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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

DYLAN COLE Best known for his work on Return of the King, Dylan has just completed Superman Returns as Lead Matte Painter

CHARLES DARBY One of the pioneers of digital matte painting, Charles’s credits include Titanic, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Minority Report

DAVE EARLY Currently Digital Matte Painting Supervisor at Cinesite, Dave’s credits include Gladiator and the Harry Potter films

LUBO HRISTOV With his own matte painting company, Christov Effects and Design, Lubo’s credits include The Last Samurai


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

matte painting.

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


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.

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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.









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.


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


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 ( works well in eliminating film grain from scans, and also noise from


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.


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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


the more self-contained modelling and rendering packages such as Cinema 4D (

Most matte painters build up their own reference libraries of images


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


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

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