10 Tips for Becoming a Better Digital Matte Painter

Posted September 19th, 2016 by Jim Thacker — Category: Tools & Techniques — 0 Comments

Matte work for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, created for Bad Robot Productions.

Matte work for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, created for Bad Robot Productions.

Learn core skills, build a better reference library and master key Photoshop tools with these 10 expert tips from Star Wars matte painter Nick Hiatt

Remember the resistance base from Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Nick Hiatt helped create it. Or the fight between Rey and Kylo Ren? He created the backdrop. Or the amazing landscape around the Jedi Temple on Ahch-To? Nick Hiatt again.

As an art director at Kelvin Optical, part of J. J. Abrams' production company Bad Robot Productions, Nick Hiatt worked on the matte paintings for some of the most memorable environments in The Force Awakens. His other recent movie credits range from Oz the Great and Powerful to Thor: The Dark World. And earlier this summer, he shared the fruits of that experience in an afternoon talk at Gnomon.

Nick Hiatt reveals his work on The Force Awakens during his recent Gnomon talk.

In the first half of the session, which you can watch on Gnomon's Livestream channel, Nick revealed what it was like to work on Star Wars: “hands-down the coolest experience I've had in the film industry”, he says. But in the second half, the audience got the chance to ask their own questions.

Watch An Afternoon with Nick Hiatt on Gnomon's Livestream channel

Below, we've distilled that Q&A into 10 tips to help you become a better digital matte painter, and to land you your first job in the VFX industry. We've assumed some familiarity with the tools of the trade, including Photoshop for 2D work and Nuke for compositing. But those aren't the only skills you'll need, as you'll discover...

1. Learn 3D

Matte paintings may traditionally be flat, but to get a job in the industry today, you need more than 2D skills. Nick estimates that around 50% of modern matte paintings start out as rough 3D layouts before being rendered out and overpainted.

Creating a 3D layout for a scene makes it possible to explore alternative compositions and camera angles more easily than through 2D techniques alone, and also helps artists to establish the lighting early. The software used is largely a matter of personal preference: Nick himself uses Maya as his main workhorse, but wants to learn MODO. He also recommends ZBrush as a quick way to sculpt terrain.

While digital matte paintings are rarely created entirely in 3D, as rendering speeds increase, the proportion that make use of 3D software is rising. Within 10-15 years, Nick expects all matte work to include at least some element of 3D.

“Everyone who wants to do matte painting should learn 3D,” he says. “If you don't, you're going to have a hard time getting work in five years.”

2. Know when to switch to 2D

However, that doesn't mean that you can dispense with 2D entirely. It's still quicker to paint or composite in fine details – the “dings and damage” that make an asset convincing – than it is to model them, and the results usually look more realistic. As Nick points out: “You're never going to get more real than a photograph.”

VFX facilities also typically use a mix of techniques for digital environments, with the distance of an object from the camera – and therefore the degree of parallax required if the camera moves – determining the technique used. Foreground objects are 3D; background objects are 2D; while those in the midground are '2.5D', being created through camera projection of photographic images over simple 3D geometry.

3. Build up a good photographic reference library

Good photographic sources are the key to a successful matte painting. Nick estimates that “at least 50%” of the 2D elements in matte paintings are taken directly from photographs, rather than painted by hand, with the input of the artist confined to adjusting the silhouettes and lighting, and adding rim lighting where necessary.

“You don't get high fives just because you hand-paint,” he points out. “You get high fives [for getting the overall result] right.”

If you have the money, take out a subscription to a specialist online stock image library – Nick himself uses Shutterstock, although the Adobe Stock service that comes integrated into Photoshop CC is a reasonable alternative – but for student or non-commercial work, you can get by with standard online searches.

The backdrop for Ahch-To is based on the Skellig Islands off the coast of Ireland. Nick created 10 variant concepts with the background islands in different positions.

4. Create your own library of cutouts

To speed up your work, it helps to have the photographic elements you're using – like trees, mountains and buildings – already cut out from their backgrounds. Every time you do a cut-out, save it separately to the finishing painting, and archive it.

“Speed is a crucial issue in matte work,” says Nick. “I've got about a thousand mountain ranges that I've cut out and saved as layers so I can pull them out quickly.”

