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Discover the joy of matte painting

Corey Ellis
January 29, 2016 by Corey Ellis Alum

Anything is possible with the help of a certain technology called “the computer,” but that doesn’t mean we can’t make something the old-fashioned way. The Vimeo production team decided to pay homage to special effects from days of yore and make our own matte painting — specifically, a glass shot. Even if you’ve never painted before, there’s no harm in giving it a try. The simpler you keep your plans for the painting, the lower the barrier to entry!

Step 1: Pre-Planning

First, have an idea of what scene you’d like to composite. You can add buildings to landscapes, extensions to sets, or incorporate entire tableaus to your shot. Then, scout out some IRL locales. If your narrative requires a castle, think about a striking, scenic spot in your neighborhood that would best suit that (bonus points for a moat). Keep in mind that live painting might take some time, so you’ll want to pick a location where filming won’t be an issue if you need to hang around for awhile.

Once the idyllic moat-filled setting is found, snap some reference pics of your scene, and note the time of day so that you know exactly what to expect when you return. These photos will help you match subjects and paintings to your scene later. Search the nets or pop over to your local library to find the imagery you’ll be adding to your scene, like a castle nestled between some mountains. Finally, sketch out how the objects might look with the same lighting situation, and plan where your actors will be so they don’t overlap with the final image.

Step 2: Supplies

  • Paint
    • Base coat: find an opaque paint for your base coat, as this will block light from penetrating the back of your painting and ruining the illusion. I myself bought a cheap enamel house paint. Try to find a satin or flat, as they accept paint better and don’t reflect light. It’s best to ensure that your base coat has a similar hue and tone to the mid-tones in your background. 
    • Acrylic: this is what you’ll use to actually paint your painting. Try to find a matte or flat acrylic (an opaque acrylic is preferable). And remember those reference photos you snapped? Select your colors based on these.

  • Brushes: get a range of brushes, big and small.
  • Glass: use acrylic glass for your surface, as it’s more durable to transport than standard glass and it’s safer to mount.
  • Black cloth
  • Light stands: 2-4 will do the trick.
  • Clamps for mounting glass: we chose C-clamps.
  • Paint board for mixing: FYI, any old sheet of plastic would work.
  • Cup o’ water: this sounds obvious but it’s easy to forget!
  • Camera: a DSLR or higher-end video camera is preferable for manually controlling your aperture and exposure in the field. Smartphone cameras work well too — you simply need to find a way to mount it to a tripod.
  • Tripod: the three-legged kind will do best.

Step 3: Setup

Once you’re on location, set up your tripod and camera, and compose your image in the viewfinder based on how you want your final image to appear. Keep in mind where your subjects will stand and where your matte composite will be painted. Secure your glass on your stands, and bring it close enough to your camera so that the stands are out of frame. Stop down your lens (meaning, let less light in with your aperture), so that the foreground and background are both in focus.  

(How you might feel if things aren’t in focus.)

In general, the bigger your piece of glass, the better focus you’ll have because your camera can be set farther away. I found that a piece of 16 x 20 glass was large enough to do the trick. Stopped down to f22, my foreground and background were within the depth-of-field range that they both appeared to be in focus. Make sure your glass is roughly parallel to the image plane of your sensor, so you can avoid unwanted glare and distortion.

Step 4: Painting

This is where you’ll get an idea of how everything will fit together. With base coat, it’s all about laying down paint on the area where your soon-to-exist matte painting will be. If it helps, sketch out the shapes first. Fill in the base coat on the backside of the glass to completely block out any light from behind. This is important because any light leaking through will ruin the illusion: it will reveal streaks in your work and changing the tones of your painting.

Before you begin your final matte, it would be prudent to let your base coat dry beforehand. When you get started on your painting, a good rule of thumb is to paint from darkest to lightest. So, the first thing to paint is shadows. Generally, shadows have a bluish tint, reflecting the sky. The easiest way to capture these are to try to block out the shapes of the shadows. Then, you’ll want to mix in lighter and lighter tones to blend in your shadows to the mid-tones.

