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This is an article from 2020. After recording the title of the article, I didn’t write the content, but now I’m taking advantage of the vacation time to give a detailed description of Matte Painting, a magical field in which we create fantasy worlds inside our own minds. This article is about the history of Matte Painting and the techniques of Matte Painting.


Wikipedia Matte Painting

Matte painting is the painting of landscapes, sets, and vistas, often allowing the filmmaker to create environments in the film that do not exist in the location, combining the painted image with live footage.

According to the needs of the movie picture, in order to shoot the picture in the director’s mind, Matte Painter needs to remove the irrelevant objects in the original scene and paint the picture that meets the needs of the movie creation. In the picture above, in order to add the details of the sky and houses in the background of the original shooting scene, the unwanted scene is masked by Mask (black part), and then the details are stitched into the actual shooting scene by painting to achieve the final film effect.

The first person to use Mask Painting in film was an early American film director Norman Dawn, who painted on glass to create scenes that could not be done on live action.

Painting on glass is a painstaking task. The camera tripod is fixed at a fixed distance from the scene being photographed, the distance is determined by the composition of the framing, a glass plate is placed not far from the camera, and the combination of camera lens, film, and light is used to create enough depth of field to keep the close-up painting and the background landscape in perfect focus. To create the painting itself, Matte Painter looks through the camera viewfinder and directs his assistant, who marks the points on the glass where the real scene and the painted area merge. The artist then draws the scene in pencil on the glass, constantly checking through the viewfinder how the painting and the background elements fit together. The desired image is painted directly on the glass, usually with oil paints, using tones that blend perfectly with the background scene. When painting the picture, the artist must determine how the light and shadows will change during the day in the scene to be photographed. And before the painting is completed, the camera and the glass, either of which has to move, will create a deviation of the painted elements from the background. So Norman Dawn invented another technique original negative matte painting.

Here it only involves exposing only the real part of the image on the set, leaving a part of the underexposed image for adding painting elements later. Similar to the glass painting technique, this time instead of painting on the glass, an opaque black is painted on the appropriate areas of the glass to produce a masked matte that prevents these areas from being exposed while the camera is shooting, and the edges of the matte are carefully designed so that they follow the natural borders in the scene.

The finished negative is saved and then another camera in the artist’s studio acts as a projector to project one of the frames of the shot onto the scenographer’s board, and since a black mask has been added, Matte Painter blackens the part of the board that has the picture on it, and the scenographer can use this as a basis to start painting the unexposed masked area. The advantage of this is that Matte Painter no longer needs to paint the scene, and it is convenient for Matte Painter to do the painting work after the shooting is completed. After the artist has finished creating, when the painting and the real scene shot on the original negative can fit perfectly, the original negative will be loaded into the camera for a second exposure shot, and the original black unexposed area will be replaced by the painting on the board, and the real scene shot image will not be exposed again because it has been blocked by the black board area. By blocking the second exposure also has a complete scene of the negative, the final development is completed, the whole drawing scene and the real scene will be perfectly combined together. At the same time, this method of drawing has its drawbacks, because it requires two exposures of the negative, and there is a risk of destroying the original negative.

In the mid-1920s, the Bi-pack contact matte printing was an improvement on the original negative painting scene. Matte Painter starts to paint on the glass, the finished painting glass plate is placed between the white curtain and the camera, the white curtain is lit with a light, the camera contains two rolls of film inside, one is the new unexposed film, one is the original shot negative, now re-shoot the Matte scene in the studio, because the glass plate is in the dark, underexposed, so finally when the original negative is copied at the end, the negative on the new film will be removed This also creates a black area in the original negative, and then the new copy negative obtained from the above film is exposed twice, when the original white curtain is replaced with black, the glass plate is illuminated, and the background light of the black curtain is extinguished, so that the final composite negative of the painted scene and the actual shooting is obtained.

Later on, the back-projection technique also became popular, and it is very close to the modern digital painting technique, where a camera is used for scene projection and a camera is used to shoot the final picture. The original scene negative is developed and printed, then loaded into the projection camera, and the real scene is projected onto the curtain, then a camera is placed in the other direction of the projection camera for the final shot, and a painting glass plate is placed on the side close to the curtain shooting camera, then the scenographer draws on the glass plate, and finally the camera is used to re-shoot the scene, and the final picture is synthesized after the painting. This technique is better than the Bi-pack contact matte printing technique in that there is no secondary processing of the original negative, avoiding the high cost of having to re-shoot the scene due to damage to the negative.

When the camera is in motion, because the image drawn by the scenographer is based on 2D, the motion of the image will bring about errors in perspective, and in order to produce the correct perspective, the scenographer will use a solid model to shoot the scene in real life.

Peter Ellenshaw - Matte Painter movie

The digital world

Now we will enter the digital world, where our arsenal of tools is colorful. With digital compositing programs, we can instantly see the effects of composites, create masks, apply a large number of live-action photos to scenes, create realistic lighting and 3D models of scenes, and all sorts of tricks that make traditional painting techniques replaced by Digital Matte Painting digital painting.

For those who are interested in learning the techniques of Digital Matte Painting, I recommend five courses for study and research.

  1. Concept Art for Production

  2. CGMA Matte Painting Master Class

  3. 3D Matte Painting Tutorial



The traditional painting techniques are also common in the digital world, the correct matching of light and perspective, the correct rendering of colors, all of which test the artistic and artistic skills of each painter, and we need to constantly train our eyes and hands to be able to quickly determine the defects presented on the screen and know how to improve the presentation of the film.


The basic techniques of Digital Matte Painting are also the masking techniques used by the scenographers we mentioned above, extracting the effective parts of the picture, matching the perspective and color of the real scene, and the light. The flexible application of traditional painting techniques can improve the realism of our digital painting scenes, adding details that the human eye cannot distinguish from the real.

The general production process includes:

  1. reference collection

  2. concept design, make a preliminary sketch of the scene design

  3. adding details in the scene sketch by region

  4. build the basic scene object model, and sketch for comparison, to achieve the correct perspective of the picture

  5. Mapping of objects in the 3D scene

  6. lighting and synthesis processing

  7. the last part is the specific Matte Painting, to increase and expand the real details of the scene


Do not make a superior product, make a superior work, this is a quote from Renderman’s rendering tutorial textbook. Yes, creation does not stop, the work always represents the symbol of an artist’s soul. If the real world scene can’t meet the needs of the movie, then we create the scene, if we can’t create the real scene, then we build it in the virtual world, a movie can’t be made without a team, but with the development of computers, I’m imagining how a person can Production of a film, DMP completion we can rely on the assistance of the computer, the creation of the simulation of the real world, we can all be completed in the electronic world, today the cost of shooting a film is very high, but we can imagine that one day each of us can create the scene in the film, shaping the characters in the film, and then through the light and shadow will be presented on the screen, perhaps this day will come.

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