While it is relatively easy to find many great CG artists working in the field of architectural visualization and creating stunning interior shots for their clients, when it comes to exterior views, particularly those with a lot on natural elements, vegetation and cityscapes, the choices become significantly narrower. Natural elements are extremely difficult and time-consuming to model and despite available software plug-ins, a variety of libraries, predesigned assets tweaked in post-production using Photoshop, most artists have difficulties creating realistic environments that also sport a great atmosphere. This is where Photoshop can prove to be more than a post-production tool. Mostly used in motion pictures and computer games, matte paintings involve creating photo-realistic 3D scenes from 2D images. These can be easily combined with modeled parts of the final image and help save time while creating great looking results.

Matte paintings originated in the early days of the silent films and were initially done on glass, and photographed, using a rotoscope camera, to combine it with the filmed plate. These images were works of art in themselves and created fantastic effects that ranged from epic settings to inconspicuous backgrounds. Since then, what started as a more painterly way of creating environments, evolved into an almost exclusively photo-realistic representation (today, digital painting has taken on the role of a more artistic way of depicting physical environments). With the Internet being an endless well of content, designers can now easily find stock photographs which can be integrated into a matte painting in order to save time and bring a matte as close as possible to a realistic image. In some instances when it become too much of a hassle to clean up stock photographs, skilled designers can create completely new images in programs like Photoshop. Instead of painstakingly removing signs of modern-day technology such as satellite dishes and tower cranes, a matte painter can either paint out all the unwanted parts or create a new plate. The time needed to complete one image can vary from a few hours to a few weeks, depending on the skills of the artists. In terms of the required tools, the Wacom tablet-Photoshop combination has become a standard in the industry.

While flat, two-dimensional matte paintings can be used for camera mapping in order to create an illusion of movement, they can also be used in mainstream architectural visualization in order to cut the production time and create stunning effects and backgrounds that eliminate the need for modeling an entire landscape in 3D. Another option is the so-called 2.5D camera projection. This entails projecting 2D images (matte paintings) onto 3D modeled objects to facilitate a greater opportunity for movement, rotation, etc.

In order to showcase the potentials of matte painting, we bring you examples from the films and series every architect and CG artist is bound to watch religiously:

The Wall Game of Thrones


Castle Black Game of Thrones


London-based visual effects company BlueBolt created this matte painting for a master shot of the Wall in Season 4 of Game of Thrones. As with most of the other shots in the series, live action sequences with physically built sets were made and combined with matte paintings and simple textured 3D builds. Here we see a group of horsemen from the Night’s Watch exiting into the wildling territory, with the huge wall in the background. A similar effect is created in the shot of Castle Black in which live action is combined with real sets in the foreground and a matte painting of the Wall and part of the castle in the background. Digital matte painter (DMP) Damien Mace collaborated with BlueBolt to give the Wall that snowy/icy look, while the environment north of the wall was created with a matte paintings based on a series of photos from Belfast, Italy, Switzerland and Finland. BlueBolt used a combination of 2D, 2.5D and full 3D to create the look of the castles. Basic models with simple textures would then be handed to matte painters to add details, lighting, environment, etc.

Hugo Pixomondo


Famous visual effects supervisor, Rob Legato, collaborated with VFX company Pixomondo on Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011). In the film, Hugo leads his friend Isabel around the corner of a Parisian block. The plate was shot on a green-screen stage and Pixomondo provided geometry of Paris rooftops. Matte World Digital painted building textures for stereo projection, and composited smoke elements and 3D falling snow.


The Wolf of Wall Street Brainstorm Digital


Another Scorsese film-this time crime comedy The Wolf of Wall Street (2013)-surprisingly utilizes a lot of special effects, photo-realistic 2.5D and 3D matte paintings included. Rob Legato was the VFX supervisor and Second Unit Director on the film, while Emmy Award-winning visual effects studio, Brainstorm Digital were in charge of special effects and used complex rotoscoping and tracking techniques to create the final look of the film.


Narnia Dylan Cole


Artist Dylan Cole, digital matte painter on Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005), created this panorama used throughout Aslan’s return to the stone table. The aim was to create a slightly painterly look that feels authentic and has a convincing atmosphere. Cole has also worked on several major films, including Avatar (2009). This matte painting reveals little of Pandora, but provides great visual suspense and realistic depiction of the planet’s lush forests and mountain peaks.


Star Wars III Yanick Dusseault


Visual artist Yanick Dusseault worked closely with the Star Wars Episode III Art Department and produced over 100 pieces of artwork which helped the VFX production team previsualize the actual shots. The two images are final matte paintings that appeared in the film and show different times of day which corresponded to the film’s narrative.