Matte Painting in Film: From Paint to Digital

How Artists Help Create "Impossible" Film Shots

Anthony Daniels as C-3PO and Kenny Baker as R2-D2 in a scene from the 1983 film 'Return of the Jedi'
British actors Anthony Daniels and Kenny Baker on the set of Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi directed by Welsh Richard Marquand.

Sunset Boulevard / Getty Images

One of the most famous shots in cinematic history is the closing shot of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981), which is set in a U.S. government warehouse filled with hundreds of crates. In reality, almost the entire shot was created by a technique called matte painting. The hundreds of crates were actually a painting on a piece of glass that was combined with filmed elements (in this case, a worker pushing a crate on a cart) to complete the shot. What would have otherwise required building or buying hundreds of crates for a shot that lasts only about 20 seconds was accomplished with a bit of movie magic that goes unrecognized by most audiences. In truth, filmmakers have been using matte painting for over 100 years.

Did You Know?

Before he became an Academy Award-winning director, James Cameron created matte paintings for 1981's Escape from New York.

Matte painting developed as a technique to extend scenic elements of a shot, such as the extensive use of matte paintings to depict the jungle landscapes of Skull Island in King Kong (1933) and the London skyline of the early 20th century depicted in Mary Poppins (1964). It is also used to complete difficult, dangerous, or otherwise impossible-to-shoot shots (including those that would be impossibly expensive). For example, the Statue of Liberty at the end of Planet of the Apes (1968) is a matte painting because building a full-scale replica or even a detailed miniature would have likely been prohibitively expensive for the production. In Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 film Modern Times, a matte painting was used to complete a thrilling shot in which it appears that Chaplin’s Tramp character is dangerously roller-skating while blindfolded at the edge of a hole in the floor. In reality, Chaplin was never in any danger because the “hole” is simply a painting on glass placed a few feet in front of the camera at the precise angle to make it appear to be part of the scene.

While using mattes to block out certain parts of an image was a technique used in the early days of filmmaking, with film pioneer Georges Méliès frequently using mattes in his work, traditional matte paintings are painted with oil-based paint on clear glass to more easily combine with film. Early American filmmaker Norman Dawn is credited for popularizing the use of glass matte painting techniques in his 1907 film Missions of California in order to depict historical buildings that were no longer standing. Within a few years, matte painting became the preferred technique for depicting grand structures that would be too expensive to build or shots of massive crowds that would be too expensive or complicated to shoot.

Of course, many masterful matte painters did not receive the recognition they deserved for their work because their compositions are so seamless that audiences could not distinguish that a significant portion of a particular shot as created by a visual effect (though some matte painters were recognized in Academy Award nominations for Best Visual Effects). In addition, many matte paintings were quickly discarded by studios after filming of a shot was completed.

A matte painting used in Martin Scorsese's film Age of Innocence
GHENT, BELGIUM - OCTOBER 10: A matte painting friom the movie Age of Innocence is shown as part of the Martin Scorsese Exhibition at Caermersklooster is shown as part of the Martin Scorsese Exhibition at Caermersklooster on October 10, 2013 in Ghent, Belgium. (Photo by Didier Messens/WireImage)

Some of the most famous matte painting shots in cinema history include:

  • The longshot of the Emerald City in The Wizard of Oz (1939)
  • The vast cityscapes of Ancient Rome in Ben-Hur (1959)
  • Many of the Mount Rushmore scenes in North by Northwest (1959)
  • Many of the landscapes in the original Star Wars trilogy, including many of the interiors and exteriors of the Death Stars in Star Wars (1977) and Return of the Jedi (1983), the exterior of Jabba the Hutt's palace in Return of the Jedi, the exteriors of Cloud City in The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and longshots of the Millennium Falcon in all three films.
  • The exterior of Superman’s Fortress of Solitude in Superman (1978)
  • Futuristic Los Angeles cityscapes in Blade Runner (1982)
  • The Gotham City skyline in Batman (1989)
  • The longshot of the RMS Carpathia in Titanic (1997)

Award-winning matte painters include Peter Ellenshaw (Mary Poppins, Treasure Island), Harrison Ellenshaw (Star Wars, TRON), Christopher Evans (Return of the Jedi, Titanic) Mark Sullivan (RoboCop), Albert Whitlock (TV's Star Trek, Earthquake), and Matthew Yuricich (Blade Runner).

The Emerald City in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz
Judy Garland, Ray Bolger, Jack Haley, Bert Lahr, and Terry in The Wizard of Oz (1939). (Warner Home Video)

Though paint and brushes are rarely used for matte painting in today’s films, the technique is still frequently used in film and television with digital tools. The breathtaking landscapes seen in films like the Lord of the Rings trilogy and Black Panther (2018) and television series like Game of Thrones (2011-2019) are enhanced or wholly created by digital matte painting. While a single matte artist or small number of matte artists might work on a film in the paint era, dozens of digital matte artists might work on the latest Hollywood blockbusters. However, digital matte painting is not just limited to big-budget films filled with visual effects. Digital matte painting is used in films, television series, and commercials with a variety of budget sizes.

While the process and tools have changed, the objective has not—to seamlessly create the ideal environment envisioned by the filmmakers.