Matte paintings (or ‘glass shots’) originated during the early period of the silent era. They gave production units the freedom of never having to leave the studio grounds and still creating films that left the audience in awe.
For a long time now, many movies have relied on the magic of this art. Matte painting and VFX studios across the world have worked tirelessly towards creating the magic. To pick and choose among them is a tough choice to make but a few of them stand out.
Here’s a comprehensive list of the best we’ve seen till date.
Top 11 Matte Paintings WE’VE Seen On Screen
Mary Poppins 1964
An academy award winner for the best visual effects, this movie made extensive use of matte paintings. In many shots, the entire background was a full frame of art and the actors were matted into it. Chief artist Peter Ellenshaw was a part of the creative think tank with Walt Disney in many movies but he definitely outdid himself with this one!
Ghostbuster 2 1989
Mark Sullivan was one of the greatest matte painters that his generation ever saw. Before the art of glass shots gravitated to the computers, he painted this full screen shot of Sigourney Weaver’s apartment and cityscape around it. Only the roadway was left unpainted.
What makes this movie so special? Well, Albert Whitlock created 22 matte paintings in 12 weeks! What was even more impressive is the fact that this medium budget movie that was made in great haste minted good money at the box office. The effects work did have a few loopholes (which was most likely due to the rushed schedule), but the paintings are definitely noteworthy.
The distinguishing point in the shot in focus here is the loose and impressionistic brush that was a tried and tested signature of Albert’s style.
The NeverEnding Story 1984
Whether you took a liking to the movie or not, you just can’t miss this stunning Jim Danforth matte in the middle of all the visual effects. He did a brilliant job with capturing the refractive index of the crystalline substances which is all one large frame. This definitely is one of his best mattes ever.
Ben Hur 1959
The mattes in this movie faced a unique challenge. They all had to be painted horizontally (squeezed sideways) which would then be played for the audience in the right ratio after the making. And the beauty of it is that despite all the difficulties, it is still so hard to spot an error.
Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man 1991
This action flick went unnoticed but what we could not ignore was this breathtaking matte painting by Rocco Gioffre. While the element of the men against the billboard and the traffic was streamed individually, the rest of the scene entirely depended on this stunning matte!
Raiders Of The Lost Ark 1981
Micheal Pangrazio painted this stunning visual from the Raiders of the Lost Ark that become symbolic of the movie. This painting is tremendous for the fact that it is held in the shot for a fairly long time (compared to any other matte). And it is still not an easy feat to tell where the trick lies! Another ‘wow’ fact about it is that it took three months to paint all the boxes and crates. Simply flawless!
Treasure Island 1950
Another exhibition of Peter Ellenshaw’s unbelievable talent, this matte painting of the harbor in this delightful Disney feature is one of the few that will forever remain on the lists of the greatest matte paintings ever made.
The Red Shoes 1948
A lengthy old movie on ballet dancers is nobody’s first choice. But the visuals in the movie make it worth a watch. The many groundbreaking travelling mattes and optical composites are not short of awe inspiring, sometimes supplemented by equally beautifully matte paintings contributed by Joseph Natanson, Ivor Beddoes and Les Bowie.
Superman was one of those ‘perfect’ superhero movies that had a great mix of live action and visual effects. Les Bowie along with Ray Caple painted this stunning matte of the crystal fortress which is without a doubt one of Caple’s best works ever.
King Kong 1933
The Kong movie is packed with a number of matte paintings which have successfully created a mood of mystery, gloom and fear. The chief matte artists Byron Crabbe and Mario Larrinaga gave life to a dark and terrifying jungle in the 1930s and till date there isn’t one that is said to be more terrifying.
The iconic Titanic is amongst the last major examples of oil matte paintings. This shot of the Carpathia was crafted by Chris Evans (the architect behind blockbusters like The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, The Empire Strikes Back and The Green Mile).
These genius artists and matte painting studios have given us great visuals and virtual worlds to live in. A salute is what they deserve!
And while the modern film production techniques have switched to blue/green screens, matte painting is by no means obsolete. In fact, mattes have become the go-to reference for film-related digital creations.
With the digital evolution, matte paintings are increasingly moving out of the 2D space, with 3D sets and background setups being created using various digital techniques. Take Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban as an example – multiple 100-foot canvases were seamed together and positioned behind the movie sets to create that feeling of grandeur and a larger-than-life look.
Images are sourced from here.