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What is a matte painting? The word matte in matte painting refers to the fact that the painting would matte out or block the image in the background. Here is how a matte painting was done as far back as 1907. Let's say a filmmaker has built the ground floor of a castle but hasn't built the upper floors and towers for budgetary reasons. So a matte artist is called in. A secure platform is built to get the camera to the correct eye level and the shot is framed through a large sheet of glass mounted in front of the camera. Working with the cameraman, the matte painter would then paint the top part of the castle on the glass matting or blocking out the scene behind the painting.
Since the camera has only one eye, it wasn't possible to tell that the painting was actually much closer to the camera than the scene in the background. And as long as the camera didn't move, the painting and the background scene were merged together on film. The man who was credited with the invention of matte painting was Norman O Dawn. Dawn's 1907 film, The Missions of California was the first film to use the matte painting process. Matte paintings were used in films extensively throughout the history of cinema but the general public was largely unaware of the use of the technique. For instance, you have probably seen the classic film, Gone with the Wind. But we're probably unaware that whenever you see Scarlett O'hara's home Tara, it is at least partially a matte painting.
And in another classic film Citizen Kane, many of the signature shots are also matte paintings. I want to talk about two of the greatest matte artists to work in the pre-digital age, Peter Ellenshaw and Albert Whitlock. Peter Ellenshaw film credits include Mary Poppins, The Sword and the Rose, Darby O'Gill and the Little People and Treasure Island. My matte painting mentor was Harrison Ellenshaw, son of Peter Ellenshaw and a master matte painter himself. Harrison shared with me this high resolution scan of his father's painting for Stanley Cubrick's film Spartacus.
I want to zoom in a bit to show you some of the detail on this painting. Back before audiences could rewind and look at a matte painting many times to analyze the fine detail. Matte artists concentrated on the overall effect of their painting. How light fell on surfaces, rather like the great impressionist painters. And many of the matte paintings from this era look surprisingly loose to the contemporary eye. But when viewed in the context of a movie, they look perfectly photographic without actually painting in all of the fine detail.
Albert Whitlock is the second great matte artist of the pre-digital edge that you should know about. Whitlock was long associated with Alfred Hitchcock and his film The Birds, is one of Whitlock's masterpieces. Other movies that include matte paintings by Albert Whitlock that you should check out are, The Hindenburg, The Sting, and Mel Brooks' History of the World Part 1. I began my career painting on glass. But the availability of the digital tools I will introduce you to in this course has rendered those older techniques obsolete.
However, there's still a great deal to be learned from the great masters of the past. For a complete history of matte painting, you should find a copy of The Invisible Art by Craig Barron and Mark Cotta Vaz. It is out of print, but if you can pick up a used copy, it is the best book ever written on the topic. A website that everyone interested in matte painting should know about is www.mattepainting.org. Mattepainting.org has great discussions on matte painting.
And it's a site where newcomers can get their efforts critiqued by professionals. Another site you should check out is nzpetesmatteshot.blogspot.com. This site concentrates on matte artists of the pre-digital era and is updated frequently with new interviews and articles.
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