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Tradition matte painting for in-camera composites


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#1 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 05 September 2009 - 05:22 PM

Hi guys,

So I've been in pre-production on a super low-budget short film for several months now, on-and-off as the director refines his script. The story is a period noir (in color) about a murderous lighthouse keeper, and the sole interior location will be a mix of a real lighthouse interior as well as old army barracks cheated to look like the adjoining residence. Our chosen aspect ratio is 1.33:1.

We also have a few lighthouse exterior locations that we want to shoot. We've looked at a few locations in Northern California, but none of them have the look that we want. We want a windswept rocky cliff with the lighthouse jutting out over the ocean, a beach below with large dunes, and long grass covering the area between the beach and the rocks. Oh, and we also want dark, stormy clouds and a rotating projected beam of light from the lighthouse.

A combination of the 2nd and 3rd pics on this page is pretty close to what I was thinking: http://www.montaukli...om/pictures.htm.

Our specific exterior shots are: the wide day exterior, described above; a tighter shot either from the base of the lighthouse looking up or level with the observation tower; and a long lens background plate from the reverse angle of the wide exterior for some action that happens in the foreground. My immediate thought was to do these shots as digital composites, shooting plates of sea, rocks, and beach, different sky and cloud elements, compositing a stock photo of the lighthouse exterior we like best, and combining that with a plate of the lighting effect.

However, the director is adamant about shooting on regular 16 with his CP-16R. He very much wants an old-Hollywood pre-digital aesthetic and is worried that using digital cameras will not give that look. I've suggested shooting 16mm for most of the dialogue and using a Red or a VDSLR for the fx work, but he doesn't want to do that. So while I still plan on shooting tests and showing him side-by-side comparisons, I also need to shoot the same tests on 16mm and have the neg scanned.

Alternately though, I thought maybe there's a way simplify the shots a bit and do them as in-camera composites using old-fashioned glass matte paintings for the wide shot and rear projection for the reverse angle with foreground action. This would eliminate the need to scan the negative for fx work, and we'd probably just do an HD telecine to ProRes to finish. Unfortunately, I don't know anyone who does this kind of traditional trick photography anymore.

So finally, my questions are:

1. Does anyone know any old school fx guys I could call and talk to?
2. Does anyone have any tips or suggestions about how to pull off these shots on a budget?
3. Am I totally crazy? ;)

Thanks in advance everyone.
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#2 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 05 September 2009 - 07:23 PM

The main problem is that you need a talented matte painter, and if you do glass shots, you need him on location -- which is hard to do because the light in the painting has to match the time of day of the surrounding exterior. So either he takes reference photos of the correct time of day and you hope the weather matches on the day you shoot the painting and background, or you paint very fast on location. But the compositing is easy as long as you have enough depth of field to hold the painting and the background. Of you could try foreground miniatures, in which case the light on location naturally matches on the foreground and background, but now you need a talented model builder.

Beyond that, the other methods of combining a painting and a background require a camera with a very high degree of registration -- often a Mitchell, for example. You could combine using the latent image technique that Albert Whitlock perfected, which is basically in-camera double-exposure, but you have to shoot a second take that you can develop for reference, and you have to shoot several takes on separate neg rolls held undeveloped until you are ready to double-expose the painting. And the color balance and exposure of the painting and the background have to be spot-on.

Or you can combine the two elements using dupes in an optical printer, or using digital compositing methods.

16mm is a poor choice for post composite work unless you spend the time stabilizing the footage, you'd be better off getting a pin-registered 35mm camera for those shots, or using a digital camera. I'm not aware of the CP16's reputation for steadiness.

Talents in matte painting or model building often do not come cheap.
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#3 James Steven Beverly

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Posted 05 September 2009 - 11:41 PM

Interesting stuff.

Edited by James Steven Beverly, 05 September 2009 - 11:42 PM.

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#4 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 06 September 2009 - 02:51 AM

Fantastic information, thank you David. I figured a good matte painter would be very expensive... I like your idea of using foreground miniatures, I will talk to some architecture students and see if any of them would be interested and able.

