Matte painting

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The government warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was painted on glass by Michael Pangrazio at Industrial Light & Magic, and combined with live-action footage of a government worker, pushing his cargo up the center aisle. Government Warehouse.jpg
The government warehouse in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) was painted on glass by Michael Pangrazio at Industrial Light & Magic, and combined with live-action footage of a government worker, pushing his cargo up the center aisle.

A matte painting is a painted representation of a landscape, set, or distant location that allows filmmakers to create the illusion of an environment that is not present at the filming location. Historically, matte painters and film technicians have used various techniques to combine a matte-painted image with live-action footage (compositing). At its best, depending on the skill levels of the artists and technicians, the effect is "seamless" and creates environments that would otherwise be impossible or expensive to film. In the scenes the painting part is static and movements are integrated on it.



Traditionally, matte paintings were made by artists using paints or pastels on large sheets of glass for integrating with the live-action footage. [1] The first known matte painting shot was made in 1907 by Norman Dawn (ASC), who improvised the crumbling California Missions by painting them on glass for the movie Missions of California. [2] Notable traditional matte-painting shots include Dorothy's approach to the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz , Charles Foster Kane's Xanadu in Citizen Kane , and the seemingly bottomless tractor-beam set of Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope . The first Star Wars documentary ever made ( The Making of Star Wars , directed by Robert Guenette in 1977 for television) mentioned the technique used for the tractor beam scene as being a glass painting. [3]

By the mid-1980s, advancements in computer graphics programs allowed matte painters to work in the digital realm. The first digital matte shot was created by painter Chris Evans in 1985 for Young Sherlock Holmes for a scene featuring a computer-graphics (CG) animation of a knight leaping from a stained-glass window. Evans first painted the window in acrylics, then scanned the painting into LucasFilm's Pixar system for further digital manipulation. The computer animation (another first) blended perfectly with the digital matte, which could not have been accomplished using a traditional matte painting. [4]

New technologies

Throughout the 1990s, traditional matte paintings were still in use, but more often in conjunction with digital compositing. Die Hard 2 (1990) was the first film to use digitally composited live-action footage with a traditional glass matte painting that had been photographed and scanned into a computer. It was for the last scene, which took place on an airport runway. [5] By the end of the decade, the time of hand-painted matte paintings was drawing to a close, although as late as 1997 some traditional paintings were still being made, notably Chris Evans’ painting of the RMS Carpathia rescue ship in James Cameron’s Titanic . [6]

Paint has now been superseded by digital images created using photo references, 3-D models, and drawing tablets. Matte painters combine their digitally matte painted textures within computer-generated 3-D environments, allowing for 3-D camera movement. [7] Lighting algorithms used to simulate lighting sources expanded in scope in 1995, when radiosity rendering was applied to film for the first time in Martin Scorsese's Casino . Matte World Digital collaborated with LightScape to simulate the indirect bounce-light effect [8] of millions of neon lights of the 70s-era Las Vegas strip. [9] Lower computer processing times continue to alter and expand matte painting technologies and techniques. Matte painting techniques are also implemented in concept art and used often in games and even high end production techniques in animation.

Significant uses

Important traditional matte painters and technicians

See also

Related Research Articles

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Albert J. Whitlock was a British-born motion picture matte artist best known for his work with Disney and Universal Studios.

Norman Dawn

Norman O. Dawn was an early American film director. He made several improvements on the matte shot to apply it to motion picture, and was the first director to use rear projection in film production.

William Samuel Cook "Peter" Ellenshaw was an English matte designer and special effects creator who worked on many Disney features. Born in London, he moved to America in 1953.

Craig Barron American visual effects artist

Craig Barron is an American visual effects artist, currently Creative Director at Magnopus, a Los Angeles media company that produces augmented and virtual-reality experiences.

Matte World Digital was a visual effects company based in Novato, California that specialized in realistic matte painting effects and digital environments for feature films, television, electronic games and IMAX large-format productions. The company closed in 2012 after 24 years of service in the entertainment industry.

JP Trevor is a British conceptual artist best known for his surrealist and realist landscape painting and film design.

Christopher Leith Evans is an American artist, digital matte painter and visual effects art director for major motion pictures. Evans' paintings are characterized by a highly realistic representation of landscape, architecture, and the human figure.

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Walter Percy Day O.B.E. (1878–1965) was a British painter best remembered for his work as a matte artist and special effects technician in the film industry. Professional names include W. Percy Day; Percy Day; “Pop” or “Poppa” Day, owing to his collaboration with sons Arthur George Day (1909–1952) draughtsman, Thomas Sydney Day (1912–1985), stills photographer and cameraman, and stepson, Peter Ellenshaw, who also worked in this field.

Michael Pangrazio is an American art director in the feature film industry best known for his matte painting work on Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back. As traditional and digital matte artist, he created some of the most famous matte paintings in movie history. His best known painting is the Raiders of the Lost Ark warehouse interior set-extension at the end of the movie.

Mark Cotta Vaz is an American author, editor and film historian. He has authored over thirty books, including four New York Times bestsellers. He has focused on documenting film special effects and other behind-the-scenes aspects of visual presentation. He has written about these aspects for both Star Wars and Star Trek. He has produced a number of movie companion books, such as those for The Spirit, Beautiful Creatures and four for the Twilight series. Publishers Weekly said about his biography of Merian C. Cooper: The charismatic Cooper, "a man living his own movie," is no longer an obscure, remote figure, thanks to Vaz's exhaustive research and skillful writing.


  1. Matte World Digital | SIGGRAPH 1998 – Matte Painting in the Digital Age | Traditional Matte Paintings | Craig Barron
  2. The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron, Chronicle Books, 2002; p. 33
  3. The Making of Star Wars as told by C-3PO and R2-D2, 1977, directed by Robert Guenette (glass painting technique explained at point 4'45'')
  4. The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, pp. 213, 217
  5. The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, p. 227
  6. The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, p. 19
  7. Matte World Digital | SIGGRAPH 1998 – Matte Painting in the Digital Age | Great Expectations: Creating Movement | Craig Barron
  8. Matte World Digital | SIGGRAPH 1998 – Matte Painting in the Digital Age | 3-D Lighting Techniques | Craig Barron
  9. The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, pp. 244–248
  10. Lucas, Tim. Danger: Diabolik (Blu-ray). Imprint Films. Event occurs at 14:39.