5. Get your scene set-up right

Before you begin a new matte painting, make sure that your Photoshop file or Nuke scene is set up correctly. That means paying attention to aspect ratio and color space.

The latter is particularly important if you're working on a project that is being shot in an anamorphic format. Read up on Photoshop's pixel aspect ratio settings and learn how to use them. “You want to stay anamorphic in Photoshop, because when you kick that file back to [the composite], it has to stay anamorphic,” Nick points out.

Color management is a much bigger subject. This white paper from the Visual Effects Society provides a good overview, but try not to be intimidated by the math: as a matte painter, you only need to be aware of the key concepts. “The specifics are difficult,” warns Nick. “I know the basics, but I'm by no means a color scientist.”

Where possible, Nick recommends asking your client or one of the technical staff at the visual effects facility to set up a scene template for you – or, if you're using Nuke, at least to supply a LUT so that you have an idea of how the final shot will look.

6. Work at a higher resolution than you need

You can work out the minimum dimensions of the painting you need to create from your Nuke scene file – but don't feel obliged to work at that minimum resolution.

“It's good to paint larger than you need – 1k to 2k [pixels] over – because when you scale [the painting down for export], it looks crisper and sharper,” says Nick.

Modern digital matte painting calls for artists to work at high resolutions. The backdrop for The Force Awakens' resistance base was created as a 14K cyclorama.

7. Keep your Photoshop files organized

On big visual effects projects, the Photoshop files for matte paintings can quickly run to hundreds, or even thousands, of layers. So get organized. Gather related layers together in Layer Groups, and give them proper descriptive names.

Using symbols or color coding for layers can also help you understand the structure of a large document at a glance. Nick prefixes the name of every effects layer he creates with an asterisk (*effect), and every land mass layer with an underscore (_landmass), and color codes every sky layer blue in the Layers palette.

Organizing layers properly doesn't just help you work faster: it's also a vital courtesy to any other artists to whom you have to pass on the files.

“When you're trying to dig into a 1,000-layer file, you get lost in the trees really quickly,” Nick points out. “In the end, you'll need to get the shots into Nuke for a camera projection, or hand them off to a vendor, so the files have to be clean.”

8. Remember to use Background Save

One of the best features of Photoshop CS6 and above is Background Save, which enables you to keep working on other projects while you save your image.

Nick describes the feature as a huge time-saver: before it was introduced, he used to run two machines in tandem, so that he could keep working on the second one while the first was saving his work. “When you're working on a 9GB Photoshop file, it can take 30 minutes to save,” he points out.

9. Keep flipping the canvas

Another vital – although much older – feature of Photoshop is the ability to flip the canvas horizontally. Regularly reversing the image helps you to spot perspective errors, and stops you from becoming acclimated to other mistakes.

“It's good to flip your canvas all the time,” Nick says. “Be thankful you can do it in Photoshop. [Traditional matte painters, working in oil paint on glass] had to walk out in front of the painting and look at their work in a mirror.”

Nick recommends building an online portfolio on ArtStation as a good way to showcase your work. You can see more of his work in his own ArtStation gallery.

10. Aim for variety in your portfolio

To get your first job in the industry, you need to build up a strong portfolio. Nick recommends putting your work on ArtStation as a way to catch studios' eyes. “I love ArtStation: I go there all the time,” he says. “If I'm recruiting, I'll go on the site.”

As well as your artistic excellence, try to demonstrate your artistic versatility. “Do a ton of work in a lot of different styles,” advises Nick. “I look for a good wide variation in a portfolio: can you do photorealistic; can you do sci-fi?”

Finally, don't just showcase your Photoshop skills: 2.5D and 3D techniques are a vital part of modern digital matte work, too. When Nick is recruiting, he looks “for a strong understanding of camera projection in Nuke – and I definitely look for 3D.”

Read More
Watch the full video of Nick's talk on Gnomon's Livestream channel
Read 10 tips to speed up your environment concept workflow
Watch online matte painting training from The Gnomon Workshop
Browse Gnomon's matte painting and compositing courses


About Gnomon

Founded in 1997, Gnomon has trained thousands of students and professionals for careers in the entertainment industry. Find out more