Visual Effects for Film

VFX is a tool for your story telling~

What is Matte Painting?

Matte painting is one of the oldest techniques in the visual effects industry and one of the most widely applied techniques as well. The concept of matte painting is simple: “Use one or few paintings to replace a background.” Although the concept is so simple, but the technique of matte painting is quite skillful and artistically demanding because the paintings used to replace background have to be realistic enough and support the film style so the audiences can think it’s a real background.

Blue Screen

Blue Screen

Matte painting background This is one the most common vfx shots in film making. You shoot your actors in front of green or blue screen, then apply a single painting to the background. With this technique, you can make your film look like it was filmed anywhere around the world, even if the world doesn’t exist.

matte painting

A 2D matte painting replacing the blue screen

The challenge of matte painting is when the camera is moving it’s position. After all, it’s just a flat 2D painting. If it’s a locked off shot then it’s easy to just put the painting in the background with the right amount of focus blur and it’ll look real. But when the camera starts moving, it will reveal that the environment is just a flat 2D painting. Even before vfx turned digital, there was a way to solve this problem. The artist (matte painter) will paint on layered glasses. The foreground of the painting will go on the glass that is in the front, the background will go on the glass in the back. This will provide parallax when the camera starts to move, making it feel 3D. Of course you still can’t rotate or move the camera too much. But for most shots that need environments, this is enough.

matte painting on layered glasses. Image from:

shooting with matte painting on glass. Image from

Matte painting Environment As VFX moved into the digital age, the abilities of matte painting expanded. With 3D programs’ help, the camera movement can be more free. You can animate the camera flying through paintings in 3D software to create a helicopter fly-over shot with less trouble and cost. Instead of painting on glass, we can apply a technique called “camera projection” or “3D projection”. This technique allows artists to put their paintings in 3D software and create simple 3D geometry to match the shape of the environment. You can create as many 3D objects with paintings as you want and position them any place or position as you need to create the right parallax.


Layered matte painting in 3D software. Image from:

What’s the different between using a matte painting in 3D software than just building a full 3D scene for your environment? Well, think about a realistic looking environment for a moment. There are thousands and millions of details. There might be a thousands of leafs just on one tree positioned in different ways and receiving light in different ways, imagine how many are needed for an entire tree covered mountain. Every window on a building all have a lot of different faces and they all receive light causing shadows in a different way. If you try to build these in 3D software, you will have to make all those details and light them well in order to look realistic. Of course the 3D software nowadays has a lot of functions that can help you achieve this easier. But it still takes a lot more work than a matte painter who manipulates photos in Photoshop to get the same details. It’s easier to control and fine tune the look, no endless render time, and you need only one matte painter rather than modelers, texture artists, lighting artists and render artists. This means faster, cheaper, and a better look for your film. Here are some video examples of applying matte painting to make digital environments. . For more examples please visit LightRay FX


11 responses to “What is Matte Painting?

  1. bi fold patio doors 2013/04/17 at 10:29 AM

    Hello, i think that i saw you visited my website thus i
    came to “return the favor”.I’m trying to find things to enhance my site!I suppose its ok to use some of your ideas!!

  2. Pritam 2015/06/02 at 5:14 PM

    In some movies like the mummy and the scorpion king they show thousands of soldiers or creatures. Is that easy to do?
    Can you multiply human soldiers too? I mean, one creature is the same as another but humans are all different right. How do they show invading armies?

    How do you show dams breaking and water destroying a town ?

    • Pritam 2015/06/02 at 5:16 PM

      On a serious note can someone like you have staged the moon landing?

    • LightRay FX 2015/06/20 at 9:03 AM

      Hi Pritam, Thank you for visiting our blog. There are few ways to do this. But none of them are “easy”. Actually, there is no such thing as easy in VFX. Even remove a unwanted stain might be hours work. There is a technique called “crowd simulation”. You can see many demo about this if you search in google or youtube. For most battle shots or crowd shots, usually the camera is posited far away to get wild angle view to show the size of the scene. In this situation, the detail of the character can’t be noticed. So there is no need to distinguish the differences between each character. For close shots, the actors will be filmed then composite with the background crowd. This way the audiences can see clear differences between each actors. If the shot is about human crowd, film a group of people several tapes and then compositing them together might be a good approach. Take a look at our recent project break down around 1:07 might give you the idea.

    • Neha 2015/06/25 at 11:48 AM

      yes exactly! we do have softwares like golaem crowd to do so!

    • Neha 2015/06/25 at 11:50 AM

      destroying a town and dams breaking is something that we are creating and destroying in 3D and merging it with real croma shoots makes the shot complete, that is technically known as VFX!

      • LightRay FX 2015/06/26 at 2:39 AM

        Yes, Thanks to Neha for answering this for us. In VFX, there is a technique called Fluid or particle. These are common used to create dynamic objects such as water or smoke. This is how most water shots made. However, there are some more other ways such as compositing real footage or elements. It is even possible to shot in a wave generate pool. It all depends on the schedule, budget, getting best result, etc. to determine the best approach.

  3. Lightning X7 2018/07/07 at 12:47 PM

    hei, can i quotes a few paragraph from this site for my thesis? btw is this link to the other site cause i can’t open the link you posted from this site?

    • LightRay FX 2018/07/08 at 2:38 AM

      If you like to quote from our site, please make sure you give us credit by listing company name LightRay FX or our web address. Yes, that’s the correct website of our vfx studio. Thank you for visiting.

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