Image © Alp Altiner
TUTORIALS | Digital matte painting tips
● This matte painting from Alp Altiner’s forthcoming graphic novel, The Unknown, demonstrates the importance of composition. The viewer is lead into the image and across the bridge
Our experts this issue… ALP ALTINER Award-winning matte painter and VFX Art Director, Alp Altiner’s credits include Superman Returns and Spider-Man 3 www.alpaltiner.com
DYLAN COLE Best known for his work on Return of the King, Dylan has just completed Superman Returns as Lead Matte Painter www.dylancolestudio.com
CHARLES DARBY One of the pioneers of digital matte painting, Charles’s credits include Titanic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Minority Report www.charlesdarby.com
DAVE EARLY Currently Digital Matte Painting Supervisor at Cinesite, Dave’s credits include Gladiator and the Harry Potter ﬁlms www.cinesite.com
LUBO HRISTOV With his own matte painting company, Christov Effects and Design, Lubo’s credits include The Last Samurai www.christovfx.com
TIPS & TRICKS
Digital matte painting A dark art or simply a craft to be mastered? Whatever your preconceptions, these tips from ﬁve world-class matte painters should guide you towards the light ...
ost matte paintings begin life as a verbal
the most competent colour grading skills in the world, the
brief communicated by the ﬁlm’s director: “A
techniques we cover over the next few pages will never
cold and bleak environment, not too alien in
compensate adequately for a lack of artistic ability. Most of
its feel” or “a historically accurate view of the
all, you’ll need a good eye, an excellent sense of composition,
Southampton Docks, circa 1912”. If the brief hasn’t already
an aptitude with colours, and a solid understanding of spatial
been visualised by the art department, the concept sketch
design for the camera.
becomes the digital matte painter’s ﬁrst job. Vital as a
Especially for this feature, ﬁve of the best matte painters
development tool for exploring the composition of the
from around the world have combined to share their collective
ﬁnal painting, and also as a method of communicating
experience, offering insights gathered over the course of their
the look to the director, it’s only when the concept image
many years in the creative industry. From selling concept art
has been signed off that work should begin on the actual
to a director to working effectively with layers, we’ll take you
stage by stage through the process of creating a matte painting
Whether the matte painter’s role is to reconstruct an
and empower you with expert tips along the way.
entire imaginary background from scratch, or to augment a rudimentary set or existing location, the craftsmanship is
DON’T RUSH THE DESIGN PROCESS
essentially the same. These days, the majority of digital mattes
If you’re involved in designing the matte painting, spend your
start with a background plate; reference footage is sourced,
time wisely and don’t rush your work. While the majority of matte
then the layered paintwork begins. Colour-picking a brush and
painters produce concept art digitally (with Photoshop or Painter),
painting from scratch is becoming an increasingly rare task, as
others work in whichever medium is appropriate. Ensure that the
digital stills form the foundation of the majority of paintings.
colours, composition and lighting are signed off, and that the
Yet, by no means does this equate matte painting to a Photoshop collage. Artistic talent is vital, and even with
perspective is accurate before you move to the next stage and begin work on the details.
060 | 3D WORLD September 2006
Digital matte painting tips | TUTORIALS
Images © Buena Vista Pictures
STEP BY STEP | Working with layers
When Cinesite created the Planet Factory sequence for The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, David Early knew that the movement through this shot would require a combination of 2.5D and 3D projection. Matte painter Sevendalino Khay created a projected dome backdrop for the distant stars – the ﬁrst in a series of layers.
Background layers of planets, including the Vegas planet on the right, required much less detail. But each planet was still handed off as a separate layer to the compositors so that, within Shake, they could be positioned ‘in space’ to create a sense of parallax within the shot.
The layers containing the foreground planets were painted with greater resolution, as it was known that these would be used for more than one shot. They would later be projected onto spheres and rendered in 3D through the Shot Camera to enable 3D lighting and real shifts in perspective.
The ‘Douglas Adams’ planet on the left was created from a cyberscan made of the author while he was still alive. The detailed matte-painted texture was then applied, and the element was rendered as a 3Dprojected matte painting. The render formed another midground layer for the compositors.
