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 nonexistent in real life or would otherwise be too expensive or impossible to build or visit. Historically, matte painters and film technicians have used various techniques to combine a matte-painted image with live-action footage. 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 to film.
Traditionally, matte paintings were made by artists using paints or pastels on large sheets of glass for integrating with the live-action footage. 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. 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.
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, something a traditional matte painting could not have accomplished.
Throughout the 1990s, traditional matte paintings were still in use, but more often in conjunction with digital compositing. Die Hard 2: Die Harder (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. 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 Carpathia rescue ship in James Cameron’s Titanic.
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. 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 of millions of neon lights of the 70s-era Las Vegas strip. Lower computer processing times continue to alter and expand matte painting technologies and techniques.
Significant matte painting shots
- The army barracks in All Quiet On The Western Front (1930).
- Count Dracula's castle exteriors in Dracula (1931) and other scenes.
- The view of Skull Island in King Kong (1933).
- The view of Nottingham Castle in The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938).
- The 1942 spy thriller Saboteur, directed by Alfred Hitchcock, is enhanced by numerous matte shots, ranging from a California aircraft factory to the climactic scene atop New York's Statue of Liberty.
- In Alfred Hitchcock's North by Northwest (1959) shots of the The United Nations building, Mount Rushmore and the Mount Rushmore house.
- Birds flying over Bodega Bay, looking down at the town below, in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963).
- Mary Poppins gliding over London with her umbrella (1964), the St Paul's Cathedral and London's rooftops and aerial views.
- The iconic image of the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes (1968).
- The rooftops of Portobello Road in Bedknobs and Broomsticks (1971) won an Academy Award.
- The city railway line in The Sting (1973).
- Views of a destroyed Los Angeles in Earthquake (1974) for which Albert Whitlock won an Academy Award.
- The stone column demolished by the locomotive in the Chicago station in the film Silver Streak.
- The Death Star's laser tunnel in Star Wars (1977).
- The Starfleet headquarters in Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979).
- The final scene of the secret government warehouse in Steven Spielberg's Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).
- The Batty and Deckard chase scene in Blade Runner (1982).
- The view of the crashed space ship in The Thing (1982).
- The view of the OCP tower in RoboCop (1987) and other scenes.
Important traditional matte painters and technicians
- Michael Pangrazio
- Walter Percy Day
- Norman Dawn
- Linwood G. Dunn
- Harrison Ellenshaw
- Peter Ellenshaw
- Albert Whitlock
- Matthew Yuricich
- Matte World Digital | SIGGRAPH 1998 – Matte Painting in the Digital Age | Traditional Matte Paintings | Craig Barron
- The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting by Mark Cotta Vaz and Craig Barron, Chronicle Books, 2002; p. 33
- 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'')
- The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, pp. 213, 217
- The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, p. 227
- The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, p. 19
- Matte World Digital | SIGGRAPH 1998 – Matte Painting in the Digital Age | Great Expectations: Creating Movement | Craig Barron
- Matte World Digital | SIGGRAPH 1998 – Matte Painting in the Digital Age | 3-D Lighting Techniques | Craig Barron
- The Invisible Art, Cotta Vaz/Barron, pp. 244–248
- Saboteur – a showcase of dazzling matte shots and excitement. 22 June 2010.
- Mark Cotta Vaz; Craig Barron: The Invisible Art: The Legends of Movie Matte Painting, Chronicle Books, 2002; ISBN 0-8118-4515-X
- Peter Ellenshaw; Ellenshaw Under Glass – Going to the Matte for Disney
- Richard Rickitt: Special Effects: The History and Technique. Billboard Books; 2nd edition, 2007; ISBN 0-8230-8408-6 (Chapter 5 covers the history and techniques of movie matte painting.)