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SIGGRAPH 1998 - Matte Painting in the Digital Age

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The following lecture, Matte Painting in the Digital Age, is from the "Invisible Effects" series given on July 23 at SIGGRAPH 98. This is an illustrated transcript for Web presentation.

My name is Craig Barron and I'm the owner of Matte World Digital in Marin County, California. Matte World specializes in digital matte painting and realistic computer-generated 3-D environments for feature films. Before we talk about the exciting changes happening in the present, I'd like to start putting things into perspective by looking at the history of matte painting.

Traditional Matte Painting

Originally, visual effects artists used matte paintings to solve a variety of film's production problems. Today, we use new techniques like "virtual sets" and "digital backlots" to solve the same problems in a more powerful, flexible manner. But these new technologies have their roots in traditional matte painting technique.

Let's take a look at a sequence from Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film, The Paradine Case, from the Selznick studios. [The film sequence is shown; we see a London Manor house; then we see Gregory Peck enter and stroll through huge rooms with incredible ornate ceilings and details]

If you were making a film in Hollywood under the old studio system that existed during the 1940s that required a sequence to be shot in a remote location, you would never want to take the time and expense to send your star Gregory Peck and the hundred or so crew members overseas. You instead would create the shot using visual effects at home in the studio. A good example is this Manor House interior, set in London.

We are now seeing the matte painting shots that created this interior, but I'm not going to point them out to you until after the clip is finished. See if you can spot them as I continue talking. For those of you unfamiliar with matte paintings, they are, in simple terms, paintings of environments on glass that are combined with the filmed actors to complete scenes that don't really exist. This approach minimizes production costs by avoiding construction of large, unnecessary sets or the spending of huge amounts of money for travel to distant and often unsatisfactory locations.

In fact, at the Selznick Studios during this period, any location outside the city limits of Culver City would have been considered too far away since they had a matte painting department. In these slides, we see the live-action scene was first photographed on Selznick's sound stage. Then, a matte artist painted in the required imagery to finish off the scene.

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