Matte Painter

  • Matte Painter

Some of the most iconic images in cinematic history owe their success to the talents of matte painters, from the shocking Statue of Liberty scene in Planet of the Apes to the awe-inspiring warehouse scene at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. Matte painters are animation artists who create painted representations of landscapes, sets, and other locations as backgrounds for scenes that are either impossible to find or impossibly difficult to film. While matte painters once relied solely on their brushes to paint these backgrounds, today most matte painting is done digitally, though the concepts remain the same.


The fundamental duty of all matte painters is to create realistic elements that seamlessly replace live-action elements or embellish existing live action footage in films. Matte painters will commonly work with live-action footage, digital still photography, rendered CG elements, and digital paint to create environments and visual elements that are realistic, believable, and can be integrated seamlessly into the film, video, or commercial upon which they are working. Though some matte painting today still includes paint-and-brush technique, matte painters almost exclusively work in the digital realm and with the requisite software; this requires knowledge of the latest consumer software, as well as proprietary software as needed. A matte painter will also work with a variety of implementations ranging from two-dimensional backdrops, 2.5-D (a form of pseudo-3-D) and 3-D projections, as well as textured elements and finishes, proving that while artistic ability and technological proficiency is required, flexibility is a must. As with many careers in the animation field, matte painters will routinely work with a great number of people on every project, making verbal and written communicative skills crucial to their success. Matte painters are first and foremost artists, and good knowledge of composition, color, perspective, depth, and lighting will bear on virtually every aspect of the job.

Skills & Education

Like all painters, matte painters are most often trained studio artists who graduate with fine arts or design degrees from accredited colleges, universities, and art schools. They are usually well-versed in basic artistic concepts such as drawing, sculpting, and traditional mediums of painting with oils and watercolors. The skills picked up in their art training must also be transferred to the digital realm, and knowledge of 3-D modeling, visual effects, and animation programs are a must. In-depth knowledge of programs like Adobe Illustrator, Photoshop, and Corel Painter and ninja skills with a Wacom tablet are bare necessities; 3-D programs like Zbrush, visual effects programs like Apple Shake, and animation programs such as Maya will round out your digital toolset. Artistry is the foundation of a good matte painter’s skill set, but patience and perseverance complete the pyramid of success in this career.

What to Expect

Matte painters can expect a great deal of competition and a long road on the way up the industry ladder. Compiling a portfolio of traditional and digital artwork is your first step to gaining entry into a production house, or even design or architectural firms. However, you can expect to work as a concept artist or in a similar entry-level position before landing a job exclusively matte painting. Talented artists without digital skills will have a difficult time attaining a career as a matte painter, and likewise a digital wizard with no artistic talent should look elsewhere. If you want to be a matte painter, expect to spend years perfecting all aspects of your craft, be patient and flexible, and when the time is right you just may get the chance to put your artistry into a film and put your mark on cinematic history.


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