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SIGGRAPH 1998 - Matte Painting in the Digital Age

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Original matte painting, painted in shades of blue for black and white photography.

Completed matte painting composite.

Digital Matte Painting

Traditional matte painting techniques are as old as the motion picture camera and have changed very little since they were first developed around the turn of the century. But today, computers are redefining matte painting as they have already revolutionized so many other aspects of filmmaking. Matte paintings like the ones you have just seen are becoming obsolete -- a lost art. But the need for creating effects sequences like those in "The Paradine Case" remains.

New, digital techniques like "virtual set-building" are becoming more and more essential to filmmaking. So, why are traditional matte paintings being replaced by computer graphics solutions? Well, the matte painting has been an excellent solution for static shots where the camera does not have to move through a scene. Skilled matte cameramen could employ tricks to simulate camera moves by zooming, panning and tilting over the painting.

Camera zooms in during shot. Actors are featured at end of zoom.

Great Expectations - Creating Movement

We just saw an example of this in that shot from "The Paradine Case" where Gregory Peck is standing in the distance next to the lamp. Still, ordinary matte paintings are two-dimensional artwork. They are limited to moves that don't change in perspective. The gift of computer graphic solutions to visual effects is that we can now move through the third dimension in digital matte paintings.

Live action set combined with wire frame. Composite showing second level CG room added to live action room.

This is a sequence from 1997's Great Expectations that had similar requirements to The Paradine Case. It was our job to create an interior establishing Miss Havisham's dilapidated mansion. Using what's called "3D match-move," we have tracked the camera movement from the "real world" motion-picture camera to our 3D software's "virtual camera" in the virtual world.

After visually confirming that we have matched all the camera's movement with the wire frame, we can now attach the real world set to the virtual set at any transition point. In this case, from just below the balcony. Now, we call this final rendering stage "two-and-a-half-D" (instead of 3D) because the next step is for the matte artist to create custom texture maps with his or her 2D paint tools that will ride on the wire frame geometry as the camera moves through the scene.


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