What are matte paintings?

I'm sitting here at my desk just having recently heard about digital matte paintings and I was wondering 'what does matte actually painting mean?' so I thought I'd share everything I've learned with you today!

Short Answer: A Matte painting is a method to quickly produce a painted representation typically for the film and gaming industry. Also used historically painted on glass panels combined with live action footage to provide the illusion of a cohesive scene, now thanks to new technology this is done digitally often using photo manipulation.

Minas Tirith, The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema
Minas Tirith, The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema

What are Matte Paintings used for?

Matte Paintings have been used since even before movie cameras were invented to create painted elements on photographs, moving forward into the digital age this is now done in Photoshop, and is even moving past this and incorporating 3-dimensional elements using programs like 3DS Max, Maya or Modo.

The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema

Matte paintings have been used in the film industry from as early as the 1920's, some famous examples of these are; Star wars, The Lord of the Rings, Mary Poppins, Ghostbusters, Raiders Of The Lost Ark, The Invisible man, Dracula, King Kong, The Planet of the Apes and many, many more contemporary movies.

You'll also find Digital Matte paintings used in the gaming industry to primarily produce cinematic elements, but also to create game backdrops and 'sky boxes' and are now often made using 3D software.

Examples of Matte Paintings

Below I've listed some of the most famous Matte Painters in the Industry. Many of the films they worked on would not be of the standard we see them in today if it wasn't for their hard work and dedication to their craft.

The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema
The Lord of the Rings. 2001. Matte Painting Via New Line Cinema

I remember when I was just a wee lad that I wasn't even aware that some of these films, like the Lord of the rings for example, contained painted elements, and when I found out it blew my mind! It really stands as a testament to their painting prowess.

Christopher evens matte painting star wars
Matte Painter Christopher Evans working on Star Wars famous Imperial March scene

Matte painting christopher evans star wars
Imperial march Matte Painting by Artist Christopher Evans

Matte painting christopher evans star wars
And the Final Matte painting combined with the film footage.

Mary poppins 1964 matte painting
Mary Poppins, 1964. Matte Painting

A lot of the earlier matte paintings used in the film industry were approached in a more stylistic, impressionist manor. You can see this clearly in the Mary Poppins matte painting from 1964. Many of the brush strokes were kept loose to give an impression of the background rather than a tighter photo realistic approach that is commonly used in today's film media.

One possible reason for this is that they simply spent less time rewinding and analysing films during the 1960's as we do now, and with increasing quality of film, TVs and Monitors these differences are far more apparent.

raiders of the lost ark 1981 matte painting
Raiders of the Lost Ark, 1981. Matte painting

Raiders of the Lost Ark, of the Indiana Jones trilogy, is another prime example of Matte painting being used to give an accurate representation of a realistic scene.

This time however the scene itself would have been possible to created feasibly using standard set creation in a film studio, but the studio obviously has opted for a professional matte painter to create the scene to cut down on the financial costs of creating such a massive scene by hand.

the planet of the apes 1968. matte painting
The planet of the Apes, 1968. Matte painting

The reveal scene from the original Planet of the Apes film made in 1968 gives a masterful example of how matte painting can be used to sell a concept or an idea to an audience where it would be impossible or incredibly costly to do so using traditional methods.