How Digital Matte Painters Work

By: Dave Roos
Digital matte painters help create a movie's visual impact. Tom Cruise stands in front of an image from his movie, "Mission Impossible III."
© China Photos/Getty Images

Since the early days of cinema, filmmakers have grappled with a fundamental problem: how to achieve artistic greatness on a budget. When pioneering French filmmaker Georges Méliès made "Le Voyage dans la Lune" in 1902, special effects meant painting some curtains as backdrops and using an actual man in a moon costume for the man in the moon.

Even today, with blockbuster film budgets over $250 million, it's still not economically feasible to film on the moon. Directors and producers are always looking for creative new ways to create ultra-realistic, otherworldly settings that tell their stories with unprecedented power. For more than 100 years, one of the most successful methods has been matte painting, a technique in which a portion of a scene is blocked during filming and later replaced with new images or footage.


During the first half of the 20th century, almost all movies were shot on studio backlots and soundstages. It was too expensive to film on location. So if a scene called for the interior of a lavish European castle, the filmmakers would shoot the live actors on a sound stage with minimal set construction. Later, they would use matte painting artists to fill in the details by hand -- the dangling crystal chandeliers, ornate tapestries, vast libraries and towering stained glass windows -- that transport the actors from Studio City to Transylvania.

Computers have had a tremendous impact on the way people make movies, particularly in the world of special effects. In the past 30 years, computer-generated (CG) landscapes, objects and animated characters have opened up unimaginable possibilities for filmmakers. Matte painting is now an entirely digital process, where 2-D Photoshop paintings are blended with animated 3-D elements and live actors to create stunning, totally convincing fictional worlds.

How do film matte painters work? How do matte painters use digital tools? And, how do you break into this in-demand field? Keep reading to find out.


Film Matte Painting

Digital effects have replaced most old matte-painting processes, which relied on painted glass.
© Image Source/Getty Images

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:

  1. A large sheet of glass is mounted in a box attached to the front of the camera.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.

[source: Fielding]

In modern cinema, traditional film matte painting has been replaced by digital effects. Read about Photoshop matte painting in the next section.


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.
© 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.


Becoming a Digital Matte Painter

Learning computer programs like Photoshop provides a great entry into a career as a digital matte painter.
© Monty Rakusen/Digital Vision/Getty Images

Most digital matte painters begin as trained studio artists. Many graduate with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from an accredited college or art school. Here they learn the foundations of drawing, sculpting and painting with traditional medium like oils and watercolors. They also learn important concepts like composition, color selection and perspective that will serve them well in the digital realm.

No amount of digital wizardry can make up for a fundamental lack of artistic talent. Likewise, all the artistic talent in the world won't get you a job in the movie industry if you don't know how to create art using digital tools. A program like Photoshop is a powerful and versatile creative tool that takes years to master. A good place to start is by taking courses at an art or design school. Some schools even offer degree programs in digital arts and design, entertainment design and computer animation. A few of the better-known schools are the Art Center College of Design, the Gnomon School of Visual Effects and Full Sail University.


Along the way, try to get as much experience as possible with a wide range of different software tools, especially 3-D modeling, visual effects and animation programs. Besides 2-D programs like Photoshop, Corel Painter and Adobe Illustrator, employers look for matte painters who know their way around 3-D sculpting programs like Zbrush, visual effects software like Apple Shake, and animation tools like Maya.

Once you have a portfolio of traditional and digital artwork, it's time to look for that first job. A good entry-level position is as a concept artist for a movie studio, animation studio or visual effects production house. You can also get concept art work experience at architecture and design firms. Use this time to further develop your portfolio. Eventually, your hope is to get a job specifically within the matte painting department of an effects house or studio. Like most good jobs in Hollywood, these positions are extremely competitive, so be patient and always put only your best work forward.

For lots more information about digital matte painting, computer animation and related topics, see the links on the next page.


Lots More Information - Digital Matte Painters

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links

  • "Digital Matte Painting." Computer Arts. September 2006. (
  • "Do You Believe? A Ghostly Gallery." American Museum of Photography. (
  • "Matte Painting in the Digital Age." Barron, Craig. Matte World Digital. 1998. (
  • "Norman Dawn." Erickson, Hal. All Movie Guide. (
  • The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting. Cotta Vaz, Mark; Barron, Craig. Chronicle Books. 2004. (
  • The Technique of Special Effects Cinematography. Fielding, Raymond. Focal Press. 1985. (