The Invisible Art of Digital Matte Painting

The Invisible Art of Digital Matte Painting

A simple explanation of what Digital Matte Painting is, and the basic process to create this "Windy Valley" Matte Painting by Emma Wittwer.

Matte Painting is one of the original visual effects techniques used in film making. Traditionally it was painted on glass, and then combined with live action work, on set as they filmed, or later in editing. Nowadays it's done after the film is shot.

Digital Matte Painters do a lot more than you might think. They are able to work at nearly every stage in the production pipeline, from concept work to small patches at the end. Matte Painters go by a variety of other titles, such as 'Set Extension Artists' or 'Environment Artist'. For studios that don't need a full-time Matte Painter, their skills can versatile enough to branch into other roles like concept art or lighting, so it's not uncommon for one person to be doing more than one role. This will depend greatly on the studio, the artist's skill set, time available and the requirements of the work.

Matte Painters are most commonly known for replacing objects in the background that are too far away to be worth rendering out in full 3D and replacing skies with more artistically directed clouds or weather. Or as per their other title, they extend the set that the actors are on. Only a small part is built and interacted with by the actors, and the rest can then digitally added by Matte Painters. They may be working with 3D artists or doing it all themselves and then passing it on down the pipeline, it all depends on the shot, the time, and the studio requirement. Matte Painters are not exclusive to films, as work is needed in TV shows, Adverts and in Video Games too, all creating similar effects.

Original examples of Hand Painted on glass Matte Paintings done by Artists at Lucasfilm. The First for the Movie "Star Wars - Episode 6 - Return of the Jedi" and the other for "Indiana Jones - Raiders of the Lost Ark"

Below is one of my submissions to 'The Rookies' in 2018. It features moving grass as the camera moves in slowly toward the town. It includes a look at the original footage and some 3D mesh elements I added. I called it ‘Windy Valley’ and it was created as part of a school project.

Below I will explain my method of creating this DMP (digital matte painting). First I was presented with beautiful footage of wind blowing through some long grass with rivers and mountains in the distance and no camera movement. The goal was to add camera movement and use particles to make this scene more interesting.

This image of grass blowing in the wind is from the footage provided

I started with a good old fashion Google Image Search. I use the tool options - “size larger than 4mp (2272x 1704)”. I do this because it’s frustrating to find an amazing picture, and for it to be so small as to be unusable.

A Matte Painting generally is twice the size needed for the final output. So if it is 1920x1080 (standard HD) the DMP needs to be 3840x2160.

This is because that gives the painter more pixels to work with to create subtle effects needed. Its then scaled back to the correct size and passed along the pipeline.

The other Google Image Search tool I use is “usage rights”. I select "non-commercial reuse" I created this DMP for a school project, no money made here. This is super important, and any images I use be under the correct copyright.

Even when gathering images for research or a mood board I try and keep them all copyright friendly.  If it's in mood board or a rough photo bash and I really love a particular image. Then I can’t use it, it’s quite time consuming to find another to fill its place, especially if it’s perfect.

If I use more than about 30% of an image untouched, I try and get hold of the actual owner and email them to ask permission to use such a large chunk. Even with Google’s ability to search with an image, it’s not always possible to find the original owner. To help combat this, I go out on weekends and take many of my own photos so that I have my own collection of images.

There are websites (like that offer for a small fee, high-quality, high res, High Dynamic Range (HDRI) and in Raw format images that are just perfect for Matte Painting, and are copyright free for use commercially and otherwise.

'Keswick Panorama' Original Image by David Iliff shows a large view of the lake district of England with a small town next to a large lake

Once I placed it under a frame of the live action plate, the entire image just  came together in my mind. I was then able to quickly find a few other photos and put them together to create a realistic, yet unreal version of reality. Some of the best Matte Paintings advice I have gotten;

Be so subtle that people don’t even notice and less photos you use, the more realistic the outcome can be.

Even if the setting isn't realistic, like in space, or the future. The world and the Matte Painting still has be cohesive and feel like it could be real. It must blend seamlessly with other aspects of the production. You know its good when people don't even know its there.  

Every image added not only has to match each other image, but they all have to match the base live action plate (if there is one) or colour grading. You have to think about the hue and saturation,  how light and dark the images are. How it will fit into the image, size, scale, perspective, light angles, etc. I know one of my weakness is saturation, as I am drawn to bright and highly saturated colours. But being mindful of that, and having others look over your work is the best way to help catch issues you can’t see, but improving your work as well.

This is a rough layout of mountains, sky, castle and other building on top of the original Keswick Panorama and the original footage of the grass.

Once the base image was complete, the next task required a foreground element, to try and hide the grass. The quality of the live plate wasn’t the best, so the teacher suggested a rock wall, then showed the class a cool technique in Nuke to make one. With permission I went for a wooden fence with wires, like I see in my local area for public fencing.

This way I could keep the grass visible as I thought it was lovely and added charm and life to the image. As required I added dust particles in the wind and added in some birds, but I struggled to get the effects to be subtle enough to feel natural and realistic.

This was the final submission for the class. I only have 2 weeks to work on it, and I had to do that while working around 4 other university classes, but I was quite pleased with the outcome for the time. Especially as the effects where the main focus of the task, and not the matte painting.

Finished and submitted for marking for the school project, the image has all the elements edited as per the feedback, and added in dust particles and flying birds.

I revisited this Matte Painting after a few months, and I could almost see it as a new work.  I got feedback from new people, with experience in the field of Matte Painting, and that have not previously seen it. As I also had more experience and now new feedback, I improved some of the blending, scale and colours.

I could keep editing forever, but I need to continue working on new projects and leveling up my skills. It has been a pleasure to work on an image to get it to such a good state. Nothing will ever be perfect, and knowing when to let go and stop is just as important as creating the work.

Final submission of the Windy Valley for The Rookies 2018.

Matte Painting is an invisible art, and if you do it right, no one will ever consciously notice and that’s the goal.

Every time I look at Visual Effect breakdowns, I am always surprised by how much isn’t real. It catches me off guard sometimes, even though now I know what I am looking for. I still enjoy movies, and now not only do I base my joy on they story and music, but on how much the movie can distract me from admiring the visual effects work.

So much work goes into the films and games by so many talented people, and even though I know the tricks, and how it was made, and produced, it’s still magic to me.