After your shadows are in place, start to mix in lighter colors. Block out brighter areas and blend them into the mid-tones. Finish with your brightest highlights (usually white), but know that less is more with this one. Once you’re done painting (tres magnifique!), you can use your viewfinder to determine which areas need more blending. A nice trick is to take the rough edge of a knife or pen, and scratch excess paint away to help blend your creation even better into your scene. But be cautious about scratching away too much!

Step 5: Filming

If your painting is darker than your background when you look through the viewfinder, it may be necessary to match the lighting on your painting to the background exposure. You can do this with a portable light or bounce. We used a bi-colored LED in our example. But how do you go about getting the right exposure? An easy way to do so is to match the tone of the brightest whites of your painting to the brightest whites of the background. Dimming the light or moving it farther and closer away from the painting will change the exposure.

Once your exposure is on point, you’ll need to get your actors in place. Block out the spaces  they can roam free and the areas they should avoid. Remember that any overlap of the background onto your foreground actors will disrupt the illusion (unless your illusion involves overlapping). Finally, set up a large, dark cloth so you can block any reflection on your glass. You can use stands or hold it up closely behind the camera, keeping the cloth between you and the lens. And one more #protip: tape up any red or blinking lights on your camera, as they might otherwise show up in the reflection. OK! Ready?!? Action! Yahoo! Lastly, after each take, it’s wise to check your footage to make sure you don’t have any unexpected reflections or errors. 

With just a phone and a bit of that old resource called time, you can create effects like this one, which add a really nice handmade look to your film. Matte painting may not be the most practical way to add effects to a scene, but it’s important to understand these traditional techniques and appreciate their tactile characteristics, which can be lost in digital compositing.    

Much thanks to DaVinci Artist Supply for letting us goof around in their store! If you’re in NYC, we can’t recommend them enough: they’re an awesome resource for artists.


Garrett Fry PRO

Great funny video. Need to make it clear to layman viewers though, this process is very very far from what real Matte Painters do now. This statement is wrong: "Matte painting may not be the most practical way to add effects to a scene". Actually, Matte Painting is one of the best and fastest ways to do Visual Effects. To see how Matte Painting shots are actually done, take a look at this site:

Also, here is a real Matte Painting Demo Reel:

Matte Painting is very much alive and one of the coolest things on earth!
Thanks again for the video.

Corey Ellis Staff

That statement is in reference to traditional Matte Painting techniques such as the glass shot. You are right tho, Digital Matte Painting is an invaluable tool for modern film/video effects. Thanks for the links. That's some impressive work! Those shots in the Great Gatsby are seamless. You must've had 3 or 4 buttons! Here's a link to some awesome VFX work done for The Grand Budapest Hotel that I think combine digital matte painting and practical miniature effects in a very unique and subtle way. Thanks for the input and info and thanks for checking out our vid!

Rudy Cepeha

I don't quite understand....Wouldn't shooting the matte and the back-round action shot together, leave one or the other, out of focus considering the focal length between the two ? ....

Corey Ellis Staff

It's a bit tricky, yeh. I wrote a bit about it in the Setup step above. Basically,the bigger your matte painting is, the easier it is to get both into focus. Also, Closing the aperture all the way widens the depth of field. This lets less light in and makes most everything in focus. Finally, focusing in between the matte and the background helps to keep both in focus.

Sije Kingma Plus

Very entertaining video guys. Perhaps you can make another tutorial concerning the whole Ray Harryhausen animation techniques :) Would love that!

Pat White Alum

This is great guys, Well done!!! love the sequence starting at 1:20!

Anthony Ptak

This is hilarious! Well done. Kudos to Bob Ross. Happy little Vimeo.

Brad Halcomb

be kind and throw rice, cuz there is gonna be a party soon

Rhonda May

thanks, that was fun and inspirational!

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