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DIGITAL COMPOSITING: Matte Painting Basics

Matte Painting is a broad discipline. It involves creating replacement backdrops for film footage, as a cheap alternative to creating expansive sets, or as a way of improving existing backgrounds.



This is the simplest type of matte painting, for a shot that does not move. It may just be replacing the buildings or sky behind actors talking.




Matte Paintings can be combined with the camera mapping technique to allow static shots to have some limited camera movement – this can be useful for aerial or establishing shots which dont feature any actors.


Often used in conjunction with 3D modelling, this is where a small portion of a set is made, which the actors perform on, and the rest is added digitally.


Most matte paintings are static 2D LAYERS and created in Photoshop – they can have extra elements added on top of them later in after effects, but by being a little bit clever you can also create animated 3D scenes – by setting a layer’s positions back in the B axis, you can add some parallax camera movement to make the scene look more realistic.


Matte painting is an entire course in itself, so the purpose of this article is just to give a few tips to a beginner who’s creating their first few pieces. Bear this information in mind when you work.

– Plan your matte painting thouroughly – sketch it out, with accurate perspective, based on the footage it will be composited with.

– Colour Correction is vital to bringing different elements together and creating a cohesive whole. Get familiar with white balancing, tinting, relighting etc.

– Do not composite layers that have moving parts in them, for example people walking, birds flying etc. These can be added later when composing your final shot, using appropriate footage.

– Work from background to foreground.

– Work non- destructively. Use layer masks and adjustment layers to alter your layers – dont alter then directly. This allows for further adjustments later.

– Regularly flip your painting horizontally – it helps you spot errors.

-Digital painting and 3D objects are vital parts of the matte painting process. A good matte painter will be able to incorporate these tools in his method.


– Naming conventions matter – you will be working with dozens of layers, and possibly sharing the file with other people.

– Since Matte paintings are a screen based medium, Work in RGB mode.

– As you cut out layers – trees, mountains, buildings etc, save them to a separate library, for quick and easy re-use later.

– Size your matte painting accordingly – movies are filmed in 4k resolution nowadays, so professional matte paintings need to fit a frame of at least 3840 x 2160. Also, working larger than your final footage allows you to shrink it down, hiding imperfections.

-When compositing photos together, use high res images, and never scale them up – only down.


-The perspective of elements must match to make the matte painting look real. You can SLIGHTLY adjust perspectives with tools like Perspective Match. (See below)

– Dont force bad photos to fit.


Photoshop’s Perspective Warp tool is a useful way of altering the angle of view on a given photograph.

1: Open your image and choose File > Edit > Perspective Warp. Perspective Warp has two modes – Layout mode, where you place perspective planes, and Warp mode, where you adjust these grids.

2: In Layout Mode, click and drag a plane over one side of your subject. drag the corner pins to match the perspective lines. Draw another plane on the other side, bringing it close to the edge of the first – the edges will turn blue, and when you unclick they will connect.

3: With all planes lined up and connected, switch to Warp mode. Hold Shift, and click on any edge. Now drag on a corner pin, and that edge will be shifted in perspective.

NB – Note that this should only be used for changing the perspective angle a few degrees. Anything too drastic will look unnatural.


Add Depth to your painting by including atmospheric perspective. This is the naturally occuring phenomenon whereby objects on the horizon lose contrast and definition, and gain the tint of the sky. For example:


– When matte painting, incorporating this can blend together separate layers and also hide any seams or incongruencies in your work.


Any Film footage will have grain – a natural artifact of filming, whereas your matte painting will either not have grain, or have a different style. Using the relevant filters and effects in After Effects and Photoshop you can simulate and match this grain, so that all elements gel together nicely.

Photoshop’s Grain filter is very useful, as it has different settings you can choose to best match your original footage. Apply the grain to a layer filled with 50% gray and set to Overlay blending mode. Now, reduce the opacity of the grain layer – usually, only a small percentage is needed – about 5 to 10 percent.


Matte painting requires a large variety of stock material and imagery – if you cant take your own, you can find a good selection of free stuff here:

youtube – all kinds from keyed footage.

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