Magazine article American Cinematographer

Making Modern Matte Shots - 1992

Magazine article American Cinematographer

Making Modern Matte Shots - 1992

Article excerpt

"No branch of modern special-effects cinematography has received less attention of late in technical discussions than the matte shot.

"While it is only natural that newer and more spectacular techniques should monopolize the discussional spotlight, the matte shot has an important place in modern special-effects camerawork.

"It contributes importantly to today's task of minimizing production costs while at the same time enhancing production value."

The above quote is how Byron Haskin started his landmark 1939 American Cinetnatographer article, "Making Modern Matte Shots," and what Haskin said then is true today: while such high-tech toys as imagegenerating computers get the press, the old-fashioned latent-image matte shot - albeit with a few innovations - is still the ideal tool to alter cinematic reality quickly, inexpensively and realistically.

The basic procedures for creating the matte shot have not changed in the 53 years since Haskin wrote his article. The cameraman shoots a live-action plate with an area blacked out. The shot is then given to the matte artist who, following a design furnished by the art director, paints the picture necessary to complete the matted-out portion of the shot. Both elements are photographed directly on the same negative film.

With the development of the optical printer, some matte photographers chose to abandon the "latent image" process in favor of photographing painting and plate on separate negatives and combining them in the printer. That gave the painter and photographer more freedom; since the matte could be set on the optical printer, the shot could be designed in the studio rather than forcing the painter to set the matte, and thus design his shot, at the time of principal photography.

But those gains came at a great cost. The image degradation resulting from the extra generation diminished the sense of realism that is the ultimate aim of the matte artist. And while there are some shots for which the optical printer is necessary, most of the best matte artists, from Haskins' painter Paul Detlefson to Albert Whitlock and Michael Pangrazio, have stayed, whenever possible, with the timetested technique of the latent image - exactly the process Haskin described in his article.

What has changed in those 53 years, however, is the decision-making process that leads to the use of matte shots. In 1939, Haskin was the head of Warner Brothers' special effects department; when a movie was in preproduction, he would confer with other department heads and determine the most efficient way to create a shot. If the script called for a scene to be set in a palace, for example, they could determine how much of the palace had to be built, and how much could be created with matte paintings.

Now, unfortunately, with studio art and effects departments long since dismantled and their work doled out to free-lancers, such collaboration is rare. While a few directors and production designers are aware of how much a matte shot can do for them, the vast majority end up building unnecessarily large sets or spending huge amounts of money travelling to distant and often unsatisfactory locations.

The most common use of matte shots these days is for creating a location that would be impossible to find in reality. In Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, for example, director Kevin Reynolds and writer/ producers Pen Densham and John Watson wanted to open with an establishing shot of Jerusalem in 1194 A.D. Even if the filmmakers hadn't been prevented from travelling to the real Jerusalem by the outbreak of the Gulf War, their choice of shots would have been severely limited by the presence of modern buildings next to the ancient landmarks.

Instead of going to Jerusalem, they came to Matte World - but not without some trepidation. If the opening shot was not believable, audiences might refuse to accept the rest of the picture. What could we do to make it look real? …

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