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Imagine you are a film director back in the 1930s or 1940s. You are probably going to be a man, as let’s face it, equality wasn’t exactly thriving in the industry back in the day. Although there were a handful of early female directors from yesteryear, they were not exactly thick on the ground and have many people actually heard of them? Take for example the amazing Lois Weber  a director of silent films tackling quite controversial subjects and Dorothy Arzner the only US female director in 1930s America.

So back to being that early director. You have just started filming and want a scene with an expansive landscape that stretches to the horizon with a few visual effects thrown in, and did we mention you have a limited budget? Today you could easily use digital compositing and 3D modelling but unless you had a time machine to catapult you forward in time, that’s not going to be a viable option. H G Wells may have written that book some considerable years earlier but he hadn’t exactly put the machinery together for everyday use. So, what do you do? Well, good old matte painting techniques would be part of your answer, a true stalwart of the movie industry.



So what is Matte Painting in Film? 

Essentially, it is an ingenious way to integrate painted backgrounds and scenery (mattes) with a foreground image/live footage, to seamlessly merge the real with the unreal - one of the earliest VFX effects.

The pictures below are from new film release, “Their Finest” a comedy drama about the making of a Ministry of Information film in WWII to boost the country’s morale. The film shows original film making processes in all their inventive glory. The beach shot is a perfect illustration of how convincing matte effects can be – that is, of course, until Bill Nighy’s character haplessly steps into the frame totally destroying the illusion.  Definitely worth watching if you want to see some 1940s film making techniques. We are reliably informed that “Their Finest” is available on Blu-ray, DVD and digital download now.



 (Pictures courtesy of Lionsgate UK) 


When did Matte Painting begin? 

Matte painting has been around since the early 1900s and was used extensively in the movie industry. Early movie makers didn’t always have the resources to shoot on location, and some just wanted to create more imaginative backgrounds for their scenes. Fortunately for them, at the turn of the 20th Century, early compositing was created by Georges Melies, a master of the art of illusion. Soon afterwards a revolutionary new filming method was developed by photographer Norman Dawn, where photos and paintings of backgrounds were placed onto glass. Then, by blocking out the areas on the camera where these images would appear, he could film any action and combine the painting with real scenery. Dawn was also the first director to use rear projection in cinema, a technique combining foreground performances with a pre-filmed background.

This painting method worked well for static mattes, where the masked out area stays the same from scene to scene, but not for moving objects such as an actor swinging on a rope over the edge of a cliff. Short of actually dangling your actor over the cliff, probably not a popular choice if you want to continue your career in directing, the travelling matte would be the solution.  Early methods photographed the moving object against a black background, but from the mid-1920s a blue background was used.

The advent of colour film caused no end of headaches for matte painters. Colour on the painting had to match the original footing to give a seamless effect. Enter different lighting conditions into the mix and the task got a whole lot more difficult. The foremost technicolour spectacle of colour matte painting was by John Cosgrove in “Gone with the Wind” the 1939 epic movie – you really should check out the fabulous backgrounds and also the burning of Atlanta scenes.

What films used Matte Painting?

Matte painting shouldn’t really be mentioned without also crediting the talented British artist Albert Whitlock. He worked on Hitchcock’s “The Lady Vanishes” in 1938 and his career really took off as a matte artist during WW2. Moving to America in 1954, he worked with Disney and Universal and amongst many other works, went on to create mattes for the 1974 film “Earthquake” and the original “Star Trek” series.

Some early noteworthy scenes filmed using matte painting effects include - 1933 King Kong (arguably the greatest FX tour de force of the 1930s, with an incredible matte painting of Skull Island), 1939 The Wizard of Oz (Dorothy walking to the Emerald City), 1940 Foreign Correspondent (plenty of scenes with matte paintings and miniatures) and of course 1941 Citizen Kane (a true gem with masses of matte paintings e.g. Xanadu, miniatures and optical printing galore).



OK so, you’ve got your background pretty much sorted but still have your actors’ make-up to think about. Today’s world is full of health and safety legislation, endless dos and don’ts, but you wouldn’t have needed to worry in the early days of film. With a complete disregard for the wellbeing of your actors you could more or less do what you wanted.


The Hazards of Wearing Make-Up

Back in the silent film era, the early film was blue sensitive and studio lighting was poor, so an actor’s skin would look dark or dirty with indistinct features. Early on, actors learnt to apply bright white make-up to make the skin look more normal on film, often applying chalk to their bodies to match. Kohl eyeliner was perfect for defining the eyes and if you wanted the perfect solution to dark teeth - just paint them with white enamel paint!  This could ruin a career, as “Goddess of the Silent Screen” Dolores Costello (grandmother of Drew Barrymore) found out when her delicate skin and complexion was irreparably damaged by the harsh make up used in early films.



Thankfully, by the 1920s panchromatic film had taken over and together with incandescent lighting the colours were recorded more naturally and make-up could be toned down.

If natural colours weren’t required and your actor needed a green skin, they might well find themselves covered in copper oxide, highly toxic should it enter the body.  During the filming of The Wizard of Oz in 1939, not only did Margaret Hamilton (whilst playing the Wicked Witch of the West) suffer severe burns whilst filming, she was at the time painted green and couldn’t be helped until she had been thoroughly cleaned with alcohol due to the toxic nature of the make-up. Extremely painful!   The same film saw Buddy Ebsen (the Tin Man) develop a severe allergic reaction to the aluminium dust in his make-up, leading to breathing problems and hospitalisation.

Early Film Health and Safety, or distinct lack of! 

It is quite true that movie making in days gone by was a very risky business and that’s just behind the camera. Literally thousands of people were injured during early film making and many died. Film safety laws were eventually passed after a number of unfortunate incidents including one during the filming of Noah’s Ark in 1928. During a scene depicting the great flood, water was rather freely unloaded into a tank, causing three men to drown and dozens more to be badly injured.

Unexpected accidents were also rife. During the making of “The Viking” in 1931, dynamite, which was used for breaking up ice floes off the Newfoundland coast, exploded accidently on a ship during filming and 27 men were killed.



Not so sure about wanting to be that 1930s or 1940s Film Director now?  When you consider you would almost certainly be working through WW2 and the incredible challenges that would hold, perhaps today would actually be a better time for you to make that film after all.  You might also prefer to use the excellent Chroma Key facilities here at Soundstage Studios. We can be contacted on +44 (0)20 8961 7890 or just use our contact form.  Probably a lot easier than painting your own matte!

Copyright © David Croft 2017





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