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Incredible Matte Painting Inspiration

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These artists created amazing fictional worlds using matte paintings and modern software.

How do filmmakers create stunning and fantastical worlds for movies and TV? Surely they can't be building sets for every one of these incredible worlds, and it would break the budget to render them in CG every time. It turns out, some of the best forms of movie magic persist to this day. Let's introduce you to the Matte Painting.

Incredible Matte Paintings School of Motion.jpg

Few things make you question your reality as much as matte painting breakdowns. It’s crazy to think that most of what you see on screen is completely fake. If you've never heard of the term 'Matte Painting' you may have a question...

What are Matte Paintings?

A matte painting is simply a painting used to create the illusion of a set that isn’t there. This technique has roots in hand-painted techniques where artists used matte-paint because it doesn’t reflect light. Matte paintings have evolved over the years to include 3D renders, photos, green-screen footage, and stock video. Modern artists use Nuke and After Effects to create digital set-extensions.

Frank Ortaz Painting Star Wars Motion Design Matte Painting.jpg
Frank Ortaz matte painting for Return of the Jedi.

How Do Matte Paintings Work?

Matte paintings trick the eye by using simple, almost ancient techniques. Just as early animators used multiple panes of glass to create depth in their work, matte paintings utilize glass and pastels to add in details that aren't present on set.

The original technique for cinema involved painting a photorealistic image on a glass screen with space left clear for the live action elements. The cameras were positioned so the painting seamlessly integrated into the real sets. You've like seen hundreds of painted backdrops without ever even realizing it!

In early films, the camera needed to be locked down while double exposing the film. First, any clear areas were covered with black tape (or another covering) to prevent light from affecting the film. The camera would roll, capturing the matte painting and locking in the detail. Then they would remove the covering and re-expose with the live-action elements. The results are incredible.

Through the years, matte painting has evolved into an open field for artists to showcase incredibly detailed worlds, often in sci-fi and fantasy. While the technique is still used in films, now it is a digital addition rather than an old-school in-camera trick.

Matte paintings are used to add crowds rather than hiring hundreds of extras. They change the color of the landscape or add buildings from the past and future. Paintings can extend sets, turning a small studio into a vast mansion.

While the techniques might have evolved over time, the practicality of matte paintings remains just as true today as over a hundred years ago.

Amazing Matte Painting Inspiration

We love watching matte painting breakdowns. So we thought it’d be fun to create a roundup of some of our favorite matte painting videos from around the web.



Created By: Blue Zoo

When you think of Matte Paintings your mind probably immediately goes to VFX work, but there is a myriad of examples of matte-painting in Motion Design. In this project from Blue Zoo, we see how a beautifully painted background can help in the storytelling process. Just look at that gorgeous color work!


Game of Thrones Season 7

Created By: RodeoFX

When the directors of Game of Thrones needed set extensions they looked to none-other than RodeoFX to get the job done. This breakdown from season 7 showcases some of the most incredible matte-painting and set extension work we’ve ever seen.


Natural Attraction

Created By: Mark Zimmerman

One of our favorite artistic pieces is this project from Mark Zimmerman. The short film is designed to romanticize beauty in nature. It’s crazy to think that this film is entirely fake.


Luckily for us, Mark was kind enough to give us a behind-the-scenes look at this project. Once you get done watching this do yourself a favor and check out Mark's portfolio page on his website.


Brainstorm Digital

Created By: Brainstorm Digital

This is perhaps the best example of a true digital matte painting on this list. When this demo reel dropped a few years ago, we were absolutely speechless. Brainstorm has masterfully composited images, video, and 3D renders to create fictional worlds for some of the biggest movies and TV shows in the world.

How to Create Your Own Matte Painting

If you want to try out matte painting and compositing for yourself, check out this tutorial we created in the early days of School of Motion. This two-part tutorial shows you how to composite an alien into a scene using Cinema 4D, Photoshop, and After Effects.

Now you’re only ever going to see matte paintings as you walk around in life. Is anything real?...

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