Within Shake, the compositors then assigned the matte paint layers to cards positioned in Z-space. Each card was assigned a distance, so when the live-action camera move – tracked from the background plate – was imported, a sense of parallax was created in the distant planets as the camera moved through the shot.
Once the background was complete, the compositors added the 3D-rendered scaffolding and live-action plate, shot in the studio against bluescreen, as foreground elements in Shake. Various lens effects, glows, atmospherics and colour grading were used to create this ﬁnal impressive shot.
PRESENT ONLY YOUR BEST WORK
PROJECTING A MATTE PAINTING IN 3D
Since you’ll probably be working on several variations of ideas in
An alternative technique allows for even greater movement of
your concept drawings, use your own judgement when choosing
the camera through a scene. By camera projecting (or camera
which to present. Although most directors like to have choices when
mapping) a matte painting onto 3D geometry, the scene can be
considering how elements of the matte painting will work with the
rendered through the shot camera, with the hi-res matte painting
story, never present more than three images or you’ll inevitably be
adding ﬁne texture detail on top of the 3D geometry. A 3D
asked to take elements from each and end up with a composition
projected matte provides all the beneﬁts of true perspective shifts
that doesn’t work.
and real shadows, yet with a lower geometry count because details are provided in the textures.
SELL YOUR DESIGN WORK ON A LARGER CANVAS
work well and provide good explanations as to why. Knowing how
How often has a guaranteed lock-off ended up being a ‘slight’
to sell your work is an essential part of the process. Point out
zoom-in on the matte painting? Expanding your canvas beyond the
When presenting your concept work, point out which of your images
● Using a combination of stills taken from various American cities, careful grading and paintwork, Alp Altiner designed this shot to draw the eye towards the pyramidal buildings on the right
the strengths of the images, and explain how you’ll address any weaknesses. If you’re convinced that one of your images represents the perfect composition, show a couple of alternatives where one element is clearly wrong. Don’t fail to underestimate the importance of a psychological sell.
CREATING PARALLAX WITH 2.5D PROJECTION the shot camera rotates nodally around a locked-off position, the matte painting can be projected onto series of planes in the compositing software, and camera data imported to give the impression of slight shifts in perspective via a multi-plane technique. Known as 2.5D projection, this method can also include simple,
Image © Alp Altiner
Matte paintings are no longer conﬁned to locked-off shots. Where
rendered 3D elements.
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Image © Buena Vista Pictures
Image © Buena Vista Pictures. Courtesy of Dave Early
TUTORIALS | Digital matte painting tips
● The live plate for the shot on the left. Since much of it would be hidden by the set, the composition of the matte painting required careful thought
WORK IN 10-BIT COLOURSPACE ● Sundown on Magrathea. Like much modern matte work, this shot from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy involved blending, painting and colour grading multiple digital stills together to create the perfect sunset
standard 2,048x1,556 pixel ﬁlm resolution creates a safety margin
If your ﬁnal output will be ﬁlm, work in 10-bit log colourspace
for any unplanned moves on the shot. Better still, take advantage
wherever you can. 10-bit images maintain the full dynamic range of
of the beneﬁts of downsampling: double your image resolution
the original camera negative. While maintaining all of the original
(work at 4,096x3,112) and you’ll enjoy the added advantage of
data, log images look washed-out to the naked eye, so to view them
more comfortable paintwork. Rather than needing to ensure your
properly, a lookup table (or LUT) is applied to the monitor. The LUT
brushstrokes are pixel perfect, you’ll be able to work with broader
alters the screen to show the log image as though it were a print.
strokes, then downsample to 2K when your work is ﬁnished.
If you don’t have access to lookup tables, working in 10-bit linear is a good alternative, and while the full dynamic range of the negative
DEGRAIN THE FILM SCAN
isn’t present, unless you’re making radical colour grades to the scan,
If, as is nearly always the case, a plate is the basis of your matte
you’ll rarely see the difference. 8-bit linear is the standard for
painting, before starting any paintwork, you’ll need to remove grain.
television work, including HDTV.