Do you think it would be possible to get a similar effect to glass matte painting by using an inkjet photo printer on acetate? I could take stills and create a composite in photoshop. The acetate could be stuck to a piece of plate glass and used in the same way.

Thank you for the heads up on Albert Whitlock and the latent image technique. Looks like I've got a lot research ahead of me. :)
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#5 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 06 September 2009 - 02:23 PM

Do you think it would be possible to get a similar effect to glass matte painting by using an inkjet photo printer on acetate? I could take stills and create a composite in photoshop. The acetate could be stuck to a piece of plate glass and used in the same way.


Yes, that may work... Matthew Yuricich was famous for that technique, painting over photo blow-ups, but composited in post. The matte paintings of Washington D.C. and the Lincoln Memorial covered in ivy were done that way for "Logan's Run".

The thing with these techniques is that you have to seriously plan where the line goes that separates the painting from the real background, there isn't always a nice place to hide a blurry line. This is why a painter on the set could quickly touch-up parts of the glass shot to blend better, like in an area with bushes, etc.
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#6 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 06 September 2009 - 05:09 PM

Great! Finally, how is the foreground matte most often lit for exterior locations if the compositing is being done in a single pass? Do you need to create a black box around the painting and light it separately? Or is single-pass in-camera compositing usually only done for interiors?
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#7 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 06 September 2009 - 08:47 PM

Great! Finally, how is the foreground matte most often lit for exterior locations if the compositing is being done in a single pass? Do you need to create a black box around the painting and light it separately? Or is single-pass in-camera compositing usually only done for interiors?


If you mean doing a glass shot, it's not really a composite so to speak since the two parts are shot at the same time. Whether you can shoot it in sunlight or have to light the painting just depends on the light and the reflection problems. Simple thing would be to shoot both in frontal sunlight and put a big black solid opposite the glass to get rid of reflections. But if the background is backlit, now you might need to add some light to the painting since it will be shaded.
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#8 Satsuki Murashige

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Posted 07 September 2009 - 01:07 AM

Ok great, sounds simpler than I thought. For the shot I'm planning, overcast light would be appropriate since it's supposed to be a dark, stormy day. If I were to underexpose the scene a bit for a darker look, say 1/2 stop, then it sounds like I might need to light up the foreground to compensate.
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#9 Will Earl

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Posted 07 September 2009 - 07:37 AM

I'm pretty sure most of the old Matte Painters now work in Photoshop - there might be a few still around places like ILM, Kerner or Matte World Digital that you could try contact and ask for advice. A long shot perhaps.

Otherwise I think your printing on acetate might work - if you can drag along a laptop and printer you might be able to quickly adjust the photo to better match the lighting on the day.
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#10 David Mullen ASC

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Posted 07 September 2009 - 11:26 AM

The bigger the blow-up and glass sheet, the easier the depth of field problem will be, though luckily you are shooting in 16mm, which has more depth of field than 35mm.

These sorts of shots are time-consuming to set-up, which is the main reason they stopped doing them on regular movie productions -- no one has all morning to line-up a single establishing shot when you have dialogue scenes scheduled. They are more likely to be handed over to an efx unit who can spend the time.

Some DP's over the years have described very low-tech uses of glass, not for elaborate matte paintings, but to get rid of parts of the frame, etc. Jack Cardiff described an interesting trick he did on "War and Peace"... there was a duel scene shot on a wintery wooded set on a soundstage, meant to be a dawn scene. The wide shot saw the soundstage ceiling and top of the cyc, so he put a sheet of glass in front of the camera and spray-painted the top of the frame with grey to add a misty sky that hid the missing set at the top of frame... the crew stood around a bit confused and his first attempt didn't work, the paint ran, so he wiped it off and started over, spraying grey at the top of the frame to create a dawn sky. Then he took a small tungsten lamp next to camera and he reflected it in the glass sheet so that it looked like an orange sun was breaking through the grey sky.
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