Luca Gabriele Rossetti explains digital matte creation
Matte painter and compositor Luca Gabriele Rossetti explains how digital technology has transformed the art of matte creation, and offers advice to environment artists
From traditional to digital is the best way to explain one of the most distinctive jobs in visual effects: the role of the digital matte painter in feature films. There’s a huge distinction between a traditional matte painter, whose role is becoming less and less relevant, and a digital matte painter or, even better, an environment artist.
There’s still some confusion over who is a matte painter rather than a concept artist: they aren’t the same, and often we get confused between a good concept and a matte. A concept looks awesome, and is full of elements and atmosphere… but it’s not as detailed and high-res as a matte. In the end, a concept looks poor in comparison.
Traditional matte painting is older than the movie camera itself: it was practised in the early years of photography to create painted elements in photographs. With the advantages of the digital age, matte painters have slowly transitioned to a digital work environment, using pressure-sensitive pens and graphics tablets in conjunction with digital painting software such as Photoshop.
Rossetti advises you to choose a keyframe to establish the camera projection: this one is from Conan the Barbarian
A digital matte painter is part of a team involved in post-production/VFX – as opposed to a traditional matte painter, who was a member of a special effects crew, often creating matte paintings on set to be used as backdrops during filming. Because of their artistic skills, digital matte artists are often also involved in the creation of concept artwork.
Through the growing need for ‘moving’ mattes, camera projection mapping has been implemented into the matte painting pipeline. While working on the motion picture Hook in 1991, ILM CG supervisor Stefen Fangmeier came up with the idea of projecting Yusei Uesugi’s aerial painting of Neverland onto a 3D mesh modelled by Geoff Campbell. However, projection-mapping-based 3D environment matte art was until recently the industry’s best kept secret, just as its predecessor matte painting had been.
The involvement of 3D in this – until recently – 2D art form was revealed by Craig Barron from Matte World Digital in 1998, after completing work on Great Expectations, when they introduced this technique to the public as a ‘2.5D matte’. In production today, this combination of 2D and 3D is every matte artist’s bread and butter.
The matte painter’s role
In order to figure out what our role as an artist should be, let’s examine what really happens in a VFX company or in a film art department. Films can be located anywhere; creating the visual world or setting for a film is the role of the art department. The look of sets or locations transports audiences into the world of the story, and is an essential element in making films convincing and evocative. These settings are rarely left to chance by filmmakers; a great deal of work and imagination goes into constructing appropriate backdrops to any story.
The art department usually employs the largest number of people on any film crew. On big-budget fantasy, period drama or sci-fi films, the art department offices and the drawing and construction studios can occupy a vast area and employ hundreds of talented people.
A concept is a general idea, or something conceived in the mind. Concept artists start drawing or painting the mood, the look, the idea: the image will be more or less detailed based on the time available, and should represent what the client wants. After the idea is locked and approved, the concept becomes a digital matte painting.
As both a digital matte painter and a concept artist, I find this part of the process extremely creative and interesting: it’s actually the only part in a movie where a VFX artist is free to push strong ideas and drive the mood of the story. You basically represent what is often not clear or defined, and try to visualise what the art director or the director imagines.
Mattes meet 3D
A typical workflow for a moving matte painting is starting to set up the 3D elements involved. Today 3D is essential: a lot of studios are using Maya as their main 3D tool, especially in the UK, the US and Australia. Some artists in Canada prefer Softimage, and I’ve found that studios in Germany are really attached to 3ds Max. I’m not saying you need to learn everything – but almost, if you want to work everywhere; it just depends on the company. If you work on your own as a freelancer, however, you can choose to specialise.
When you have the 3D environment and you’ve added your texturing and proper lighting on top, you can start to collect all the reference materials you need to make your matte painting. Highly detailed pictures are vital to achieve a photorealistic look.
One of the most important parts of the process is to choose the right frame – the keyframe – to establish the camera projection. A 3D projection is any method of mapping three-dimensional points to a two-dimensional plane. As most current methods for displaying graphical data are based on planar 2D media, the use of this type of projection is widespread, especially in computer graphics and engineering.
Rossetti uses the same workflow to produce professional and personal work, such as this one entitled City Falls
Camera projections don’t always work, unfortunately: they’re dependant on the camera movement, so sometimes you have to split up the elements that aren’t working because of strong parallax, and they start to lose the camera mapping on top. In this case you can choose another keyframe to reproject – or avoid projections and go straight to a normal 3D renderer just for those elements. However, we usually prefer to patch it in while compositing.
Once you’re sure that your frame is the right one to start painting on, you just render it out from your 3D software. This is when your Photoshop work will start. I don’t really want go into detail about painting techniques, but pay attention to the parallax. If you need to, export a grid from your 3D tool, which enables you to keep an eye on that.
Now you have time to refine and make the 3D realistic, using your image library for texturing as best you can. Try to match the rest of the environment, like the sky or any other 2D elements you have, and above all the plate. We work to at least at double the resolution of the plate, usually in Cineon/DPX and 16-bit, but sometimes even larger if we need to cover up the camera movement.
Now it’s time to reproject your matte on the geos or cards you’re going to set up in your compositing tool. Nuke is currently the main compositing tool almost everywhere because of the 3D area involved, which is just amazing and technically efficient.
Once you’ve imported your plate and done the setup for the Nuke project, you can import the 3D geos you’ve developed. Now you have your main camera, which will come to you from your motion control or matchmoving department; basically it’s the same camera you’ve got in your 3D scene.
The trick is to use the camera to reproject your matte painting setup onto the frame you painted and with no animation, so basically you project a still frame on top of your geos – which, with the camera in motion, gives you the perception that you’re navigating through a real 3D environment.
Artistic and technical
So now you’ve figured out how the role of a matte painter today has changed – how you need to be not just artistic but also technical. I haven’t mentioned the other tools we use in production, like ZBrush, used for sculpting or texturing your 3D elements; or Vue, which is quite useful for some parts of your environments. In conclusion, you need to know almost everything and, of course, have a good eye.
I believe that an environment artist or senior matte painter working today at large VFX studios such as ILM or Animal Logic needs to be prepared more than others, and needs the skill to take their shots from start to final image.
Rossetti works primarily with Photoshop, but has other tools such as Nuke, Maya, ZBrush and Vue in his 3D arsenal
This article was first published in issue 163 of 3D World magazine, which also includes environment insights from Factory Fifteen. See what else is in the ‘CG environment’ issue and get your hands on a copy now!
on Wednesday, December 19th, 2012 at 2:00 pm under Artwork, Features, Guides.
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Tags: digital matte painting, Maya, Nuke, Photoshop, vue, ZBrush