Kodak’s Digital Gem Professional 2 plug-in (www.kodak.com) works well in eliminating ﬁlm grain from scans, and also noise from
BRUSH UP YOUR ART SKILLS
digital photographs. For a locked-off plate, an alternative is to have
Even with the best knowledge of Photoshop in the world, you
a compositor create a grain-averaged plate from 12 consecutive
won’t be a great matte painter without a fair degree of natural
frames of the shot.
artistry. You’ll need to understand perspective like an expert. If
Image courtesy of Charles Darby
you’re still unsure about constructing multiple vanishing points,
● Good matte painting fools the brain into believing a ﬂat image is a truly three-dimensional world. Virtually all of the background for this shot from The Fifth Element is a 2D matte paint
now’s the time to pick up any of the numerous books on the subject and hone those skills.
LEARN TO LOVE THE CLONING STAMP It may sound straightforward, but learning how to clone well is an important trick of the trade. Good cloning is invisible cloning. Practice removing a tree from a digital image of a landscape, or a lamppost from the front of a brick building.
STEP BY STEP | Projecting a matte painting in 3D
To achieve a photorealistic crane-up on the ancient African city of Carthage, Lubo Hristov’s team decided to project a matte paint on a relatively simple 3D model. Once the camera move was ﬁnalised, the Projection Camera was set up. Since the city was seen at its widest at the last frame of the shot, the Shot Camera was duplicated at this frame, locked off and renamed as the Projection Camera.
Once the 3D geometry had been created, a grid texture was projected from the Projection Camera, and the scene rendered through the Shot Camera. Areas showing excessive texture stretching, or those obscured from the view of the Projection Camera, were identiﬁed as requiring separate texturing, as revealed in this render of the ﬁrst frame of the shot.
Back in mental ray, three orthogonal, primary coloured distant lights were rendered through the Projection Camera. The resulting render was used as a selection matte in Photoshop to variously isolate the ground, rooftops, side walls and front-facing walls. In the image above, each is shown as a separate colour. This was an essential step for the next part of the process.
062 | 3D WORLD September 2006
Image courtesy of Charles Darby
Digital matte painting tips | TUTORIALS
● Because this shot from Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire required a zoom into the lit window, the matte painting was an enormous 20K
colour-correcting a reference image until it ‘breaks’, rely on your artistic skills and, where required, paint areas from scratch.
3D KNOWLEDGE IS ALWAYS HELPFUL Though it’s certainly no prerequisite for the job, 3D knowledge is often beneﬁcial. Whether it’s in setting up your own 3D camera projections, or using 3D models to help with perspective, so much the better if you can produce the elements yourself. If launching headﬁrst into Maya seems overwhelming, try your hand at one of
YOU CAN’T COLLECT TOO MUCH REFERENCE DATA
the more self-contained modelling and rendering packages such as Cinema 4D (www.maxon.net).
Most matte painters build up their own reference libraries of images
USE LAYERS SENSIBLY
with you and jump at opportunities to go out on location. Shoot
Be structured, label all of your layers clearly and sort them into
all the stills you think you’ll need, including general views, textures
folders. When you’re up against a deadline and trying to tweak the
and lighting conditions. Capturing images in RAW format retains the
roof tiles on the ﬁfteenth building from the right, you’ll appreciate
most data, and bracketing images around a central exposure will
a good working method. Work like a painter from background
provide more information about the highlights and shadow areas.
to foreground. Start with the sky, then move on to the clouds,
by shooting digital stills wherever they can. Keep a digital camera
● In the ﬁnal digital painting, the tones, composition and perspective are faithful to the original concept art (below left): proof that digital techniques do not render traditional media entirely obsolete
Where shots require signiﬁcant colour grading, shooting HDR images Image courtesy of Charles Darby
may be worthwhile, but unless you’re really pushing a grade, it’s generally considered overkill.
