-degree digital matte painting assembled in a London studio [source: Darby].

Matte painters are highly specialized and skilled artists. Find out how to break into this exciting industry in the next section.