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A Matte Painter creates Digital Matte Paintings (DMPs) that are virtual backgrounds used to either completely replace or embellish live action photographed plates. The artist works with stills taken from live action photography, digital still photography, rendered cg elements and digital paint to create believable ‘environments’ that are to be seamlessly integrated into the film by compositing artists. A landscape, cityscape, set or distant location, are examples of environments that would be would otherwise be too expensive to build or visit and so are created with DMP techniques. Matte painting now tends to come under the umbrella of environment work (which provides for full cgi backgrounds or part backgrounds/mid grounds as well as matte painting), completed in the larger VFX companies by an environment team/department.
What is it like?
Matte painting in itself is as old as the history of VFX – originally using oil painting directly onto glass in front of the camera, helping create the wonderful worlds seen in the original Star Wars and Indiana Jones films. It is the area of VFX that has both changed the most and changed least over the years. There is now something of a crossover between more purist based painting and a photo realistic collage based approach using photoshop (that can carry through and realise concept art envisaged by designers/concept artists) to the more fully modelled, textured and lit cgi approach.
Matte Painters now need, at least, to be able to complete ‘image/texture projection’ onto cards/image planes using imported (matchmoved) virtual cameras themselves as well as using the traditional representational fine art and photography based skills they have always used. This is very important to stress. Even though a lot of environment work you’ll see as shot ‘breakdowns’ on company websites and artists showreels’ appears to consist of image planes in 3D space, Matte Painting is still the same art of directly painting what the camera sees and, with that, needs to come a very precise understanding of how, light interaction, tone, colour, the rules of perspective and the camera/lens works.
The skill set of a Junior Matte Painter can closely match that of a Junior Compositor, except if anything possessing more of a flare for traditional painting, drawing and photography as well as being a dab hand with Photoshop. Matte Painters work with stills almost exclusively though and pass on finished Photoshop files (often with embedded alpha channels) to compositors who track in the matte painted sections and integrate them back into the live action plate. Texture Artists can also find their way into Matte Painting (often not seen as a direct path – but the skills between texture painting and matte painting are largely the same). Rather that digitally painting from scratch concept art into a DMP (that would be begun by blocking in colour and then adding in the more high frequency detail later), you’ll be copying and pasting elements into position to work compositionally and follow the rules of two point perspective/horizon line. You’ll use Photoshop layers to organise things and layer masks to paint into and allow you to control subtle match grading and the colour/atmospheric effects of the added elements.
The Matte Painter may search digital photo archives for images of buildings, mountains, skies, trees, forests etc that fit the needs or the shot or the VFX Supervisor’s/Lead’s brief for the painting. A lot of matte painters create their own archives by taking digital photographs of dramatic real-world locations and texture details for later use.
Environment TD’s may want to work as Matte Painters. In smaller boutique VFX studios, those skilled enough can work interchangeably as Matte Painters as well as Environment TDs (in some companies the definition of roles has now become blurred). Found widely in the games industry and in the larger VFX companies, Environment TDs tend to be CG Generalists/Generalist TDs but rather than modeling, texturing and lighting to create props or CGI assets to go into the live action frame, their work is concerned with making CGI that generally fills the frame that the live action (or CGI) goes into. The VFX environment team now consists of Matte Painters using 2D or 2.5D techniques and Environment TDs using full CGI techniques to create environments – interior or exterior of any concept or any period to suit any genre. Often the best fit in terms of cost and time saving for a project is a well thought through blend of all these techniques.
• Thorough knowledge of matte painting techniques including colour space, digital paint and photo realistic collage techniques
• Photoshop file management (file format, bit depth, resolution or non destructive/editable layering of elements)
• A good understanding and application of the rules of perspective as a basis for element construction or correction strategies in the creation of the digital environments
• Technical proficiency in photography with an emphasis on composition, depth, light interaction, tone and colour
• Knowledge of the relevant additional software (see below)
• Ability to communicate with colleagues and work as part of a team
• Ability to take direction and willingness to address feedback
• Ability to manage priorities and bring multiple tasks to completion within a deadline.
• Enthusiasm to learn and develop professionally
In Matte Painting, Adobe Photoshop, and being adept in organising your work in an editable, non destructive way on layers, and with layer and effect masks, is a must. Knowing your way around Maya (particularly texture projection) and sometimes Nuke (2D and 2.5D) is also called for. For any Environment TD biased role proficiency in Maya with a particular strength emphasis in modeling may be called for. ZBrush, Mudbox, Vue and Terragen can also called upon to make terrain, landscapes and digital nature.
Matte Painters usually come from traditional art and design backgrounds. Although a showreel of matte painting work integrated into (most often) green screen composited shots can be called for, a showreel consisting of landscapes, set extensions and interiors that are still images demonstrating careful skill in Photoshop element integration, match grading and an understanding of atmospheric decay/aerial perspective and the effect depth of field, exposure, scale, contrast, lens distortion and grain can also be presented as part of job applications. Check on the job/recruitment sections of VFX company websites or talk to their recruiters for exact requirements.
It is possible to move into matte painting with more of a blend of skills in 2D digital preparation (prep/paint) or junior compositing – particularly for people who show DMP skills as part of their junior compositing showreel. Use breakdowns to show how the DMP was built up in layers and with colour adjustments. Keep your work photorealistic.
From 3D texture painting, you can also look for opportunities to move ‘across’ to junior or entry level matte painting.
If you are at university or college, look out for the competitions that the larger companies now run to find matte painting talent. For example:
A good texture resource can also be found here:
For people coming from VFX courses or from backgrounds in CGI and have developed skills and a showreel as a 3D/CGI Generalist, the next step would be to apply for a position as Environment TD.
You’ll find that some Senior Matte Painters have often been working for ten to twenty years. It is likely that these longest serving VFX artists will have come from traditional art backgrounds and often successfully work interchangeably as concept artists for project pitches or perhaps as part of the productions’ art department. The ability to turn ideas on paper or in the head of the film (or game) maker into images that communicate a look or vision to other production departments as well as the VFX team, or to direct the camera department by showing them a concept of how the final shot the DOP is about to shoot, when finished in post production can be hard to find.
The more design and concept driven work is something new entrants into matte painting can aspire towards. Junior Matte Painters/Artists will usually ‘cut their teeth’ by filling in the gaps in 2.5D projected shots or by adding simple elements such as an extra piece of mountain or tree line to already shot exterior plates or extending a door frame or wall where a physical set didn’t exist. It is this ability in realistic painting that accords with the rules of photography that a lot of companies now have trouble recruiting into their matte painting/environment departments. Matte Painters/Concept artists can go on to eventually (after a minimum of ten years) to make good VFX supervisors, especially on very concept/design driven VFX sequences/projects.
An Environment Artist/TD who has more of a background in art and design may want to specialise in more concept driven/matte painting work or progress into more specialist CGI/3D roles such as lighting or look development. Creating a niche for yourself in proving your worth with specialist software that creates digital nature such as Vue or Terragen or atmospherics such as Ozone and tieing this in with DMPing or Environment TDing is also a possibility.