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Matte Shot

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"Bye, Dorothy! Be careful not to run into that painted background that's ten feet away!"
CinemaSins, Everything Wrong With The Wizard of Oz

A shot in which only a part of the shot, usually the area immediately surrounding any of the characters present on-screen, is a live action shot. The rest is a painting, most often used to portray a non-existent vista. Rather than build a vast set, they shoot the actors on a plain set with a few background elements, with parts of the camera frame matted off by opaque cards. Later, an opposite set of cards, matting the parts of the frame that were already exposed, is used to shoot the background; in most cases this is a detailed, realistic "matte painting" done in acrylics on glass by a dedicated artist, but it could also be miniatures or location footage. Low-budget films, and films where whatever was in front of the matte was hoped to be distracting, sometimes used paintings on canvas.

With the advent of high-definition television, matte paintings can fall into Special Effect Failure territory: peer closely at any long shot that lasts more than a few seconds where the main action is going on in the foreground, and the background will very likely be a matte painting.

In the electronic editing era, the matte shot is often used to refer to a Chroma Key shot, which uses a similar principle. This system has replaced any number of early film tricks. Classic Matte Shots had one advantage over Chroma Key, though: you could matte anything of any color equally well (or badly).

The opposite of GIS Syndrome (real background, drawn foreground). Sub-Trope of In-Camera Effects.


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     Films — Live-Action  
  • While Ray Harryhausen is rightfully celebrated for his Stop Motion creatures, the other field he was great at was matte painting.
  • Ghostbusters (1984) uses quite a few of these, most notably during the shots of the apartment building, which change depending on how bad things are (the last shot of it has pure black smoke shooting out of the top).
    • The DVD features a great and fun extra where you can compare the shot filmed, to the one shown in the film, where you can really see all the mattes.
  • The Star Wars original trilogy made extensive use of matte shots to create the complex space battle sequences.
    • The Original Trilogy had a ton of matte shots. Lucas' addiction to CGI used to be an addiction to matte paintings.
  • The very end of Raiders of the Lost Ark has a famous matte shot. When we see the overhead shot of a worker moving down a narrow warehouse aisle, all those sprawling stacks of crates are created as a painting.
    • A more interesting matte shot is the PanAmerican seaplane; the plane, which was not seaworthy (it was, in fact, still being restored) was composited into shots of a loading dock built on the ILM grounds and shots of San Francisco Bay (for the water). The matte was even painted to touch up unrestored areas of the plane and put the PanAm logo on!
  • Perhaps the most famous is Mary Poppins, which reproduced the entirety of 1910 London on sixty-four sheets of glass.
  • Disney also used the technique to add two stories to the exterior shots of Pollyanna's aunt's house in Pollyanna. The real house (the McDonald Mansion in Santa Rosa, California) is a single story.
  • The famous A Storm Is Coming shot in The Terminator is achieved via a matte painting.
  • The "cliff jump" scene from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid features a matte-painted cliff wall.
  • 300 deliberately uses colors, lighting, and matte paintings to achieve that retro "filmed on a sound stage" look.
  • Tremors 2: Aftershocks ends with a wide shot of the survivors walking towards the smoldering crater of the destroyed oil refinery. Only the foreground with the actors is really there, as the crater itself was really a painting done by acclaimed artist Rocco Giofre and was actually rescued and hung in the home of writer/director Steve Wilson after production wrapped up.
  • The Schüfftan process was an earlier variation that involved reflecting the picture or piece of scenery onto a mirror, removing the unnecessary bits of reflective surface from the mirror, and filming the actors (and the rest of the set, if any) through the now-transparent glass. First developed for Metropolis, it also shows up in movies like The Thirty-Nine Steps (where it was necessary because in 1935 you couldn't really shoot a huge crowd scene inside the London Palladium), and according to The Other Wiki, Peter Jackson used it in Return of the King.
  • The film version of A Series of Unfortunate Events uses this for the Briny Beach and the railroad scenes. It's a lot more elaborate though, as only the sky was matted; everything else was real, but scaled to give the illusion of distance (e.g. the crops in the field were actually made smaller and smaller as they approached the matte backdrop).
  • The massive ENCOM cubicle farm in TRON is mostly a matte background that comes just shy of melding perfectly with the actual cubicles—if you look closely, you can see a slight gap between the two.
  • The Dark Crystal used several of these shots.
  • There are over one hundred matte paintings in Gone with the Wind. The exterior of Tara was only built partially, with matte painting filling in the rest for distant shots. As was the custom at the time, none of the sets had ceilings so that studio lights and sound recording equipment could go there. In some shots, ceilings were added using matte paintings.
  • In Citizen Kane, the outside of Xanadu is mostly a series of matte paintings.
  • In The Wind and the Lion, a matte painting is used to depict the armored cruiser USS Brooklyn and the rest of the Atlantic Fleet in Tangier harbor.
  • Blade Runner 2049 combined this technique with spectacular Real Life set pieces to such great effect that only four scenes in this 130+ minutes Scenery Porn orgy made use of CGI. The result rightfully won Academy Awards for Best Visual Effects and Best Cinematography.
  • Used in South Pacific, to the point that Paw Dugan cracks a joke about it in his Music Movies review of the film: "Hey, all the action's over there on that painting, let's go see!"
  • In Dollman, shots that include both Brick, who is a little over a foot tall, and normal sized humans mostly use this.
  • The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar: In keeping with the short's vintage aesthetic, the characters often narrate in front of painted backgrounds, and a scene transition will occasionally have a "stagehand" roll these backgrounds away.