DON’T FORCE PHOTOGRAPHS TO FIT While photographic images are often the best starting points for a digital matte painting, don’t force the wrong photographs to ﬁt. A good matte painting isn’t simply a collage of photographs bound
Image courtesy of Charles Darby
together with a few painted pixels. Rather than stretching and
● For Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Charles Darby presented this single A4 watercolour to demonstrate how his ﬁnal matte painting would look
A stone procedural shader was applied to the 3D model and rendered through the Projection Camera. The process was repeated with about 20 other brick, stone and tile textures and procedural shaders to create a series of layers. By using the selection matte, appropriate areas within each of these images were combined to form the basis of the matte painting.
With the texture layers combined as overlay layers in Photoshop, paintwork began. Since the lighting would be rendered in 3D in order to achieve greater realism through real shifts in perspective, a 3D ambient and shadow lighting pass, rendered through the Projection Camera, was added as an overlay layer to preview the effect of the rendered lighting.
The ﬁnal matte painting was projected back through the Projection Camera, and the shot rendered through the Shot Camera, with mental ray lighting. Renders were graded in Shake and additional 3D elements were added, including the ocean, animated boats and people. The trees were textures projected onto cards and then rendered in 3D.
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TUTORIALS | Digital matte painting tips Images © Dylan Cole
Image © Dylan Cole
● Initial: as comparison of this sketch and the ﬁnal matte painting (reproduced below) shows, all of the important creative decisions should be made in the concept work
● Final: the composition, colour tones and ‘feel’ of the lighting are almost identical to the concept created in Photoshop. Only the foreground building on the left is true 3D
● With the saucer building as the only 3D element in this shot, the landscape was created via a combination of photographic reference images and paintwork
mountains, background atmosphere and subsequent layers of buildings. You may end up with about 50-100 layers, grouped into about 10 folders for easy colour grading.
CHECKLIST | 15 steps to success
KEEP YOUR ELEMENTS LIVE Never ﬂatten or merge a layer unless you’re sure you’ll never need to tweak that element in isolation. Changes may be requested until
1. Familiarise yourself with the shot. Is it going to be
the moment before delivery. If you’re unable to shift a background
straightforward matte paint, or will it require a 2.5D
element to make way for the new positioning of the CG, you’re in
projection or full 3D projection?
for a lot of unnecessary paint ﬁxes that could have been avoided
2. Create two or three concept images and get approval
by keeping more elements live.
● From another of Dylan Cole’s personal projects, this desert town sketch demonstrates just how closely the concept lighting matches the ﬁnal matte painting ● Created from a combination of photographic reference stills and Photoshop paintwork, the blimps were the only elements in this shot derived from basic Cinema 4D models
on one of them from the Director or VFX Supervisor. 3. Check that your monitor has been correctly calibrated
WORK WITH THE COMPOSITOR
for colour and contrast.
Discuss with the compositor which layers they would like to work
4. Collate all the images you’ll need. These will include
with, and whether they have any special requirements, particularly if
background plates, 3D renders and reference stills.
they’re blending the matte painting with live-action elements. Layers
5. Shoot any additional stills that might be useful.
that are typically required include atmosphere, highlights, shadows
6. If you’re working on a 3D-projected matte painting,
and various mattes. Elements that need to be animated should be
ask the modelling department to hardware-render a
created on their own separate layer, and elements which may become
wireframe from the Projection Camera.
foreground to live-action should also be split off into a new layer. ●
7. Check whether the compositors have any speciﬁc requirements for you. 8. Import your personal settings into Photoshop, including shortcuts and custom brushes. 9. Decide whether you’ll paint at 2K, or a higher resolution then downsample. Set up your Photoshop canvas slightly larger than the ﬁnal image. 10. Import the concept drawing (and/or any hardwarerendered wireframes) as a background layer. 11. Switch to log colourspace and run a log-to-linear LUT on your monitor. 12. Import your images into Photoshop and organise your layers with care. 13. Now paint to your heart’s content, using reference Images © Dylan Cole
images where you can. 14. When the work is complete, get sign-off on your ﬁnal image by the Visual Effects Supervisor. 15. Lastly, save out the layers discussed with the compositor, following the studio’s naming conventions. List courtesy of Alp Altiner
064 | 3D WORLD September 2006