     Live Action TV  

  • Used often in Our Miss Brooks. A good example is the final scene of "The Big Jump", where the action takes place on the Madison High rooftop with a matte background in behind.
  • The television version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy (1981) pioneered Matte Shots within Matte Shots.
  • Fraggle Rock made incredibly extensive use of a version of this technique called the... travelling matte.
  • Every local newscast is never shot in a building with an amazingly wide view of the city in the studio out a window; it's either a big blown up picture on a sheet called a Duratrans or projected on a screen. There are window studios on street level, but these mainly have a panoramic view of only several streets at best.
  • Star Trek featured these as a staple, being special-effects-heavy and with many alien locales. The 90s series, however, gradually phased in more and more Chroma Key (in fact, they pioneered quite a few chroma key techniques).
  • The cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 enjoy pointing out unconvincing matte shots in the various movies they watched. For example, in Gamera vs. Guiron, a spaceship is represented by a painting as the protagonists stand outside, then the camera cuts to a different angle before the characters actually interact with the spaceship. Joel and the bots comment, "Always remember to wait for the cut, otherwise you'll walk right into the matte paining."
  • Extensively used throughout William Hartnell's tenure on Doctor Who, due to the entire series being studio-bound and the absolutely miniscule budget on which they had to create whole alien worlds. They used canvas for them at best, and occasionally plasterboard and clingfilm. Some of the more noticeable ones:
    • The Alien Sky of Vortis on "The Web Planet" - a huge, expansive and beautiful backdrop for some of the worst-looking monsters in Doctor Who history. The Alien Sky over Skaro is this too, in a Miniature Effects shot.
    • The ceiling of the bridge in "The Ark" - revealed to us in a beautifully expansive vista shot. Futuristic cities on the Generation Ship are visible in the distance. Again, the monsters fail to live up to the sets.
    • The miniaturised interior of the Monk's TARDIS in "The Time Meddler".

     Video Games  

  • They're not technically Matte Shots, but the same concept appears in a lot of late-1990s RPG games. Baldur's Gate (and the other Infinity Engine games, Icewind Dale and Planescape: Torment) and games like Diablo had what were essentially paintings for a background with characters and monsters moving on top of them. There were areas you could go (floors, steps, hills) and ares you couldn't (walls, cliffs, etc.). The action took place over top of a painting, like in a Matte Shot.
    • A better example of a Matte shot would be Limbo of the Lost, where a 2D fixed background was used (taken from other sources), and a 3D character was rendered on-top of it and could walk around on given pathways in that image.
  • While not specifically mattes, most of the early-90s Sierra Online games (Kings Quest, Quest for Glory, Castle of Doctor Brain) used watercolor paintings as background images, which made some incidental scenes very striking.
  • Just about every location and dungeon in Final Fantasy VIII that isn't part of the world map is essentially a static image the characters can run around in, although a couple of particularly spectacular scenes use rendered videos as backgrounds instead. In any case, moving to another area requires hitting one of the predefined exit points, which loads the next background picture.
  • Final Fantasy XII had 2D backgrounds that you can easily spot if you're near a zone border. The whole game is 3D, but the backgrounds by the zone borders makes it obvious that there's a "wall" that looks like the neighboring area was painted on. The HD remaster makes it less noticable.
  • Eternal Darkness has one instance where at the start of Anthony's chapter, he runs towards a wooded forest that looks like a flat painting compared to the 3D environment he is in. The effect can also be seen in both chapters of the Cambodia area where the outside of the temple's entrance is a 2D painted backdrop.
  • Many small interior locations (plus the streets of Castle Town) in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time are pre-rendered CG environments that were converted into a still image, which the 3D characters move around in front of. Ocarina of Time 3D turns all of these into proper 3D environments.
  • Many of the Halo games use these for detailed backgrounds, in both gameplay and cutscenes. To give just one example, this is the painting used for the shot of the Chief and the Arbiter flying towards Installation 08 at the beginning of the final Halo 3 level, "Halo".


     Real Life  

  • At the Disney Hollywood Studios, there was a place where a guest could place their camera on a timer setting, then form their group a few feet away. When the shot was taken, a matte painting attached to the camera stand made it look like the HOLLYWOOD sign was behind the group.